Originally published in Terminal City Weekly in Vancouver, in November of 2001.
"Today, despite all the broadcast hardware, the studios with their cameras, the control rooms with their millions and millions of dollars of snazzy equipment, despite the satellites in the sky, the armies of TV and film crews stretched out from coast to coast, the glitzy award shows, the weekend conferences of entertainment lawyers, accountants and network development officers, despite all the investment from federal and provincial governments and all the tax benefits which yearly flow to private corporations I find our Canadian broadcast system in English Canada has three dominant features: censorship, racism and an appalling lack of innovation."
You can find the rest of what Daryl Duke, chair of BC Film, a guy with a star on Granville Street, said in a Spry lecture a couple years back in Montreal, but the central point is clear (the lecture is pasted below, since it's currently offline).
Last week's panicky headline in the Vancouver Sun, "BC risks losing half its film business, insiders say," is more than just a random attack on the Feds, a symptom of the absence of an NDP tax-and-spend target for the local right-wing rags. It's one of those surface-level inquiries into our economy that characterize the converted-to-globalization discourse that our whole society seems mired in, despite breakthroughs in Seattle and Quebec City.
The article pines for a particular loophole in income tax laws that is being eliminated this January 1, a loophole which could "cost" millions of dollars for film producers and thus edge Vancouver out of the running for foreign service productions. The article eventually admits this loophole was accidental, but never takes the logical step of criticizing the government for leaving it open so long.
Instead, the Sun "insiders" (losing the "s" would have been more accurate) warn of impending doom for the Vanvouver film scene.
A more thorough critique of the economy would seem more useful. First of all, foreign service production is big business and big employment, but has always been fickle for BC'ers. The entire service industry is predicated on our submission to lower pay, lower standards, and lower creative control than American production - by definition. Like Guatemalan shoemakers, we are threatened with a pullout if we get too uppity. We bring in raw materials - Yankee actors, scripts, Kodak film stock, chemicals, Panavision cameras, etc - and ship out a value-added product: the finished film (if we're lucky, post-production is handled here on Sony and Mac editing equipment with Fuji tape).
By contrast, in the forestry industry, we are forced to sell off raw materials, only to buy the finished products back with value added (Switzerland has a sustainable forestry policy and creates many times more jobs per tree than Canada).
The point is, eternal-growth, competitive economics is based on a race to the bottom. Our unions are forced to negotiate with a huge handicap - the unknown quantity of foreign unions' counter-offers. ACTRA recently gave up the fight to be paid the same as their US counterparts.
Also, the very existence of our service production undermines American unions, much like every industry. When SAG went on commercial strike last year, we were only too happy to snap up those jobs - cheaper than SAG.
Offering tax breaks to corporations to set up shop in our territory is a stopgap measure with no sure payoff - they can move on a moment's notice when better offers come up. Moreover, various regions of Canada compete with one another to offer the lowest tax rates for production.
What if the various production centers - American, Canadian, New Zealand, Australian - got a coalition together to *raise* taxes evenly? Then the citizens of the affected regions could share the benefit of big-bucks production, without tipping the scales one way or the other, instead of all the profits zooming off to Hollywood (or Bay Street). Crazy talk, I know.
What if SAG and ACTRA struck together for equal pay - indexed to the exchange rate? Is it good for our economy to let Canadian actors fake US accents, earn a plane ticket to LA, get cast as "Canadians" for tax purposes and shipped back to Vancouver a couple of days a year?
Why don't we manufacture cameras, lenses, film, videotape, monitors, lights, and so on in Canada? Why don't we write the scripts and have homegrown and still-resident Canadian star actors?
A smooth transition to a national economy - rather than flailing for scraps - could more than make up for film jobs lost by progressive policies. Such a transition seems a distant and faint hope, given the choices our parties offer. A minor tax change, in the midst of a tense war of words between Ottawa and Washington, the impending erasure of our border, and a global war of terrorism against fascism, seems hardly worth calling out the jesus-fonts.
(And since I can't find the spry lecture online, I cut and paste from my own copy. Let me know if this is not cool with anyone...)
DARYL DUKE'S SPRY LECTURE:
I am most honoured to be here this evening to speak on broadcasting in Canada. I’m pleased, too, to be the first Canadian to be invited by the Spry Foundation and thus able to join the many important speakers the Foundation has chosen over the years to give this annual lecture. I hope I can bring a Canadian and also a personal perspective of someone who has worked in broadcasting and film for fifty years.
My question this evening involves really a search for English Canada. What kind of Society do we want? An American one? Or one based on a sensibility that is our own? It seems from what I see on the air or read in the papers that broadcasting is deemed to have very little to do with our country or how we run and shape it. We’ve put ourselves in the hands of men who have no answers to such questions and who seem content that broadcasting be simply a matter for business judgements, a matter for the business pages. They plunk “Mike Bullard” or “Who Wants to be a Canadian Millionaire?” on the schedule and that’s the end of the matter. Yet if we’re to have a country distinct in content as well as geography answers must be found. What kind of country do we want? What is a Canadian sensibility? What is an English Canadian sensibility? Broadcasting and our lives must be joined.
Where, for instance, are we going to push discourse? If not on TV then do we take to the streets? This was done by the protesters, some of our brightest and our best, against APEC, the WTO and the various demonstrations against the Ontario government and its policies. The people on our streets, however, were very seldom the people in our studios.
By discourse I mean not just talk shows, but documentaries, public affairs shows, I mean drama – all kinds of it – political drama and the drama of ideas – forms that are really needed and are now non-existent on the air waves. I note that Canadians are said to be unable to write political drama – yet I know of fine women prose writers in this country – Joyce Nelson, Linda McQuaig, Maude Barlow, Marci MacDonald and Stevie Cameron to name just five. I think our screens would be lit up by an explosive work from anyone of these women.
English Canada is revealed in many ways. Ways that should be treated on television. I wonder, for instance, how often we have been told we must “globalize”. From the days of Brian Mulroney forward this mantra, “go global”, has been repeated at expensive luncheons for politicians and business leaders over and over – and it is one often used to find fault with our Canadian work force – go global we are all told, we are not global enough.
I suppose we are doomed, therefore, to watch Jean Chretien and his platoon of Canadian business men stumble around the world knowing nothing of the cultures or the languages of the countries they visit, while TV news crews are reduced to watching the prime minister trying to ride a bicycle down the streets of Shanghai or insult the Japanese tea ceremony by grabbing the tea whisk from an attendant and pretending to lather and shave himself. I say to myself as these ventures get underway, “Thank god for Herb Dhaliwal and Raymond Chan!”
The strange thing that seems totally ignored by our TV is that we are global. And we have been for a long time. English Canada has a global population – yet the rich variety of our peoples is notably absent from our TV screens. A Cisco commercial has more diversity than the entire CBC.
After fifty years in the business I’ve never really come to terms with this dichotomy. We have a global population but the content of our TV remains almost as white as the Brady Bunch. We should be creating exciting, experimental, and cross cultural TV. But we do not. I keep wondering why?
Is our TV – public and private – too commercial? Is it too centralized in Toronto? Is our TV too highly controlled by just a few corporations and owned by just a few media moguls? Finally, is the whole thing just too much a white man’s medium?
Some of these thoughts are recent concerns. Some began perking in my head many decades ago as I started in this business and looked around as a young man and thought what an undiscovered country we truly are! And how much there is to do!
For those of you who are here tonight and are at the beginning of your careers let me assure you, it’s all still out there. My generation really did very little. Canada is still an undiscovered country. And especially undiscovered are the richness and quality of its people.
“Can the disappearance of an unimportant nation be worthy of serious grief?” This was the question asked in a short but famous book, “Lament for a Nation,” published in the Sixties by the philosopher, writer and University of Toronto professor, George Grant. The unimportant nation he spoke of was Canada.
George Grant was very condemning of the business class of Canada and he saw its desire for “continentalism” as being our country’s ultimate undoing. But for almost all of my adult life I was well cocooned from such worries about Canada by the intense preoccupations of being a film and television director. Even a statement of Grant’s about Canada’s self-same business class “never letting love of country stand in the way of making a profit” failed to ring too many alarm bells in my head. Abroad much of the time and distracted by large projects such as “The Thorn Birds” and”Tai-Pan” it wasn’t till I was a broadcaster owning and running CKVU-TV, an independent station in Vancouver, that I began to see at first hand everything Grant had been writing about could really come true. But now we weren’t dealing with lumber, pork bellies or truck loads of durham wheat. But now I saw we were putting our minds, our spirits, our culture, our very distinctiveness – perhaps even our future – in the hands of men who basically didn’t care how or where they made a profit.
