Closed Circuits – a hard-hitting, sardonic exposé – takes the lid off not only broadcasting politics but also how power really works in Canada.
Herschel Hardin charts with impeccable research and passion the history of television politics in Canada up to the licensing of pay-TV in the 1980s. Beginning with the much-heralded establishment of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission two decades earlier, Hardin traces the progress of the television sellout.
He exposes the commission’s captivity to private industry, from its licensing decisions and the abandonment of programming promises by commercial stations through to the battle for control of cablevision and pay-TV, the private trafficking in public property (broadcasting and cable licences), the abuse of advertising by corporations, the commercial exploitation of children, and the refusal to adopt new public broadcasting options.
“The CRTC was not primarily a regulatory agency, it was a diversionary agency,” Herschel writes. The commission obscured from the public the need to expand broadcasting on the public side if it were to meet Canadian broadcasting objectives and diverted attention away from the governments of the day that should have acted accordingly.
Ultimately this provocative book is not about broadcasting policy. It is about the hypocrisy and degeneration of public administration and government. Closed Circuits tells the story of a regulatory agency that refused to regulate while favouring special private interests instead. Evasions and intellectual dishonesty were the commission’s hallmarks. In the process the original hopes for Canadian television were betrayed.
A public-interest lawyer recounted his reading of Closed Circuits: “After finishing a particular chapter I said to myself, ‘It [the CRTC’s evasions and ineptitude] can’t get any worse than this.’ But then I read the next chapter, and it was worse. And I said to myself, ‘It can’t get any worse than this.’ Then I read the chapter after that and the story it told was even worse. And I went through the whole book that way.”
One chapter that didn’t make it into Closed Circuits, for length reasons, was the account of a general critique of regulatory agencies – in this case, U.S. federal agencies – written by Marver Bernstein, a Princeton professor, in the 1950s. The book: Regulating Business by Independent Commission. Bernstein, in his study, describes the different stages that regulatory agencies go through, much like Shakespeare’s seven ages of life. The first stage is the reform stage. Usually reform pressure has led to the creation of the agency to begin with. In this stage, the agency is preoccupied with housekeeping – hiring new people, establishing rules of procedure and cleaning up the way things are done. Then comes maturity, in which the agency becomes fully familiar with the industry it is regulating and a working relationship develops. After that is the third stage: captivity. Each stage is described in detail. Uncannily, the evolution of the CRTC followed the professor’s “stages-in-the-life-of” so exactly that one could imagine his having the commission in mind when he wrote his book, 20 years earlier and in a different country.
Closed Circuits made its reputation first of all as an exposé of the broadcast regulator and of government and secondly as a behind-the-scenes muckraking account of how power works in Ottawa. There is a third dimension to it, however, just as telling – how media coverage of those happenings got the story so badly wrong. A handful of reporters and columnists were shrewd enough not to be misled by the false-front imagery of the day, but the dominant coverage, in its framing – as the book documents - resembled reporting from fantasyland.