I am appalled. CBC President and CEO Hubert Lacroix unveiled in June his five-year plan for the future of the CBC. Among other things, he indicated that the corporation aims to offload half of its real estate and, if they receive an offer on its flagship Toronto headquarters, “we will certainly entertain it.” Today, I read in the National Post that they have “hired a consultant to help decide whether it should sell its building.” I don’t know about you but, for me, this is the last straw.
The CBC has been the national institution which has brought this country together since it was founded in 1936. Contrary to what the majority in Ottawa may think, the CBC has provided the voice, told the stories, promoted the music, showed the games, encouraged the debate, and prompted the humour, uniting this country for nearly 80 years. From coast to coast to coast, Canadians share what they have heard and seen on the CBC. New immigrants listen to the CBC overseas before they even come to Canada; they learn English listening to the broadcasts and, when they arrive, they are already tuned into the cross-country nature of our nation.
What madness now prevails in the “national” government that it, and its minions on the CBC Board of Directors, are determined to run this gem of our country into the ground? And now they want to sell the building so that they can use the assets to fund current expenses. And when the assets are exhausted? How much easier it will be to end their lease, shut the door and fade away.
In my view, the CBC’s headquarters in Toronto, The Canadian Broadcasting Centre, is a contemporary cathedral. A very special space which has been set aside to promote citizenship and the cultural values of our nation. The Glenn Gould Studio is named after one of Canada’s most famous musicians. Its intimacy, pristine acoustics, and superb technical capacity have made it the venue of choice for untold concerts, radio productions, debates, and community forums. The Barbara Frum Atrium remembers one of Canada’s most articulate broadcasters. Rising to the sky, surrounded by galleries on each floor, the atrium has been the site of many Choral Concerts, Sounds of the Season, Pierre Berton’s memorial. These are community events which bring people together and are broadcast and/or televised across the country. We need more of them in these venues, not a sell-off to the private sector.
Cathedrals, synagogues, temples and mosques are community symbols of religion as a significant force in the culture. So long as a community exists, these remain sacrosanct. We need to redefine our public spaces as places that fulfill similar needs for those who are non-religious. People meet their spiritual needs in a secular society through community and sharing, through music, art, writing and discussion. These are the values the CBC was created to promote and which are embodied in the CBC headquarters on Front Street.
Would they sell off the National Art Gallery? Or the National Museum of Canadian History (as it is now called)? Or the AGO? or the ROM? Would they sell St. Michael’s Cathedral? St. James? or Metropolitan United Church? Would they sell off the University of Toronto? Massey Hall or Roy Thomson Hall? How can the mandarins deprive of us of our civil patrimony just so they can balance the budget?
I remember not so long ago when Peter Gzowski and his cohort, and legions of broadcasters before them, were working from cramped studios in diverse locations on Jarvis Street and elsewhere. The new CBC building brought them all together with the aspiration that the synergy and symbiosis of proximity would allow their talent to nurture a growing country. That building opened as a symbol of the potential of the CBC and what it could give to the nation. It seems that no sooner did the CBC gain the facilities it merited, and earned with yeoman service over the decades, than the mandarins in Ottawa, of both political stripes, determined that its budget could be cut.
What folly!!!! As the second largest country in the world, with a terrain more far-flung than most of its citizens can imagine, with two official languages, a multitude of diverse cultures, many regional distinctions, a host of first nations, and 250,000 immigrants from abroad every year, the need for a national public broadcaster is as great as it has ever been. And since the technology of “broadcasting” has now proliferated to include so many new platforms, the need is as great as ever to build a common community in whatever formats the public uses.
I agree with Wade Rowland, who wrote in the Globe and Mail earlier this year that “the public broadcaster is not a business…. It exists not to make money… but to fill a public need…. The CBC is a public good, like the school system, like medicare, like our universities and colleges, our public museums and galleries.” Who cares if the Globe and Mail, or the National Post, or Bell carry on their businesses from premises which they now lease? They are private for-profit companies. The CBC is a not-for-profit public institution which is essential to the well-being of our nation. In my view, its flagship Toronto headquarters should be designated and preserved in perpetuity as a National Historic Site.
Today, CBC Toronto celebrates its annual Sounds of the Season. Normally I attend. This year, however, I decided to stay home, listen to the festivities on the radio, and write about the CBC instead. Under external investigation and internal Fifth Estate inquiry, the subject of yet another book discussing its demise, and bleeding from a thousand cuts, the CBC seems to be reeling. The Jian Ghomeshi affair has thrown us into a prolonged funk. It’s not just the fall of a celebrity we saw as the contemporary face of the CBC. The CBC itself as a national employer is under question. All grist for the mill of the naysayers who want nothing more than for the CBC to disappear. It is as if the CBC is expiring before our very eyes, and we will be left only to lament its demise. Are we watching the death throes of our besieged public broadcaster?
