BUSINESS WATCH

Distorted images: the CBC on Meech Lake

'I was aghast by what struck me as the appallingly arrogant and facile stance of one of the most senior CBC journalists’

Peter C. Newman May 6 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Distorted images: the CBC on Meech Lake

'I was aghast by what struck me as the appallingly arrogant and facile stance of one of the most senior CBC journalists’

Peter C. Newman May 6 1991

Distorted images: the CBC on Meech Lake

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

The fuss about fairness in the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s news coverage, triggered by John Crispo’s appointment to the public network’s board of directors, is about to resume with a vengeance. A 30-page essay by John Meisel, a professor of political science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., documents a powerful case that the CBC’s Ottawa-based coverage was initially prejudiced against the Meech Lake constitutional process.

No ordinary soda-biscuit academic, Meisel is the author of definitive books on the 1957 and 1962 general elections and was later appointed by the Clark government as chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in Ottawa. In his carefully documented study, titled “Mirror? Searchlight? Interloper?—The Media and Meech,” to be published this week in After Meech Lake.Lessons for the Future, Meisel accuses the CBC of presenting the accord in a negative light when the Meech Lake debate began in 1987. “I was aghast and shocked by what struck me as the appallingly arrogant and facile stance of one of the most senior CBC journalists,” he writes. “I find it frightening that anyone could feel so sure of himself in his reading of a government’s and prime minister’s motives, that he would feel confident enough to plunge the medium for which he is responsible into the political process with the aim of offsetting the perceived cynicism and irresponsibility of the government.... My anxiety is all the more acute when the instrument is the public broadcaster.”

The broadcaster cited by Meisel is Elly Alboim, the network’s political editor and Ottawa bureau chief, who supervised the CBC’s main Meech coverage. Meisel’s case against Alboim is so telling because instead of basing his charges on any complicated—and necessarily subjective—analysis of news reports broadcast under his direction, the Queen’s political scientist simply quotes Alboim’s own description of the criteria he used to supervise the Meech coverage.

'I was aghast by what struck me as the appallingly arrogant and facile stance of one of the most senior CBC journalists’

Speaking to a Calgary academic conference on Meech Lake in November, 1987, seven months after the accord was reached, Alboim dubbed the proposed agreement as “a highly political and cynical exercise that had very, very little to do with the reconstitutionalizing of Canada.” He went on to say: “Brian Mulroney needed, for his own purposes, to establish that he could do in Quebec what Pierre Trudeau could not. That was, to my mind, the sole motivation for the federal initiative. I think we were engaged in a highly political and partisan exercise by the Prime Minister.” Alboim then attacked the provincial premiers, claiming that they went along “determined to capture as much as they could in exchange for their acceptance,” and concluded: “This wasn’t a nation-building exercise.”

Noting that the Mulroney government’s popularity was then in a free-fall, Alboim pointed out that some Canadian media people felt they were in a situation similar to the U.S. media in the early days of Watergate. “We were focused on the extraordinary story of what appeared to be the collapse of the government with the largest mandate in Canadian history,” he explained. “When confronted with that sort of reality, plus a clear understanding of

the fragility of the deal and the rush to text and passage, we began a search for dissent... you look for someone who will question the deal. We went to Chrétien, we went to Romanow. We looked for constitutional experts. I looked around the country, searching for people who were going to say in the first week or two, boy,

there’s something wrong here____The Trudeau

watch started. Every day we sent a reporter down to Trudeau’s office. Will he do it today?” Meisel acknowledges that last year, in the final stages of the Meech debate, the CBC went to extraordinary lengths to provide “competent and balanced accounts” of the constitutional debate, though he quotes one of the CBC’s own surveys which showed that between January and June, 1990, Clyde Wells, the Meech accord’s chief opponent, appeared on the CBC’s flagship news and public affairs programs, The National and The Journal, a total of 69 times, compared with 45 times for the second mostinterviewed political leader, Robert Bourassa, representing the other side of the controversy.

“To have assumed that the government was driven solely by one motive and one man,” Meisel writes, “to have been implacably convinced that the motives of Brian Mulroney were merely petty, peevish rivalry with Pierre Trudeau (flying in the face of substantial contrary evidence), to have convinced himself and then to have devised a strategy reporting the ongoing events accordingly, revealed, to my mind, not only extremely questionable judgment, but also constituted a quite inexcusable attempt by a key media player to engage in the political process. Convinced that the party opposition to what he saw as a cynical and dangerous government initiative was inadequate, Alboim proceeded to do what he could to provide an alternative.”

Meisel’s accusations are serious because in 1987 Mulroney and the Tories were joined by then-Liberal Leader John Turner, then-NDP Leader Ed Broadbent and most of their elected members, plus all 10 premiers, in supporting Meech, so that it was far from a partisan exercise. Certainly, Alboim’s preconceived notions made a powerful difference in the outcome of the debate, since those Canadians who tuned in to the CBC’s Meech coverage presumed they were watching balanced programing. Meisel singles out Peter Gzowski’s Morningside radio show as being “thorough, eclectic, deeply probing and eminently fair,” but condemns the radio network’s Feb. 5, 1990, Cross Country Checkup, which dealt with the issue, as a program that “deeply exacerbated ethnic tensions, thereby influencing the context in which the Meech Lake accord was evaluated by listeners.”

Meisel is quite explicit in his personal support for Meech Lake and believes that “the delinquent media” helped undermine the accord, a result that “robbed us of the opportunity of Quebec and the rest of Canada thriving within one federal union.” His essay ends with an eloquent plea that in the next round of constitutional talks, which are bound to be much more open than the Meech fiasco, the media not abuse their power to influence the process.

It’s a thought worth pondering.