I admire enormously Timothy Garton Ash and read carefully what he has to say each week in The Guardian as well as his insightful essays in the New York Review of Books.
In his column last week, Garton Ash implored the BBC to be bolder in his coverage of the European Referendum debate and break away from what he describes as its ” claim and counter-claim” approach.
The BBC in reply to Garton Ash’s criticisms says it will be “informative” as well as ” impartial” in the weeks to come in its news and current affairs programmes dealing with the debate about whether to stay or leave the European Union.
I am more sympathetic to the BBC than Garton Ash appears to be. I think that this is one instance where Garton Ash fails to understand what it’s like to be a senior journalist or news executive inside the BBC or any bona fide public service broadcaster. Garton Ash has clearly never experienced this kind of pressure. He can hold forth in academe or in his columns and reviews without any obligation to be fair, transparent, or held accountable, beyond angry online critical comment or unflattering social media comments.
This pressure-packed period for the BBC reminds me greatly of what I encountered in Canada in 1987 when I was Chief News Editor of CBC Television News. This was during the time that Quebec separatism threatened the break-up of Canada. The prime minister of Canada was a Progressive Conservative named Brian Mulroney. He was also a Quebecer and determined to gain a place in the history books by persuading Quebec to join the other Canadian provinces in agreeing to sign the Canadian constitution. The provinces had signed in 1982 but Quebec and its then separatist government had refused to sign.
We at the CBC and our French language counterpart, the SRC, supposedly enjoyed an “arms-length” relationship with the government of the day. In Canada, however, public service broadcasting was (and is) financed by parliamentary appropriations and commercial revenue derived from television advertising. It was the worst of both worlds. The CBC/SRC was always going cap in hand to the government of the day for more money to enable it to do the high quality of information and entertainment programming that was distinctly Canadian and worthy of public support. But viewers were understandably confused as CBC commercials, especially those airing around the highly rated Hockey Night in Canada sports programming, undermined any attempt to portray ourselves as a lofty public service broadcaster.
It also meant that the media savvy- one might say obsessed- Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, wasn’t afraid of interfering, of calling directly anchormen and senior reporters. And Mulroney’s handlers and henchmen had no hesitation about leaning on the president of the CBC or senior executives.
When Mulroney decided to roll the dice and summon the provincial premiers to a make or break effort to get a new constitutional agreement- what became known as the “Meech Lake Accord- CBC and my TV News Division were under enormous pressure to give it blanket coverage on our new 24-hour all news channels on English and French Television. When told this was our responsibility at the only meeting of its kind in my time at CBC involving senior news executives from both divisions, I asked my boss about what I thought was one of the hallowed principles of daily journalism: namely that you started each day with a blank sheet of paper and decided what merited coverage and earned its way on the running order of news programmes. Not this time I was told: the stakes were too high.
What did happen at Meech Lake and immediately after the accord was reached did have dramatic consequences for the politics of the day and the country’s future as well as for the CBC. In the view of many inside and outside the CBC, our coverage was so exhaustive – even though fiercely independent and often critical- that it appeared to be under the control of the Mulroney government. What happened in the run up and during Meech Lake is engagingly told in a recent book written by a former colleague of mine at CBC, Don Newman. In his “Welcome to the Broadcast,” Newman, whose astute analysis and aggressive interviewing at Meech Lake, helped make him one of the major CBC “Newsworld” stars, helped me turn the clock back to that tense time. He describes how Mulroney himself once called him directly in the middle of a broadcast to give him some inside information.
In the end, Mulroney got his Meech Lake agreement but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Several of the premiers supporting the accord were punished by the voters, and their governments were voted out of office. As Newman tells the story, even after the federal government “scrambled to extend the ratification deadline,” the provinces of Manitoba and then Newfoundland effectively killed it.
The CBC’s perceived performance as a “state” broadcaster as opposed to being an independent public service broadcaster was as disillusioning for some of our viewers as it was disappointing and distasteful for me.
The BBC, as Garton Ash rightly points out, is now trying to fight off a proposal to have a partly government-appointed executive board playing a more activist role including possibly having a say in editorial choices. The BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall said that if this happens it runs the risk of having the BBC considered a state broadcaster.
In the run-up to the European Referendum, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the BBC. We need to cut the BBC some slack and let it continue to show why it is the world’s most admired public service broadcaster.