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Using Radio & TV to Enhance Civil Society

Apr 30, 2005

Remarks by Ian Morrison to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's Caribbean and Canadian Regional Conference, Savannah Hotel, Bridgetown, Barbados

First off, I want to thank Elizabeth and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association – as well as our Barbadian hosts – for this invitation to participate and to learn from this conference. To us Canadians, the Commonwealth is a very important link, a window on the world apart from our ubiquitous ties with our very large neighbour to the south. A Canadian Prime Minister once said that the Americans are our best friends, whether we like it or not.

For me the Commonwealth had a special personal impact when I was fortunate enough, much earlier in my life, to benefit from the generosity of British philanthropists who organized a residence for graduate students known as London House. Some of you may know it – on Mecklenburg Square. In the 1960s, I lived there for a year while studying at the London School of Economics.
London House was organized to thank Commonwealth countries for their support to the UK during the Second World War. Its trustees held to a very broad definition of “Commonwealth”. They included “former Commonwealth” countries, so that South African and American students were included. I’ve always wondered when the United States would re-join the Commonwealth.

As a Canadian, I am very conscious of the longstanding and deep roots of collaboration and common interest between Canada and the Caribbean. In the city where I live, Toronto, were it not for my fellow Canadians of Caribbean origin, English would be a minority language!

Also, a brief word about Barbados. One of my best Barbadian friends was the late Dame Nita Barrow. I’m sure many of you knew Nita. I first met her in Paris when she was elected President of the International Council for Adult Education in 1982. I was on her Board. At her first meeting, she took one look around the table – and the disproportionate numbers of male faces – paused, and said: “Things are going to change!”

At a Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in Vancouver five years later, which she attended as Barbados’ UN Ambassador, she was my “spy” in the room. You see, I had worked with some others to place a full-page advertisement in our national newspaper calling on our then Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, to take action on the problem of adult illiteracy in Canada. Nita reported that she heard more than one Commonwealth leader approach Mulroney and say: “Brian, I see you have a literacy problem in Canada.” It worked! In the election campaign of the following year, Mulroney announced a National Literacy Program. Because of Nita, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Barbados.

Although much of this conference is rooted in very concrete ideas, this session is focusing on normative values. It reminds me of an off-hand remark by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who once said: “I am here to discuss principles. I will not dispute the facts.”

In a workshop where I presented with Elizabeth more than a year ago in Rousseau’s home town, Geneva, UNESCO took a stab at expressing the value of public broadcasting: “neither commercial nor state-controlled, public broadcasting’s raison d’être is to offer a public service, a public space where all citizens are welcome and considered equals. In developing countries, public service broadcasting has a key mission in promoting access to education and culture, developing knowledge and fostering interaction among citizens.” That’s civil society, and I think that goes for so-called developed countries as well. As Barbados’ Deputy Prime Minister Mia Mottley told us yesterday: “Culture is at the heart of development.”

In order for you to understand my comments, I want to tell you something about Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Friends is a watchdog group, supported by 64,000 Canadian families. Our mission is to defend and enhance the quality and quantity of Canadian programming in our audio-visual system. As I mentioned, we Canadians live just to the north of a huge country whose most important export is audio-visual entertainment. That country also has a rather fragile public service broadcasting tradition. Because of our geographic proximity, those of us who are English-speaking have lived for seven decades fully exposed to almost all the outputs of the American system. I note that the Deputy Prime Minister made a similar comment yesterday in reference to Caribbean countries.

We Canadians and our Caribbean sisters and brothers were the first to experience the effects of satellite rain. We Canadians developed a public service broadcaster, the CBC, in the 1930s to create east-west links on a continent where market forces would have developed a south-north system. We have done a pretty good job, on the information side, of creating those east-west links. Just the opposite of the South African experience Ihron Rensberg  described earlier. Where we have fallen down is on the entertainment side, where even today, only 11% of the drama programs we English-speaking Canadians watch are made in Canada. We have also done poorly in local, community-based broadcasting.

In Canada, Friends’ role is to speak from a viewers’ and listeners’ point of view, and to mobilize that viewpoint to counter the weight of vested interests, including not just large commercial interests, but also sometimes even the management of the CBC. I’d like to give you one very recent example of our capacity to influence events.

