Fight? Or play nice till it's over?

By Leslie Campbell, February 2015

Green candidate Jo-Ann Roberts reflects on why a strong public broadcaster is important to democracy.

On the evening of January 28, a couple of hundred Victoria-area citizens were given a sneak preview of Peter Smoczynski’s film-in-progress about voter suppression tactics used in the 2011 federal elections—something which  journalist Michael Harris calls “the biggest unsolved crime in Canadian electoral history.” 

At the event, sponsored by Focus and Open Cinema, Smoczynski first broke down the numbers needed to get a Conservative majority in Parliament. By targeting a dozen or so swing ridings and pulling out all stops, including dirty tricks by “black ops types,” the Conservatives got almost 40 percent of the vote—and 54 percent of the seats in Parliament. Ultimately, only 6000 votes made the difference. That “majority” has ushered in an astounding amount of draconian legislation over the past four years.

A stimulating panel discussion followed the film clips. Micheal Vonn of BC’s Civil Liberties Association told the audience that all parties are now arming themselves with “big data” and sophisticated databases “that are regulated nowhere” and used for “things we should be deeply, deeply worried about.” She recommended national political parties be governed by privacy and access to information laws.

SFU Professor Anke Kessler, who has done award-winning research on robocalls, argued that “the first-past-the post-system encourages excessive competition” which manifests in the illegal strategies outlined in the film along with other undesirable tactics like negative advertising. Research shows, she said, there’s far less incentive to engage in these tactics when you have a proportional representation system.

It was a lively discussion, with intelligent questions and observations from the audience. The whole event is archived at Open Cinema’s website and I urge readers who couldn’t make it to check it out.

Besides raising awareness that evening, we were also raising money for Smoczynski to complete his film before the federal election. Canadians need this information. Unfortunately, the economic and political times we live in have not been kind to in depth long-form journalism—whether in print, film or radio. Preserving democracy will require us figuring out how to fund media that are willing to hold power to account.

 

THE MORNING AFTER THE EVENT, I interviewed the newly acclaimed federal Green Party candidate for the Victoria riding. Jo-Ann Roberts had attended the event, so we had lots to compare notes on. Having worked at the CBC for 28 years, a career she clearly loved, I was keen to get her perspective on the ability of that institution to keep Canadians well-informed.  

She described the 2011 electoral fraud as the type of story the CBC should be telling—and funding through programs that help filmmakers like Smoczynski. But too often now the CBC avoids such stories. “First of all, we don’t have money, and secondly there’s this fear of offending the government. There’s a chill…they’ve scared us.” (Roberts often uses “we” and “us” when referring to the CBC as if she is still a part of it—and emotionally she still is). “Eight out of ten of our board of directors are contributors to the Conservative [party]. Now that’s not a crime,” said Roberts, “but it should not have been a qualification for getting on the board of directors.”

That includes the president of the board, who she feels has been far too accepting of funding cuts, refusing to fight for the corporation’s health. With less partisan governments of the past, she says, legislation guaranteeing an arms-length relationship may not have seemed necessary, but now, with Canada’s hyper-partisan government, it’s crucial. “The prime minister does not have to like the CBC—but he shouldn’t have the ability to destroy it,” said Roberts.

Roberts also credits Sun News with scaring CBC management—“It’s probably the Conservative Party’s best weapon against us.” Kory Teneycke, a former director of communications for the Prime Minister’s Office, is vice-president of Sun News Network.

Every strong democracy has a strong public broadcaster, noted Roberts. In Canada it’s the only one with a mandate to tell Canadian stories from sea to sea to sea in two official languages and eight aboriginal languages across every platform. “It’s an untenable mandate if you have to make money…There’s no [economic] reason to have a radio and television station in Tuktoyaktuk. But the CBC is there because it’s part of our Canadian experience.”

As part of her federal campaign, Roberts is advocating for a robust nation-wide discussion about how CBC should be funded. She’d like to see lots of options on the table. “It may be that the cable companies say ‘[CBC TV] can put a fee on every cable connection, but you’ve got to stay out of…advertising.’” She recalls that until 1974 CBC Radio carried ads. People worried it was “the end” when radio went ad-free, yet it turned out to be a very good move. But it’s complicated, she acknowledges. While there are problems with CBC TV devoting so much of its energy to selling advertising in an extremely competitive market, it does help fund its ad-free radio programming.

