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and I can't do a thing about it

Self-Censorship: The real failure of Canadian journalism

I have just recently returned from working in India for over a month. I won’t go into what I thought of the world’s biggest democracy, this blog is not a travelogue. I did get the opportunity to watch quite a bit of Indian television. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are quite a few English channels in the country, at least two of which are all-news, all talk stations. While I did dip into BBC-International and CNN-International, these stations were not readily available on my travels, so I found myself trying to find any news that was available.

I struck it lucky on two counts. The first being the visit by President Obama to Mumbai and Delhi while I was India. The Indian stations provided an interesting take on the president’s visit. I got to see a range of opinion that I never would have seen or heard at home. The bottom line in the coverage, as it would have been in Canada if Obama was visiting Toronto and Ottawa, was what is in it for us. How are the U.S. promises going to affect India? Parochial? Not really. It amounts to serving the viewers with information that is important to them.

The second stroke of luck was to be in India during both an election campaign and the aftermath of the Commonwealth Games. It was here that Indian TV revealed itself to be far different to the Canadian and American mold we have become so used to. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to see interviewers and panels that were hard-nosed, tough and sometimes incendiary. I don’t mean unfair, I mean pointed.

On one occasion I saw an election panel made up of one sitting cabinet minister and seven other men running for parliament. Each guest was a member of a different political party. The subject of the interview was primarily public works, buildings, bridges, but in fact the real crux of the conversation was corruption. In Canada you might expect the opposition candidates to attack the cabinet minister and in India they did too. But here was the difference, the host went after the cabinet minister with a gusto I have never seen in North America. He pointed out the scandals. He pinpointed the lies. He called the minister out by explaining what he said in the past and what he had done. There was no Canadian style pussy-footing. He finally asked the minister why anyone should ever believe a word he says and further why would any sane voter choose him or his party? This is the party in power, remember.

I was glued to the television. It was great theatre but more important it was great journalism. It left me feeling empty and despairing however about the brand of political interviewing and the level of polite political discourse practiced by Canadian interviewers and TV hosts. Anyone who has watched CBC NN or CTV News Channel, let alone The National, Global National, or CTV News would feel the same way I felt. The comparison to the beige news and current affairs we are treated to was stark. Anyone who has ever seen Evan Solomon and one of his panels hem and haw through a nice polite discussion would be embarrassed by the difference.

A few days after that discussion, on a different channel I saw a news program eviscerate the two most important men, both politicians, behind the Commonwealth Games. They had, it seemed been going after these guys for months. They had interviews with them done over the course of those months. They chronicled the changing stories of the Commonwealth Games’ leaders. The shone a bright light on the lies being told throughout the process. They investigated the funding and the waste. In the end they took full credit for the fact that they were responsible for the firing and political downfall of two more corrupt Indian political leaders.

There is a fearlessness in Indian TV that is remarkable. In Canada, journalistic organizations seem to be afraid to take on the government. Not so in India. In Canada I have heard important interviewers say they can’t go after their guests because if they offend them they won’t come back and perhaps neither will anyone in their political party. In India this excuse doesn’t play. It is time for Canadian journalists to understand that they are in no way beholden to our political and business leaders. When the government has a story they want to get out they will come calling. When business has a new product to sell they will be available for comment. Politicians and business people need the media more than the journalists need them. When did we forget this fact?

Canadian media has lost its mojo, its power. Not because of what is being done to them, but because of what they are doing to themselves. Canadian journalism is for the most part too timid and too worried about the backlash from the people they cover. In today’s media world there is no place for the tough investigator, the crusaders are all but gone. It is a polite world of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. I saw this happening at the CBC in the Mulroney years when we backed off stories that might affect our budget. CTV was once led by men like John Bassett who wore his political views on his sleeve for all to see. You didn’t have to agree with them, they didn’t care.

Today self-censorship may be the biggest roadblock to good journalism. If you don’t believe me, watch Indian TV.

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13 Responses

  1. Jim Henshaw says:

    The condition you’re describing is further exemplified by the Wikileaks dump. While journalists “scramble to digest” all the information coming out, the real revelation is how little North American journalists seem to have done to unearth similar stories on their own.

    Almost all this stuff was there for somebody to find if they even attempted to scratch the surface. I guess it’s just easier to hang at the office and reword press releases.