In our most westerly province, British Columbia, the provincial government announced two years ago that it was going to privatize  BC’s educational public broadcaster, the Knowledge Network.[Footnote 1: In government-speak, they described it as a new “public/private partnership”.]  With others, we fought that idea tooth and nail. We commissioned a public opinion poll that demonstrated that three-quarters of British Columbians wanted the Knowledge Network preserved as a public broadcaster. That poll demonstrated that fully half the supporters of the governing party disagreed with its announced plan.

So, during this past month, in the lead-up to a provincial election which is now underway in British Columbia, we decided to mobilize as much action as we could, to persuade the government to reconsider. We mailed letters to all our 16,000 BC supporters, we created a web-based action centre where they could send a message to the Premier of BC, with copies to their local candidates, and we used broadcast voice mail to reinforce the message with our supporters.

The government, vulnerable to expressed public opinion in a tight election, listened. On Monday, they published their platform for the next four years, and there, buried on page 11, was a statement that they were committed to “maintain and improve The Knowledge Network as B.C.'s educational public broadcasting network”. Of course, we will have to hold them to it if they win re-election, but it was a clear and decisive victory for the value of civil society in British Columbia. That’s just a brief anecdote to give you an idea of what we do. If you want to learn more about the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, I invite you to visit:

http://friends.ca

Neurologists tell us that our brains have two hemispheres, one concerned with information, the other with emotion. Our audio-visual systems mirror our brains, with fact and fiction components. The fictional side builds belonging and identity, while the fact-based side collects, analyses and disseminates information.

We tend to divide our experience into private and public spheres. The private side includes most of our economic activity, our income, for example, our families and our personal development. The public sphere includes our responsibility for our fellow humans, for our communities, for what the Athenians once called the “polis”, from which the concept of politics derives.

In most of our societies, we play the role of “consumers” in our personal lives and “citizens” in our public lives. Economic participation in our societies derives from our personal interests while political participation, or “citizenship” derives from our public interest. And this latter public participation is key to democracy and civil society.

While private, that is, for-profit, broadcasting has a role to play in the public sphere, it is important to recognize that, in essence, the fundamental goal of for-profit broadcasters is to deliver eyeballs (and eardrums) to advertisers. Programming is a means to this end. Public service broadcasters, on the other hand, start with the fundamental goal of delivering programming to citizens, and counting eyeballs is only one means to that end.

Of course, many of our public service broadcasters are hybrids. CBC Television, unlike CBC Radio, derives half its resources from commercial activity. It is therefore not surprising that it displays some of the qualities of the private sector I just mentioned.

I think it goes without saying that “state-controlled” broadcasting has no role in a democratic context. Citizens’ choice in a state-broadcasting environment is to “choose to switch off”. We all have a responsibility to help state broadcasters, where they exist, to transform themselves into public service broadcasters. And where, as we have all witnessed, state broadcasters seek to transform themselves into private broadcasters, we have a roll to play in pointing out the loss to civil society and democracy. It’s important to note the important recent work of Pierre Juneau and Guillaume Chenevière through the World Radio & Television Council in this regard.

Finally, I want to stress the importance of public affairs broadcasting by public service broadcasters. In most of our countries, powerful interests can dominate the news, be they governments or large corporations. It’s usually impossible for less powerful interests to gain equivalent space in news programming. This puts citizens at a disadvantage in trying to analyse what’s happening. Public affairs programming, unlike news, offers a perspective on events of the day and a commentary on the environment in which major events are unfolding. It provides a glimpse behind the headlines, and offers a voice to important, but less powerful interests. In some countries public affairs programming is known as current affairs programming. It enables citizens to understand the context, flavour and significance of events.

Yesterday, there was an exchange between one of our Jamaican colleagues here and CBC Television’s health reporter Maureen Taylor about public education. Maureen responded from a news perspective but I thought the question came from a public affairs or current affairs perspective: getting behind the news.

I suggest, in conclusion, that we should evaluate the health of democracy and civil society in our various societies by measuring the balance between public service and private broadcasting. Where public service broadcasting is weak, it is an indicator of lower participation by citizens in shaping the forces that influence their lives. Along with other measures of democratic participation, such as voter turnout, a strong public service broadcasting system is a buttress and stimulator of civil society, as well as a counter-weight to the natural tendency of governments to age in the direction of autocracy, complacency and corruption.

Thank you.

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Ian Morrison
Spokesperson
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting
200/238 – 131 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON
M5S 1R8
Canada