Television could be our best watchdog in public affairs, argues the producer of CBC’s The Public Eye — if we'd only use it. Here's how (without yawns or tears) we could keep closer tabs on the people we elect — and have Bonanza, too

RICHARD NIELSEN September 1 1968


Television could be our best watchdog in public affairs, argues the producer of CBC’s The Public Eye — if we'd only use it. Here's how (without yawns or tears) we could keep closer tabs on the people we elect — and have Bonanza, too

RICHARD NIELSEN September 1 1968


Television could be our best watchdog in public affairs, argues the producer of CBC’s The Public Eye — if we'd only use it. Here's how (without yawns or tears) we could keep closer tabs on the people we elect — and have Bonanza, too


PIERRE ELLIOTT TRUDEAU agreed before his election in June that the manner of his selection as Liberal leader and prime minister makes obvious the need for a close examination of the use of television in modern democracies.

Television not only made Trudeau the people’s choice at the Liberals’ April convention; it made him the choice of the party Establishment, a fact which is much more remarkable. He, himself, pointed out that he had not considered or discussed his candidacy with any of his colleagues as late as last November and thought the first mention of such a possibility was “a joke.” He felt the party was “being dared to take a chance on a man like Trudeau.”

The fact is that his party clearly had little choice. TV made his candidacy irresistibly attractive, just as it made Estes Kefauver an overnight folk hero in the U.S. in 1956.

We have clearly entered a new age, and we’d better quickly make the necessary adjustments in the way we use TV politically.

Trudeau’s sudden popularity was achieved with even less exposure than most people suppose. He had appeared on Close-Up some five years ago and had turned up on Seven Days as an interviewer on one occasion three years ago. It’s interesting to recall that the response to him on both occasions was anything but overwhelming. On the Close-Up shows (there were two of them) he appeared with a United Steelworkers organizer, Robert Bouchard, and it was Bouchard, not Trudeau, who subsequently was invited to speak in Toronto and elsewhere across the country.

From his election in 1965 until his appointment to the cabinet on April 4, 1967, he did not appear on English-language television at all,

nor did he appear on television during the election campaign of 1965. During his period as minister of justice, only one of the regularly scheduled public-affairs shows on either network had him as a guest. CBC News files do not indicate, nor can anyone recall, Trudeau appearing on either of the two daily national newscasts from 1965 to 1967. With parliamentary reporting the competitive affair it is, it’s a safe assumption he did not appear on CTV either.

Trudeau really exploded in the national consciousness on the night of November 22, 1967, when he appeared on CBC National News in a one-minute news clip. It showed him fencing in urbane fashion with parliamentary reporters and explaining with formidable clarity his proposed reforms of the Criminal Code. Two weeks later he did it again in a National News report lasting two minutes, and the ir-

resistible Trudeau boom was born.

At this point he became subject to intense exposure: frequent appearances on CBC and CTV national news, a full half-hour on Newsmagazine, an hour with Pierre Berton, an hour-long debate with René Lévesque, shorter appearances on The Way It Is, The Public Eye, 1T5, etc., plus three days of exposure at the Constitutional Conference. By now the TV drama featuring Pierre Elliott Trudeau was incontestably the nation’s numberone show.

Would he run? Would the drama continue? He would and it did. Would he win? Would the drama have a happy ending?

Life imitates art and no medium in history creates the taste for reallife drama that TV does since it daily mixes fact and fiction. But fact on TV is usually without dramatic form. There is no beginning, no middle and, most tedious of all, no end. Here was a real-life drama with all three plus a gimmick; the audience was invited to write its own ending. It was not only Trudeau’s qualities that made him irresistible, but his situation, a situation that baffled him as it did the rest of us — and wasn’t that charming!

Trudeau is clearly not to blame for this phenomenon. It was the reality of his drama that caught our fancy. No one could have contrived it, least of all its chief actor.

