I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Another Prime Ministerial Love-in

Every year around this time I look forward to the annual CTV News and CBC News interviews with the Prime Minister. They have become as much a part of the festive season as Christmas trees, carols and indigestion. Each year I hope for the kind of interview I remember from the past, but as time goes by I wonder if these sit-downs were ever any good. Is this a case of false memory syndrome on my part? I wonder.

This year’s first Prime Ministerial gabfest was with the new anchor at CTV, Lisa LaFlamme. Anyone who is a regular reader of my blog knows I have been a fan of Lisa’s since long before she came to network television. I was looking forward to some real journalistic third degree. Lisa has always struck me as fearless, therefor I thought she would be all over Stephen Harper. Sadly it was not to be.

Look, I know it was head and shoulders better than last year’s anemic effort where Robert Fife and Lloyd Robertson tossed softballs at Harper and never asked a follow-up question when it was obvious the prime Minister was dodging or ignoring the original query. The two senior CTV reporters embarrassed themselves and their network by skipping many of the most controversial subjects of the year.

A year ago, Peter Mansbridge’s one-on-one with Stephen Harper was only slightly better. He got around to all of the important issues, but you may see a pattern developing here, he too missed every opportunity to ask a follow up question when the Prime Minister was fudging or refusing to get specific.

So this time it was Lisa LaFlamme’s turn. Her first. I knew it was going to be painful almost from the start. Her first few questions were about the economy, immigration and health. Every question was too long, most double-barreled, and each one contained a way out for Harper. LaFlamme seemed to be saying, before I ask this question, and please forgive me for asking it, understand I am a nice person and I won’t force you to get specific. She looked like she was there to please the Prime Minister, not the Canadian public. It hit bottom when she prefaced an economy question by pointing out how tough a time it is to govern before she moving on to say that Harper is seen as a strong fiscal manager by most Canadians. Hello, who wrote this stuff, the P.M. press aides?

Needless to say Harper’s answers were typically long on generalities and almost completely devoid of specifics. Also, needless to say, there were never any follow-ups and at no time was he asked to explain.

From here the interview got a little better. Peter MacKay’s seeming spendthrift ways, and the Arab Spring were broached. These were the kinds of subjects Fife and Robertson ignored a year ago. Here the questions were asked at least, even though Harper’s explanations were never questioned.

The came Kyoto and the environment, on this subject LaFlamme developed a backbone. When Harper tried to explain that he got out of Kyoto because the biggest polluters had not signed on, she asked if he was blaming China and India for the environmental problems. She also asked Harper whether it was incumbent on Canada to show a little leadership on the subject.

LaFlamme followed this up by pressing Harper on the Eurozone crisis and the global economy. There was good stuff here about selling Canada’s oil to China and India, the Keystone Pipeline and the Canada-EEC free trade talks. When Harper said the negotiations were proceeding towards an agreement, LaFlamme asked what the Harper Government had put on the table. She didn’t get an answer, but she did ask the pertinent question.

Then it was back to the love-in. Harper was congratulated for endorsing a state funeral for Jack Layton and was seriously let off the hook for his government’s handling of the Attawapiskat situation.

The final quarter of the interview was with Laureen and Stephen Harper together. This section was filled with the usual People Magazine material: Harper’s kids (they seem so normal), life in the age of Facebook (the kids can’t post there for safety reasons), Laureen’s ability to comment (Stephen is almost always right but we do talk at breakfast), Christmas shopping and who cooks the Christmas dinner.

All-in-all a very pedestrian interview that shed little or no light on the troubles of the past year or the government’s expectations for the year to come. To prove how un-newsy the interview was, on a night when re-gifting and the World Junior Hockey Championships took up a too large portion of the newscast, CTV couldn’t find a single clip or highlight for their national newscast.

We get so few opportunities, especially from this Prime Minister, to spend the kind of time it takes to do an in-depth interview, it seems criminal to me to waste it without asking the really tough questions and demanding answers, or at least pointing out when the answers are not forthcoming.

I will give Lisa LaFlamme another chance because it was her first solo try, but my expectations will be for a much better effort next year.

P.S. The production values left a lot to be desired too. The camera pointed at Harper was too high and therefor always looked down on him and the camera was placed so that Harper was always in ¾ profile. Lisa’s camera was pointed directly at her, they should have done the same for the Prime Minister. Also, as the interview went on Harper started to sweat, especially above the upper lip, and he became shiny in the TV lights. I’m certain they could have paused to powder his face. They didn’t.

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The Corpse

Two events in the past few weeks have made me wonder about the future of the CBC.

The first is the U.S. House of Representatives vote to stop funding NPR (National Public Radio). NPR is my primary source of information whenever I am in the United States. Outside of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and maybe Boston and Chicago, it is very difficult to find a decent newspaper that covers major national stories, never mind international news. NPR does all of that and does it well.

The stated thinking by the Republican dominated House is that public, non-profit radio should not be funded. There are better uses for taxpayers’ money. We all know the real reason has more to do with the Republican’s perception that NPR leans far to the left, especially when it comes to national U.S. issues and politics.

As an irregular listener and a Canadian it seems to me that NPR is hardly left wing. By my great white northern standards NPR seems pretty centrist, leaning somewhat to the right on international stories, especially those that involve the United States.

According to Jeffrey Dvorkin, who should know, he headed the news at NPR and went on to become the NPR ombudsman, the big stations in places like New York and L.A. will be able to carry on with listener, corporate and charitable donations. In smaller centers the stations could disappear. In other words, where there is an alternative to NPR it will still function, where there is no alternative it may disappear leaving hundreds of millions of people with only extreme right wing shock jocks, religious programming and centrally programmed music stations.

As first world countries go, America looks to me to already have the most ignorant population when it comes to politics, both internal and international. This decision, if it stands will surely make the problem worse, leaving no radio alternative to the Rush Limbaughs of the broadcast world who peddle lies and half-truths on the important issues facing Americans.

CBC Radio is basically NPR in Canada. Sure there are differences, but it gets the same sort of listeners, albeit a heck of a lot more than NPR by percentage of the listening audience. Is it possible, could a Stephen Harper majority government look south and say to themselves, what a great idea? We could save a bundle of dough by cutting CBC. A few years ago I would have laughed at the prospect. Even when CBC TV was going through major problems, strikes, Stursburgian leadership issues, the radio service was being hailed as an example of how the CBC gets it right. That was before the dismantling of Radio 2 as a classical music station that resulted in the loss of up to 50% of the audience and a move by CBC Radio One to broaden its musical and content horizons to get more youthful listeners. Radio One has managed to hold most of its audience because of shows like As It Happens which have been around for decades. But there is much unhappiness with CBC radio among the people I talk to. They still listen, maybe not as much as before, but there is little else to listen to if you are a news and information junkie.

The numbers say that the changes have not drawn in new young listeners. So with less enthusiastic listeners and dropping numbers could Stephen Harper get away with major cuts that spell doom for CBC? I’m not sure, but it does worry me.

The second event that got to me was an appearance on a panel discussion about media and topical events that I took part in on CTS. The show is called Behind the Story and is deftly hosted by Richard Landau. You should have a look at the program if you get an opportunity, you may be pleasantly surprised. In any case, one of my fellow panelists was National Post Columnist Lorne Gunter. His columns are thoughtful, provocative and generally make excellent arguments, even when I disagree with them. Lorne is based in Alberta. At one point in the show he said that the CBC was irrelevant to anyone outside southern Ontario and Quebec. He said he looked forward to the end of the CBC under a Harper government .

He surprised me for two reasons. First, I always thought the success of CBC was stronger in rural Canada and I do know that historically the CBC gets its best numbers in Manitoba and Newfoundland. I spent four years in Nova Scotia and CBC radio dominated. My wife is from New Brunswick and she grew up listening to only CBC radio and watching CBC TV.

The second reason is that CBC, even at just over a billion dollars per year is highly underfunded and frankly costs each Canadian a pittance for a service that has the ability and mandate to bring Canadians together and showcase Canadian talent. I’m sure Lorne believes like many in the Tory party that CBC is a left wing cabal. That doesn’t make it true, and more to the point, I like reading columnists I disagree with and hearing what politicians and opinion makers on the right and the left have to say. As a journalist and a broadcaster I have always believed the more outlets available and the more money being spent on getting the best stories and angles the better off we all are.

During the last CBC lockout I was having a lunch discussion with a CBC staffer who lamented the lack of public interest into the loss of CBC programming on both radio and television. He said that if the strike had happened 10 years earlier many in the public would be demanding an end to the strike or at least would be upset by the loss of programming.

