A vocal critic pleads for fairness at the CBC

JOHN CRISPO September 26 1994


A vocal critic pleads for fairness at the CBC

JOHN CRISPO September 26 1994


A vocal critic pleads for fairness at the CBC


Was it a case of putting the cat among the pigeons? In 1991, thenPrime Minister Brian Mulroney set the media establishment abuzz by appointing one of the CBC’s harshest critics, University of Toronto political economist John Crispo, to the corporation’s board of directors. The caustically outspoken and frankly right-wing Crispo, who had called the CBC “a lousy left-wing, liberal, NDP, pinko network,” spent three years in the position, sometimes criticizing the network’s perceived leftist tendencies in public, frequently crusading against them behind the closed doors of the boardroom. The issue that riled him most was the CBC’s broadcast in January, 1992, of The Valour and the Horror, a controversial three-part documentary on Canada’s role in the Second World War, which cast a new and negative light on the motives and actions of some Canadian officers and servicemen. Crispo came out fighting, publicly denouncing the series as “flagrant revisionist history” and its defenders in the media as “ill-informed and inaccurate at best and dishonest, malicious and vicious at worst. ”

Crispo’s visibility made him the lightning-rod for critics of perceived right-wing pressures on the CBC and, as he relates in the following article for Maclean’s, the vilification—along with the frustration of trying to achieve a change in outlook at the CBC—took its toll. When his term elapsed last May, Crispo, 61, stepped down from the CBC board, declining to stay on until a replacement could be found.

Why Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed me to the CBC board of directors remains a mystery to me. It certainly was not because I was a Tory since I have never belonged to any political party. Certainly I had been very critical of the CBC’s apparent campaign against the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. I was also so upset by CBC Radio’s coverage of the Desert Storm war that I suggested we should change its name to Radio Iraq. While these stands may have appealed to the Prime Minister, I doubt that he would have favored my equally strong criticism of the CBC for its inappropriate and pathetic support for the Meech Lake accord during its dying days, even though I personally supported the accord itself.

In any event, once I was named, most of what I call “the national media mafia”—a description I still think they richly deserve—went wild. The predominant left-wing faction had a feeding frenzy at my expense. Many claimed that I had been appointed to the CBC as a payoff for my support of the FTA. But if appointing me to the CBC board is the sort of thing the Mulroney government was doing for its friends, I hate to think what it was doing to its enemies.

I look back upon my service as a member of the CBC board of directors with mixed, though largely negative, feelings. Despite the very high price I paid, both personally and professionally, I now do believe in the principle of the CBC more strongly than when I was

named to the board. Especially with the world’s new satellite technology, it is important that there be at least one significant national Canadian presence in the coming galaxy of choices.

My continuing support of the existing CBC is strongly qualified, however, by two fundamental concerns. As far as its news and public affairs is concerned, it must strive for much more accuracy, balance and fairness than it is now achieving. At the same time, and in general, it must learn to operate as efficiently, innovatively and productively as any other broadcaster—private or public—in the world, a challenge that the CBC cannot meet until it overcomes its excessive layers of management, its obsolete work rules, its general overstaffing and the intransigence even today of its unions.

When I was left of centre and a regular fixture on the CBC from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, I did not think much about its leftwing perspective, presumably because I felt very comfortable with it or simply was not conscious of this institutional bias. As I slowly moved to the right of centre and gradually faded from its radio waves and TV screens, I became very conscious of it—some would even say obsessed.

What do I mean by accuracy, balance and fairness and media accountability? At the time I was appointed to the CBC board, my legion of media critics deliberately and falsely claimed that I wanted to turn the CBC into a right-wing propaganda agency. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Anyone who knows me knows that I thrive on the cut and thrust of a good debate. Aside from factual reporting in CBC news, what I expect of its public affairs shows is a thorough airing of every controversial issue. This means having equally articulate and bright protagonists on the major sides of such issues and letting them go at it, preferably live and unedited. Then, listeners and viewers can judge for themselves where they stand, safe from any editing or filtering, i.e. distorting and twisting, by CBC producers.

Strangely enough, if only on paper, the CBC has actually become a world model for media accountability. The corporation does have sound journalistic policies and accountability statements, and it also has two full-time ombudsmen to deal with complaints about inaccuracies and lack of balance and fairness. The problem is that, despite hundreds of on-air announcements about their existence, very few people have ever heard of them. And the public won’t know how to benefit fully from the presence of these ombudsmen until they appear regularly on all the CBC’s news and public affairs shows, citing complaints they are currently handling about these very shows to explain their role.

When one of the CBC’s ombudsmen does find major fault with a program, the producers and their cronies react with noisy fury, afraid that if fault is found with the work of one of their number it will lead to closer scrutiny of their own work, too. This became all to apparent during the furor over The Valour and the Horror, which so inaccurately denigrated Canada’s magnificent contribution to the Allied cause during the Second World War that it represented one of the worst propaganda pieces ever aired here or anywhere else under the guise of a socalled documentary.

