Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Can the CBC Bridge the Two Solitudes?

Can the CBC Bridge the Two Solitudes?

by David Eaves, public policy expert
Canada's linguistic communities will remain isolated from one another until there's a news broadcast that speaks to all of them.
Peter Mansbridge
Flying home recently I was reminded of an oddity that, in Canada, is now commonplace. After levelling off, the plane’s LCD TV screens popped out of their sockets, slid into place, and on came the CBC news. In English. A familiar face, possibly Peter Mansbridge, started talking about the most recent events from across the country and around the world. Then, as the broadcast wound down, there was the sound of shuffling as some headsets came off and a few went on. Suddenly, the music picked up and this time a French-Canadian woman – whose name eludes me – began reciting the news.

Clearly this is a regular occurrence, but I was dumbfounded. Even a little alarmed. Despite our fretting over Canada’s two solitudes (or with regional divides is it now five?), we’ve nonetheless constructed a CBC that institutionalizes these divisions and ensures they never risk engaging, or even interacting with, one another. This explains why the stories on CBC and Radio-Canada, when they overlap at all, are almost always prioritized differently and contain remarkably distinctive editorial perspectives and emphases.
Watching these two separate broadcasts side by side one cannot help but be struck by a simple, implacable fact: While a diverse media industry is a good thing, not one Canadian media outlet, be it in print, radio or television, endeavours to create a common set of priorities that can simultaneously engage all Canadians. Some may argue that such a task is impossible. Possibly. But if we are always working from different questions, premises, analysis and data sets, how can we reasonable expect to have a shared debate on public policy and politics? With no media identifying, prioritizing and analyzing the country’s collective challenges on behalf of the whole public, is it possible to have dialogue, engagement or even democracy?
Why not air a single broadcast simultaneously in English and in French? When the discussion is in French, subtitle or dub it in English. When it’s in English, sub-title or dub it in French. Let’s hear what French experts at UQAM are thinking. Let’s interview northerners in Inuktitut and subtitle or dub that as well. Moreover, why don’t we unify the editorial boards and compel them to develop a single Canadian news agenda – one that respects and engages regional differences?
This is not a call for renewed efforts at designing 20th-century styled nation-building institutions. It is a call for a CBC that serves as a crucible. A place that endeavours to reflect our country, not by isolating each region from the other, but by reflecting back to us the differences, diversity and divisions that make Canada what it is. A CBC that, on a nightly basis, attempted to weave together a single agenda would never be mistaken as a clone of Global or CTV.
Moreover, it would fill a genuine gap in the Canadian media market. No privately owned news broadcaster would risk this pursuit. Such a project would likely require experimenting with both a new methodology and an effective format for delivering bilingual content. While these are exciting challenges they are also significant unknowns for a project that, although important for a functioning democracy, would probably not yield a financial premium over current broadcasts. This is a classic example of market failure. An important need, necessary for the effective functioning of debate, democracy and citizen engagement, is not being provisioned by the private sector.
This is not to say the task would be easy. But it can be done. Moreover, there has been a demonstrated Canadian desire for such a broadcast. In October 2000 none other than the CBC demonstrated this fact when, for once, it overcame its own linguistic divisions while producing the celebrated, critically acclaimed and much watched series Canada: A People’s History. In the CBC’s own account of the production, senior director of research Gene Allen accurately describes the challenge: “One of the really interesting things about this series has been trying to come up with something that’s going to play in English to an English-speaking audience and is going to play in French to a French-speaking audience.” Isn’t this precisely the challenge Canadians need the CBC to take up every day – not once every other decade?
Disappointingly, this account also reveals how, even among supporters, the idea ran counter to the institution’s culture and operating assumptions. To quote Radio-Canada general news director Claude Saint-Laurent, “For once let’s put the same story on both networks at the same time and let both of our people see the same story.” For once? Why not every day? Why not make “one story, one executive producer, and one team” the rule? This feels like the necessary precondition to getting Canadians to talk to and learn from and about one another.
For Canada to thrive, we need to develop and institutionalize the capacity to engage with one another. The CBC is a natural place to start. With a mandate to reflect Canada and its regions, contribute to shared national consciousness, and be available throughout the country, the goal of engagement sits at the heart of the CBC’s mission. However, it cannot achieve its mission by shying away from difficult discussions created by our diverse histories, languages, and perspectives, especially when it segregates its market by language and region. By producing a single, bilingual, country-wide news broadcast, the CBC could instead learn to model the very behaviours Canadians, and Canada, need to succeed. This means serving as a vehicle which, through respect, understanding and dialogue, differences can be shared, understood and occasionally, even transcended.
David Eaves is a public policy expert and consultant.

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