There is a lesson in all this. The CBC is losing its place in the Canadian broadcast scene. It may be the programming, it may be the underfunding, it may even be the pointless chasing of younger ears and eyeballs. I suspect it is all of the above. But with a Harper majority government a strong possibility it behooves the CBC to take a hard look at itself. I suggest that the corporation go back to basics: a news service that is respected and viewed; journalism that sets the standard in Canada; a leadership role in documentary production; excellent drama that enlightens and informs; coverage of things that no one else will cover because of cost or interest like the arts and amateur sports. First the CBC has to become indispensable again…then it can grow and prosper.

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CTV embarrasses itself

CTV called it “A Conversation with the Prime Minister.” I have a few alternate names for the program. How about: A Cure for Insomnia? Or even better: An Hour of My Time Wasted. Just a few weeks after my return from India where I noted the toughness and preparedness of the Indian interviewers and hosts, CTV has managed to make my point better than I ever could. Robert Fife, CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief, and Lloyd Robertson, the soon to be former anchor of CTV National News hosted a snooze-fest with the Prime Minister at Christmas.

Stephen Harper rarely makes himself available to journalists and has continuously shown his disdain for them during his time in office. So, when the opportunity arrives to grill the man it must be taken seriously. This has not been an easy year for our P.M. At a time when the Leader of the Opposition is proving to be a difficult if not impossible choice for most Canadians and Jack Layton is losing ground, Stephen Harper has managed to lose support. We can argue back and forth about why Harper can’t find the votes to secure a majority. We can even disagree about some questionable political moves like getting rid of the long gun registry and playing politics with the census, but there is no question that there are an abundance of issues to tackle when you get a chance to interview the Prime Minister. CTV missed that boat…they had a ticket, but couldn’t make the departure time.

For an hour Fife and Robertson lobbed softballs at Stephen Harper and the P.M. in turn batted them out of the park. In the first section on the economy Harper said his government was doing a great job. He even mentioned that “the deficit continues to fall.” I don’t know what universe the Prime Minister lives in but it is clear from his own Finance Minister that the government debt is still expanding and the Canadian economy has slowed to a crawl. Flaherty has even had to extend measures to support spending and job creation. Yet there was not a single rebuttal, not a query about the pronouncements. Hello! Robert, Lloyd, time to wake up.

The interview continued in the same way through the second segment on Canada’s relationship with the U.S. and the “Continental Security Perimeter.” Whatever Harper said was accepted at face value; never a follow up, not even a difficult question. When the P.M. was asked whether there was a chance the government could fall on the issue his answer was, “I don’t go around making threats.” Perhaps a question about past Harper behavior might have been in order here. Never happened.

To be fair, Fife did try to ask a few tough questions about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Are we supporting a crooked regime? Isn’t the Taliban getting stronger? Are we wasting our troops and our money on a war we cannot succeed at? These are old questions that Harper can easily handle and in any case, they were not followed up on. It’s not good enough to ask the tough question, you must then question the answer if you have information that doesn’t jibe with the answers you are getting. Either Fife and Robertson didn’t do their homework or they chose to give Harper a relatively free ride.

The interview with Harper ended with a series of questions about the possibility of an election in 2011. This was the most egregious portion of the program. On several occasions Harper talked about an “opposition coalition.” He made it seem like the NDP, Liberals and Bloc were in cahoots to bring down his government. He went out of his way to question any deals that included those nasty separatists in the Bloc Quebecois. Was this not the perfect opportunity to finally question, among other things, Harper’s past working with the Bloc when he was in opposition and his attempts to unite the opposition parties at that time? Hey, and what’s wrong with a coalition? It is a perfectly legal tool used in the parliamentary system. I might have mentioned that Great Britain is currently being ruled by a coalition government. Harper has railed on-and-on about the terrible possibility of a coalition government. He always seems to make it sound illegal or at least un-parliamentary. It is neither, and a good interviewer should not allow him to get away with the characterization. Heck a poor interviewer should catch this one.

Okay, so those are the things that were actually discussed. This interview was more disheartening for the issues that were never brought up. Stephen Harper was never asked to explain his government’s stand on the Canadian census. The long gun registry was not used as ammunition for debate, but for me there were three issues that demanded tough questions and an effort to get real explanations. Why is Canada now rated last of the industrialized powers in dealing with the environment? Canada’s handling of that issue has embarrassed Canadians of all political stripes.

Nobody in the federal government has been asked to explain the fiasco that was the G-8 and G-20. The huge waste of money for which there has been no explanation. The choice of downtown Toronto as a venue. The disappearance of civil rights. Harper has a lot to answer for here. He can’t answer if he is not asked to.

Finally, the government’s Middle East policies. Whether you agree or disagree with Harper, you have to ask the questions. Is the P.M.’s support for Israel counterproductive in getting a deal between Israel and the Palestinians? I think President Obama would think so. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it sure makes it ripe for questioning, especially after Harper went on at length about better relations with our American partners.

By now you get the point. I hated the interview for the waste of an important opportunity and for, in the end, contributing to Canadians lack of interest in politics. It was beyond boring, it was just plain bad. CTV News and Robert Fife should be embarrassed. Lloyd Robertson was never an interviewer of any note and shouldn’t have been there. Let us all hope that when Lisa Laflamme, a real journalist, takes over the anchor position and when the new news bosses settle in at CTV that abominations like this one can be avoided.

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A National Failure

What Fadden said to Peter Mansbridge about foreign influence: (from the CBC News website)
“We just don’t keep information to ourselves. In the case of the couple of cabinet ministers we are in process of discussing with the centre how are going to inform those provinces.
“Question: The centre being?
“Answer: Sorry, the Privy Council Office. The prime minister’s department. We are trying to get a sense of how we would best let them know that there may be a problem. I am making this comment because I think it’s a real danger that people are, be totally oblivious to this kind of issue.”

Richard Fadden’s appearance on CBC’s The National this week has caused a huge uproar. That’s as it should be. The director of CSIS cannot and should not declare that certain unnamed politicians and bureaucrats are under foreign influence unless he is prepared to name names. It doesn’t take a sage to understand that pointing fingers at anonymous politicians with ties to foreign powers taints all of the ethnic elected officials in Canada. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you come from the tactic smells an awful lot like McCarthyism or Soviet era pronouncements in Russia. What Fadden did on television this week does not have a place in what we consider a free and democratic society. The fact that he blurted out his comments before informing his bosses at the Privy Council and Parliament makes the whole affair more than questionable, it crosses the line into a dirty smear campaign.

Of course the timing, on the eve of the G-8 and G-20 summits, just after the Air India Terrorism Report and in the middle of the federal government doing all it can to hide its complicity in torture in Afghanistan is fodder for every cynic and conspiracy theorist. I have read that Harper put Fadden up to it to relieve the pressure on him, to change the subject of Canadian discourse. I have also read that Fadden and the CBC conspired to make Harper look bad with the Chinese and other foreign leaders arriving on Canadian soil. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I believe it was self aggrandizement and incompetence that led Richard Fadden down this poorly thought out path. He was trying to impress Peter Mansbridge and the people of Canada with his work and his knowledge.

As far as Richard Fadden is concerned there is only one course of action that is acceptable: fire the man. Get him out of CSIS and the government as soon as possible. I would have done it before the summit meetings, but just after will have to do.

So far the media have done an excellent job of going after Richard Fadden and his unsubstantiated statements. But they have missed another important story that should have come out of this affair: the CBC’s complicity in allowing Fadden to do his dirty work.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I have been a fan of Brian Stewart. I have been impressed with his journalism for decades. Not this time Brian.

Brian’s second documentary on CSIS this week gave an unhindered platform and left unquestioned the tarring of every ethnic politician and bureaucrat in Canada with the brush of serving foreign masters. It’s not good enough to ask the questions. A journalist must hear the responses and react to them. Stewart had to respond to Fadden by asking him to name the provincial cabinet ministers and municipal politicians who are serving foreign powers. He had to tell Fadden, on air, that he is tainting all without regard for the reputations of the innocent. He had to get Fadden to name the “5 or 6” countries recruiting Canadians. Without doing so China, Iran, India and Israel become obvious targets. Some of these countries may be guilty, but some may not. General statements pointing fingers at unnamed countries does sound like CBC is taking on the role of Pravda.

Peter Mansbridge followed up with his interview with Richard Fadden and sort of asked the questions. He did it with a big smile on his face and never pressed the issue. Peter then allowed Fadden to report that CSIS has actually monitored the politicians in question. Fadden said he has seen a shift in policy from these people. Yet Peter never asked why he didn’t report this to his superiors and why the Provincial Premiers involved had never been informed. Finally Peter went along with Fadden’s charge that foreign governments were using their diasporas to recruit and to affect changes in Canadian policy. Again, allowing Fadden to cast suspicion on every Canadian who was not born in this country. In places like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver that is more than half the population.

