It was not a vintage year at Sunday Morning. The CBC current affairs program, famous for its in-depth coverage of controversial issues lost seven of its staff in 1998 – and six more in the first weeks of the new year. Among those who left were ACTRA award winning correspondent Chris Brookes and producer Nick Fillmore, whose contract was not renewed despite having won an award from the Centre for Investigative Journalism. Also among the dissatisfied and departed was the shows executive producer Howard Bernstein, himself a Gemini documentary award winner. In the job only a year, Bernstein had initiated one of the programs periodic make-overs, reducing the average length of story items and “mainstreaming” it with softer, more upbeat angles.
The changes at Sunday Morning are not isolated but confirm a trend to blunter edges on CBC’s current affairs journalism. The trend is not new, nor is it confined to radio. Ever since the cancellation of CBC-TV’s Document, Inquiry and This Hour has Seven Days in the 1960s, and the reduction of NFB social documentaries on air in the 1970s, investigative stories and point-of-view journalism have been disappearing from the network’s information programming. Today The Journal sets the standard for CBC-TV documentaries scrupulously balanced with a minimal point of view, the program looks more like an extended newscast than a current affairs show.
CBC managers claim they would like to broadcast more controversial documentaries but are restricted, according to Bill Morgan, CBC-TV’s director of news and current affairs, by the CBC’s mandate and its lack of resources. Morgan’s interpretation of the Broadcasting Act, CRTC regulations and the CBC’s own journalistic Policy manual is that “the CBC has to base documentaries on the principle of fairness, representing all points of view – and more so when the subject is infrequently dealt with and highly controversial.”
But the CBC’s critics – and its supporters-are not convinced. “The CBC uses the constraint of balance as an excuse for not putting on controversial programming,” says Gerald Caplan, former cochairman of the federal task force on broadcasting policy, whose comprehensive report appeared in 1986. Caplan sees the CBC’s narrow interpretation of balance and fairness as a form of self-censorship.
Eager to please whatever party is in power, and fearful of budget cuts that could further reduce
programming and staff, the corporation ensures that its own journalists-and independent producers whose programs the CBC might coproduce or purchase-don’t appear politically biased. The most powerful weapon in accomplishing this aim is to impose narrow interpretations of its mandate on their work-all in the name of maintaining professional journalistic standards and ethics.
As the 1989 federal budget approaches, the memory of the devastation wreaked by the Tories in 1985 is still vivid. That budget severed $85 million from the CBC’s spending allowance and eliminated 1,150 jobs. Among 1he laid-off employees were veteran television journalists who had done investigative work for programs such as Marketplace and Man Alive. The cuts were not intended to touch programming but by 1986-87, 77 hours of English and 45 hours of French TV network programming, along with 1,000 hours of regional programming, had disappeared.
At the same time, socially important programs with limited audiences such as CBC Radio’s Our Native Land which was about native affairs-also disappeared. And, having completed a major initiative to produce The National and The Journal in the early 19808, the CBC announced that television drama would henceforth be its “most critical priority.”
That goal was also announced to the CRTC at the CBC’s licence renewal hearings in 1985. Figures submitted to the CRTC showed that one hour of drama cost the CBC $374,000 to produce-and current affairs was the next most expensive at $282,000. Already in 1982, the investigative unit at Sunday Morning had been cut, ostensibly for financial reasons; as the CBC’s Journalistic Policy manual explains: “Investigative journalism must not be conducted without adequate resources and time available for exhaustive research.” And since drama generates higher ratings and far more advertising revenue than documentaries, it’s not surprising that under severe budget constraints extra money for drama should be picked from the pockets of current affairs.
Many journalists and producers feel, however, that the CBC has not just been shuffling program priorities but adopting a “don’t rock the boat” attitude to appease the Tories’ well-known hostility towards the corporation. Concerned that the budget slashing was intended to curb the CBC’s supposed “left-wing” image, the National Radio Producers’ Association attended a meeting in 1985 with Donna Logan, program director of CBC Radio, to discuss the situation. Asked how the producers could counter charges of “liberal-left” bias, Logan replied that the best defence was to be “absolutely sure that the material presented was fair and balanced according to the CBC’s journalistic policies.”
That’s how CBC Radio vice-president Michael McEwen recalls the exchange. But Fillmore, late of Sunday Morning, also attended the meeting and feels the implication of what Logan said is more important than the actual words: “She knew and the producers knew the impact of what she said was, in effect, that if there is any liberal-left stuff, we don’t want it on the air.”
The CBC does not officially acknowledge that being accused of a liberal-left bias causes it problems with the government-or might have an effect on its budget. But any party in power wishing to hobble the public broadcaster has no need to apply direct political pressure -it just has to persuade Parliament to approve a budget reducing the CBC’s annual allocation. And just as no government, Liberal or Conservative, has been willing to place the CBC on a five year budget, the CBC keeps many of its current affairs producers on one-year contracts rather than hiring them on permanently. Although the rationale for contracting out services in this way is financial, the effect of job insecurity is to chill programming that might give the corporation image problems either within cabinet or with other MPs.
For CBC management, however, the only issue is maintaining high professional standards of balance and fairness. But what is the corporation’s definition of these concepts? The CBC’s mandate is derived from the Broadcasting Act, which states that programming provided by all Canadian broadcasters should be “varied and comprehensive and should provide reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expressions of differing views on matters of public concern.” With specific reference to the CBC, the Act states that it should be “a balanced service of information, enlightenment and entertainment, for people of different ages, interests and tastes covering the whole range of programming in fair proportion.”
This broad mandate as interpreted through CRTC regulations is the foundation of the CBC’s policy on balance and fairness. But to help journalists apply that mandate in day-to-day situations, the CBC provides a more detailed explanation in its 1988 Journalistic Policy manual. This document distinguishes two kinds of balance and fairness in information programming. The first applies to the work of individual journalists, who are required not to let their own opinions and attitudes lead them into bias and prejudice. This is a complex subject: good journalism is always selective, and maintaining sound, objective judgement while making choices is a constant challenge. How much leeway the CBC allows in this area, especially in regard to point-of-view documentaries, is hotly debated (see p. 49).
The manual’s other definition applies to the CBC as an organization: on the subject of “fair and balanced programming,” it states that “program balance should be achieved, where appropriate, within a single program or otherwise within an identifiable series of programs.” Apparently, the writers of the manual have narrowed the interpretation of “balanced programming” in the Broadcasting Act down to a requirement, in certain unspecified instances, for balance within just one program.
Again, Caplan considers this an unjustified reduction of the CBC’s mandate: “I think the CBC is wrong to equate balanced programming with a balanced program in this way,” he says-and the task force reinforced this viewpoint. The report recommends that the principle of presenting a “balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public interest” should apply to “each broadcaster’s overall programming and not to every program broadcast.”
How the CBC’s restricted definitions of balance and fairness work in practice can be seen from the changes that took place at Sunday Morning when Bernstein took over in January 1988. Soon after arriving, he circulated an irate letter from a former listener citing “the universally left-wing approach to every item” and “the level of sheer boredom” as the listener’s reasons for switching stations. Bernstein attached a memo stating that the letter was typical of those he had received and that he agreed with the criticisms. “The show got the image by story choice,”
Bernstein explains. “There were a lot of Latin American stories in 1987. If they were done fairly, they would be anti-American. If it’s anti-American, people make the connection of it being left-wing.”
Whether or not Bernstein felt the story choices made in 1987 were unsound, he did feel that, overall, stories were too long and drawn out. His guiding principle was that henceforth story choices-and the time assigned to them – should be based on their relative importance. In his view, Latin America did not deserve as much time in 1988 as in the previous year, so Sunday Morning’s coverage was substantially reduced. But Fillmore and other Sunday Morning producers, citing the Arias peace plan and the fate of the Contras as significant developments, challenge Bernstein’s decisions on story choice and claim the area warranted more coverage. They believe Bernstein was under constant pressure from senior management to tame the show’s radical image. It was not enough that the program won awards for balanced and fair journalism, but perceived objectivity was important as well-and too many Latin American stories gave the program, in the eyes of senior management and certain sections of the public, a “liberal-left” bias.
Perceived objectivity is a crucial issue at the CBC, but the Journalistic Policy manual does not address it in those words. Instead, it states that “credibility” depends not only on balanced and fair reporting but also on “avoidance by both the organization and its journalists of associations or contacts which could reasonably give rise to perceptions of partiality.”
Citing this section and related policy on the hiring of persons associated with pressure groups, Logan roused controversy last fall when she told Dale Goldhawk, the host of Cross-Country Checkup, to withdraw his services from the show until the election was over.
The reason given was his position president of ACTRA, which had con out strongly against free trade. Aft, the election, Logan gave Goldhawk choice-either the ACTRA presiden( or his job. He chose the latter.
Although Logan was publicly critcized for her actions, she had every right under the CBC’s current journalist] policy to ask Goldhawk to make choice. The problem is whether the po icy manual goes too far in restricting journalists’ activities. Roy Bonistee host of Man Alive, certainly thinks so. After 22 years at the CBC, he announce, in February he would resign, saying that he was “fed up” with middle management executives telling him no to speak publicly on religious values ethics or social issues.
