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Watching the Watchdog: The Difference Between Public and State Broadcaster

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

So what's all this fuss the lefties are making about Prime Minister Harper trying to keep track of costs at the CBC by writing a few words into the back of his omnibus budget, Bill C-60?

All sorts of people are claiming the words will turn our much-troubled public broadcaster into something called a state broadcaster. Which, they say, would be very bad indeed for our already-fragile Canadian democracy.

But what's the difference between a public broadcaster and a state broadcaster?

I've worked for both. So I can tell you what's the difference.

The public broadcasters to whom I've plighted my troth at different times were PBS in America and CBC in Canada.

For both, I was a news producer and reporter. And for both I led training workshops that focused on improving their storytelling, particularly writing, interviewing, performing, etc.

But running like a powerful river under everything we did and taught at these public broadcasters was the ethics of our craft -- that journalists are in public service and we work for the people, and only the people.

I don't ever recall at either of my public broadcasters any fellow journalist ever suggesting we worked for -- or were in any way accountable to, or could be influenced by -- the ruling party or the government. It never occurred to us.

Life was simple. We worked for the people.

The state broadcaster I worked with was the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), back in 1994. The CBC sent me and fellow journalism trainer Dan David to try to prepare the SABC's TV journalists to cover the first-ever democratic election in their country.

Our job was to help turn the racist, apartheid-serving state broadcaster into a public broadcaster. To try to steer it from fascism to democracy.

Dan David and I (with help from other CBC trainers and some splendid local journalists) spent more than a month in Johannesburg running workshops on democratic journalism and how to do it.


The SABC arranges training room desks and chairs in respectful rows facing our head table. It's like a classroom. Dan David suggests the Mohawk way -- a circle, with everyone equal -- is better.
The mostly white trainees look puzzled but obediently push the desks around until we have a circle.

We ask the group "what do you want out of these training workshops?" They look puzzled. The silence lasts forever. We wait. And slowly, slowly the closed, guarded faces change and people start to talk. First the whites, the senior people, members of the ruling class. Then, much more diffidently, the blacks, the servant class. Mostly, they have questions.

What's the role of the journalist in a democracy? Who decides what the story's about? Who decides how it's told? Are journalists in a democracy free to report what they actually see and hear? Can they write stories critical of the government and the rich and powerful? What happens to journalists in a democracy if their bosses don't like their stories? Where should journalists' loyalties lie?

The SABC journalists complain about foreign journalists who despise them as government lackeys, so won't talk to them, drink with them, or share lights on location shoots.

They explain that civil service-style job security is far more important to them than the journalism itself. As long as they do what they're told and don't argue, they've got lifetime jobs with great pensions.

It works this way -- the Nationalist ruling party politicians tell SABC managers who tell SABC producers who tell SABC editors who tell SABC reporters what to cover and how to cover it.

They report what they're told to report. They don't have to see and think for themselves. So they're not responsible for their stories.

The devil makes them do it.

By the time we get to Johannesburg, however, these SABC journalists know the racist apartheid regime is dying. The black-majority African National Congress under Nelson Mandela will almost certainly take power within months.

We tell the journalists they have to make a choice.

They can stay secure. They can try to keep their jobs by doing what they think the new ANC government will want. That way they'll remain servants of the state. Just serve different masters.

Or they can risk their jobs by behaving like real journalists, honestly reporting what they see, hear and believe to be the truth. And what it means. That way, they'll be servants of the people.

We tell them the whole world is watching. That as journalists they either guard the free marketplace of ideas, or they poison it. We tell them free and honest journalism is the shining jewel of democracy. Without it, there can be no democracy.

We tell them that they're either whores for the state or servants of the people. There's no middle ground. They have to make a choice.

We tell them the reward for making the honorable choice -- giving up job security to serve the people -- is something of great value. We tell them it's the only way they'll be able to respect themselves as journalists. It's the only way foreign journalists will respect them.

We tell them the price is worth paying.

It's easy for visiting Canadians to say.


Some assessments written after the workshops by SABC journalists, white and black:

Journalists are (now) workers for the people, not the state.

It has awakened in me that part of a journalist which is perhaps the most important -- the right and ability to question.

I am now going to do all in my power to do my best, to try my hardest and in that way serve my corporation and most importantly my country.

I felt privileged to be treated as an honourable journalist.

It was really powerful stuff. It unleashed feeling and needs which had been tucked away. Perhaps because that was the only way to survive in the SABC.

It was a fantastic experience and I learned so very much.

I found the course tremendously exciting and challenging.

The course gave me my very first opportunity to practice democracy in the SABC. THANK YOU SO MUCH.


A few days later, just before Dan David and I fly back to Canada, SABC news chief Christo Kritzinger -- a notoriously loyal lackey of the apartheid government -- hands me a note:

Journalism is indeed a cause.

And our loyalty is to the people.

The most honest of all professions.

Thank you for reminding us.

St. John was right.

The Truth Shall Make You Free.


Now you know a little about what happens inside state broadcasters.

Now you know why there's all this fuss about Bill C-60.

Is this what you want for the CBC?

For ten years Knight was executive producer, CBC TV Journalism Training. For five years he was consultant to PBS journalism training. Parts of this blog are adapted from Knight's book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, available through Amazon and Lulu.