The Haunting Heritage Committee

By
The Hon. William Findlay Maclean, MP, Independent Conservative, York South, dean of the House of Commons and proprietor of the Toronto World.

Embargoed for 2355 Oct. 31, 2008. Check against delivery. Notes from a speech delivered in the Glenn Gould Theatre, Toronto Broadcast Centre, midnight Oct. 31, 2008.

Thank you for coming here tonight. At this unique time, between Halloween and All Souls when the gates to the spirit world are open, I have the opportunity to appear in the flesh and gave this select audience the benefit of my 34 years as an MP and a lifetime in journalism

So let me begin with the key question.

What is the key audience figure for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?

Answer: 308.

Ah I hear a gasp of recognition, not too hard in the days immediately following a federal election. Yes the most important audience for the CBC is just 308 people, the Members of Parliament.

The current proprietor of what must be called the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (English Language Division) Ltd is one Richard Stursberg. I use the term proprietor in the sense that I used it when I owned the Toronto World and when, in recent days, Conrad Black used it when he ran his newspaper empire.

Of course, there is, in reality, a big difference. My family and I owned the Toronto World. Conrad Black was, for a great deal of the time, the majority stockholder in his newspaper holding companies.

Richard Stursberg may act as if he is the sole proprietor and majority stockholder of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (English Language Division) Ltd. But, in fact, the stockholders are the people of Canada and Mr. Stursberg has to answer to a board of 308 directors, the members of Parliament.

Even when I was alive, the Globe called me the “poorest of businessmen.” Perhaps that is right. Of course the Globe was a rival newspaper. But the Toronto World ran from 1880 to 1921. Forty-one years is not a bad run for a newspaper. As for me being a poor businessman, when it comes to Richard Stursberg, it takes one to know one, and I know that Richard Stursberg is a poor businessman.

For some reason Richard Stursberg thinks he is working for private corporation and that his job is to make a profit the stockholders and as an executive of a private corporation he is entitled to give him self a big bonus. (I’ll give you my speculation why a little later in this talk). And he’s not doing a very good job of making that profit, is he? (Just like all those other executives who got bonuses lately).

Richard Stursberg reports to Parliament, not a board of directors of a privately held joint stock company.

The House of Commons has the one great power in history, going back to the time the Commons chose whether or not to pay for the king’s wars (or his palaces or his mistresses). The power of the purse. In the current case of the CBC, Parliament pays for the Corporation just as it pays for the current war in far off Afghanistan.

So it comes down to this, the management of the CBC has to use the buzz phrase in vogue today, attract and please an audience. As I said that key audience is those 308 members of Parliament.

Now you should know that the ghosts of past members continue to haunt Parliament Hill. And the Commons (or its predecessor assemblies) of the previous century always acts as a watchdog on the current session. So it has come to pass, that the Members of the 11th Parliament elected on Oct. 26, 1908, have that role today.

I still haunt the halls of the centre block. I can tell you that those 308 audience members, English and French, east coast to west coast, Conservative, Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and New Democrat are not pleased with what is happening at the CBC.

I was always a rebel, a backbench Independent Conservative, so I have decided to break with convention by going public, to come out of the closet. Now I must emphasize that in my case, the closet is actually a communications hub in an old winter coat closet just behind the press gallery offices. That is how, unlike some of my honourable and ghostly colleagues, I have access to e-mail and can communicate with Ouimet.

So we have now formed the Haunting Heritage Committee oversight committee to watch over what the living Heritage Committee does in the coming session.

My colleagues from 1908 met in camera to discuss the current state of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (English Language Division) Ltd.

We know that eventually the management will appear before the living Heritage Committee and we have a pretty good idea of what they are going to say, they’re going to bring in ratings numbers, ratings numbers in the big cities and try to fool us with a bunch of PowerPoint charts.

As my esteemed colleague, the Honourable Member for Portage La Prairie, noted, “Richard Stursberg doesn’t know how to count, does he?” (And if anyone should know about counting, it is, of course, Arthur Meighn).

“It seems to me,” says the Honourable Member for Portage La Prairie, “that neither Mr. Stursberg nor Mr. Cruickshank actually read anything on Canada Votes on CBC.ca or bothered to watch At Issue on The National.”

“Ah yes, Canada’s most watched political panel. Are there actually any other political panels on Canadian television?” interjects one honourable member.