Nonetheless, the suspicion remains that Trudeau’s excellence had little to do with the fervor his candidacy aroused. It could happen to someone who had few of the qualities the office requires. Most worrisome to contemplate is the human habit of craving new diversions once its appetite has been whetted. In the future, new dramas might create new heroes who will drain popular support from leaders who deserve better of us. This could happen with a frequency that makes sound government impossible. By the time the election was called, Trudeau’s style was “in.” To be for him was to be “with it” and was accepted. To be against him required an explanation.

The underexposure of Trudeau on his way to the prime ministry indicates that our use of TV should be drastically changed. It is a fact that Trudeau was able to fight a hard election in 1965 against one of the glamour candidates of the NDP, Charles Taylor, serve in our parliament for three years and attain the rank of minister without having any of his public acts recorded for TV.

In this Trudeau was not unique.

We’ve seen very little of any of our leaders actually at work. The tough television interview was developed as a substitute for seeing them under the actual pressures of their job. Trudeau escaped even this exposure because he had been in the cabinet only eight months when the leadership race began and had not, until the Omnibus Bill, been associated with anything controversial or newsworthy. During the election his campaign planners contrived to keep his TV appearances “light,” stressing manner and style over content.

The cure for the problem of underexposure of our leaders and prospective leaders is to expose parliament, parliamentary committees, provincial legislatures and, in some cases, even municipal councils to TV coverage. We must force exposure on all our politicians, and we must separate more clearly than we do now the entertainment and public-affairs aspects of TV.

This does not say that we should be forced to watch the tedious deliberations of all our elected assemblies or that we should be denied the pleasure of watching Bonanza or Red Skelton. What is important is not that everything done by our politicians be broadcast, but that it be visually recorded. Nor need the visual record of parliament be made by a TV network, which is comparable to asking Maclean’s to produce Hansard in exchange for the privilege of quoting from it. Parliament and the other legislative bodies of the nation should provide their own record, which should be made available to the networks to use as they see fit. Breaches of privilege through bad or unfair editing could be dealt with as are similar errors and indiscretions when committed by the press.

The practice of visually recording significant events should be extended beyond parliament to any meeting or gathering deemed worthy of preservation. We might have “recording halls” where any organization, which wanted to could, for a fee, have its deliberations videotaped.

What is certain is that by making its own visual record, an institution, organization or group will have more control over what the public sees than it has now when networks “own” the only visual record of public events. (In the case of the CBC, we haven’t even got the money to preserve much of what we do record.)

Clearly, recording of all aspects of our public life, institutionalized or

spontaneous, will force a demand for more transmission outlets than are now available. This brings us to the second necessity: the need to separate fact from fiction, drama from real life, on our TV screens. What is dangerous is not that the public cannot differentiate between a fictional or a news and public-affairs program. The confusion arises with the producer or programmer who is forced to apply the same standard — audience acceptance — to both factual and fictional material. He is apt, therefore, to soup up our public life and to supply drama at the expense of clarity.

The CBC could achieve the desired separation of fiction and reality with a second channel specializing in actuality material, which could include sport if we are worried about ratings. The second channel, with repeater transmitters reaching the whole country, could be used to conduct a good deal of our public life, local, regional and national, on TV. It would be expensive compared to the little we now' spend, but at least what we spend would, for the most part, go directly into program material. Society as a whole by deciding what should be recorded would be establishing the priorities, instead of broadcasters and TV producers as is the case at present.

TV in North America has been primarily a merchandising medium, dispensing entertainment to sell goods. In Canada we’ve broken with this pattern to some extent in that we carry more programs of a public-service nature than do American networks. In any case, the kind of television North America has developed is here to stay. The answer is not to change what we have but to add to what we have, and the need is urgent.

Underexposure on television of those whom we propose to trust with the awesome power of modern government is too dangerous a risk for any society to run indefinitely. TV is replacing print and personal contact as a way of “knowing” our leaders. So let’s have them on tape where, if we miss them the first time around, we can go back and have another look. Also, let’s be able to see them when they’re working on our behalf and not just selling themselves to us in the midst of a campaign.

To use TV only or primarily as a merchandising and entertainment instrument, as we in North America have, is both stupid and shamefully wasteful. Recent events have shown that it can be dangerous as well, ic