I believe that Stewart and Mansbridge were so caught up in the scoop, the fact that they got the CSIS director to commit to an interview and they were given access to CSIS that they forgot their role as journalists who must try to answer the question why have we got access? Why is Fadden saying this stuff to us? What is the CBC’s role in publishing damaging and unsubstantiated charges leveled at unnamed people and groups? A little more work. A little more digging. Maybe waiting until they could come up with some answers to these questions was necessary before rushing this content to air.

Here’s what a couple of CBC viewers had to say on CBC’s own website:

Bard29 wrote: What makes me laugh about the stupidity of this episode is that there are about 43,000 students from the People’s Republic of China in Canada, and all 43,000 of these are potential friends of Canada within China in the future. Instead of recognizing the benefit of this to Canada, paranoid idiots within this country (notably the supporters of Fadden) are throwing away the golden goose for fear that one of its eggs might be rotten.

Wake up and smell the coffee. I know many Chinese students and I haven’t met a rotten one yet.

Ouroboros wrote: What sort of disingenuous crap is this?? I can’t believe that someone of Brian Stewart’s stature is offering a half-assed excuse for why and how the interview aired.

Very clearly, both CSIS and the CBC knew the content of the interview. If they didn’t know they were playing with political dynamite – especially during the G conventions – they should all be fired.

Please, Brian, don’t be a dupe for whomever put you up to writing such fatuous drivel.

I find myself agreeing with Bard29 and Ourboros. This was not The National’s finest moment. The scoop has turned into what should be an embarrassment for all concerned.

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Where’s the Scandal?

Woe Canada. Here we are in the midst of what should be the biggest political scandal since Jean Chretien and some of his buddies tried to woo the Quebec populace over to the federalist side with prime ministerial golf balls, oh yes, and tens of millions of the taxpayers’ hard earned dollars spent on untendered and questionable advertising contracts going to friends of the Quebec branch of the federal Liberal Party; yet there is an amazing lack of journalism going on.

Of course I’m talking about the billions of taxpayers’ hard earned dollars spent on pork disguised as the G-8 and G-20 summits.

To be fair the Leader of the Opposition has completely disappeared after a few poorly chosen questions in Parliament. Jack “I never met a camera I didn’t like” Layton has been un-Jack like on the massive government waste, saying very little and being heard even less. So why should I expect Canada’s media to take up the cause?

How about, because it’s their job?

CTV, CBC and Global have shown an amazing disinterest in the obvious pork barreling and huge waste of money. They have mostly limited their coverage to Question Period in the House and a few scrums. The Globe and Mail thinks coverage ought to consist of the odd story about security. The Toronto Star has been the best media outlet so far. They headlined stories about the road to nowhere in cottage country and the major airport fix-up to an air strip that will not be used by the summiteers but even they seem to be looking away from the waste as the summits approach and focusing on profiles of the leaders of our summit partners.

Everybody’s main focus of the coverage of the summits has been the security details, the fences that surround a large portion of downtown Toronto and Huntsville, the street closings and the charges and counter-charges from the protesters and the police about what each of the groups is preparing in order to greet our foreign visitors. There have been the inevitable think pieces and op-ed deconstruction of summits past and what they accomplished. University profs are cashing in pondering the usefulness and possible success or failure of this summit. Heck, Global TV is even doing a story on the legacy of the summit on the Muskoka region, who knew the G-8 was about helping out Ontario’s lagging tourist industry? This may be good public service information but it misses the point for all but a few Canadians who live and work in the fenced off parts of Toronto and Muskoka or are macro-economists and historians.

Canadians want to know about the fake lake, but as a symbol of the money being thrown away. Yes, the fake lake is a national, no international, joke and it truly is a waste of 56,000 dollars but it is such a small part of that waste. I still do not know how the government of Canada is going to spend over a billion dollars to do what the United States did in Pittsburgh last year for $30 million and what the British did two years ago in London, a much more difficult city to secure than Toronto, for a mere $50 million.

It would seem to me that these questions should be the fodder and the lifeblood of everyone who calls him or herself a journalist in Canada. So far we have not seen or heard of any of the investigation and the resulting reportage that I for one, expected from our fourth estate. Until now we’ve got the obvious. Tony Clement’s riding being the recipient of millions of dollars of summit cash for fake summit projects to beautify towns that are nowhere near where the world leaders will be. Mr. Clement won his riding by a mere 38 votes in the last election so Prime Minister Harper is buying him enough votes to get re-elected in the next election. But even that is a drop in the bucket of the over a billion dollars. Do the fences cost that much? Is police overtime the issue? Are the transportation and hotel costs of police from across Canada driving up the cost? Why isn’t the army being used more? I don’t think we have to pay them overtime. Why are the costs more than twenty times more than in London? Where is the money going? Are there partisan political connections to where the dollars are being spent?