  2. Steve Paikin says:

    is it possible that canadian journalists don’t go after canadian politicians as aggressively or harshly as indian journalists go after indian politicians because our governments here aren’t as corrupt?

    • hlbtoo says:

      It is possible, but i highly doubt it Steve. Has anyone really gone after Harper and Clement for the G-20? What about Bill Blair and the overactive policing at the G-20?
      Has anyone got to the bottom of the Charest government misdeeds? Those are just off the top of my head. Hey Blair was a guest on your show about the gun registry, perhaps he will come back to be grilled about police practices in Canada.

  3. Joe Clark says:

    Please back up this statement: “I saw this happening at the CBC in the Mulroney years when we backed off stories that might affect our budget.” Name names, specify stories, and otherwise stop self-censoring.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Your point is well taken. It wasn’t meant to be self-censorship…I thought it was old history. I was at The Journal when Mulroney was elected. If you remember there was a lot of fear about the Tories going after the CBC. We were actually visited by appointees who were studying “the corp.” During that time I saw a deference paid to the government by The Journal. I saw stories go uncovered if they were unflattering to the government. I have heard the same about The National, but I was not there to see it personally.
      Interesting that nothing came of the PC’s studies, but the chill factor worked wonders for them.
      By the way, I saw the provincial NDP in Ontario under Bob Rae be even more heavy handed in their dealings with TV Ontario. I saw specials produced because the NDP government wanted them produced. Rae’s people even attempted to control who we booked on our political panels. They tried to ban Ian Scott from our discussions, promising that no NDPers would appear on our shows if Scott was used by us. In that case we ignored their threats.
      Self censorship is a difficult thing to prove. Was it a story worth covering or not? It’s subjective and can be argued. Truth is though, when you work somewhere you get a feel for the stories that a show likes to cover. In your gut you know when there is a sudden change.
      Since I was part of the problem I will name one name…my own.

  4. Steve Paikin says:

    for others that might be reading this, i worked with howard at tvo when we approached the rae government and had to deal with its heavy-handed approach. we should probably clarify for the record that rae, himself, had nothing to do with this, but rather his director of communications, who tried to strong-arm us into not using the former attorney-general, ian scott. and howard is quite correct. we ignored him and ian turned out to be a fabulous panelist.

  5. Jim Henshaw says:

    If Bob Rae’s Director of Communications was strong arming TVO without his boss’s knowledge, isn’t that a story worthy of exploration?

    I mean what else was being done that the people we elected to govern didn’t know about?

    Or if such arm-twisting is done at arm’s length does that allow journalists to more easily claim they aren’t self-censoring?

    • hlbtoo says:

      Jim…I don’t know that it was without Bob Rae’s knowledge…It was considered an internal matter. Perhaps if the NDP followed up on their threats we would have gone public, but remebering the time and the threat to our budgets and future, I suspect we still would have kept our mouths shut. Mea culpa.

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Avnish, Avnish. Avnish said: Self-Censorship: the Real Failure of CDN Journalism "[In India].. There was no Canadian style pussy-footing.." http://bit.ly/dGJK4w #cdnpoli […]

  7. JohnR says:

    howard said: Canadian journalism is for the most part too timid and too worried about the backlash from the people they cover.

    So why the recent full court press against Sun’s cable licence application?

    Even a more Canadian ‘fox north’ would surely seek to find it’s feet, first with some outrage maybe but quickly recognizing a need to broaden it’s approach while somehow retaining some irreverence to all political elites with a core edginess to its news.

  8. Ron Csillag says:

    I’d hate (or love) to hear what you have to say about the Jewish press, for which I’ve long toiled, as you may know. There are many who believe that “Jewish journalism” is a contradiction in terms. I won’t tip my hand here, but what do you think?

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi Ron…I am a fan of good journalism no matter where it comes from. I think English Al Jazeera does some fine work. I have seen brilliant journalism in Israel. My biggest problem with “Jewish” journalism is that, outside Israel, the majority seems to be published in a defensive way. What I mean is that it goes out of its way to find anti-semitism or anti-Israeli stories and rhetoric to the point where genuine criticism of Jews or Israel is seldom recognized. Having said that, I should add that there is a corollary in the world press, especially in Europe, that seeks out perceived offenses by Jews or Israel and somehow manages to twist the facts to suit a preconceived idea, and we both know what that idea is. Maybe the problem is trying to do faith-based journalism?

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