BACKSTAGE

THE CBC AND “POLITICAL PRESSURE” You can’t see it, but it’s always there

BLAIR FRASER August 1 1959
BACKSTAGE

THE CBC AND “POLITICAL PRESSURE” You can’t see it, but it’s always there

BLAIR FRASER August 1 1959

THE CBC AND “POLITICAL PRESSURE” You can’t see it, but it’s always there

BACKSTAGE

BLAIR FRASER

AT OTTAWA

THERE WAS SOMETHING pathetic about those eager Conservative backbenchers clamoring for “proof” of political pressure on the CBC, like sophomores in Philosophy I trying to prove that the external world exists or that Achilles really can overtake a tortoise. In both cases what’s difficult to prove in logic or law is obvious to common sense. Political pressure on the CBC does exist and always has existed. Like atmospheric pressure, it varies in degree but is always there. Maybe if it were suddenly removed the CBC would get the bends, or blow up and burst like a deep-sea fish brought to the surface.

The question is not whether political pressure exists, but*whether it was properly resisted at the top level.

T here have been capitulations in the past. T wenty-one years ago George V. Ferguson, now editor of the Montreal Star bur then with the Winnipeg Free Press, broadcast some acid remarks about the Chamberlain government in Britain in the months leading up to Munich. He also had things to say about the Spanish Civil W'ar that Roman Catholics didn't like. After some indignant questions in the House of Commons Ferguson was abruptly taken olí the air and the series for which lie had been engaged was continued by someone else. Ferguson didn’t broadcast again for six years, by which time the CBC was under different management.

Even today he has no solid proof of political interference but he knows which l iberal cabinet minister spoke to what CBC authority and ordered him silenced. There was little or no fuss about it at the time. A few weeks ago Ferguson was recalling this incident to

a senior man in the CBC. “It just couldn't happen today,” the CBC man said. "If any politician tried it now and we carried out his orders, there would be a terrific storm.”

Within a matter of days after that conversation events had proved him right. The change didn’t come about by accident. It was won by hard battles in which broadcasting officials, sometimes men virtually unknown to the public, had the courage to put their jobs in jeopardy to defend the principle of public broadcasting. Frank Peers and the thirty-odd people who resigned with him are the latest but not the last in an honorable line.

Sometimes the battle ended in tactical defeat. The late Gen. L. R. LaFleche, who as minister of national war services reported to parliament for the CBC, seemed to think the national broadcasting system was an instrument ot political propaganda under his personal control. Once when he sent orders to the Montreal control room to pull the plug and cut off a broadcast that displeased him. the operator obeyed. The incident later proved useful, as an extreme and outrageous example of political interference, in the CBC's long struggle to convince LaFleche and other politicians (and even some of the CBC’s own then-senior people) that a national broadcasting system is not the tool of the party in power.

Most of the engagements in this long struggle have been victories for the ( BC' and for the principle of public broadcasting, and examples could run into dozens.

There was the time during the last-

but-one recession when C. D. Howe as acting prime minister tried to forbid a planned CBC television program on unemployment. The program was broadcast.

There was Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent’s famous letter to CBC chairman Davidson Dunton, the "personal” complaint about one program and one commentator in particular. The letter has not been published but it’s understood to contain some rather drastic suggestions for CBC program changes. Nothing happened except that the prime minister himself was embarrassed when the public learned about his "personal’’ letter.

In some other cases often cited as proof of successful political interference, no interference in fact took place.

One Sunday afternoon in 1952, Davy Dunton was listening to Capital Report and heard Charles Woodsworth, then editor of the Ottawa Citizen, make a slighting remark about Conservative leader George Drew. Dunton sat down immediately and wrote Drew a personal note of apology, and when this became known some people assumed that there must have been political intervention. There was none. Woodsworth was not disciplined in any way and continued to broadcast for the CBC.

But the most extreme example of forbearance, and the one that does the Liberal government the most credit, was the pipeline debate in 1956. For once radio and television commentators were unanimous on a political issue — the string of regular contributors, carefully chosen to include a "balance” of political opinion, suddenly collapsed into vigorous and violent agreement that

the government’s handling of the pipeline bill was outrageous. Naturally the Liberals were furious and they made no secret of their fury. I can still remember a verbal battle with Jack Pickersgill in somebody else’s house where we embarrassed our hostess by shouting at each other. “If it weren't for you and others like you distorting the news, there’d be no pipeline issue,” said Pickersgill in a voice like a stallion's neigh.

But in all that time of tension the Liberal government never gave any direct orders to the CBC. That’s what CBC men say now when there’s no longer reason for concealment. Their own top brass was nervous enough, kept asking for copies of scripts and for an exact word account of the news coverage given to each party. It was the CBC high command, not the government, that wanted to postpone George Drew’s appearance on Press Conference or else to pledge everyone not to talk about the pipeline issue; when Frank Peers threatened to resign, the program went on as scheduled and without restriction.

Peers is not a temperamental sort; he has often accepted orders to cancel programs when his CBC superiors thought the programs weren't good enough. The thing he will not do, and up to now has not been made to do, is cancel a program simply because it may be politically displeasing to the party in power. In those days nobody ever said, or was reported as saying. “If that program isn't canceled heads will roll."

There is conflicting evidence as to who first used those words and on what authority, but there is no doubt whatever that this was the impression conveyed to CBC producers through the normal chain of command from acting president Ernest Bushnell. And since the heads that might roll were Bushnell’s own. President Alphonse Ouimet’s and Minister George Nowlan’s, the ultimate source clearly implied was Prime Minister Diefenbaker himself. No one else would have power to carry out such a threat: if made by anyone else it would be empty.

One reason why the idea seemed quite plausible to Ottawa observers is that the prime minister’s reaction to press coverage and comment is extremely direct. If he likes an article or a broadcast he often telephones or writes a note to the man who wrote it. If he doesn't like it he doesn’t hesitate to make that known, either. Three reporters whom I could name have been scolded in person by the prime minister for things they wrote, and one hears of other cases as well. They reverberate.

It would not be necessary for the prime minister to speak to Ernest Bushnell directly, or even by formal identifiable message, to convince him that his own and other men’s jobs were in danger.

It was this threat and this threat alone that raised the dispute over Preview Commentary into a major policy crisis. The program itself could be challenged on purely editorial grounds — it was often hastily done, its panel included some men of limited experience, its reception by the public was somewhat mixed.

Had it been ordered off by the CBC management on these grounds, no one would have had reason for serious protest. But when it was ordered off because otherwise “heads would roll," the men who produced it faced a choice between resignation and cowardly surrender. They took the braver course. ★