I have wanted to write about the CBC as a national institution since I started this blog but have not yet done so. The subject seems so enormous, and so fluid: so many commissions and studies, town hall meetings, recommendations and reimaginings, reorganizations, and further cuts. How to get a handle on what is going on?
Now the question has become more basic: How can I not do something? I can no longer stand by and watch politicians and bureaucrats run into the ground our primary institution for national communications. Watch them sell off priceless archives which are national treasures. Or see political parties put forth platforms for the 2015 federal election without any mention of the CBC.
For many of us, the CBC has been our companion, the centre of our national conversation, our window on the city, the country and the world, all our lives. On a macro scale, the CBC has been at the heart of our national development for decades: the source of our news, the creator and promoter of our “cool” Canadian culture, and, until recently, the centre of our sporting life. The private sector has now taken over Hockey Night in Canada. Is everything else to follow? The question is: If we care, what are we doing about it?
Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves why Canada’s national public broadcaster came into existence, and what it has contributed over its history. What is it that we have so cherished? What have we lost already? What would we lose if it did not exist? Canada is a very different place now than in the 1930s, when the CBC began. Even with a different population, more media, changing technology, and globalization, the particular needs served by the CBC over time still remain. And may be more relevant than ever.
This post is the beginning of an intermittent series on the CBC. I intend to review the history of the CBC, its contributions to our nation, and why we value it. I will try to work my way through the labyrinth of the CBC’s contemporary position, and its prospects for the future. I invite you to join me in this discussion through the Comments section following each post.
We need to raise the priority of the CBC and make it an election issue. The federal government is responsible for our national public broadcaster. It’s about time our national political parties paid attention to what the CBC requires. If you agree, watch for the posts, join in with your comments, and encourage others to get on board. Let’s use the internet, email, Twitter and Facebook to pass the word. Modern technology gives the grass-roots more power than ever before. Let’s use it on behalf of the CBC.
To get started, check out the We Vote CBC Petition initiated by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Their Briefing Note shows the pitiful state of public broadcasting in Canada at present. If you are as alarmed as I am by the facts, you may want to support their We Vote CBC Petition. The Friends have been in the trenches on behalf of the CBC for decades. They are a repository of information and a resource for political action. It’s time for the rest of us to join in.
The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, and Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former WikiLeaks associate, had its premiere at TIFF. It opened the festival to great media coverage. Understandably so, since the film deals with big issues: whistle-blowers, transparency, the public’s right to know, the relationship of the media to government and that of the mainstream media to upstart WikiLeaks-type rivals, all reflecting the impact of new technology. The movie opened for general distribution a couple of weeks ago but, apparently, has not attracted the same public attention as other recent releases. That is too bad. I found the movie fascinating. It is a fast-paced, high-tech depiction of the rise of WikiLeaks, and its quixotic leader, and it raises more questions than it answers.
The release of the film followed in the wake of the sentencing, on August 21st, of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning to 32 years in custody for violations of the U.S. Espionage Act. Her crime? She leaked hundreds of thousands of American military logs and diplomatic dispatches to WikiLeaks in 2010. Check out wikileaks.org for the current webpage of the organization, and also Chelsea Manning on Wikipedia for further background details.
The movie moves from one international capital to another. The juxtaposition of grandiose aspirations and a small “organization” operating on a shoestring is striking. After several more minor victories for WikiLeaks, the movie focuses on the release of the American documents, the biggest news scoop in decades, and its effect on the organization, the United States government, and the world. The relationship between Assange and his associates becomes progressively more difficult as they struggle with conflicting goals of “winning the information war” and the possibility of real harm to individuals identified by the leaks.
The movie is based on two books: Inside WikiLeaks by Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding for the Guardian newspaper. Holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to face criminal charges in Sweden, Assange says the movie is based on lies. Is Assange a folk hero? An icon of the information age? Or a terrorist, a traitor, engaged in political warfare? Is his current situation a Pentagon plot to capture him? Are all government documents fair fodder for the media? If not, what are the appropriate limits of privilege? Big questions, big issues, we each need to decide for ourselves.
To help in that enterprise, I recommend you watch the “real” Fifth Estate on CBC-TV which, on November 1st, featured Linden MacIntyre exploring “The Strange World of Julian Assange.” The show is a superb rendition of the history of WikiLeaks, and the nature of the controversy. With that as a background, you will more readily appreciate the movie. If you missed the initial broadcast, you can watch it anytime on CBC-TV‘s the fifth estate webpage.