These are the kinds of questions Canadians are asking and not getting the answers to. From coast to coast citizens are asking how a government that preaches belt tightening can throw away billions on a five day palaver about the world economy. Yes it is Stephen Harper’s job to explain, but when he doesn’t it is a journalist’s job to poke and pry and get to the bottom of what is all too clearly a boondoggle.

For those people in the PMO and the folks behind Canada’s new right wing news and talk channel who claim a left wing media bias I say look at the coverage of the summits: the Tory Prime Minister and Tony Clement are getting away with a big one and the mainstream media have been giving them a pass.

Is it because of summer holidays? Is CBC’s investigative unit tanning at the lake? Are the CTV reporters still tired from Olympic torch relay? Is Global so caught up in their sale they have no time to actually cover major events? Where’s “Canada’s national newspaper”?

I am embarrassed by the lack of strong, relevant coverage. How about you?

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Looking for Bias

Over the past several weeks the CBC has once again come under fire from Conservative politicians and conservative rabble rousers for their perceived bias. This has been a regular occurrence for decades. I was with The Journal when Brian Mulroney became Prime Minister and quickly began attacking the CBC. He hired a former CTV newsman and executive to look into the pro-Liberal leanings of the staff and management of the national broadcaster. Since there was never any action that resulted from the inquiry I have to guess that the powers in Ottawa could not find what they were looking for.

At the time I had only been at CBC for a short time and I was surprised by what I had found. I too believed there was a liberal bias, that is, until I arrived and started working with the CBC. Sure there were Liberal and NDP supporters on staff. There were also many Conservative supporters working at The National and The Journal. And guess what, the conservatives were actually the people in power, the decision makers. Barbara Frum would never admit to it, but she was always pushing the conservative viewpoint. In fact she would call her husband, a devout Conservative, and ask his advice before most political interviews. I never asked Mark Starowicz who he voted for but he always struck me as leaning to the right. There were similar stories at The National. As any reasonable person should suspect, there are people of all political stripes working throughout the media and all we should care about is there ability to do their jobs as professionals, not who they may vote for if an election were held today.

More to the point though, I was generally impressed with the fact that the stories that got to air were not particularly affected by any personal bias of the reporters, producers and writers. The staff were, in fact, professionals who were attempting to get their stories right with no time for the political games that politicians or fanatical viewers want to perceive. There have been the odd exceptions but those exceptions have popped up on all the networks and on all sides of the stories.

Now along comes Stephen Harper and his hatchet man Doug Finley along with Conservative Party President John Walsh to renew the CBC bashing when the going gets a little tough for his party. I suppose attacking the CBC might make a few people ignore Afghanistan and Guergisgate, but I suspect that CBC news has slipped far enough from the consciousness of Canadians that the ploy won’t do the Tories any good.

The Harperite attacks should have been ignored by the brass at the “corpse.” They were not. In fact CBC management has over-reacted big time. The CBC’s defensiveness will do more harm to their cause than anything the Harper minions could accomplish themselves.

The first big response was President Hubert Lacroix commissioning a study. How Canadian. Lacroix announced that a team of outside experts would conduct an independent review of its news gathering and delivery. How’s that for a vote of confidence in your staff? The results are due in the fall. How does one measure such things? If the CBC covers Helena Guegis are they being anti-Tory? What about covering a Liberal policy conference? Is that pro-Liberal? It’s a mugs game that will provide the answers that Hubert Lacroix wants or needs. If he needs an excuse to hammer his people into being easy on Harper, the panel will find a pro-Liberal bias. If he wants to back his peeps, guess what? There will be no bias at all. I can’t imagine anyone accepting the results of the study unless it agrees with their preconceived notions.

For 25 years in news I was called too far left by conservatives and too right wing by liberals. I always considered this a badge of honor. Nobody likes the coverage when they are dealing with a negative story about themselves. In the case of Parliament, the party in power always takes more hits than the opposition. Heck, they are making the policy and thus they are open to criticism. Lacroix should understand this and not respond in any other way than to show confidence in and watch the backs of his professional team of journalists. Any other response only leads to more charges and the growing of the story.