Concentration of ownership in the media went like a brush fire across Canada and soon five or six media moguls and their companies owned everything in our cable and broadcasting systems. And almost all of it was controlled or operated from Toronto.
The publicity releases and the press reports said Canadians were going to be the extraordinary beneficiaries of the age of information. But if one looked at the program schedules filled with U.S. shows and the cheap and derivative production output of these barons of broadcasting it seemed more that we were the victims of a state endorsed media coup.
Do we have a last chance to pull ourselves back from the edge? To insist on certain standards by the CBC and by Canada’s private channels and broadcasters? Or is it too late?
Canadian broadcasting is more than picking up one’s remote control and then throwing it down in disgust after clicking through some 40 or 50 channels. Canadian broadcasting is crucial not just for those of us in the business but for all Canadians. No matter what our occupation. Our access to avenues of public discourse, our access to information, to entertainment and culture, to contact with our past, to dialogue with one another, are all enormously altered or even closed off by the nature of the broadcast institutions we have put in place in Canada.
There is no greater, no more urgent debate that we could have than one about the media. Yet in English Canada such debate hardly exists. We face a seriously diminished and increasingly ineffective CBC. The silence on this subject is almost total. The self aggrandizing actions of media corporations such as CTV, Canwest Global and Rogers Communications are enormous in terms of their impact on our country but where is the outcry?
With the concentration of ownership, the centralization of broadcast operations and the extreme commercialization infecting every aspect of broadcasting there has been a staggering loss of control over the content – the very content of our lives, the very content of our nation.
The control of our own content is one of my main themes. By content I mean program content – the ability to know who we are, what we are about, where did we come from, what are the values which make us distinct from other societies, what do we need to know in order to be fully engaged citizens living fully engaged lives. Politically, economically, culturally.
Who’s calling the shots about what we see and what we know? The citizens of our country in all their diverse regions? Or have we handed rights of information and culture over to Izzy and Leonard Asper of Canwest Global who now have access to some 75% of the Canadian audience? To Ivan Fecan of CTV whose stations and specialty channels now reach a like number of Canadians. To Ted Rogers of Rogers Communications, given by the government regulator, the CRTC, some 44% of English language cable homes and given as well a seemingly open ticket to what is referred to as multi-cultural programming?
Even our public broadcaster – the CBC – is in the hands of a patronage appointment system, conducted in secret, staffed with the prime minister’s political appointees. What are all these channels – private or public – owned or controlled by a small group of media bosses doing to us? Day after day? Evening after evening? Year in year out? What is their impact? And is our trust in these men of the system justified?
Is it enough to have great productions? To be able in Canada to make a fine feature film like “The Red Violin” or to see each week a top rate “Da Vinci’s Inquest?” To see the fine production of the “History of Canada”? Or is there something deeper in the system of Canadian TV which makes me say – just as one could in so many countries “we know what we see – we just don’t know what we don’t see.”
Today, despite all the broadcast hardware, the studios with their cameras, the control rooms with their millions and millions of dollars of snazzy equipment, despite the satellites in the sky, the armies of TV and film crews stretched out from coast to coast, the glitzy award shows, the weekend conferences of entertainment lawyers, accountants and network development officers, despite all the investment from federal and provincial governments and all the tax benefits which yearly flow to private corporations I find our Canadian broadcast system in English Canada has three dominant features: censorship, racism and an appalling lack of innovation.
When we talk of racism, of censorship, of lack of innovation we’re not talking about something beyond individual initiative, we’re not talking about the melting of the polar ice cap or some kind of seismic activity far beneath the earth’s surface. No, these aspects of our TV are very real and are the work of finite men leading our broadcast institutions and making finite decisions for which they are never called to account.
Censorship, racism, and lack of innovation are all connected – not just by attitudes – and these are profound – but also by what I have referred to as “content.” Program content and how it is defined and in whose hands that definition lies. A definition that is crucial to what we know and to how we perceive the world.
Under the control of commercial broadcasters in the private sector or career bureaucrats at the CBC – the owners and operators as I call them – “content” is defined in ever more narrow and narrow circles until we look on “content” in only one way – content that is, as they say, “commercial,” “popular,” “acceptable,” “giving the audience what it wants,” “good for ratings” or “newsworthy.”
