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Why I Left The CBC And Its Toxic Atmosphere

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Below is the full text of remarks delivered by Linden MacIntyre as part of the Vic One guest lecture series at U of T on Nov. 19, 2014

More than 50 years ago I became a "journalist" by the simple act of riding an elevator to the third floor of an office building in Halifax. I was shown to a desk in the far corner of a large newsroom and presented with the tools of my new trade -- a rotary dial telephone, an ancient typewriter, a massive roll of carbon-separated copy paper, and the largest ashtray that I'd ever seen.

The atmosphere was unique -- the reek of printers' ink and fresh newsprint and cigar smoke (my desk was on the edge of the sports department where everybody seemed to smoke cigars and wear suspenders). And there was noise -- typewriters, people shouting, the clatter of teletype machines, bells ringing, and the regular bang of pneumatic tubes that were the vehicles for delivering copy from the third floor news desk to the composing room upstairs where everything was set in type. By noon that day I was addicted to the atmosphere and I remember someone telling me to go home when I'd over-stayed my shift by a couple of hours.

I wasn't entirely inexperienced. I had attended evening courses at King's College where I learned the basics of journalism -- how to write a lead; the importance of finding the tiny details that reveal the larger more important aspects of the news, the fundamentals of reporting news in radio, television and print. I suppose the most important lesson that I learned in those evening courses was that I definitely wasn't cut out for television.

The revelation came after a hands-on learning session at the local CBC studios, where one of my instructors, a television producer, was deeply amused by my attempt to read a newscast. My presentation skills were okay for a beginner, but the producer told me I had a fatal disability for a broadcaster -- I had an accent that was distinctly regional.

Stay away from microphones, he advised.

I got some slightly more diplomatic guidance -- that turned out to be mostly true -- from a radio producer who told me that I should start out on a newspaper where I'd learn more about reporting in a day than I'd learn on radio or television in a year. In broadcast news I'd basically be rewriting other people's stories to be read on air by better-looking people whose accents had been refined somewhere half way between Halifax and England.

It would be 12 years before I got into television -- by accident it would turn out -- the accident of being fired by a newspaper for what management believed to be an unacceptable streak of editorial independence.

But I never forgot the humbling experience of that evening instruction in a broadcast studio -- being told that I could never make it in a medium that depended on my looks and voice. Even later, when I did find myself in television, and not behind the scenes but actually out front for all to see and hear, I would regularly be described as "idiosyncratic". Happily I've always considered that word to be a compliment -- a synonym, in my mind, for originality which, when I was growing up, was regarded as a virtue even if it meant exclusion from what would be regarded as "mainstream" culture.

I'll get around to explaining why I think this is important and why I owe so much to that TV producer back in the '60s -- who, by the way had a lovely velvet voice and was, I believe, the inspiration for a later character in a satire, a radio announcer named Marvin Mellowbell. In the very early days of what turned into a long career he made me skeptical, if not suspicious, of superficial qualities that contribute to media popularity and, for many, power. And I'll tell you later why I think that power bestowed by celebrity is potentially dangerous -- if you don't already know.

I found myself with a television job in 1976 and it couldn't have happened at a better time -- the early days of an era we now look back on as the high-water mark of television journalism, a time when there was a serious effort to demonstrate that television could deliver journalistic substance with clarity and impact at least as credibly as any newspaper or magazine or book.

A new kind of journalism -- what was known as television current affairs -- would thrive. New programs emerged: The fifth estate, W5, 60 Minutes, Marketplace, The Journal on CBC every night throughout the '80s. These programs and others established television as a major vehicle for what the CBC's mandate would call "information and enlightenment".

Radio was no less vibrant. The programming was powerful -- This Country in the Morning, later to be called Morningside; As It Happens; Sunday Morning, now called Sunday Edition -- they all had a reach that gathered information from around the world, more often than not by sending teams of Canadian reporters to wherever important news was happening -- and delivering it to Canadians with professionalism and production values equal to any in the world.

Times have changed.

The business of journalism is in serious decline. The business model doesn't work anymore but the emphasis on profit is probably even more acute now than it ever was. That and the growth of technology that makes it possible to produce things without people have led to a crisis in employment opportunities in the news media. Young people are lined up begging to become slaves, also known as interns, to work hard without compensation, just for the opportunity to be noticed by a potential employer.

In the private sector, the emphasis on profit margins trumps public service and journalism every time -- and I firmly believe that journalism, whether practiced in the private or public sectors, is an essential public service and should be nurtured for that reason. But as an example of the thinking in the private sector, my friends over at the CTV investigative program W5 learned this fall that, because of sagging profits, seven jobs were being axed and that the program will cut back its episodes from 21 per season to 14.

