Like a stopped watch that tells the correct time twice a day, Pierre Poilievre is right about Canada’s ‘public’ broadcaster. CBC is a government-funded media outlet that acts as a state, rather than public, broadcaster in its coverage of Canadian foreign policy.
Recently the extreme right Conservative party leader asked for Twitter to label CBC a “government funded media” outlet. The platform’s new owner Elon Musk complied. While Poilievre’s politics are odious and a billionaire shouldn’t have so much power over a major media platform like Twitter, it’s hard to argue the label is inaccurate. CBC receives the vast majority of its budget from the federal government, and since it doesn’t have a mandatory license fee CBC’s funding fluctuates based on the government of the day. The government also appoints its board of directors (while now Liberal dominated, by the end of Stephen Harper’s mandate almost all CBC board members had donated to the Conservative party).
As I detail in A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation, the CBC has always had close ties to the foreign policy establishment. The public broadcaster’s initial nine-person board included a general (Victor Odlum), colonel (Wilfred Bovey) and foreign policy advisor (Leonard Brockington). The close ties between the public broadcaster and foreign policy decision-makers was reflected in its coverage. In the build-up to World War II, CBC radio commentator George Ferguson angered Prime Minister Mackenzie King by criticizing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Not long thereafter, Ferguson was removed from the air. Three years into WWII, King polled Canadians about reversing his commitment to forsake conscription. As Alain Canuel notes, during the plebiscite CBC “allowed only those in favour of voting yes to present their point of view on the national airwaves.”
External Affairs’ close relations with CBC continued after WWII. For the next 13 years CBC was led by Arnold Davidson Dunton, general manager of the government Wartime Information Board. During these decades CBC provided special nightly broadcasts for External Affairs to distribute to Canadian diplomatic missions abroad and the department’s responsibility for CBC International Service gave External Affairs a formal entry point into the public broadcaster.
CBC International Service (later Radio Canada International) was initially focused on Eastern Bloc countries as part of “the psychological war against communism”, according to External Affairs minister Lester Pearson. Expanding to Latin America and Asia, it ran a program titled the “Canadian Viewpoint on International Events” and responded to criticism of Canada’s international policies. Early on External Affairs was given a copy of the scripts used by commentators and its funding came directly from Foreign Affairs into the 1990s.
During the decades after WWII CBC also had close ties to the military. Throughout the 1950s CBC participated in civil defence tests and its representatives attended National Defence College courses in Kingston. During the horrific US-led 1950–53 Korean War, CBC provided radio recordings to destroyers, Station Radio Maple Leaf and other outlets accessed by Canadian soldiers. In 1956 DND opened Radio Canadian Army Europe in Germany. It was managed by CBC staff on loan to the military and lasted for a decade and half.
The public broadcaster’s ties to the military made it highly deferential, according to Mallory Schwartz in War on the Air: CBC-TV and Canada’s Military, 1952-1992. “When CBC-TV produced programs that raised controversial questions about defence policy, the forces or military history, it did so with considerable care. Caution was partly a result of the special relationship between the CBC and those bodies charged with the defence of Canada.”
CBC worked closely with military PR and even showed military-produced content. A Director of Naval Information proposed the 1958 CBC program Challenge From the Sea while CBC TV broadcast a 38-minute DND and Veterans Affairs supported war commemoration on Remembrance Day 1965. In A Christmas Letter, a Canadian Forces/NFB produced film aired on CBC in 1960, Defence Minister Douglas Harkness notes: “As party to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we are strongly committed to protecting the rights and freedoms of ourselves and our allies. … Canada, through the United Nations, has also accepted the role of peacemaker in the Middle East along the troubled zone between Israel and Egypt; in Asia, where Canada is a member of the Truce Commission in Laos; and now in the Congo, where a new African state struggles to find its way to nationhood. … I am sure we can all agree that the splendid efforts being made by these men and women will help lead to a world at peace with itself.”