These self-imposed definitions by the broadcaster then make an impassable wall – a wall without doors for any of us to get through – so that the rich material of our society, our history, our culture, our entertainment, our traditions, our diverse population all remain outside our viewing. Without realizing it the control of the “content” of our society – the story of our lives after all is turned completely over to others – many of whom are never answerable for their actions or their decisions. Who are they? A few network heads at the CBC or CTV or Canwest Global in Toronto. A couple of department heads of variety or drama at the CBC. Together producing not what should be the deepest most exciting expressions of our society but instead turning out something false and not our own. We end up being exiles in our own land.
Our children come to know spectacle as only the half time ceremony at the Super Bowl, or the retirement party for Wayne Gretsky. They never see the magnificence of a well staged awe-inspiring opera. The beautiful conduct of a ballet performed by dancers they might know or recognize from Canada. Our television drama becomes commercial. And never presents the classical works of ancient Greece or even contemporary Europe or England or Asia, never inspires a sense of pity and terror, seldom gives sustenance against the confusing and horrific world we all face in the events of the day’s news.
During the Bosnian horror I kept thinking of the magnificent words of Rebecca West and her “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” From that classic work there surely could have been fashioned a TV production which might have brought some perspective and understanding.
During Hindhu riots at the Muslim mosque at Ayodhya in India I thought of words from India’s classic story “The Ramayana” or Peter Brooks six hour dramatization of “The Mahabharata.” Such flights beyond the world of TV news are unthinkable in Canada.
Let me take an example about “content” from long ago. I remember before the so-called “British invasion” of rock and roll groups to the United States in the mid-Sixties and the arrival of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 the largest record album seller by far – into the millions – was James Brown. An electrifying artist. A wonder to behold in the R and B world of American music. But he was unseen. He wasn’t on American TV. He was black. Here was “content” being defined by racial attitudes. And for the American audience – black or white – one could say, “we know what we see – we just don’t know what we don’t see.” I know. I was there. I produced in the mid-Sixties for Westinghouse Broadcasting in Hollywood a nightly 90 minute show called The Steve Allen Show. Steve Allen was a comedian and very popular at the time. The program was like the Jay Leno Show on NBC of today. When I brought out Aretha Franklin from Detroit the TV audience was unfamiliar with her. She was a gem, an original and powerful singer but she was black. The same situation when I first booked the Supremes or Marvin Gaye. The American audience was being kept from the content of its nation, its own society.
In Canada how much “content” are we in like manner denied? The CBC names a radio studio after Glenn Gould. But who are the new Glenn Goulds, the new classical pianists of today in the various corners of this country? We have no way of knowing. Do we ever see Vancouver’s Jane Coop? Or John Kimura Parker featured on the main CBC television channel?
How much of the world do we never get to see because the officials running our TV lag far behind the taste, desires and regional centres inhabited by our people? How much of our “content” never sees the light of a studio, never comes before the camera so that we live in ignorance -despite the much heralded channels of “Me-TV” and all the cable companies of Messrs. Rogers and Shaw? And despite all the stations, specialty channels, networks, and tax dollars given directly or indirectly to these self-important, super-inflated home grown media moguls who really only want to import “Malcolm in the Middle” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”?
Another example of content stands in my mind perhaps above all others. To me it applies very much to the unseen potential of TV in Canada. In 1991 a writer named Simon Winchester – who was a reporter in Hong Kong for the South China Morning Post – published a book called “The Pacific.” It was a compelling book because its subject was the world’s largest ocean – the Pacific – and the peoples – three fifths of mankind – who live around its shores.
Winchester has a marvellous story in his book. He tells of one Friday in August of 1984 when the world – our world – shifted. It shifted and it has never tilted back the way it had been. Except in Canada, where everything stayed the same. Our “content” didn’t change. We ignored the evidence of our eyes, the evidence of our statistics in order to keep our Canadian media, our centers of power, our cultural control unchanged.
What happened on that night on August 1984 was this. For the first timein recorded history, for the first time ever on that night there were in the air over the Pacific more jumbo jets flying to and from Asia to North America than there were flying to and from Europe to North America.
On that night the “content” of our lives changed. The world tilted. The age of the Pacific, the age of Asia had begun. We no longer tilted just to eastern Canada and beyond to Europe. A new element had entered our psyche and was there to touch our lives if we allowed it. It was there but we didn’t program it. You could see this new world at Vancouver’s airport. Planes from every country in Asia came in the matter of four or five years to make Vancouver a stop. You could see it on our streets. Our population became thrilling – for the first time in its history Vancouver’s streets took on energy and a character as people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and all the states of India – particularly the Punjab – settled in Vancouver and gave Canada a city that was truly a gateway to the Pacific.
