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The story behind the book
Except for individual study purposes, no print-outs or copies are to be made without the express written permission of the author.
|When I established the Association for Public Broadcasting in British Columbia
(APBBC) in 1972 to fight the licensing of new commercial television and to promote publicly
financed, non-commercial television instead, I thought I had no illusions about the
Canadian Radio-Television Commission, which made the licensing decisions. I knew the commission was a problem. Their licensing of Global Television in Ontario - the event which had pushed me into becoming involved - made no sense at all.
Al Bruner, the promoter behind Global was a marketing man. He had also, in his
time, been a vocalist and had once sung radio commercials in Detroit. He had made all
kinds of glowing promises about Canadian programming, or at least quasi-Canadian
programming, but then so had the CTV stations, which had failed to do what they had
promised and were now, in effect, refusing to do it. The assumption was that the CRTC
was nevertheless going to hold Global to the mark, but given that it had so miserably
struck out with the CTV stations, why should it expect to do any better with Global?
Besides - and this was the key point - licensing Global was simply wrong-headed. Private television stations depended financially on American programming and packed it into the peak evening hours when most people were watching. Even with Canadian content rules, they were basically American stations, much like stations in Cincinnati or Sacramento, with news and sports around the edges. Station owners didn't care about Canadian programming. They were interested in making as much money as possible and, if they had the muscle, using that money to buy other stations to make more money and have more business power. All this hinged on American content. Private television in Canada was a cynical, mercenary, comprador business, diametrically at odds with the Broadcasting Act, and everyone who had knocked about the scene, of course, knew it. This made the CRTC's licensing of Global all the more cockamamy.
So our group was going to take on the CRTC. The only practical way to expand Canadian television was through additional publicly-financed television. This was obvious, too, when one thought it through, but there was an ideological taboo against it, and nobody in Ottawa or elsewhere, it seemed, dared say it. We were going to say it. I was also intent on defending the Canadian public-broadcasting culture, that I had written about in A Nation Unaware. I didn't want television to turn out the way radio
had, with a proliferation of private stations and with the CBC pushed into a corner. If
public broadcasting was going to do what it was meant to do, it had to have a broad
presence in the country. If one accepted the notion that commercial broadcasting should take over whatever territory it could manage and leave public broadcasting only with what was left, it was game over.
I had kept my eye on this same debate in Britain, where the BBC had fought hard to be awarded the third channel and had succeeded. The licensing of Global, and the request for similar applications in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, caught me by surprise because it was so impractical. I had no idea it was even being considered; the CRTC hadn't bothered asking people in western Canada what they thought of the idea. I said to myself, "If you really believe in public broadcasting, now is the time to take a stand." If I let this development pass, it would be too late.
My aim was to generate debate. There wasn't much hope of changing the CRTC's mind, and given that Ottawa wouldn't even give the CBC sufficient funds, there was little chance in the short term of its financing a second channel as well. We could, however, make the case and get a discussion going. I envisaged the campaign would take something like six months, after which, the licence hearings being over, I would return to my own work. Habituated to my anarchistic freelance existence, I didn't think twice about giving up that time and income.
We first met in an old church building being used by West Vancouver municipality as a community meeting space. I had telephoned around and about 30 people showed up. People in those days still related to what we did together as Canadians. Because of the CBC, the idea of Canadian public broadcasting meant something to them - was part of how they identified themselves. We ran the organization literally out of a shoebox: Our secretary, Barbara Gordon, the actress who played Agiluk in Esker Mike and his Wife, Agiluk, kept the membership cards and minutes in a shoebox in her closet. A lawyer with Shrum, Liddle, Hebenton, a major downtown law firm, was at the meeting and agreed to work for us on a pro bono basis. Another lawyer at the meeting also agreed to help out. The latter was adamant that we couldn't have an organization with any status if we used somebody's residential address. We had to rent a post office box downtown. When I showed up a couple of days later with a crude but serviceable letterhead, complete with the downtown post office box on the address line, everyone, even the worldly wise lawyer, was impressed. I hadn't done anything like this before, so his compliment about this trivial bit of business reassured me.
A column by Jack Scott, a well-known and much-loved B.C. journalist, in the Victoria Times, then generated a Victoria membership for us. I subsequently spoke at a meeting in the Victoria Art Gallery. We also managed a sprinkling of active members in places like Nanaimo, Courtenay-Comox, Abbotsford and Castlegar. We pasted together Scott's column, some newspaper headlines, a bit of copy, and a membership form, creating a primitive leaflet.
I also drafted a policy statement. It was more than just a comment on the licensing round. It made the case for public broadcasting at large - that publicly financed broadcasting should be the norm in Canada rather than the exception. It looked on broadcasting not as something that pandered to an audience in order to increase numbers - one American radio-chain owner had insisted that his radio stations should be treated no differently than service stations - but as something that had a dynamic relationship to its community. Its impact on people and on how they lived together was important. Broadcasting should have a public-service ethic. It should aim for a large audience but also should not cynically exploit that audience. This was the original BBC public-service ethic: "to make good things popular and popular things good."
The policy statement also attacked the waste and propaganda of commercials - in effect, attacked the commercial financing of television generally. I began referring to commercials as "vendors' propaganda," to make the point. Eliminating commercials and their huge overheads was reason enough to expand on the public side, we argued. We called for independent consumer and environmental information instead.
With the help of others in our working group, I then set out to build a coalition. We had no model for this; it just seemed the logical thing to do. By the time we were finished, we had the backing of the consumer and environmental movements, elements of the arts community, the First Nations, the labour and credit union movements, and others. