The CBC recently was criticized by Toronto Black Lives Matter activist Sandy Hudson in a post that went viral. It turns out The Current dropped Hudson as an interviewee when she mentioned her view that the Toronto police should be de-funded. The CBC, clearly chastened, recently had Desmond Cole on a TV segment, where he made that very case – and “disarm and defund” even made the headline.
But why does the CBC have a network-wide allergy to anything that seems like it’s left-wing? Why do they need to be publicly shamed to put together one measly segment? I have two answers to that question.
One is that the Conservatives stacked the CBC board with people who have a major investment in the status quo. These include a former executive of Quebec billionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau’s media empire, a former publisher of the Conservative-backing Montreal Gazette, and an executive from Canadian ecommerce giant Shopify, recently and bizarrely endorsed by ultra-right-wing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
Did I say the Conservatives appointed those folks to the CBC board? I’m sorry, I misspoke. It was Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
There are some more innocuous appointees, including Canada’s first Indigenous news anchor, but no one who would be remotely likely to represent the interests of working people. And needless to say, there’s no one who appears (based on a scan of their photos, anyway) to have African ancestors.
All of them are either apolitical media professionals with elite connections or people with direct ties to the billionaire class.
2020, incidentally, is the year when 100% of the CBC board will be Liberal appointees. So the sun has set on the Harper legacy excuse.
The other reason the CBC has gotten so right-wing is because presenting a sanitized and heavily censored version of reality has always been are the core of its mission.
Certainly, there have been changes. The entire mediasphere has drifted to the right. The NDP’s rightward drift has also further constrained the range of debate acceptable on the air. The decline of labour movement combativeness has ceded space to the owner class. Decades of cuts have disempowered journalists and made them more precarious and overworked, which skews coverage to what their bosses want to hear.
But a fundamental critique of Canadian society or economic interests has always been off limits. My favourite anecdote to illustrate this is from Noam Chomsky.
A bit of context: the 1970s were the CBC’s “progressive” heyday, and surely Peter Gzowski is in the running to be the personification of that period. He conducted thoughtful interviews on a wide range of topics and perspectives, and was widely admired by liberals and even parts of the left.
But don’t try to take a clear look at the foundations of Canadian society.
I’ll let uncle Noam explain.
(The following is from an interview reprinted in Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky).
CHOMSKY: Now, when I go to Canada, I do get asked onto mainstream national radio and television a lot, as distinct from here—a lot. But see, that’s because I criticize the United States, and in Canada they like it when people come up and dump on the United States, because the United States is always pushing them around all the time. So it’s nice if somebody comes and says how rotten the United States is once in a while. On the other hand, I got sick of this a couple times, and I started talking about Canada—and I was off so fast you couldn’t even see it. The first time I did it was on this big morning radio show they have there, with this guy whose name I can never remember…
INTERVIEWER: Peter Gzowski.
CHOMSKY: Gzowski, yeah. There’s this nation-wide radio talk show in Canada which everybody tunes into some time in the morning [Morningside, on C.B.C.], and every time I’d go to Toronto they would invite me to come on that show. So we’d have whatever it is, fifteen minutes, and this guy would ask me some leading questions, I’d tell him how rotten the United States is—big smile.
CHOMSKY: Well, one time I really got sick of this, and I started talking about Canada. He said some line about, “I hear you just flew in.” I said, “Yeah, I landed at the War Criminal Airport.” He said: “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, you know, the Lester B. Pearson Airport.” And he says, “What do you mean, ‘war criminal’?” Lester Pearson’s the big hero in Canada. So I started running through Pearson’s involvement in criminal activity—he was a major criminal, really extreme. He didn’t have the power to be like an American President, but if he’d had it, he would have been the same—he tried, you know. And I went through some of this. The guy got infuriated.
CHOMSKY: Then I said something about Canada and the Vietnam War—Canada was always denouncing the United States during the Vietnam War for its criminal actions, meanwhile Canada was probably the leading military exporter in the world per capita, enriching itself on the destruction of Indochina. So I mentioned some of this stuff. He went into kind of a tantrum. I actually thought it was sort of funny, but apparently his listeners didn’t. When I left, after about ten minutes of listening to this harangue, the producer, sort of quivering, stopped me and said: “Oh my God, the switchboard’s lighting up, we’re getting thousands of phone calls from all over Canada.”
CHOMSKY: And apparently the phone calls were all just about the fact that this guy Gzowski was being impolite—I don’t know if people agreed with me particularly, but there were a lot of people who were very angry at the way he was going about it. Like I said, I thought it was comical, didn’t bother me.
* * *
A prominent CBC radio host during the broadcaster’s peak, impolite? Say it isn’t so. Chomsky knowingly violated the unspoken rules of Canadian broadcasting, and the result wasn’t just Gzowski’s outburst. It was the end of his appearances there.
All that said, I don’t think the CBC is a write-off. Quite the opposite. Having a public broadcaster, even one as degraded as the CBC, checks the rightward drift and total ejection of journalistic standards.
But it also acts as a check in the other direction. In my various efforts to build independent media, I’ve encountered several generations of people who are so attached to the broadcaster that it prevented them from supporting projects that could examine and undermine the pillars that hold up Canadian colonialism, war crimes, and class warfare.
The class warfare was hidden for a long time, and the colonialism and war crimes were in turn obscured by a few decades of seemingly cooperative attitudes among the ruling classes. The people who are the most attached to the CBC—what it was, what some still pretend it is—are the ones who benefited from the cold war welfare state.
The CBC was itself born of an unsatisfying compromise. The aforementioned Lester B. Pearson couldn’t get a majority government, so he was forced (by a nascent 1960s NDP and prevailing political winds) to do all kinds of progressive stuff, including expanding the national broadcaster and establishing the CRTC. As a result, Pearson is known as a progressive aberration, not as the corporate pillager he probably would have been if he’d had his druthers.
That’s the political moment that gave us the great boomer compromise that is at the core of the CBC’s core values: working people get a welfare state and more material wealth than any previous point in history, but the bargain is you have to take part in a diabolical plan for genocidal dispossession at home, and corporate colonial mass murder abroad, all while pretending that none of it is happening. In hindsight, not a great deal.
In a perverse way, a convergence of forces—decades of assaults on social programs and wages; and Indigenous people, migrants and Black people organizing for their own liberation—have given us the best opportunity we’ve had in a few generations to correct that original, devastating compromise – both in media, and in the society it reflects.
A working class culture and journalism that can imagine an economy rooted in Indigenous-led stewardship; that cooperates with liberation movements abroad instead of sending weapons to their oppressors and NGOs to distract them from their real problems; that builds a multi-racial cooperation and unity upon the ashes of the legacies of colonialism, slavery and indentured servitude: it’s within our reach. And just a decade or so ago, it wasn’t—not like this.
I can imagine a pathway to a broadcasting network that is democratically managed by its (ideologically, culturally and economically diverse) workers, rooted in communities, and, well, not so aggressively mediocre.
But I can’t imagine it without also imagining a decisive break with the CBC, Canada’s billionaire media, and the bankrupt journalistic culture they have created together.
Dru Oja Jay is a writer, organizer and web developer based in Montreal, Quebec. He is a co-founder of the Media Co-op, Journal Ensemble, Friends of Public Services and Courage. He is co-author, with Nikolas Barry-Shaw, of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism.