TELEVISION

An attack on free trade

Brian D. Johnson November 9 1987
TELEVISION

An attack on free trade

Brian D. Johnson November 9 1987

An attack on free trade

TELEVISION

Looming against a malevolent sky in three-dimensional block letters, the title—Reckoning— fills the screen with a sense of dread. And throughout the National Film Board’s five-part TV series on Canada’s political economy, there is an implication that economic Armageddon is lurking just around the corner. Ordinarily, that tone might seem shrill.

But the recent stock market crash lends eerie credence to Reckoning’s controversial message—that if Canada stakes its future on a declining and debt-ridden U.S. economy, Canadians could suffer dire consequences.

Hosted by Toronto political economist James Laxer, Reckoning aroused controversy even before its first episode aired last week on an ad hoc network of provincial education channels (it is also available through the NFB on video cassette). The CBC’s refusal to broadcast the series rankled the show’s NFB producers. One of them, Kent Martin, even accused the CBC of “censorship.” Another, Reckoning’s executive producer John Taylor, said CBC officials complained that both the material and the host were too biased.

Indeed, Bill Morgan, director of CBC TV news and current affairs, questioned Laxer’s credibility, adding: “We have a thorny relationship with the NFB. Their stuff often doesn’t match up to our standards of fairness and balance.”

Laxer, a nationalist who made his name in the early 1970s as a leader of the NDP’s now-defunct Waffle faction,

certainly gives Reckoning a polemical edge that is absent from most CBC documentaries. He warns that free trade “could mean turning Canadian society inside out” and chastises Ottawa for a lack of national economic planning. Laxer delivers his contentious message from a variety of on-location poses— strolling through farm fields, sitting in a Parisian café, filling up at a PetroCanada station, reclining in front of a TV set—all self-conscious ploys to juice up a subject that CBC’s Morgan called “too dry for prime time.”

Yet dry, old-fashioned documentary material is precisely what makes Reckoning worth watching. The first show in the series, The Rise and Fall of American Business Culture, is laden with intelligent interviews—from an oil conglomerate’s corporate planner who says, “I have absolutely no faith in economic policymak-

ing,” to a Japanese economist who describes America as “a casino society in which business is just another form of gambling.” The fourth instalment, In Bed With an Elephant, unearths an NFB treasure trove of archival footage showing Canadian prime ministers courting favor from the White House. But in other episodes, essay-like analysis is padded with too many generic scenes of downtown traffic and mirrored skyscrapers. Despite Reckoning’s labored attempts to make political economy look stylish on camera, it presents a timely message—one that is now the subject of a full national debate.

-BRIAN D. JOHNSON