CBC’s ties to DND and External Affairs sometimes translated into formal censorship. When External Affairs Undersecretary Norman Robertson learned who the public broadcaster planned to dispatch to cover the United Nations founding conference in mid-1945, the government had the “politically unreliable” individuals sidelined. After broadcasting The Homeless Ones in 1958 Deputy Federal Civil Defence Co-ordinator Major-General George S. Hatton requested the film’s withdrawal from the National Film Board Library and the public broadcaster cancelled its planned rebroadcast. Hatton insisted the CBC clear all content on civil defence with his staff.
In When Television was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1967, Paul Rutherford describes the “suppression” of a report by correspondent “(René) Levesque that Lester Pearson, then minister of external affairs visiting Russia, had been savaged by Soviet leader Khrushchev, because the news reflected badly on the government and on Canada.” During Pearson’s time as prime minister, CBC refused to broadcast Dick Ballentine’s 1964 film “Mr. Pearson”. It was not broadcast until Pearson left office in 1968 and there was a change at the helm of CBC.
In an article detailing Canadian soldiers widespread killing of surrendered Germans in World War I, official military historian Tim Cook points out that much of the evidence of these killings came from interviews the CBC conducted with aging veterans for a 1960s radio series. “Dozens of Canadians testified to the execution of German prisoners,” Cook wrote of the 600 WWI interviews. But “none of these grim accounts found their way into the final 17-hour script.”
Recent record: Haiti, Palestine and Ukraine
The public broadcaster’s independence from DND/Global Affairs has increased over the years. But there is an abundance of evidence demonstrating that its international coverage largely skews towards Ottawa/Washington’s perspective.
In “Covering the coup: Canadian news reporting, journalists, and sources in the 2004 Haiti crisis” CBC reporter Neil Macdonald told York graduate student Isabel Macdonald (no relation) that his most trusted sources for background information in Haiti came from Canadian diplomatic circles, notably the Canadian International Development Agency where his cousins worked. Macdonald also said he consulted the Canadian Ambassador in Port-au-Prince to determine the most credible human rights advocate in Haiti. Ambassador Kenneth Cook directed him to Pierre Espérance, a Canadian-funded supporter of the 2004 coup who fabricated a “massacre” used to justify imprisoning the constitutional prime minister and interior minister. Neil McDonald said the Canadian government was “one of the most authoritative sources on conflict resolution in the world.” According to Isabel McDonald’s summary, the prominent correspondent also said, “it was crazy to imagine Canada would be involved in a coup” and that “Canadian values were incompatible with extreme inequality or race-based hegemony”, which Ottawa’s role in ousting thousands of elected Haitian officials clearly exacerbated.
In recent years the CBC has openly refused to use the word “Palestine”, even apologizing after employing the term during an interview with Joe Sacco, author of a graphic novel titled Palestine. The CBC ombudsperson justified this position partly on the basis that “Global Affairs Canada does NOT use the proper noun ‘Palestine’ in its overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In its coverage of Ukraine over the past 16 months the CBC has acted as little more than NATO stenographer. Just prior to Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion I wrote about senior CBC military writer Murray Brewster, who published a slew of reports in the proceeding weeks portraying Canada/US positively and Russia negatively while failing to report information he’d previously revealed that undercuts the notion that Canada is on the side of angels in the Ukraine crisis. In 2015 Brewster revealed that the protesters (which included the far-right C14) who overthrew elected President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 were stationed in the Canadian embassy in Kyiv for a week. That year Brewster also reported that Canadian soldiers trained neo-Nazi political forces in Ukraine and in 2008 that Canada pushed Ukraine’s adhesion to NATO against Russian, French and German objections. These measures increased tensions, led to war in eastern Ukraine and helped precipitate Russia’s illegal invasion, but when reporting these facts was most politically salient, they became unmentionable at the CBC.
While Poilievre’s position about the CBC flows from an ideological hatred of anything ‘government owned’ and he would heartily endorse the right-wing foreign policy coverage, unfortunately that does not make him wrong about his characterization of Canada’s public broadcaster. The CBC is a government-funded outlet that has generally acted as a propaganda arm of Canadian foreign policy.
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