COLUMN

What makes news at the CBC

Barbara Amiel February 8 1988
COLUMN

What makes news at the CBC

Barbara Amiel February 8 1988

What makes news at the CBC

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

The decision announced by Flora MacDonald to postpone the CBC all-news channel was greeted, not unexpectedly, by displeasure in the national press. “Ottawa has nothing but a crude political excuse for its intervention against the CBC’s all-news television licence,” said The Globe and Mail, as if announcing a decision of Tammany Hall whimsy. Other commentators, such as the NDP’s Gerald Caplan, saw it as a catastrophe. In fact, Caplan told Michael Enright on CBC Radio’s As It Happens that this was a dark day for Canadians.

I didn’t see it as a dark day at all, but as to the need for an all-news channel my own feelings are mixed. I have increasingly felt that if Canadians want a 24-hour news channel, they ought to be able to have it and let whoever can provide it. My own instinct is that, in fact, a 24-hour news channel is the last thing we need, if by an allnews channel we mean the superficial mix of three-minute “newsette” features and pop public-affairs interviews endlessly recycled. Canadians, I have always believed, desperately need indepth news analysis.

As for the CBC, again one has mixed feelings. A lot of the work it does is so very good. What private broadcaster would spend the money and effort on the sort of cultural specials that we have come to expect? But one must be realistic and face the facts. When it comes to news and public affairs broadcasting, the CBC left-lib bias remains in force. It is a difficult matter, of course, to prove. One can point to studies like that done at the University of Calgary or the brief prepared by the committee for fairness in broadcasting that was presented to the CRTC. Both amass a good deal of data, but I am still reluctant to proceed from this kind of approach. So often, it is not what is said on air, but what isn’t. Those of us who are reasonably practised in journalism know that distortion can begin most effectively by excluding subjects, quotes or commentators from a schedule, rather than falsifying a subject. In fact, I have just received a rather good example of how the CBC does this.

Last fall the fifth estate showed a mini-documentary on Afghanistan. The film footage was not original; it had been purchased by the fifth estate from Thames Television in London.

The Canadian producers managed, by selective editing, to turn a reasonably objective piece on Afghanistan into what seems to me to be little short of an anti-American, pro-Soviet piece of propaganda.

The fifth estate provided its own script, which was read by Eric Mailing, although the same interviewees and footage were used. The CBC show opened with Mailing telling audiences: “There was something different on Soviet television last month. It was a phone-in show. People called in to argue and to criticize their country’s role in the war in Afghanistan. . . . And there’s something else new too: Chairman Gorbachev’s attitude to the war. He called it ‘a bleeding wound’ and says he wants out. It began eight years ago, a quiet little war at first. For the Russians, though, it has become something like Vietnam was for the Americans. And it’s getting worse—1987 has seen the heaviest fighting yet.”

It is a disaster for fair and balanced program -ming to let the CBC have the licence for the 24 -hour all-news network

The thrust of the CBC show was that this “quiet little war,” in which hundreds of thousands of Afghans had been maimed and murdered by the Soviets, had only now become a nasty war because the Americans were giving the Mojaheddin American Stinger and British Blowpipe missiles.

Unlike the Thames show, there was barely any sympathy for the plight of Afghanistan, a country that for eight years had virtually resisted the Soviet troops entirely on its own—only a sort of sour note that now it was a client of American aid. There was no mention, as there was on the Thames show, that Saudi Arabia has been helping the Afghans. There even seemed to be a certain note of sarcasm toward British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, as Eric Mailing said, “certainly backs the rebel cause and earlier in the war even came to the Khyber Pass to show her support.” Clearly, this support was not shared by Mailing, who seemed to see the whole exercise as simply a means to improve British arms sales.

“I want to say that the hearts of the free world are with you,” said Margaret Thatcher stirringly. The CBC’s response to her rhetoric was to cut to the statement that the CIA was now making arms purchases from the British. “British missiles, paid for by the Americans, hauled into battle,” said Eric Mailing. “They’ve changed the balance of the war all right, but will this send the Soviets packing or just dig them deeper in?” There was little doubt what Mailing believed. According to Mailing, the Soviets “want out .... There is talk of a government of national reconciliation,” but these missiles may force them to stay and fight.

Mailing and the fifth estate may have special sources, of course, but many experts in the field (who were not represented on the program) think that Afghanistan is the one and only point on which Gorbachev’s sincerity can really be tested. “If Gorbachev does want to withdraw meaningfully,” Henry Kissinger told me last week, “in such a way that there can be genuine elections there and the fundamentalists will form the government, then he is honest. But a ‘government of national reconciliation’ means, in all likelihood, simply a Soviet puppet regime.”

Interestingly, the original Thames account, while by no means entirely favorable to the Americans, gave a vastly different view of the situation. Unlike the CBC, it saw the need for supplying the missiles in order to bring the Soviets to the bargaining table. Expert after expert said that it was the only way to help the Afghan resistance survive. At the end of the Thames show, Selig Harrison from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was asked if he thought it was militarily necessary to have given the Stinger and Blowpipe missiles to the rebels. Harrison had doubts about the political motives of the Americans, but as to the military imperatives, he had none. “I think there wasn’t any question that this was the Achilles heel of the resistance.” This remark, along with similar comments, never appeared on the CBC show.

In England, the show was thought by many commentators to be too “soft” on the Soviets. I think it is time that Canadians woke up to what “soft” news really means and decided that whatever the Mulroney government’s reason for denying the CBC the new licence, it would be a disaster for fair and balanced programming to give it to them.