Brian D. Johnson January 16 1989



Brian D. Johnson January 16 1989

Bound for a mysterious destination in the Libyan desert, Patrick Watson sat in the cabin of a small military aircraft with a CBC camera crew. After more than a week of waiting, the veteran Canadian broadcaster was finally on his way to an interview with Libya’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi. Early that morning, government officials had picked up Watson and the crew at their hotel in the capital city of Tripoli without telling him where they were headed. As the twin-engine plane crossed the sands of the Sirte desert, Watson, a trained pilot, peered through the window and tried to estimate their flight path. Ninety minutes later, the aircraft bumped down on a camouflaged airstrip. The visitors were loaded into Land-Rovers, then travelled along a track that wound indecipherably through the desert until they came to a small military outpost. They were asked to wait. An hour later, striding over the crest of a gully, a tall, handsome man in a powder-blue Italian jump suit suddenly appeared: Gadhafi was ready to talk. And his interview, filmed in a tent, became one of the exotic highlights of The Struggle for Democracy, a 10-part series of one-hour programs that the CBC premiered on Sunday, Jan. 8.

Rabble: It is the most ambitious and expensive original documentary series ever made for Canadian television. An independent production made with the participation of the CBC and Britain’s Central Independent Television that will also be seen on the American PBS network, The Struggle for Democracy cost $8 million and took more than five years to make. Filming in some 30 countries, its producers checked the pulse of democratic freedom in bodies ranging from Iceland’s parliament to Nigeria’s tribal councils. They examined controversies over police spot checks in Toronto and aboriginal land claims in Australia. Like democracy itself, the series can barely contain the rabble of issues and ideas that it raises. Watson serves as an eloquent arbiter, melting far-flung stories into elemental themes and illuminating contemporary conflicts by rekindling the democratic legacy of ancient Athens.

Part travelogue, part personal essay, The Struggle for Democracy defies the trends of tabloid television. “It’s an old-fashioned series,” admitted coproducer Ted Remerowski. “Although that sounds kind of negative, it is a documentary format that you don’t see much on television anymore. With the zapper, audiences aren’t willing to spend an hour on something, and we’re giving them 10—God knows what they’ll think.”

Strategic: Aside from its unusual scope, The Struggle for Democracy sets some significant precedents in Canadian broadcasting. It is the first documentary series to be released in the same week on both the English and French networks of the CBC (Watson cohosts the French version with broadcaster Robert Scully). And for the first time in Canada, a private corporation has taken a strategic role in developing and funding a major TV documentary: Petro-Canada contributed $2.5 million to the program’s budget in return for exclusive Canadian sponsorship of the series. The program is also tied to the publication of a book with the same title, coauthored by Watson and Benjamin Barber, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Copublished in English by Toronto’s Lester & Orpen Dennys and CBC Enterprises and issued in French by Montreal’s Les Editions Québec/Amérique, the book earned six-figure sums for publishing rights in Britain and the United States.

Pungent: Meanwhile, Petro-Canada—combining public service with self-promotion—commissioned a history teacher to prepare a supplementary study guide and sent it, along with the book, to 4,500 high schools across Canada. Said Watson: “I’m counting on that to push the ratings up, because if kids watch the series, then it will get talked about in families—and that’s the ultimate hope.” Added Barber, who collaborated on the series as well as the book: “Both Patrick and I would like to think that if we can’t make a case for democracy on television—the most democratic medium ever known—then something is wrong.” Watson says that he hopes to attract an average of two million Canadian viewers, an unusually large audience for a CBC current-affairs program. However, Denis Harvey, the CBC executive in charge of the English network, considers Watson’s estimate unrealistic. While expressing high praise for the series, Harvey declared, “It’s obviously not mass audience.”

As prime-time fare, Democracy does make unusual demands on the audience. At times, its pace is stalled by dry stretches of historic detail and uninspired travel footage. Watson is portrayed riding in almost every conceivable conveyance—from a horse-drawn carriage in Philadelphia to a Chevrolet in Tripoli. And the bridges linking the diverse material to central themes are at times tenuous. Still, for the patient viewer, Democracy presents some fascinating stories and pungent insights. And its host has gone out of his way to make complex ideas accessible.