But “content” on our TV screens didn’t change. Same old TV shows from Toronto. Same old Peter Mansbridge and The National. Same old U.S. schedules on the private networks. Same old CBC with its steady diet of mainstream news, commercial drama and sports.
In the years following, Vancouver experienced the excitement of “Expo 86.” B.C.’s Lieutenant Governor was a Chinese Canadian – David Lam. Simon Fraser University’s own chancellor is a Chinese Canadian – Milton Wong. B.C.’s premier, Ujjal Dosanjh, is from India. 32% of the Vancouver school district speaks a Chinese language – Mandarin or Cantonese – in the home. Asian languages make up some 45% of the home languages of that same Vancouver school district. In Surrey, Punjabi is the second language. North and West Vancouver are home to the second largest Iranian community in North America. But the reality of our city, our province and our country remains off the screen. On screen a sanitised white world. Is it racism, censorship or lack of innovation that makes this possible? Or some combination of all three?
I’d like now to turn to the man whose life and work we honour, whose life and work has brought us together tonight, Graham Spry. In the religions of India, particularly for those who follow the faith of the Jains, there is a figure called a “Tirthankara.” A “Tirthankara” is one who helps man cross the ocean of existence.
Graham Spry was such a person. By his life-long dedication to public broadcasting he helped Canada, this small and fragile country, survive. He helped us as a society through many tough and threatening years cross the ocean of our existence.
Spry worked to make sure that on our air waves Canadians would come to be treated as citizens not simply as consumers and the objects of commercial interests.
It is a thought often promulgated today that people like Graham Spry are no longer needed in our country. We are told we live in a multi-channel digital universe and with television and the internet our informational choices are well assured. We are told that the times have moved on. That there is something almost quaint in fussing about the public’s rights in broadcasting. It is thought that Spry’s words have no place in this lossy new world absorbed as it is with terms such as “convergence,” or “new media,” or “the need to compete internationally,” “the need to meet the challenge of the internet,” or “the need to cope with the fragmentation of the audience,” or “the need for Canada to be a world player.”
Many of these terms are simply con job terms and I’m sure Graham Spry would have seen right through them. He would have known immediately that the very words themselves are too often used by our large Canadian media companies to avoid the obligation to our spirit, to the vision of our people, to culture and to civilization itself, to what I have called the “content of our lives.”
Here is what Spry wrote to M.J. Coldwell in 1961, “It is surely outrageous that we should turn over 75 per cent of the Canadian audience to sheer profit making, primarily for the purpose of selling American cars, cosmetics, cigarettes and detergents and that the money-makers will be under no obligation to serve educational purposes, help remote areas, or do anything that will not add to their profits.”
Those words could have been addressed to any recent hearings of the CRTC as Canada’s small group of media corporations went about assembling the almost total ownership and control of our society’s broadcast assets. For 75 to 80% is exactly the percentage of the Canadian audience that Canwest Global and CTV now command. Certainly we should see that these corporations are held, as Spry suggested, to a higher standard.
In giving this lecture tonight I realize just how much I am a child of Graham Spry. I am a beneficiary of his dedication during the 1930′s to help found the CBC – our public broadcaster. By what he created Graham Spry helped me as a young adolescent form my view of the world and later, by my university years, did much to shape my regard for the fundamental purpose of broadcasting, particularly in a country such as Canada. Spry helped form many of the views I hold about “content.” Views I still hold and which I express to you tonight. My views of content, about the citizen being able to define the content of his life and about content’s relationship to matters such as censorship, racism and lack of innovation come in many ways from him.
I know my life would have been quite different had the CBC not been there as I grew up during the years of World War II. I can remember hearing, thanks to CBC radio, a young Alec Guiness in Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” I remember, too, a wonderful Irish actor, Michael McLiammor, in a production by the Dublin Gate Theatre Company of a Sean O’Casey play. The high, ringing, almost unreal tones of McLiammor’s voice stay in my head to this day.
Most importantly I learned from the CBC that Canada itself – not just England or Europe – contains the ingredients of culture and civilization. I still have on my bookshelf Lister Sinclair’s collection of his radio plays written for the CBC over fifty years ago, called “A Play on Words.”