Unfortunately the CBC did not stop at a study. In response to the charges that CBC is using a Liberal pollster, Frank Graves, someone at the CBC went really overboard and opened the corporation to far more questions from both within and without. They went out and hired former Harper aide Kory Teneycke just weeks after he left the PMO. Inquiring minds have a question about Kory Teneycke’s new job…NDP MP Charlie Angus’s question to the Ombudsman was how CBC justifies hiring him when there is supposed to be a 2 year “cooling off” period. This is indeed the question that is raised most with the people I know.

But there is another question…who exactly hired him? Nobody I spoke to at CBC ever heard of one person being hired on what we can only presume is one contract to do a multitude of appearances on SEVERAL different programs. Did all the news and current affairs producers just happen to get together and try to entice him to accept such a deal. The ones I spoke to had not been contacted about the hiring. Or, as seems more likely, did CBC management hire him, and then proceed to ram him down the throats of CBC executive producers? Once upon a time, program producers decided who would be guests on their programs.

The CBC is being run by “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” Every move they make seems to result in another hole in their feet. If Hubert Lacroix really wants to fix the CBC he should begin with a long and hard look both in the mirror and at the folks running the place and leave the politics to the politicians.

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Battle of the Blades

When I first heard about it I thought it was one of the truly dumbest ideas for a new television show that had ever been contemplated. A bunch of rough and tumble former hockey players lacing on figure skates and pairing with some of Canada’s best female pairs skaters, who thought this would be a good idea? Only the CBC could come up with this concept and allow it to get to air.

Guess what? I was wrong. I hesitatingly tuned in to what I expected to be massive disaster. Perhaps I even subconsciously wanted it to fail. I used to like to think I knew a good idea from a bad one. But I was hooked. Not only is Battle of the Blades a well produced and conceived TV show, it is utterly charming entertainment that both men and women can love and most of all, and this is what the CBC and the producers deserve the most credit for, it is the first originally Canadian reality show. Battle of the Blades may even be the first truly original Canadian TV show.

For those of you who didn’t tune in on Sunday night I will describe the show. Half-a-dozen former National Hockey League players, from goons like Tie Domi to pretty boys like Ron Duguay, are teamed up with some of the best female “pairs” skaters this country has produced. They train for a “LIVE” free skate together and their performances are judged by a panel that includes two great Canadian figure skating stars, Sandra Bezic and Dick Button and a third judge that will change every week, in this case it was former L.A. Kings goaltender Kelly Hrudey. Of course there’s the great build-up with lots of pictures of the hockey players falling over their toe picks and dropping the women in practice sessions. All this beautifully sets up the expectation of disaster. Finally we come to the time to perform and a glitzy, beautifully lit set has been created at Maple Leaf Gardens with a live audience on hand to lend atmosphere to the proceedings.

As it turns out almost all the hockey players do very well. Ron Duguay in fact, looks like he could have been a great figure skater had he not been a very good hockey player. Sure most of the artistic skating was performed by the women, but the men, except for Bob Probert, the former Chicago Black Hawk fighter, did not look out of place.

It was a truly riveting hour of TV. Yes, many watched to see the men fall or the possibility of a train wreck, but what every viewer got was not disappointing: they were entertained.

Where the show sparkled was in its down home Canadian charm. This was not a program that attempted to be anything that it wasn’t. There was no pretense. It was a bunch of jocks, regular guys, Canadians having a great time doing the unexpected. The female skaters seemed to enjoy it as much as the hockey players. The charm of the characters continually shone through. In the end I found myself liking each and every one of the skaters.

Donald Button was perfect as both a judge and a personality. He made it fun by being willing criticize as well as praise.

The only negative I could find was Ron MacLean. Is it me or is MacLean becoming so predictable with his bad puns and dry humour that I prefer to turn off anything he is involved with. A few years back I wondered why CBC was giving him a hard time when his contract was up. Now I think it’s time for Ron to hang up the mic and for CBC to find another sports host.

When Battle of the Blades comes back next year, and based on the great ratings for week one I’m sure it will be back, I would like to see a few more hockey stars like Ron Duguay and Tie Domi, guys who are showmen; hockey players who are happy to display their infectious enthusiasm. Skating ability is secondary on this show, having fun is what it is all about. That goes for the audience too.

The TV Tax – An Update
On a very different note, a few weeks ago I would have bet the farm that the CRTC was going to rubber stamp the CTV, Global and CBC request to be paid by cable and satellite companies for distributing their signals. The bogus claims by CTV and Global that this was to save local TV seemed to have some resonance with both the politicians and the people.