It is, in a sense, worse in the public sector where I've worked as a CBC journalist for the past 38 years. Canadians decided, through political consensus, 78 years ago that there should be a public sector presence in the airwaves -- a public institution at arms-length from politics where programming reflecting the world to Canadians, and Canadians to one another, could flourish without dependence on the marketplace.

And for a long time it worked out that way. Politicians and the private sector media never liked the CBC because of its independence from political and market influences and its reliance on the public purse. But the institution thrived, became a mainstay of Canadian culture and a world-class delivery system for information.

That started to change in a big way about 40 years ago as a new ideology began to take root in North America. At the essence of this ideology there is a hostility to public institutions based on the belief that market economics are perfectly attuned to people's needs and capable of delivering anything that people want -- from news to transportation to health care. In that time, public institutions came under constant pressure to move out of the way and to let private enterprise, motivated by self-interest and disciplined to efficiency by the need to earn profits, run the system.

I would argue that no public institution in Canada has suffered more from this ideology than the CBC. And one fine day about six months ago, I decided to end a 50-year career in journalism mostly because of what hostile politicians with widespread public acquiescence are doing to destroy the place I worked in.

After a public announcement that there would be another round of job cuts totalling nearly 700 positions, after decades of budget and personnel cuts, I thought maybe it's time for me to make a move. Make room for someone else. And also make a statement to the public, that there are real people affected by these cuts. And to my colleagues at the CBC, where there are about a thousand people who could take their pensions and retire if they wanted to. A thousand positions that could be filled by bright, motivated, sophisticated young people who would bring much needed fresh blood and talent into an organization that has been diminished and dispirited by years and years of political hostility and public apathy.

Something just suddenly clicked in my mind. A kind of an epiphany, if you will. The public sector is under attack which might or might not be a good thing -- but the public doesn't seem to know about it or, if they do, the public doesn't care. Public broadcasters. Public health care providers. People who provide essential services -- we've heard a lot lately about the Mounties, how ill-equipped they are to safely do their work. We're even nickel and diming veterans of our wars. And nobody seems to give a damn.

Weigh this stinginess when it comes to public services against the generosity to private sector businesses -- the policy protection and financial incentives to keep them happy doing what they make a lot of money doing. When we take into account the subsidies to private broadcasters like CTV and Global, and independent television producers, to generate Canadian programming it adds up to the same billion-dollar figure that keeps the CBC afloat.

Fair enough, except the public money by law entitles the public to make programming demands on the CBC -- like providing a variety of services over radio and three television networks, in both official languages and a host of aboriginal dialects. Plus we have to grin and bear it every time some right-winger calls us a "state broadcaster" and throws the billion-dollar funding in our faces. And that billion dollars in public money is, by the way, a pittance compared to what other enlightened countries invest to support their public broadcasters.

Canada is one of the most expensive countries in the world to service because of its cultural diversity and vast geography. I'm using figures that are a few years old, but they still make the important point. Per capita spending by Canadians to support the CBC is a fraction of what other countries spend: $33, compared to $154 in Switzerland, $134 in Germany or $67 in Ireland. Among the 18 western countries that consider a publicly owned broadcaster to be worth a share of public money, we rank sixteenth.

Critics argue that the quality of the service offered by the CBC has deteriorated to the point where it's hard to justify even the measly $33. But it takes us to that old chicken and egg dilemma: which comes first, stingy funding or mediocre programs. I can tell you because I was there for 38 years. The CBC I'm leaving is a shadow of the CBC I joined. In 1976, I joined an institution which was a place for young Canadians to grow and, eventually, contribute to the country in diverse ways. I'm leaving a place where people struggle to survive professionally and, sad to say in many cases -- psychologically and emotionally. The difference can be explained to a very great extent by funding cutbacks driven largely by political hostility which has resulted in a hemorrhage of brains and talent from the corporation.

Since the announcement that sparked my decision to leave the CBC -- the loss of 657 jobs -- 400 more people have received redundancy notices and there will be 400 more positions lost in 2016 and that will not be the end of it, not by a long shot. The active abuse and the passive neglect have been going on for a long time and will continue until politicians get a clear signal from Canadians that a broadcaster dedicated to the service of Canadians is worth supporting.

***

A few months after I started working on a newspaper in 1964, I was assigned to cover Parliament in Ottawa. The parliamentary press gallery: At the time it was one of the plum assignments in the business. I was being sent up there as, essentially, a gofer to work with the correspondent who was one of the senior people on the paper.

I remember the first day, sitting in the gallery above the floor of the House of Commons -- I was so excited that I got a nosebleed and had to be taken to a hospital to get it stopped. And I recall that a constant topic of debate in Ottawa, even then, was the CBC -- its content was too controversial or elitist, its budget was an unnecessary drain on the public purse.