Names of Canadian actors became like Hollywood stars to me… Bud Knapp, John Drainie, Tommy Tweed. They helped form a magical universe very different from the commercial one featured on the rest of the radio dial.
The producer of CBC radio’s famed “Stage”series of dramas of those years was Andrew Allan. He was my hero. I’m quite sure Allan, as ringmaster of drama productions which ranged each week from the classics of ancient Greece to the bitter labour troubles of the Thirties, helped lead me and many others at the start of the Fifties to the National Film Board of Canada and to the CBC as television began in this country. From those days at the NFB and the CBC I continued on in a career which has sustained and fascinated me now for more than half a century. Certainly, I formed in those years the conviction, which I still hold, that Canada can if it has the courage, talent and political will, create for all its citizens a meaningful public broadcast culture.
If Spry provided the groundwork upon which many of us built our lives in public broadcasting and whose words gave the “content” of our work a meaning there was a second man who for me and for many others proved to be instrumental in forming a strong populist point of view about everything we did. His name was John Grierson. As far as I was concerned he helped make Canada Canada.
In England Grierson was known as the father of the British documentary movement. He came to Canada at the beginning of World War II and founded the National Film Board of Canada. His words stirred us all. One saying in particular became for me his most important dictum. He said, “…through information a society is made better.”
Those words fueled everything we did at the Film Board, and then at the CBC when TV broadcasting started in the early fifties. Whether I worked in public affairs, in drama, music or variety our work had to relate to our society – our work wasn’t just about career choices or Hollywood style mass produced “entertainment.”
Grierson came to Canada after having inspired a body of work in England which was an example to us all in the Forties and Fifties to follow. Films like “Night Mail,” “Man of Arran,” “Drifters,” “Listen to Britain,” and “Fires Were Started” were among many which we as young film makers saw over and over again. It is these films which provided the crucible in which “content” – Canadian content – was truly formed.
I still remember the sequence in “Listen to Britain” of famed pianist Dame Myra Hess, playing to a noon hour concert at a crowded Trafalgar Square. She played a Mozart concerto. The gathering clouds and the air raids were over London. As were the blimps, hanging on their cords like small cartoons attempting to fight off the onslaught of the German blitz. As Dame Myra Hess’s notes rippled and hung poignantly in the air, crowds of young soldiers, on leave, paused to listen to the music, their faces thoughtful, their futures uncertain, perhaps to be woefully cut short in the desert campaigns of North Africa or in the fearful landings in France or Sicily. All about, too, were nurses in from the overcrowded hospitals, and ordinary people of London facing calamity to their homes and families each night. Now on their noon hour break they all stopped as the sounds of Mozart floated up from London’s heart.
I remember, too, Humphrey Jennings’ documentary, “Fires Were Started.” And one scene especially. A fire crew in London, coming in at day break from fighting all night the horrendous fires the bombing had started. The crew had lost one of its close friends, one of its members. Killed when a burning building caved in on him. As the muddy daylight of dawn came into the room and the exhausted crew threw themselves on their bunks and all were dispirited and low beyond belief one crew member began to read from a well thumbed book by his bed. He read aloud a poem by John Donne and the scene and the awful night and the loss of a friend had its punctuation and its meaning. To me Jennings’ film was documentary film making at its best – the reaching into the past to give meaning to the present.
Thinking back now from the perspective of fifty years I am sure it was Graham Spry on the one hand and John Grierson on the other who together gave Canada such a strong well-grounded start in documentary film making – at the Film Board, at the CBC and to this day across Canada. Certainly they helped create a Canadian sensibility which has little to do with the vast corporate entertainment endeavours of America toward which our resident Canadian media barons push us with all the scheming and determination possible. Certainly, for me, even at this distance of time Grierson’s words resonate and still have meaning, “…through information a society is made better.”
Yet what has happened to that Canadian sensibility? That populist regard for the value and purpose of entertainment and information? That fundamental certainty of Canada’s cultural integrity? Has it just been lost – like an old shoe at the back of a cupboard? Or has it gone by design and by wilful even purposeful neglect? Have both government and business conspired to destroy it?
As the press decries the tumbling audiences figures for CBC programs I feel today it is not Canadians who have left the CBC but the reverse – the CBC has left Canadians. One has only to travel the subways of Toronto or the shopping malls of Vancouver and Richmond to discover a Canada that is not represented by the public network to which all citizens pay taxes and from which all expect a new kind of content to engage their lives.
