BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

THE CBC AT BAY A helping hand from its worst enemies

BLAIR FRASER July 18 1959
BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

THE CBC AT BAY A helping hand from its worst enemies

BLAIR FRASER July 18 1959

THE CBC AT BAY A helping hand from its worst enemies

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

BLAIR FRASER

WHEN the situation in the CBC finally broke wide open in June, it was a surprise in more ways than one. Ironically, the internal blow-up and the mass resignations came at a moment when, for the first time, it began to look as If the CBC might gel by the Commons Broadcasting Committee with a whole skin. By a further irony, the CBC owed this impending deliverance not to its friends but to its bitterest enemies. For the English networks, the rescue operation was conducted by Premier Leslie Frost of Ontario; for the French, by a quartet of violently hostile Quebec MPs who managed, in the committee itself, to alienate fellow members of all political stripes.

The French network had come before the committee in rather sorry shape. To outsiders the long and bitter strike last winter seemed pointless, unintelligible and unnecessary, a reflection on the competence of management. Moreover, a growing number of Conservatives, including the Prime Minister, blame the CBC for the drop in their party’s Gallup Poll standing in Quebec. They do so not so much because CBC commentaries are unsympathetic (although they think that too) but more because they believe the CBC itself is unpopular in Quebec, especially with the clergy, who don’t always distinguish between the CBC and the federal government.

Exhibit A in the case against the CBC’s morals is a television play called La Plus Belle de Céans (roughly, The Prettiest Girl in Town) based on the early life of the blessed Marguerite d'Youville, founder of the Grey Nuns who try to give aid and comfort to the wretched. The script had been in the CBC’s hands for some time, unused; someone thought it would be a splendid idea to produce it during the week of Mother d’Youville’s beatification ceremonies in Rome.

This inspiration was not a happy one. The play is a soap opera in 17th century costume, portraying young Marguerite as the wronged wife of a goodfor-nothing husband. Historically this is accurate enough—Francois d'Youville was a scamp, all right—but the point is made somewhat too explicit. In one scene the drunken Francois plays dice with another suitor for Marguerite’s hand, and wins, while other tipsy cavaliers fondle equally tipsy ladies. Indeed, the entire population of old Montreal seems to spend its time drinking and playing ring-around-a-rosy in the market square.

The young heroine doesn't appear as destined for a life of piety. In the scene where her mother reluctantly consents to let her marry the worthless Francois, there’s a subtle hint that she may already be pregnant. Later, when Francois says “I didn’t marry a woman, I married a saint,” he means it as a

reproach and she quite evidently accepts it as such—soon she is bouncing around with him on a double bed, in a startlingly low-cut nightgown. Several other shots are memorable for what Hollywood delicately calls “cleavage.” The clearest indication of Marguerite’s saintly future is her affectionate pity for the town trollop, who incidentally is one of the few attractive characters in the play.

This would be gamy stuff for a Quebec television audience even in ordinary circumstances, and the circumstances were not ordinary. Parish priestsin dozens of villages had told their congregations not to miss this sacred play. Little girls were allowed to sit up late to see it. Convents borrowed or rented TV sets for the occasion. Into this atmosphere of pious expectation La Plus Belle de Céans burst like an overripe egg.

The broadcasting committee knew these facts in a general way when its hearings began, and spent some time hashing them over. The CBC put on record the apology, so abject as to be positively embarrassing, which it made after a protest from the Quebec Council of Bishops. The producer of the show had been suspended, his supervisor had left the CBC’s employ. Short of hanging somebody there didn’t seem to be much more to do about the incident. but if matters had rested there the CBC would have gone off with a very black eye and few comforters.

Luckily for the CBC. matters weren’t allowed to rest there. A small persistent group of Quebec MPs demanded more information, more names of individuals connected with this and other specific programs. The committee voted

against any further inquiry into personalities; the Quebec MPs paid no attention. Chairman Ernest Halpenny, with visibly waning patience, had to rule them out of order time after time on the same ground. Other members became first bored, then annoyed, at last openly hostile.

“I think if I lived in Quebec, they might be calling me a Communist too,” one lifelong Conservative said.

On the English side, dissatisfaction with the CBC was not sharply focused, but it was general. Liberals as well as Conservatives felt disquiet and a vague resentment—suspicion that the CBC was spending too much money with too little accounting; doubt of the competence and good judgment of CBC management; an urge to poke more deeply, and less politely, into CBC affairs than any parliamentary committee had done since the days of Gladstone Murray.

Actual political pressure on the CBC program staff has been indirect. Broadcasts of opinion, sometimes very innocuous opinion, would bring telephone calls from CBC head office “passing on” criticism from unnamed sources. CBC officials themselves would say, “We don’t like this or that remark” made in an opinion broadcast. Finally they came out with a definite instruction that reporters should be told not to be so critical. CBC producers have never told commentators what to say and this instruction was ignored. Sometime later, the commentary program that had drawn most of this fire was abruptly cancelled and the resignations followed. Within days, the program was reinstated and the resignations “not accepted.”

Of course the CBC had had troubles before. For the first time in nearly twenty years it faced a broadcasting

committee that was, if not hostile, at any rate not reliably friendly. The CBC had to make its own case without help from committee members, and the results at early sessions were often lamentable.

Then, along came Premier Frost. Angry at the tone of some commentaries on the Ontario election, angrier still that other party leaders had appeared on TV when the CBC couldn’t take a live telecast out of the Frost home in Lindsay, the premier declared that the CBC ought to be abolished altogether.

The Liberals and the CCF were absolutely delighted. For the first time they took up the CBC’s case with relish and glee, while the Conservatives backed away. Jack Pickersgill had tremendous fun trying to get an invitation from the committee to Premier Frost to air his grievances—the last thing Conservatives wanted.

Actually the CBC itself had not been at all happy about the Ontario election broadcast. Some of the commentaries did sound biased. Others, because of a misprint on the news wire at a critical hour, were based on the erroneous notion that the CCF had gained ten seats instead of two. But in Ottawa, at least, the Conservatives took this quite goodnaturedly. After all, they had won hands down, and they could afford to be good-natured.

“It’s like the sports columnists when the Yankees are playing—they talk about what the underdog is doing, not the fact that the Yankees are winning the game,” said one MP. His baseball might be a bit outdated, but his meaning was clear.

So when Premier Frost gave forth his blast, Ottawa Conservatives were astonished as well as dismayed. They have misgivings about the CBC all right, which they believe the people share, but they certainly don’t want the CBC abolished—and they don’t want the people to think they do. So they are now concerned, as they were not until the Frost outburst, to make absolutely clear that they support the principle of a national broadcasting system.

It’s too soon to guess what the committee on broadcasting will recommend. There seems to be a general feeling against the use of public funds to meet the cost of sponsored programs — a conviction that the advertiser should either pay the whole shot or have his name taken off the show. There are many program men in the CBC itself who agree with this view. It might cost the CBC some revenue, but it would also set the record straight.

Another general feeling is that the time has come to end the CBC monopoly of TV. Again, this wi’l cost the CBC some money—private stations will get some advertising that might otherwise go to the CBC. But if the private stations are adequately required to use Canadian material, and thus carry their share of the Canadian broadcasting system, the CBC has no real case against -accepting competition.

But these are trivial dangers, if they can be called dangers at all. The real threats are the introduction of political censorship, the destruction of editorial responsibility, the conversion of the CBC into a helpless and pliable instrument of the government of the day. Nobody expects the corporation to be abolished. The danger is that it might survive as a kind of Roman senate, ostensibly as free and independent as ever but really an emasculated slave. ★