Even very high-profile figures like David Suzuki are not exempt. Three days after Bonisteel’s resignation, a repeat program on The Nature of Thing, about nuclear power was rescheduled shortly before airing so that an eight minute panel discussion could be added to it. After the initial showing -with. out a panel-in November 1987, representatives of the Canadian Nuclear Association complained to CBC president Pierre Juneau about the program. A spokesman for Juneau denied the visit had any connection to the program’s rescheduling. But the move was widely interpreted as a concession to the nuclear power lobby, which felt that the program lacked balance and that the credibility of host David Suzuki, a board member of Energy Probe, was in question.
One CBC reporter fired on the grounds of questionable credibility fought the corporation in the courts and won a decision that suggests the CBC’s obsession with perceived objectivity not only unduly restricts its legislated programming mandate but violates human rights as well. On May 13, 1988, the Federal Court of Appeal ordered the national network to rehire Rosann Cashin, a Newfoundland-based writer and radio broadcaster. Cashin’s contract was dropped in September 1981 because her husband Richard, a prominent union leader, was appointed to the board of directors of PetroCanada. In defending the CBC’s actions, Logan testified that in such cases “there has to be a form of control.” The fact that Cashin’s husband was well known and that she used his last name was sufficient grounds to deny her a job.
In his judgment, Mr. Justice Mark MacGuigan concluded that the issue was whether “perceived objectivity” constituted a “bona fide occupational requirement” for work as a CBC journalist. In rejecting the CBC’s argument to that effect, MacGuigan pointed out that “perceived objectivity” is almost impossible to measure, and that “the CBC decided that Mrs. Cashin might be perceived by the audience as lacking objectivity on the basis, not of any evidence, but rather a gut reaction.
MacGuigan went on to say that the only basis for judging objectivity was the journalist’s work, and that any other standard was “a wholly subjective one, unredeemed by any objective element. It is, as the saying goes, no way to run a railroad. For a broadcaster to succeed in such a case, it would need either better evidence or, more likely, better standards.”
When the CBC goes to these lengths in applying its balance and fairness policies, it is not surprising that the broadcast of social and investigative documentaries is on the decline. By contrast, the newly-established Vision TV network finds nothing in the Broadcasting Act to prevent it from showing such material, and this winter scheduled 10 hard-hitting NFB social documentaries in its series The Cutting Edge.
The CBC has not slammed the door on all such material, however, and NFB social documentaries may also find a window at Newsworld, the CBC information channel scheduled to start this fall. In explaining why Newsworld can carry material shunned by the main network, deputy head Michael Harris says, “The major problem for the CBC in showing NFB films is that so much of it is point-of-view documentaries that don’t meet the CBC’s balance and fairness criteria. If you’re going to do just one piece on abortion this week, it had better not just praise Morgentaler.”
Harris points out that the main network does not have enough time in its schedule to present both a pro-Morgentaler documentary, for example, and an anti-Morgentaler piece-or a follow-up panel discussion that would allow other viewpoints to be aired. But he says that Newsworld, on the other hand, will schedule enough time for both point-of-view documentaries and reactions to them.
Caplan’s argument is that the CBC’s mandate does not require one program, pro or con, to be immediately balanced in this way as long as its overall programming does not favor just one side of a controversial issue such as abortion. But the CBC’s schedule on the national network does not allow even that option: the pressure, whether generated by economic factors or self censorship, to fill the schedule with news, sports and entertainment is gradually squeezing out social and point-of-view current affairs programming. In the age of infotainment, what has happened to the CBC’s mandate to not just inform and entertain but to enlighten as well?
In April, the Conservative government is bringing down its 1989 budget which promises extensive cuts in social spending. Moreover, as the 1988-89 fiscal year ends, the CBC faces a shortfall of $136.9 million. But at the time of writing, it is impossible to predict whether the CBC’s self-censorship will please its masters sufficiently to tip the financial balance in its favor.
There are other uncertainties as well: Marcel Masse, who supervised the 1985 cuts, is again the minister of communications-and chairman of the new Cabinet Committee on Cultural Affairs and National Identity, a title that echoes the Liberal thrust in the 1970s to make the arts subservient to political strategies. Furthermore, by midsummer both the CBC and the NFB will have new presidents.
But new ministers, presidents and budgets may have little effect on a broadcaster that has already reduced its mandate and role in current affairs to that of paper tiger. Given its current journalistic and programming policies, the CBC does not need further cuts or a hostile government to ensure that it remains a public broadcaster unwilling and unable to rock anybody’s boat.