Men Without Answers, Nation Without Hope: The Electronic Media and the Decline of English Canada (2000)

Speaker:  Daryl Duke

Speaker: Daryl Duke

Can English Canada survive the men who program, manage and own our most influential medium – television? This is the essential question I pose in this year’s Spry Lecture.

Canada itself requires extraordinary action – affirmative action – in order to continue to know itself and define itself in a world dominated by giant multi-media companies. We recognize this fact in French Canada with special cultural and funding initiatives – federal and provincial – put in place to protect and enhance language, culture, broadcasting and film.

English Canada’s culture is today gravely at risk. Its culture may be even more threatened than Quebec’s and may, in fact, require even more – not less – protection and enhancement than that of French Canada.

We have been encouraged to regard English Canada as having a culture little different from that of the Americans. A CBC executive once said to me that it was a common view in Ottawa that the role of English CBC is merely to “augment” the programs English Canadians watch from the United States.

Of course, this is a view long and strongly encouraged by the private broadcasters of English Canada who wish nothing more than to be left alone to fill their evening hours with U.S. shows.

English Canada is now held hostage by a small handful of private broadcasters. Some of them today are in the process of being bought up by even larger Canadian media corporations. BCE’s acquisition of CTV is a prime example. Others, like Canwest Global and Rogers Communications, are owned and controlled by one man or by their family trusts. All of them are lobbying to undo the foreign ownership limits placed on broadcasting by the federal government.

The federal government, through its regulatory arm, the CRTC, has been the compliant hand maiden to this takeover of our country’s broadcasts assets. These few broadcast companies are now in the position to be the power brokers of our future media opportunities. Just as they are today the gatekeepers through which we receive our entertainment and information.

This process of consolidation, increased centralized control and accelerated commercialism has had a tremendous impact on our public broadcasting system – the CBC. Many public values we have long cherished have been swept aside in the rush to maximize the private control of our air waves.

Have Canadians citizens been well served by this desire of government to give a few large corporations the control of our media? Or have we been made the unwilling victims of a state endorsed media coup?

The Nobel prize winning poet, Czeslaw Milosz, wrote, “What is poetry which does not save nations or people?”

We could well ask, “What is television which does not save nations or people?”

In our country there is no greater, no more urgent debate that we could have than one about the media. In English Canada such debate does not exist. The silence is almost total. The public is virtually excluded from considering the actions of the corporations and government agencies which rule broadcasting and which today are changing the essential nature of our society. In this year’s Spry lecture I consider these questions – and the fundamental one – is our citizen based democracy enhanced or destroyed by what is happening across the board in the electronic media?

In the religions of India, particularly that of the Jains, there is a figure called a “Tirtankara.” A “Tirtankara” is one who helps man cross the ocean of existence.

Graham Spry, the man whose life and work we honor in these lectures, was such a person. By his life-long dedication to public discourse he helped Canada, this small and fragile country, survive. He helped us, a society, cross the ocean of existence.

Graham Spry worked to make sure Canadians had access to our airwaves and that on these airwaves we were treated as citizens, not simply as consumers and the objects of commercial interests.

It is often said that people like Graham Spry are no longer needed in our country. We are told that the times have moved on, that there is something almost quaint in fussing about the public’s rights in this era of a multi-channel digital universe. It is thought that Spry’s concerns have no place in this glossy new media world absorbed as it is with “convergence”, “the need to globalize”, “the need for Canada to be a world player”, and “the need for Canadian business to face the challenge of the internet”.

Graham Spry, I am sure, would have known immediately that these very terms are too often “con job” words, terms used by our large Canadian media companies to avoid the obligation to our spirit, to the vision of our people, to our diverse cultures and to civilization itself.

Here is what Spry wrote to M.J. Caldwell in 1961, “It is surely outrageous that we should turn over 75 per cent of the Canadian audience to sheer profit making, primarily for the purpose of selling American cars, cosmetics, cigarettes and detergents and that the money-makers will be under no obligation to serve educational purposes, help remote areas, or do anything that will not add to their profits.”

Spry’s words could have been made to any recent hearing of the CRTC as Canada’s large media companies went about assembling the almost total ownership and control of our society’s broadcast assets.

Today public broadcast culture faces its most ferocious challenge. The triumphalism of the New World Order is everywhere. Press releases announce almost daily the wonders of the information age. Though his network runs almost nothing but American shows, Leonard Asper, the new president of Canwest Global, tells us that there has never been such diversity on the air. Government ministers bask in the glow of each new communications venture. Though Heritage Minister Sheila Copps sits in the cabinet of Jean Chretien’s government, a cabinet which gutted the CBC with massive budget cuts, who has not seen Copps’s beaming face in the front row of every award show telecast from Toronto? We are told over and over again we have never had it so good. But have we?