Later, in the '70s and '80s, Pierre Trudeau's hostility toward the CBC took the form of direct interference with the budget and the television schedule with the upshot that the CBC's top news anchor at the time, Peter Kent, publicly spoke out about it and swiftly lost his job. Mulroney, in the early '90s, famously appointed a western hog farmer as minister of culture with responsibility for the CBC.

In the mid-'90s, in a drastic exercise at deficit control, the Chretien government cut the CBC's budget by 25 per cent. Everybody in the public sector took a hit but it was revealing that as economic circumstances turned around, most public services, especially in culture, got their funding back -- but not the CBC.

Chretien didn't like the CBC, I'm told, because, like Trudeau, he saw it as a nest of English-speaking radicals and French-speaking separatists. And in the early days of his career, snobby CBC reporters seemed to think of him as kind of dim, compared to the other bright lights from Quebec -- Marchand, Pelletier, Trudeau. It was payback time in 1995.

And so we arrive at 2006 and Stephen Harper, ideologically hostile to the public sector in general and, in particular, the CBC. Backed up by a party which considers the CBC to be dominated by left-wingers and closet Liberals. Eight years later, oversight of the CBC is by a board of directors made up of people with partisan Conservative credentials and little or no understanding of the ethos or the mission of a public broadcaster like the CBC. So I don't think it overstates the contemporary situation much to say that the CBC -- once one of Canada's most important and successful public institutions -- is on the cusp of a disaster.

But the politicians will respond: there's still nearly a billion dollars flowing into the CBC from the public coffers every year. What's your problem? A billion dollars is a lot of money.

But Canada is a lot of country and Canadians are deeply interested in the world. Covering the cultural, political and social life of Canada and the wider world competently and usefully costs a lot more than a billion dollars a year. And the imperative that keeps senior CBC managers awake at night is how to sustain, with diminishing resources, the public's confidence that what they're getting for the billion bucks is actually competent and relevant. There's a growing uncertainty about the value of the CBC, driven I believe by ideology and envy -- private sector broadcasters basically don't like publicly funded competition even though most of them would be out of business in the absence of public policy and subsidies.

So what do people get that matters from the CBC?

I think there is a broad consensus that the French network, Radio-Canada, is vitally important to the whole country. It is a mainstay of Francophone culture and information and has deep and faithful backing from its audiences.

The English side presents a more ambiguous picture. There is great nostalgia for CBC radio -- people respond viscerally to any perception of diminished programming and quality but the cuts in radio, while less conspicuous than television, are equally damaging. Important programs rely to an unprecedented extent on people with little or no job security and minimal prospects for developing careers.

Needless to say, things are worse in television where production is more expensive and where diminished quality is more conspicuous.

As is often the case in times of existential crisis it becomes a challenge for people running countries or institutions to project the kind of leadership that fosters confidence and morale -- two qualities without which no troubled institution can survive. And so we have the understandable impulse to make small achievements seem large and to go overboard in praising anything that seems to be successful.

When news comes up with a story that's original we tend to hype the originality regardless of the substance or the significance of the story. A genuine success -- like the CBC's incomparable coverage of sports and news -- becomes a defining source of pride when we can afford to do it. Which we can't, much, anymore even though we bravely try.

The popularity of programs and personalities will be always be loudly hailed as evidence of institutional vitality, and never more than when that vitality is in question or illusory. Celebrity, in times of crisis, becomes a crucial part of a façade that masks the deeper problems. Which brings me to a radio program called Q ... and a celebrity named Jian Ghomeshi.

It's never been much of a secret that popularity and celebrity are potentially dangerous because, along with the illusions of success, they foster artificial hierarchies of power and influence. When egotism and narcissism become factors in success we will invariably find abuse. But abuse is often difficult to deal with. Abuse is part of a continuum. At the extreme manifestations of abuse -- say, assault or homicide -- there's no debate: sooner or later, there will be accountability.

But what about the rest of the abusive continuum? Abuse is never acceptable. But we are all programmed to put up with it, to a point, in the interests of avoiding worse -- or in the interests of advancement, or for the sake of economic security. In a workplace rife with insecurity the impulse to tolerate abuse can compel a victim to silently allow it to advance along the continuum into a darker zone where it becomes perilous to mental and emotional well-being and physical security.

The CBC is not unique in the celebration of celebrity -- of fostering celebrity with all the entitlement and power that it bestows -- in order to enhance the prestige of the institution and the reflected fame and reputations of the people with the real power, the managers. But when an institution is in trouble -- with diminished job security in a workforce that is often young and vulnerable -- celebrity, infected as it often is by egotism and narcissism, creates a workplace atmosphere that is toxic for the many people who feel they must put up with it.

And unfortunately, when the abuse continuum results in the kind of behaviour that normal people normally abhor, the normal people in charge of institutions, and who feel responsible for the appearance of institutional success and integrity, will far too often feel inclined to minimize and tolerate, condone -- and in the worst-case scenario -- cover up behaviour that is abusive.