Edward Said, the noted author and Columbia University professor speaks of the intellectual as one who stands apart from government and business. In these terms the CBC has been destroyed as an intellectual and creative force in this country.
With contemptible abandon the Liberal government of Jean Chretien has forced the CBC to humiliate itself, ridding its ranks from coast to coast of its brightest and its best. With secret patronage appointments to its presidency and to its board of directors the CBC has become little more than a compliant agency of government and government policy. In business terms the CBC – our public agency – now needs close to $500 million a year in commercial revenue just to meet its most basic obligations.
So much for independence from government and business! Today, all of us should ask: Can a network putting out little else but mainstream news, commercial drama and sports be any longer considered a public network programming in the public interest? Is that the drain down which the vision of Graham Spry and John Grierson has disappeared?
Canada requires extraordinary action – affirmative action – in order to continue to know itself and define itself as a society to its own citizens. Especially in a world increasingly dominated by giant multi-media companies. We recognize this fact in French Canada with special funding and cultural initiatives – federal and provincial – put in place to protect and enhance language, culture, broadcasting and film.
Yet it is English Canada’s culture that is today gravely at risk. Its culture may be even more threatened than Quebec’s and may, in fact, require even more not less protection and enhancement than that of French Canada.
We have been encouraged to regard English Canada as having a culture little different from that of the Americans. A CBC executive once said to me that it was a common view in Ottawa that the role of English CBC is merely to “augment” the programs English Canadians watch from the United States.
Of course, this is a view long and strongly encouraged by the private broadcasters of English Canada who wish nothing more than to be left alone to fill their evening hours with U.S. shows. I would ask if they are so ready to throw away the philosophies of Graham Spry and John Grierson and ignore the values which protect the Canadian citizen why then are these private broadcasters so ready to take our public funding and our citizen’s tax credits in support of their commercial networks and their commercial programming?
The destruction of the Canadian sensibility has been fostered by attitudes long in the making. How well I remember at the beginnings of CBC television in Vancouver in 1953 opening the pages of the Vancouver newspapers to see the few of us who were producers and directors for the public network being characterized in cartoons as beatniks with scruffy beards, sandals and threadbare clothes and accused of wasting the tax payers’ money. Or the Conservative politician rising in the House to attempt to stigmatize an early CBC television production of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as “people running about in long underwear.” And though I had done programs with noted Haida artist Bill Reid, with Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, a host of shows on B.C. painters, musicians, choreographers and dancers, documentaries in First Nation villages on the west coast of Vancouver Island and many dramas by Canadian writers such as B.C’s George Ryga and others from South America, Europe and Canada I recall another Conservative politician from Alberta who called me “a pervert, a communist, a rotten piece of meat who should be thrown out of the country…”
Today public broadcast culture faces its most ferocious challenge. The triumphalism of the New World Order is everywhere. Press releases announce almost daily the wonders of the information age. Though he runs almost nothing but American shows, Leonard Asper, the new president of Canwest Global, tells us that there has never been such diversity on the air. Government cabinet ministers bask in the glow of each new communications venture. Who has not seen Heritage Minister Sheila Copps’ beaming face in the front row of every award show telecast from Toronto? No one mentions that she was in a cabinet which most ruthlessly cut the budgets of the CBC and it is her cabinet which steadfastly refuses to restore that funding now that the government has its much advertised budget surplus.
Over and over again we are told we have never had it so good. But have we? Are we the beneficiaries of a wonderful new communications world? Or are we the victims of a slick pattern of state supported broadcast funding and commercial station ownership which keeps the citizen well out of reach of the studios and cameras of his nation? Are we seeing Graham Spry’s worst nightmare come true?
I have spent long periods of time away from Canada. A year in China directing “Taipan.” Over a year on “The Thorn Birds.” My work has taken me to Myanmar and Brazil, to Indonesia, Egypt and Yugoslavia. I’ve had a bungalow office on the Universal Studios lot in LA and a thirtieth floor corner office among the towers of New York working for the ABC network.
I’ve shot in the stately homes of England and in the cotton fields of Alabama. Yet, each time in recent years, when I would return to Canada, it would be with an increasing sense of foreboding, even gloom.