If today’s communications world is a banquet, why do we leave the table feeling so hungry? If this is the promised time of plenty, why do we have that emptiness in the heart as we turn off the TV and climb the stairs wearily to our beds? Why do we sense something personal, direct, life-giving has been stolen from us? Or that our diversity of races, languages and cultures, our music, our past, our peoples in all their pain, glory and victory, the faces and voices of our cities, the sense of our very own sky and sea, have all been taken from us? Why do we feel, as the country and western song suggests, that we are “standing in the river, dying of thirst?”

I have spent long periods of time away from Canada. A year in China directing, “Tai-Pan.” Over a year on “The Thorn Birds.” My work has taken me to Myanmar and Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt and Yugoslavia. I’ve had an office in a bungalow on the lot at Universal Studios in L.A. and a thirtieth floor corner office among the towers of New York working for the ABC network. I’ve filmed in the stately homes of England and in the cotton fields of Alabama. Yet each time I returned to Canada in recent years it would be with an increasing sense of foreboding, even of gloom.

On the plane back I would ask the stewardess for a copy of the Globe and Mail or the Vancouver Sun. Often I found myself reluctant to open their pages. Where I had just witnessed countries where it was obvious the media were heavily controlled, I nonetheless saw societies of great definition, where even in the midst of trouble and repression, there had been joy of character and culture, an exuberance of spirit which made life’s journey seem a profound one.

To open the pages of the Globe, to see once again Peter Mansbridge and the news, another episode of “The Road to Avonlea,” or a private station flogging yet another cheap formula drama such as “The Outer Limits” and calling it Canadian content was to see a country increasingly estranged from itself, increasingly boring itself to death. It was as though the Canadian broadcast system had given up any ambition to do “great things.” That the men who ran it had no answers. That we were becoming a nation without hope. Canadian shows were little watched. The CBC’s audiences numbers were in steep decline. And every new licence handed out to a Canadian private broadcaster seemed only to increase the viewing of U.S. programs.

I found myself wanting to come back and give English Canada a new script. I wanted to tell my country of so much potential that the old script had been shot too many times and was stale beyond all belief. Quebec, French Canada, seemed to have its scenario in place. It knew it was a distinct society. It respected its artists, its variety performers were stars, its movies and theaters alive with loyal audiences.

It seems English Canada lives a kind of state sanctioned lie. Its people are not reflected in the world of its media – either public or private. There is in English Canada a desperate need of a new master narrative, a new set of myths by which to live, to dream and project our life into the future. While constantly exhorted to “go global” by its political and business leaders, English Canada’s diverse population is global. But this is a fact all but ignored by the media in our society.

I found it difficult over recent times to meet a young person who ever watched CBC programs. Certainly my sons – all in their twenties and thirties – never did. Nor did any of my friends. CBC audiences in English Canada were dipping below ten per cent. With contemptible abandon the Liberal government of Jean Chretien had forced the CBC to humiliate itself, ridding its ranks from coast to coast of its brightest and its best.

And with all the richness of our own country, with all the wonders of the world’s literature and music, all the cultures of the continents at hand, English Canada, on the private side, had put its TV in the hands media moguls who couldn’t think past simulcasting “The Jerry Springer Show” and or mounting Canadian produced duplicates of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Is it any wonder in English Canada I encountered more and more what I could only call an “emptiness of the heart?”

I had seen Canadian TV get its start, doing the first TV show for the CBC in Vancouver almost half a century ago. Now fifty years later it had come to this. Despite all the hardware, the studios with their cameras, the control rooms with their millions of dollars of snazzy equipment, despite the satellites in the sky, the armies of TV and film crews stretching from coast to coast, the weekend conferences of entertainment lawyers, accountants and network development officers, despite all the investment from federal and provincial governments and all the tax benefits which yearly flow to private corporations, the English Canadian broadcast system has at its heart three dominant features: censorship, racism and an absolutely mind numbing lack of innovation.

These three corrosive aspects of Canadian TV – racism, censorship and lack of innovation – are woven together like three strands of a single strong rope and strangle the essential reality of English Canada. The reasons for them are many. A search for them will conclude my lecture to the Spry Foundation.

Transcript : Men Without Answers, Nation Without Hope: The Electronic Media and the Decline of English Canada (2000)