The Tokyo Rose takeoff* was the response of Sunday Morning, the CBC radio show, to the latest round of CBC baiting by Liberal politicians who see the network as harboring separatists and/or shirking its duty to promote national unity. But while the irreverent Sunday Morning restored some badly needed balance to the situation with its satirical treatment, the politicians remained deadly serious about the presence of separatists in the network, raising the spectre of censorship or worse.
* By town Betty is Nancy White,a PEI singer who appears regularly on the CBC Sunday Morning Show.
The attacks on the CBC began with a mid-February speech in the Senate by former minister Jean Marchand, who declared: “If ever this country is destroyed, it will have been destroyed, in the main, by a federal institution that is financed by Canadians through their taxes.” It continued the next night in a Toronto speech by former minister Mitchell Sharp, who asked: “What is the CBC ... doing to help to break down the barriers surrounding the two solitudes and to promote harmony and understanding? My observation is bloody little. And I include both the English and French networks.”
There followed an avalanche of bitter comments by cabinet ministers angry at the CBC and especially its French arm. Radio-Canada. The most startling statement came from Urban Affairs Minister André Ouellet, who told The Toronto Star in an interview: “Every night there’s a bias and every night it’s in favor of the separatists.” In the best tradition of McCarthyism, Ouellet said that the “working separatists” at Radio-Canada should be fired and that he is ready to name names for the benefit of CBC president AÍ Johnson.
Johnson rejected the invitation to hunt for separatists. “We have never engaged people on the basis of a political blood test,” he said, “and we are not going to start now.” He also rebuffed charges of biased coverage, saying: “I simply do not believe the CBC does that.”
In recent weeks, Johnson has been hauled before a cabinet committee and the Liberal caucus to face accusations that the CBC’S coverage is pro-separatist or, at best, insufficiently pro-Canadian. At the caucus meeting, when he tried to defend one senior Radio Canada employee who was labeled a separatist, MP Paul Langlois (Liberal-Chicoutimi) walked out in disgust. Said Conservative Leader Joe Clark, in one of his toughest comments since assuming the leadership: “It is a deliberate, partisan attempt by the Liberal party and by senior ministers to try to create the impression in English Canada that separatism was created by the CBC.”
After a personal appeal from Johnson, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau intervened in the controversy, asking his cabinet colleagues to back oft' in their criticism. But. the next day, Trudeau himself jumped on the bandwagon. He told the House of Commons that Liberal MPS “are very concerned about the possibility of CBC/ RadioCanada propagating separatism; I am not at all offended that they think so and that they say so.” Of Ouellet’s offer to name names, the Prime Minister said: “I congratulate him for offering his services to the CBC.” Added Trudeau: “I do not think the opposition appears to be aware, and 1 am telling them with all the candor 1 can command, that almost everyone, including the high officials of the CBC, would be prepared to concede that “the overwhelming majority of employees in the [French-language] CBC are of separatist leaning.”
His comments prompted a rare Commons interjection from former Conservative leader Robert Stanfield. Accusing the Liberals of “demagoguery,” Stanfield questioned their true motives, and called for a public inquiry. Trudeau promised to give consideration to Stanfield’s “moderate and constructive” proposal.
Given Trudeau’s attitude, the assault on the CBC is expected to continue unabated and observers are beginning to wonder how much heat Johnson can take. Liberal MFS, especially those from Quebec, are pressing for retaliatory measures ranging from loyalty oaths for CBC employees to a complete shutdown of the network. The barrage of criticism could result, at best, in a cowed CBC that pulls its punches in reporting on the federal government, fearing more ministerial criticism. At worst, there could be a return to the sort of sophisticated censorship practised during the October Crisis of 1970, when CBC news was carefully filtered through a management screen. Says one journalist who was at the CBC then: “Every time I think of 1970 I blush.”
CBC employees say they have not yet felt any direct pressure to change their approach to the news and public affairs. Says one Radio-Canada staffer: “We’re used to it. It’s like a chess game and the CBC is the castle. Whenever things get touchy, they tend to use their castle.”
There is no doubt that many RadioCanada employees are separatists. But the overriding question is, are they doing their jobs professionally? The political critics say they are not, although their evidence is skimpy; the employees say they are and that the politicians are just overreacting to the election of a PQ government. Says Paul Racine, Radio-Canada correspondent in Ottawa and vice-president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery: “Their fight is not with the CBC but with René Lévesque.”
But some politicians argue that it is not enough for the network to report the news fairly and accurately. Parliament, in setting up the CBC in 1936, also required it “to contribute to the development of national unity.” It is in this area, says Mitchell Sharp, that the CBC has failed. “I’m not saying the CBC is sympathetic to the PQ,” he explains. "But it’s not doing much about reinforcing harmony in this country. The French side of the network concentrates on events taking place in French, the English side on events in English. There is little overlap.”
Johnson has acknowledged this criticism and promised steps to correct the situation. But it poses a dilemma for newsmen at the CBC, who have been trained to take a dispassionate view of events. How can a reporter comment fairly on an initiative by the PQ government and, at the same time, promote national unity? Cliff Lonsdale, chief news editor of English CBC, told his reporters after the Quebec election not to try to do both. Lonsdale said: “Some may argue that the CBC’S duty is to hold Canada together by propagandizing on behalf of federalism in its news and current affairs programs. In my view, this is not a tenable role for our news organization, CBC reporters should not espouse separatism or federalism. They should continue to report and analyze to the best of their ability, striving always to be accurate, fair, and responsible.”
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