The history of the Catholic Church offers the most tragic evidence of what can happen when the hierarchy in an institution abandon personal moral standards to protect the institution from the stain of scandal and, collaterally of course, protect their own entitlements and jobs.

The CBC is not the Catholic Church. The church hierarchy covered up a scandalous situation for many centuries until isolated cases of perversion and abuse became a plague that eventually threatened to consume the very institution that the systemic cover-up was intended to protect. At the CBC a few managers may have dithered about Jian Ghomeshi, even after they knew some of the gory details of his alleged abusiveness, for a few months. And then they canned him.

But the deeper problem isn't what happened when it seemed to be obvious to management -- especially after Jian laid it out for them -- that the abusiveness on his program and in his personal life had crossed into that dark place where criminal prosecution might be warranted.

The deeper problem lies in the quiet acquiescence to what went on before that -- for years -- not just by managers, but by colleagues, friends, maybe even family. Jian was a celebrity -- a source of pride for Persians, model of success and possible support for aspiring celebrities and stars -- or people who just wanted a shot at a career.

But his popularity, his celebrity, was also evidence of institutional vitality that could be attributed to the quality of management at the corporation. So a celebrity can be obnoxious. What else is new? They are fragile people. Great gifts come embedded in complex and often difficult personas. Ego-driven temper tantrums can easily be attributed to professional standards that are admirably rigorous. Demands for personal service -- get me coffee, park my car, do my laundry -- can become acceptable viewed in the context of the heavy schedules imposed on the important life of a media celebrity.

Year after year, it was no secret at the CBC that Jian Ghomeshi was difficult; that his attitudes and many of his demands made the program, Q, an unpleasant, stressful place to work.

But he was a celebrity and his program was a success, two valuable and increasingly rare assets at the CBC. And so for years good people tolerated what was a dark side of the star persona. This is not unprecedented. As a matter of fact it is more common than not -- I think celebrity in all but exceptional cases of personal integrity and a healthy measure of humility always has a dark side.

But the twilight begins at the point where the lucky star forgets (if he or she ever knew it) that nobody ever achieves celebrity without a lot of help and sacrifice by friends and colleagues. Which is where vigilance must kick in -- and the responsibility for vigilance lies with management. Otherwise twilight becomes darkness where all kinds of bad things happen.

Whatever will be revealed as fact in the Ghomeshi scandal, there are important lessons to be learned about the nature of workplace abuse and the consequences of ignoring it, even at the low end of commonplace bad manners. Instead of tolerating bad behaviour by people who are recognized as "stars," they should be held to a higher standard of professionalism and collegiality. And the standard has to be enforced by managers with the guts to act anytime the standards of collegiality and civility are violated -- no matter how important the abusive person has become.

As in the case of the abusive priests -- when scandalous abuse is known to have crossed over into criminal behaviour, the appropriate response is obvious: Prosecution.

The harder part is coming to terms with the individual and institutional blindness that let "normal" obnoxiousness proceed along the abuse continuum to a place where it became a peril to both individuals and the institution itself. This is where the serious and potentially restorative accountability must begin. And it must include a serious attempt to understand what the Ghomeshi scandal has revealed about the toxicity of celebrity, egotism, narcissism and abuse and their effect on good people working in an institution that's in the middle of a breakdown.

It will now fall to managers not to simply attribute blame for what caused the Ghomeshi scandal -- but to create a workplace environment in which there is zero tolerance for abuse of any kind -- and that for victims of abuse, or even those who know about it second-hand, blowing the whistle on an abuser isn't just a right, but a responsibility.

I worked at the CBC for 38 years. My job was always up-front, on the air whether it was radio or television. For 24 of those years I worked on one of the most successful and well-regarded programs in the corporation's history, The fifth estate. If I had moved down to the States as many of my friends and colleagues did back in the '70s and '80s I might even have become rich and famous notwithstanding all my idiosyncrasies.

In Canada I became "prominent" -- and not so rich. In the States I might have been a star. In Canada I'm just stared at quite a lot. But prominent is good enough for me.

In addition to the television producer who caused me to get my basic journalism training in the world of newspapers, I owe a great deal to a crusty newspaper editor who one night about 40 years ago -- when he was more deeply into his cups than I was into mine -- offered up a simple bit of wisdom that I managed to remember. The most important thing to keep in mind in the course of my career, wherever it might take me, was that nobody -- nobody -- is indispensable. Ever.

That, incidentally, was the boss who a few years later fired me.

Oddly enough, I never got around to thanking him for propelling me into what turned out to be a rewarding journalism career in, of all unlikely places, television. A career throughout which I've never forgotten his all-important guidance: I might become important, prominent, even famous -- even a celebrity -- but never indispensable.

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