“My point is,” Mr. Meighn says—he doesn’t like to be interrupted— “is that everyone knows that the seats in the House of Commons are weighted against the big cities and in favour of the big rural ridings in this wonderful country of ours.

“Now these gentlemen are going to appear before the current committee to tell them and us about their amazing ratings—actually not so wonderful ratings—in major urban markets, while ignoring the rest of Canada. As I said, they can’t count up to 308.”

So we will respond to Stursberg”s PowerPoint by saying—unanimously— that the only ratings number that counts is 308.

This is not to intervene with the CBC’s day-to-day operations. It is to make sure that the CBC follows the mandate it has from us, the Canadian Parliament. And that is not happening in 2008.

The Honourable Member for Muskoka, William Wright (a Conservative), chuckles. “At least in our day, members of Parliament had some respect. Under Trudeau they became trained seals and under Harper they became total nonentities At least in 1908, in committee we could ask significant questions. . My question is: are present honourable members going to have the intestinal fortitude to ask Stursberg and Cruickshank, ‘What has the CBC done for my riding recently?”

All honourable members, “Hear. Hear!”

“These days the local MP can’t get on CBC News, television or radio, unless they’re accused of having a relationship with a biker gang.” says William Wright.

“Maybe each MP should appear in the Commons for Question Period wearing full leather,” quips one honourable member. “Question Period has become as nasty as any gang fight.”

My friend, fellow journalist and a great old soldier, veteran of the Northwest Rebellion, the Honourable Member for New Westminster and a Conservative, James Davis Taylor snorts. “If the MPs are nonentities in some ways it’s their own damned fault, or at least those who were in the Commons for the past two decades. They allowed the private broadcasters to deregulate and give up local news and current affairs on radio.

“Of course, it’s well known that many backbenchers from all sides of the House were supporting the employees during the lockout in 2005, because it was only on CBC that an ordinary MP can get any air time at all. Now all that’s gone, thanks to Stursberg and Cruickshank So every MP has to ask, ‘What’s in it for me,’ to support CBC?’”

“That’s not the point, James,” says the Honourable Member for Kamouraska, Ernest Lapointe, “The CBC and Radio Canada have a mandate from Parliament, from us, the Members, to cover all of Canada, not just profitable big city advertising markets. The management of the English CBC is breaking the law when they concentrate just on Toronto and Vancouver, just like Stephen Harper broke his own election date law.”

Several Conservative members: “Boo and hiss.” Lapointe, of course, is a Liberal.

“The CBC should either follow its mandate or we should sell it,” Wright says.

“Is the Honourable Member smoking some Muskoka weed? Have you looked at the market lately?” Taylor asks. “CanWest is a penny stock, the Star is bleeding red ink, and BCE can’t find a buyer for its media assets. Even if the government wanted to sell the CBC, there wouldn’t be any buyers. If the government wanted to shut down the CBC, with all the other media in trouble, the only source of news would be the Blogging Tories. Of course, maybe that’s what they want.”

Several Conservative members: “Shhh.”

I tell my fellow committee members, “In my view the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has become too American. Richard Stursberg spent his formative years in New York, not the backwoods of Canada. He obviously imagines himself as William Paley of CBS, without Paley’s talent and intelligence. As for John Cruickshank, I think he’s pretending he is Walter Burns, managing editor of The Chicago Herald Examiner.”

“Actually,” Taylor says, “Stursberg is a cross between Andy Hardy and Charles Foster Kane. ‘Hey gang let’s put on a show,’ but you have to find a singer, you know the disastrous singer’s debut in Citizen Kane. Stursberg thinks he’s the grand impresario but in fact he’s a third rate carnie.”

The Honourable Member for Lincoln, Ed Lancaster (Conservative) snorts. “So, why should the taxpayers of my riding pay for the CBC? They call their local newscast ‘Toronto at Six’ and don’t cover the Niagara region at all, yet all the taxpayers of Lincoln riding are paying for the CBC. We’ve lost auto plants and fruit canning plants and have a deep economic crisis in the riding, they didn’t care when the John Deere plant closed, nothing at all is said about on it on the local news. They wouldn’t care unless there was a 20 car pile up on the QEW, and then they would have to confirm whether or not people from Toronto are involved.”

The Honourable Member for Peel, Richard Blain adds, “You’re right Ed, they had this supposed 905 bureau to cover the region but from what I am told don’t have the money and staff to keep it going full time. In fact, Toronto at Six won’t cover anything north of Bloor Street— unless it’s a shooting.”