However the audience ratings turn out, Democracy represents the crowning achievement of Watson’s illustrious career. It gives him a national prestige that he has not enjoyed since CBC’s incendiary This Hour Has Seven Days made him a star almost 25 years ago. Since then, he has graduated from Young Turk to elder statesman—the man whom CBC management once threatened to fire is now on a short list of candidates to succeed the network’s president, Pierre Juneau. Democracy showcases its host’s strength, not only as a communicator, but as an astute intellect with a desire to reconcile political conflict. Although the series is provocative, exposing a myriad of inequalities that lurk under the cover of democratic rule, it is not controversial. The flames that gently flicker behind the opening titles of the series seem to belong to the hearth, not the revolution. And its theme music suggests a romantic miniseries rather than a hard-edged documentary.

In fact, the series is the culmination of a romantic quest that has engaged Watson’s energies for much of the past decade. As Watson explains in the opening episode, he had been concerned about the health of democracy ever since the 1970 imposition of the War Measures Act during Quebec’s October Crisis. But the original spark for the show came in 1979 from an offhand remark by Ottawa journalist Anthony Westell to CBC producer Cameron Graham, who had worked with Watson on 1980’s The Canadian Establishment series. Westell casually told Graham, “You ought to get Watson to do for democracy what Kenneth Clarke did for civilization and Jacob Bronowski did for science,” referring to two prominent television essayists. When Graham mentioned the idea, recalled Watson, “it just hit me like a ton of bricks.” He added, “It was so lucid; it was as if he had just given me an outline.”

The same day, Watson wrote a proposal and sent it to then-CBC executive Peter Herrndorff, who responded in a memo, “Fabulous idea, no money. Try again later.” Watson pitched the idea for two years with no success. Then, he found support where he least expected it. Petro-Canada asked him to draw up a list of ideas for family-audience TV programs that the company could sponsor. Watson offered them 23 proposals for shows, including movies, sitcoms and a variety show reviving the Ed Sullivan format of the 1950s. “It was all drama or light entertainment,” said Watson. “But just for the hell of it, I wrote up a page about Democracy and slipped it into the pile.”

Nightmare: Meeting with Petro-Canada chairman Wilbert Hopper, Watson diffidently presented the Democracy proposal, then moved on to the next item in the pile. Recalled Watson: “Hopper said, ‘Wait! Wait! Wait! How much would that cost?’ And I said, ‘Five or six million.’ And Hopper said, ‘Hell, I could get that without even going to my board. I want to do that! That’s class!’ ”

As it turned out, costs rose to $8 million, and the budget was shared by a variety of investors, including the CBC, Britain’s Central Independent Television PLC, Petro-Canada, the American PBS network and the Ottawa funding agency Telefilm Canada. The key deal maker was Democracy’s executive producer, Michael Levine, the Toronto-based entertainment lawyer who seems to have cornered the market on packaging Canadian coproductions, from The Terry Fox Story to Anne of Green Gables. Selling Democracy took a lot of “pleading, begging and cajoling," said Levine. “People like their information bite-sized—we were running against the stream.”

The most unusual component in the financing package is Petro-Canada’s involvement. At a time when support for Canada’s documentary tradition is flagging at both the CBC and the National Film Board, private investment offers a novel source of financing. With revenues last year totalling $5 billion, Petro-Canada drew its $2.5-million contribution from an $8-million-a-year budget devoted to its “corporate image advertising.” The company took a low-key approach in sponsoring Democracy. Cutting the usual number of commercials in half, it is filling the spots with personal anecdotes about Canada from such prominent individuals as the CBC’s Peter Gzowski and novelist W. O. Mitchell. Like Petro-Canada’s successful sponsorship of last year’s Olympic torch relay for the Calgary Winter Games, its commercial backing for Democracy enhances the Crown-owned company’s patriotic image. Said company spokesman Robert Foulkes: “We certainly got a better investment than if we’d taken our $2.5 million and plunked it into our ad agency.”

Produced by a private Toronto company, Democracy Films Ltd., the series itself involved an immense planning challenge. The work was shared by six producers and their crews at the CBC, who shot 70 per cent of the finished product, and those in Britain, who provided the balance. The filming spanned two years as crews crisscrossed the globe, collectively covering more than half a million miles: almost $1 million was spent on travel alone. “At one point,” said coproducer Remerowski, “we had five crews shooting on five continents. It was a nightmare making phone calls across all those time zones.” The producers also had to deal with a bewildering array of government bureaucracies. Ironically, added Remerowski, they encountered some of their biggest roadblocks in Canada—“everything from trying to film in Parliament to dealing with the military.”

Puzzle: The producers set up stories in advance, but there were the inevitable surprises on location. Watson often rewrote sections of the script just before going on camera. “It was notebook film-making,” said Remerowski, explaining that Watson has such an extraordinarily good memory that he could learn his lines after just a couple of readings. As well, the travel itself was often arduous. One of the most unpleasant moments of the odyssey for Watson occurred in Nigeria, where temperatures rose above 40°C during a council meeting convened by a local king. “The biggest nightmare was trying to keep my bowels under control,” recalled Watson, who was suffering from dysentery at the time. “The court session lasted 2-1/2 hours, and no one was allowed to leave.”

Ranging far and wide, the film-makers visited extremely remote locations, but the series is by no means all-inclusive. The piece most obviously missing from its global jigsaw puzzle is the Soviet Union’s recent wave of democratic reforms. Watson made two trips to Moscow to negotiate a shoot including an interview with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And an interview may still be in the offing but it could not be arranged in time for the series.

Watson also tried to convince former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a freelance interviewer on Seven Days, to appear on camera. He declined, but Watson said that Trudeau was “very generous” in discussing the program’s concepts with him during a series of private lunches. It is ironic that it was Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act that first aroused Watson’s anxiety about democracy—an event that Trudeau inadvertently foreshadowed when interviewing separatist leader René Lévesque for Seven Days before either man was in power. Separatist violence could provoke “a backlash of the forces of order against the forces of disorder,” Trudeau had warned Lévesque.

Frustrating: Meanwhile, the filmmakers’ courtship of Libya’s Gadhafi paid off, providing Democracy with its most spectacular segment—especially in light of last week’s renewal of hostilities in the air lanes of the Middle East between Libya and the United States. CBC producer Michael Gerard, who spent three weeks researching and filming in Libya, said that dealing with the country’s officials was frustrating because they claimed that their government did not exist because the people were directly in charge. “It’s like going to an Alice in Wonderland world,” said Gerard. “Every country has its official fiction, but in Libya, it’s like going down the rabbit hole and finding the Mad Hatter.”

Unlike so many foreign journalists who stew in their hotel for days on end while trying to land an interview with Gadhafi that never materializes, the Canadian team travelled around Libya documenting local evidence of democratic revolution. Venturing into remote oases, they filmed the lively assemblies known as people’s congresses. And to the evident consternation of Libyan officials, Watson was satisfied enough with the footage that he was ready to end his stay without even seeing Gadhafi. “You can’t leave without getting the leader!” an official insisted, and the interview was hastily arranged for the eve of Watson’s departure. Aloof and sphinxlike, Gadhafi made a strong impression on the Canadians. “He’s a desert visionary,” said Watson. “And he’s got tremendous charisma. I found him fascinating—but I didn’t think he was very intelligent.”

Watson’s Gadhafi interview—featured in the Jan. 29 episode of Democracy, called Chiefs and Strongmen—offers no startling revelations. But it is a rivetting debate, in which Watson tries to pry open Gadhafi’s ironclad doctrine of so-called direct-rule democracy. When Watson terms the lack of constitutional authority “dangerous,” Gadhafi claims, “I have no active power to exercise.” When Watson says that is “inconceivable,” Gadhafi replies, “I only incite the masses to rule themselves.”

Watson concludes in the program that Libya’s self-styled democracy, despite its apparent grassroots support, verges on “pure tyranny.” But Gerard, who spent two weeks in Libya prior to Watson’s arrival, said that he was more encouraged by what he saw in the popular congresses. “What Americans and the automatic foes of Libya don’t comprehend,” said Gerard, “is that the people love Gadhafi. This whole idea of democracy is a novelty to them. Even if it doesn’t work the way it is supposed to, they really seem to want to get together and have these meetings.” But Gerard added that Libya’s hangings of alleged subversives, broadcast on state television and depicted in Democracy, lent a sinister undercurrent to the country’s political atmosphere.

Watson berates so-called democracies in Libya, Peru, Mexico and Argentina for suppressing opposition movements. But he is clearly intrigued by the tribal alternatives to Western democratic models that he found in a variety of developing countries. The cameras look in on a session of the Pidgin English parliament in New Guinea and a tribal council in Botswana. And Watson listens to cogent arguments defending one-party rule in Zimbabwe as an extension of African cultural tradition. Nigeria’s system of chiefs and kings, however, left a less favorable impression—an interview with a colonel is intercut with grisly stock footage of an execution by firing squad.

Poverty: Although the series tends to unfold like a travelogue, each episode amounts to an essay on a theme. The Tyranny of the Majority (Feb. 5) shows how minorities in both the Australian outback and Northern Ireland took cues from the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Price of Democracy (Mar. 5) offers disturbing glimpses of poverty among India’s indentured quarry workers, in Jamaica’s ghettos and in Britain’s cities. And The Last Citizens (Feb. 19), one of the strongest episodes, offers dramatic stories of women’s struggles. In India, the world’s largest democracy, Watson examines the cruelty of the dowry system. In Iceland, he charts the progress of a women’s party in parliamentary elections. Finally, there is a captivating account of the battle for a sexual-equality clause in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Summing up the frustrations of the campaign, Newfoundland activist Gerry Rogers told Watson, “It’s sort of like doing dishes—there’s always another dirty dish.”

Atrocities: But in some episodes, the juxtaposition of material seems strained. The Rule of Law (Feb. 12) begins with a contrived scene of Watson being stopped by a police spot check and ends with the story of Nazi atrocities in Europe. Concluding the episode, Watson says: “It’s an endless task; it’s never perfect; it sort of works. And those are profound truths, both about law and about democracy.”

The series delivers mixed messages, especially in the case of the United States. “Americans like to think that they own democracy, that they invented it,” Watson tells the viewer. But leaders of citizens’ groups fighting toxic waste in California and urban blight in Boston express exasperation about failing to effect legislative change. And a Los Angeles cab driver complains that his country is run “by the money, for the money.” Still, Watson remains buoyantly optimistic. Stressing throughout the series that democracy depends on grassroots participation, he says: “America is a continuing experiment. If the experimenters sometimes lose sight of what they are after, they have repeatedly shown a great ability to find it again.”

Despite Democracy ’s inconsistencies, which seem an inevitable product of the subject itself, the series is imbued with a spirit of advocacy that is rare in the tight formats of current-affairs programming in the 1980s. And that spirit seems a direct result of Watson’s personal vision. Said co-writer Barber: “Patrick helped confirm in me something that I had intuited but didn’t really believe, namely that there is a fundamental inspiration for democracy in cultures, groups and even in individuals.”

Glamorous: Watson’s opus is most effective when focusing on personal stories rather than wrestling with major issues. It uncovers an extraordinary tale of a newspaper publisher in the Mexican town of Matamoros, on the U.S. border. Amelia Gil de Flores took over her husband’s independent newspaper after an unknown assailant gunned him down in 1986. At first, Watson admits in his narration that he was suspicious of de Flores, an affluent and glamorous woman. But he finally concludes that she is sincere. De Flores, says Watson, has taken up a brave crusade for freedom of the press in “a country in which journalists routinely get murdered.”

The episode devoted to freedom of information, The First Freedom (Feb. 26), is perhaps the most engaging of the series—which is only fitting considering that the host is a journalist. It relates the story of William Tyndale, the 16th-century Briton who was burnt at the stake for publishing an English translation of the New Testament. The program suddenly cuts to the noisy chaos of one of Ottawa’s rugby-style parliamentary news conferences, known as a “scrum.” Then, Watson goes on to contrast that with a scene of British reporters silently emerging from a weekly off-the-record briefing at the prime minister’s residence, a meeting that none of them will admit took place. Finally, the focus shifts to Mexico, where such mavericks as de Flores defy government efforts to muzzle the media—modern-day William Tyndales.

In that episode, there is a telling incident as Watson addresses the camera while Canada’s parliamentary press corps surrounds a cabinet minister behind him. Explaining that the scrum seems to be a Canadian invention, Watson says, “What’s going on over there may well be Canada’s single most important contribution to democratic freedom of information.” But then the reporters almost knock him over in a rush to get to another minister. As they stampede past him, Watson does not miss a beat in delivering his script. He just raises his voice a little and gives the camera a smile that seems to say, “See what I mean!”

Enthralling: Even with all the planning and preparation, it is that sort of spontaneous irony that gives Democracy life. At worst, the series is merely educational. But at its best moments, it is enthralling. And at the centre of it all, Watson wages a defiant struggle against the tyranny of complacency—while creating a rare oasis of insight in the prime-time desert.