After the CBC ombudsman completed his consultations with several leading military historians and found the series flawed, and the board upheld that finding, a number of the media jackals in Canada went berserk. They aligned themselves with the self-serving producers who, in order to draw attention away from the errors and faults in their programs, libelled and slandered the board, the corporation and its president and the ombudsman, falsely accusing all concerned of everything from censorship to bucking under to some illusory “political pressure.”

A large section of the media in Canada followed The Globe & Mail’s early and totally misleading attack on the CBC for its handling of the issue. Despite what the Globe alleged, we did not buckle under to any government pressure, we did not even appear before the Senate committee looking into the matter, and we had nothing to do with the veterans’ legitimate pursuit of their concerns about the series.

Perhaps worst of all was the charge that anyone who found fault with The Valour and the Horror was creating media chill. In fact, the real issue was accountability chill. As long as journalists in the CBC continue to take the position that legitimate and honest criticism of their work compromises freedom of the press, it will remain difficult, if not impossible, to hold them appropriately responsible for their product and for the public to trust them.

In my view, media accountability is still little more than a paper tiger in the CBC. This is because news and public affairs is a force unto itself in the corporation. It is loaded with untouchables like the Peters—Mansbridge and Gzowski—who are still not subject to any real checks and balances. As Knowlton Nash, one of the deans of the CBC’s untouchables, said recently on the air: “The role of the journalist is to establish the national agenda.” He, and his equally arrogant friends, truly believe this to be their God-like role, and there is no real challenge to that dangerous, subversive point of view in the CBC.

In any event, the CBC should not take its future for granted and should carefully consider what its priorities ought to be in whatever future it has. On the financial side, it cannot anticipate anything like its present billion-dollar public subsidy, especially as governments are cutting back on other such sensitive spending as that for medicare. It is particularly vulnerable in this respect as, like virtually every other network in the world, it is losing audience share in a

‘A self-selecting media establishment elite blackballs anyone who reveals its faults’

splintering TV and radio market.

The CBC’s English broadcasting arm should concentrate its energies on its radio and Newsworld networks. It already has a well-established radio network—albeit in need of some new formats and new voices—and Newsworld is growing, although it would have to have more resources of its own since it now draws quite heavily on material from the main network. Canadians will always want to know what is happening within their own country and the CBC should provide Canadians with their most reliable and up-to-date source of news about themselves.

However, given the fiscal plight of the country, I do not believe that the CBC can much longer afford or justify local radio and TV news production all over the country. Among other things, the CBC must learn to draw on respected private local stations to provide it with regional material of national interest for national services.

I realize that anything I say about the CBC will be suspect if only because of my past harsh criticisms. In addition, I have no doubt it will

be said that I am both bitter and paranoid because of my experience at the hands of the CBC, or at least its news and public affairs staff. I would plead guilty to considerable bitterness but to very little paranoia. I am bitter because of the price I have paid personally and professionally for fighting for what I believe to be right on the media in general and the CBC in particular. I never experienced more personal strain and stress than during The Valour and the Horror debacle.

I knew that what the producers were getting away with was totally wrong, but the board and the senior management of the CBC, though almost all of them agreed with me generally, kept pressuring me to remain silent. I did so for too long and hope and trust I will never let that happen to me again. One should never hold back, even out of courtesy to colleagues, from flatly telling the truth about a situation, especially when one is a public trustee as I think you are when you serve on the board of a public corporation like the CBC.

Professionally, I have suffered because my career has always depended on media exposure. But the real reason why I have been virtually banished not only by the news and current affairs folks in the CBC but also by their colleagues in CTV and elsewhere is because I have been such an outspoken critic of them all. They are quick enough to condemn and criticize everyone and everything else, especially anyone of whom they choose to disapprove, but they cannot take any heat in their own kitchen and readily use their control over access for revenge and to silence voices they do not approve of or agree with.

It is actually quite frightening if you think about it. They are a selfselecting media establishment elite who can and do blackball anyone who reveals their faults or who has the intestinal fortitude to stand up to them. I tried and failed and do not really recommend it to anyone else. They probably cannot be beaten but I will not give up, as many have suggested I should, and toe their line in the hope that they might then allow me to rejoin the debate on the future of this great country.

My future vision for the CBC is of an organization much diminished from its present role, and consequently it will be rejected out of hand by CBCers and their lobbyists. But if the corporation is to survive at all in any worthwhile form, it has no choice but to decide on a few essential priorities and to fully concentrate on them.

Even then, I would continue to challenge its existence until it determined to offer more accurate, balanced and fair news and public affairs programming and to manage itself overall more efficiently, innovatively and productively. Canadians should demand and insist on no less. After all, the CBC was established and funded by Canadians to be their public broadcaster, not just an expensive propaganda agency for its self-satisfied and self-serving news and current affairs staff. □