The harsh cutbacks and reduced staffing levels over the years mean money has become the driving force, she says. Back in her early CBC days in Moncton, New Brunswick, Roberts says stories were evaluated solely on the basis of how good they were and how important it was that Canadians heard them.

“Now, every time you pitch a story it’s ‘well I don’t think we can afford that’  or ‘will it attract a new audience’ and ‘what will it mean for ratings?’” She feels some stories are worth telling that may not attract a new audience or that might upset an important advertiser. When it’s left to profit-driven corporate media, some important stories just won’t get told. She wonders, for instance, if the temporary foreign worker story would have emerged at all given that other TV networks, fully dependent on advertising, would worry about giving offense to McDonalds and other big advertisers. Once CBC broke it, the rest of the media couldn’t ignore it, she says, even with their dependence on advertising.

Speaking of temporary foreign workers brings us to the Amanda Lang conflict of interest issue—“a huge black eye for CBC,” suggests Roberts. She notes there’s long been rules about taking paid speaking engagements, yet star players like Peter Mansbridge and Lang always seemed to operate under different rules. Roberts contrasts the laxness around their highly-paid corporate speaking engagements with the careful scrutiny she was put under when she took an unpaid leave of absence to be the Harvey Stevenson Southam Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Victoria—on the topic “Public Broadcasting and the Public Good.” CBC brass even wanted to pre-screen her speech.

While she accepts the need to pay high salaries to celebrity anchors, she was dismayed to learn just how high they are and that they were also making hundreds of thousands extra from speaking engagements, often with firms that lobby government and are the subject of news reports. Such practices endanger the whole organization. 

When I mention Peter Mansbridge’s cozy pre-Christmas interview with our PM, she responded, “The culture’s changing. We’re choosing sides. Are we going to fight or just play nice till it’s over?”

 

SINCE THE NDP is also committed to restoring the $115 million in CBC funding cuts and legislating against government interference, Roberts will have to find other issues to differentiate herself from incumbent NDP MP Murray Rankin. While she openly admired Rankin’s strong environmental record, she noted the NDP’s insistence that all its MPs vote as a block gives people an important reason to vote Green. Roberts, who was also asked to run by the Liberals, chose to run as a Green partly because she wants to be free to decide for herself how to vote. 

Roberts believes the Greens can be very influential in Parliament with even a few strong elected MPs. Like Elizabeth May, whom she admires greatly for “changing the conversation,” she hopes all the more progressive parties will be open to forming coalitions around issues like “meeting our carbon objectives—as modest as they are—and putting in a national carbon tax.” Proportional representation is another priority for the Greens. Said Roberts: “We’ve got three parties out of four saying they’ll at least look at it [the NDP and Greens are committed to introducing it; the Liberals are committed to studying it]. It’s probably the best chance we’ll ever get.”

In the 2012 byelection, Rankin won over a lesser-known Green candidate by only 1100 votes (voter turn-out was a dismal 44 percent). So Roberts does stand a chance of being elected, but is there also a chance she’ll split the progressive vote in Victoria, allowing the Conservatives to squeak up the middle? Roberts thinks not. The Conservative candidate in 2012 was a distant third and it’s been 30 years since a Conservative was elected in the riding. “I don’t want to take votes from anyone. I want to earn every vote [especially from] undecided voters, and to bring new voters to the table.” 

Rankin himself has graciously accepted Roberts’ candidacy. As Professor Kessler noted, however, tight races in our first-past-the-post system tend to make for extreme competitiveness and, as recent news about “mudline” research aimed at discrediting Green MLA Andrew Weaver suggests, the NDP is feeling bruised by the Green Party’s strength in the Victoria area.

Watch for more election-related stories in the months ahead. 

Leslie Campbell is the founder of Focus. Go to www.opencinema.ca to see the Jan 28 presentation and find links to Peter Smoczynski’s trailer.