Celebrating Tommy Douglas, two months too late

Thursday, March 16, 2006

If you tuned into CBC Television on Sunday and Monday at 8:00 pm, you had the opportunity to watch something that the decision-makers at the network thought you were too stupid or gullible to see during the federal election campaign. Yes, our public broadcaster had finally got around to airing Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story.

The two-part mini-series was originally scheduled to air in January, but CBC management put the boots to that plan in early December, just after the federal election campaign got underway. A CBC spokesperson claimed that the network couldn’t let its viewers make up their own minds regarding a program about Tommy Douglas (someone that their viewers had only recently chosen as “The Greatest Canadian”) because it wouldn’t have been fair to people who didn’t like him. “Our goal in any of our election coverage is, of course, to be able to be as fair and balanced as we possibly can, and we work very hard at that. And we were concerned that there would be a perception of partisanship if it ran during the campaign,” she argued.

But, as John Doyle, television critic for The Globe and Mail, noted at the time: “While CBC was ostentatiously postponing The Tommy Douglas Story, it was planning to air a point-of-view documentary called Medicare Schmedicare, a program that pours scorn on our belief in a one-tier medicare system… Those who saw it and were aware that The Tommy Douglas Story had been postponed were understandably outraged. Medicare Schmedicare specifically attacks the legacy of Tommy Douglas. Over footage of Douglas, the voiceover says, ‘We've been swallowing the medicare myth, saluting an emperor who has no clothes.’ The documentary uses Tommy Douglas as a constant touchstone. It refers specifically to Douglas several times to sneer at his legacy and uses images of Douglas numerous times.”

Doyle also argued that “If it aired at any other time, nobody would be truly bothered. It's a TV ‘essay’ that is plainspoken in its skepticism about Tommy Douglas, his principles and his legacy as the father of medicare. Viewers might argue with its theme, but they would not write in the thousands to the president of the CBC. Now they are…. It is beyond me, as it is beyond those who are complaining to the CBC ombudsman, why CBC management would make a point of pushing the true story of Tommy Douglas out of the way during an election campaign while allowing an unbridled attack on Douglas to air.”

In their form response to complaints about the decision to nix the Douglas bio while greenlighting the Douglas attack piece, the CBC again tried to make the case that they were aiming for fairness. “It would be impossible to recount [Douglas’] life without emphasizing his profound commitment to socialism and his belief in the government’s social responsibilities to all Canadians, beliefs which he advocated through the New Democratic Party, first as founder, then as leader and later as an eloquent and outspoken party advocate…. It is our belief that to broadcast a major biographical program series about a man closely identified with one political party and one set of views seven days before the federal election would risk giving the appearance of bias. Rather than take that risk, we decided to postpone the series…. That decision was simply a matter of prudence.”

The letter argued that, in contrast, “Medicare Schmedicare is a current affairs program that offers credible information about ‘two-tiered’ Medicare, one of the central and most controversial issues in recent elections. It is exactly the kind of insightful examination of election issues that Canadians expect of their public broadcaster. While all politicians have declared their fealty to a one-tier system, the documentary exposes a parallel ‘for fee’ medical system already operating in Canada. It talks to those patients who have benefited from it and the doctors and others who have set it up and are quick to defend it. But let me be clear, while it exposes the existence of a “two-tier” system, Medicare Schmedicare most certainly does not advocate such a system.”

Anyone who watched Medicare Schmedicare would have a hard time believing that the program was anything but a biased and poorly argued hatchet job, explicitly designed to make the case for two-tier medicine in Canada. Surely there was a far greater possibility that the votes of CBC viewers would be influenced by this program than there was a likelihood that they would catch “socialist cooties” by watching a biography of “The Greatest Canadian.”

It always amazes me when people accuse the CBC of having a left wing bias (a view that was expressed most recently by Senator – now, yikes, Cabinet minister – Marjory Lebreton during the CBC lockout). It seems to me that the network frequently goes out its way – to ridiculous extremes, in fact – to prove that it does NOT have a left wing bias. This incident is just the latest example.

As Doyle asked back in December, “Just how out of touch can they be? Messing with medicare is messing with the soul of this country. They must know that. As our public broadcaster, funded by taxpayers, CBC has a role as a custodian of tradition – a tradition of excellence, objectivity and depth in reporting. Objectivity is not something that can be formatted to fit your TV screen during an election campaign. Objectivity is not elastic because current CBC management plays with it. Objectivity is not elastic at all. It is, or it isn't.”
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