On the plane back I would ask the stewardess for the Globe and Mail or the Vancouver Sun and upon getting one I’d find myself reluctant to open its pages. Where I had just witnessed countries where it was obvious the media were heavily controlled I nonetheless saw societies of great definition, where even in the midst of trouble and repression, there had been a joy of character and culture, an exuberance of spirit which made life’s journey seem a profound one.
To open the pages of the Globe, to see once again Peter Mansbridge and The National or yet another episode of “The Wind at My Back” was to see a country boring itself to death.
Canadian shows were less and less watched. We were told we had no “stars,” no “culture.” Every new TV licence handed out to a Canadian media company only seemed to increase the viewing of U.S. programs. While technically a country where the media are free I would return from each stint abroad to find a society in English Canada sorely in need of a new scenario, a new script, a new set of myths by which our people could live and contemplate the future.
Quebec, French Canada, seemed to have its scenario in place. It knew it was a distinct society. It respected its artists, its variety performers were stars, its movies were watched. English Canada was living a kind of state sanctioned lie. A falsehood which couldn’t be sustained by the jingoism of the Olympics or the flag waving of a July first TV special from Ottawa.
When I speak of Quebec and compare it to English Canada do I pine for the cultural certainties of a by-gone time? For the Canada of Graham Spry and John Grierson? Perhaps I do.
But listening and looking closely perhaps it is all still there. A wonderful interesting as yet undiscovered Canada. Waiting out there to be found.
I remember attending the 70th birthday gala of Vancouver’s famous and beautiful Orpheum Theatre. The stage was full of stars. The house emotion packed, crowed to the top most gallery. Out came Juliette. And Dal Richards. And Lance Harrison. And when they began to play and sing the years fell away from each one of them and from each of us and the audience stood and gave them ovation after ovation.
But, of course, that night, there was no TV production to honour this theatre, one of Canada’s most famous landmarks. And the most touching of all – this stage full of artists… who may never come together in this fashion again were not to be recorded. Though we’ve been inundated with ice skating specials and iffy dramas like “Nothing Too Good For a Cowboy,” there was no show done in Vancouver for the rest of Canada or even for the rest of B.C. on that night at the Orpheum. Not by the CBC. Nor CTV nor by Canwest Global which was probably chasing a TV licence off in Tierra Del Fuego.
And again, when Jack Shadbolt died I looked for a TV special on this man, one of Canada’s most famous and interesting painters. But the CBC did nothing. After a lifetime of fascinating influential work. Silence. Nor on Vancouver’s Goh Ballet after twenty years of fine work with its award winning dancers. And Vancouver itself, alive every week with new stars from Asia, and authors here with new books, thinkers and activists like Susan George and Ralph Nader and Robert Bringhurst with his astounding voice and his years of research and his book now out on the stories and myths of the Haida… all in our city but without their Canadian Charlie Rose at his round table. And Chinese New Year passes and the big S.U.C.C.E.S.S. gala with stars in from Hong Kong filling to the rafters GM Place – and still no show on Canadian TV, public or private. The largest gathering of Chinese Canadians under one roof – ever. All unrecorded. Unacknowledged.
“…through information a society is made better.” No wonder we miss menlike Graham Spry and John Grierson. Perhaps they’d help us get the priorities right. But it’s no wonder we worry that this astounding medium of television is now owned in Canada by a small handful of men who make their profits from imported shows that say nothing to our hearts and spirits.
Surely it is time for us each to ignite the whole edifice of Canadian broadcasting. To insist that Jean Chretien end the secret patronage appointment process which runs the CBC and the CRTC and end this interlocking web of business, government and funding. Time for a strong independent CRTC. Time to end the Liberal fund raisers and old party friends on the CBC board. Time there was now a public hearing process so we would know where a new CBC president stands on issues important to Canadians – prior to his or her appointment.
Surely, it is time for the very structure, staff and outlook of the CBC to be changed. For CBC funding to be restored. For regional broadcasting to be restored. So that places like Vancouver could have their own access to air time, their own autonomy over their budgets. English Canada has changed utterly. It is time that its multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural society be recognized in the CBC’s and every private broadcasters’ programming.
These changes can be done. With firmness. And with protest. The country Graham Spry and John Grierson saw out there can still be discovered. “The media is corporate Canada – corporate Canada is the media.” I hope these will not be the words engraved on the tombstone of English Canada’s sensibility.