Now, after an effective counter attack by the cable and satellite companies it appears the networks might not get their undeserved millions. Polls are showing a vast majority of Canadians are against what is really a new tax on television in Canada. I don’t know if this is the reason but the Harper government has stepped in. They have asked the CRTC to look into how the new charges would affect Canadian TV viewing and how Canadians feel about the new levies.

To me this seems like code for “kill the new tax.” The CRTC is supposed to work arms length from the government but the request by the Conservatives is at worst a delaying tactic and at best a signal to the bureaucrats that they would be making a mistake to give the networks a $50 million windfall for nothing in return.

Stay tuned. We will hear a lot more about this before a decision is made.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ottawa reporters and the “pack” mentality

Canada’s Natural Resources Minister has caused more than a few headaches for her Conservative colleagues in the past few days. First one of her briefing books was left at a CTV News bureau in Ottawa. Then, just when the trouble seemed to blow over, she gets caught on tape badmouthing a fellow cabinet minister and seemingly enjoying the “sexy” medical crisis caused by the Chalk River Reactor shut down.

These events are not what most people expect from their political leaders and they bring up important issues. Too bad for Canadians though, our Parliamentary media are not interested in the important issues. As usual our media are interested in the gossip and the political infighting.

Have any Ottawa reporters asked how Lisa Raitt will be able to work with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq after doubting her ability to help solve the medical isotopes crisis?

Furthermore, have they questioned Ms. Raitt on how she let the problem, the lack of medical isotopes, devolve to crisis level if she considered it such a “sexy” issue? What has she and her government been doing since the last time Chalk River had to be shut down in 2007?

I haven’t seen or heard anyone of our Ottawa reporters ask these questions.

There are real issues that affect real people at play here. Put yourself in the place a cancer patient waiting for radiation  and wondering whether there will isotopes available for your therapy.

So far the only things noticed by the media in Ottawa is the fight over whether Lisa Raitt will keep her job and how this will affect Stephen Harper and his government.

Okay, so this is not a major scandal, or at least it shouldn’t be, but it does allow me an intro into one of my biggest pet peeves about Canadian media: our Ottawa bureaus are so caught up in the horse race, who is ahead in the polls, to run the country that they seldom cover what’s important in the stories that come out of Parliament.

For instance, I don’t care how the budget will affect the Conservatives’ election prospects, I want to know how it’s going to affect my budget and my life.

I don’t care what the Liberal leadership change means in the polls, I want to know what Michael Ignatieff intends to do with his leadership and what his plans are for the country if he should become Prime Minister. Forget that, that would take some work. It’s much easier to follow the polls and report on who is winning today or to cover the political back and forth in Question Period or the scrums on Parliament Hill.

The Ottawa bureaus of all the major media are a captive pack of jackals feeding off the meat the politicos leave out for them. The political parties are vying for your votes, therefore what they plant in the media is meant to either directly help their chances of winning the next election or to hurt the other parties’ chances of winning the next election. It’s not rocket science.

But the Ottawa reporters don’t seem to understand this.  Can it be because they only talk to two kinds of people: politicians and their aides and fellow Ottawa journalists? They don’t seem to notice what the rest of Canada cares about or wants to know. In fact they make Ottawa news very boring to the rest of us. I believe the fact that so few Canadians vote is at least partially due to the wrong-headed pack mentality that’s  exhibited by our Ottawa news people.

When I worked for Global News we did a study of what people wanted to watch in their newscasts and what turned them off. Ottawa news led the list of stories the public did not want to see or hear about. Is this because Ottawa news is inherently boring? I think not. It’s because our Ottawa correspondents make it uninteresting to the general public who are not political junkies who get excited when the latest copy of Hansard arrives in their mail.

I do have a suggestion that will never be followed, I so love a lost cause. Take all the reporters off Parliament Hill. Leave a few camera people and researchers to get quotes from the politicians on the hill. Cover the stories that come out of Ottawa all over Canada. If there’s a new energy bill, let the Calgary and Montreal reporters look at the implications. If there’s a new health bill, let a Vancouver or Toronto journalist look at what it means to the public. When a Minister screws up, as Lisa Raitt did in Halifax, let the Halifax reporter find out what the people of Halifax think the consequences to Ms. Raitt should be and let the health reporter dig into what the fight between the Health Minister and the Natural Resources Minister means to the possibility of getting radiation therapy any time soon in Canadian hospitals. These reporters will not be beholden to the politicians for their stories. They will not know what all the rest of the pack are going to cover and just follow suit. And, they will not be totally plugged into and mesmerized by the latest political polls.

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About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

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