“Same in the lower mainland,” Taylor says. “Only time they cover New West or the district is if there’s another gang killing.”

“At least they cover you sometimes in New West, they never leave Granville Street to get out in the country.” That’s the Honourable Member for Yale-Caribou, Martin Burell (Conservative), “My riding covers most of northern British Columbia, at least it did in 1908, and I echo my honourable friend from Lincoln. Why should the taxpayers of Yale-Caribou pay for something they’re not getting?”

“When I am back in my riding,” Arthur Meighn says, “I get so angry about that so called CBC Morning News. It’s the Toronto Morning News. Do you think anyone in Portage La Prairie cares about some silly reporter who hasn’t the sense to come out of the rain saying I’m here ‘live’ at the site of some accident on the McDonald Cartier freeway?

Taylor snorts again, “ Arthur, the CBC is paying a lot of taxpayers money to some Americans who think the CBC is the local station in Minneapolis and everyone wants a live, local, late-breaking report on the latest shooting.”

“They never cover Vancouver on the so-called morning show,” Taylor says.

“Well, there is the time difference,” I point out.

“Oh do the taxpayers of Portage or Vancouver get what they pay for later than people in Ontario?” Meighn asks.

Some honourable members: “You bet they do,”

Ernest Lapointe is chair of the committee. “I am afraid, gentleman, time has expired.
Now there has been discussion of what to do and how we could exercise our ghostly influence over the new Heritage Committee. As chair I must rule out of order the motions to fire Richard Stursberg. That violates the arms length relationship between the CBC and the government.

“I must reluctantly also rule out of order the motion to reduce Stursberg’s salary to one dollar a year. I like that one, after all my colleague C. D. Howe and some of Canada’s top business people did work for a dollar a year during the Second World War. But that too is a violation of the arms length relationship”

“The Honourable Member for York South, I believe, has a compromise.”

“Yes Mr. Chairman, The CBC English division has a deficit of $35 million under the leadership of current senior management I therefore move that Mr. Stursberg and his colleagues be made personally responsible for that deficit and that they must repay it themselves.”

Lapointe calls for a vote. “All those in favour say, ‘Aye.’”

“Aye.”

“All opposed. None. Carried unanimously.”

“The next meeting of the Haunting Heritage Committee will take place after the assignment of the new living Heritage Committee,” Lapointe says. “Following tradition, of course, it must be a member of the opposite party that haunts a current member. Now if Peter Kent is appointed to the Heritage Committee, a good move in my view, since it’s about time the committee had someone who knows something about the television industry, it also means that two most qualified ghosts the Honourable Members for York South and New Westminster, are not eligible to haunt the new Honourable Member for Thornill. But we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

“We will also have to choose which member which will haunt the new Heritage Minister, the Honourable Member for Port Moody Westwood Port Coquitlam, James Moore. I am worried about that young man. I doubt if he knows anything about the struggle to keep Canadian culture alive. It is my gut feeling that he has one job, to make the 2010 Olympics a triumph for the Conservative Party and that party is prepared to sacrifice a century of progress to that end.”

The Conservative members of the Haunting Heritage Committee were silent. Long experience in the ghostly hall of the Commons often means partisanship no longer matters.

The meeting was adjourned.

That ladies and gentlemen is my account of the most recent meeting of the Haunting Heritage Committee. Of course, we don’t really have the power to make Stursberg pay the $35 million out of his own pocket. But it would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Oh yes, there will be future reports from the Haunting Heritage Committee.

Thank you. Good night, Happy Halloween.

(The ghost of William Findlay Maclean occupies a communications switchbox in the Centre Block of Parliament just behind the press gallery offices. Or it may just be that William Findlay Maclean is an “Ottawa insider.”)

3 comments:

  1. That is Mr. Anonymous to you!
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 10:10 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Best.

    Post.

    Ever!

  2. Anonymous
    Posted November 12, 2008 at 8:42 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Superb!

    It would be great for RS, the Biz Dev lead and the dynamic duo of CBC Television to be held responsible for their actions.

    But of course why would they ever do that? They just bury dissenting voices and point fingers.

    Isn’t there a nice giant union contract coming due as well? Bear up, kids, it’s going to be a great push to 2010! Cue the bagpipe music!

  3. Anonymous
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 10:05 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    This is so wonderful I nearly wept. Thank you.


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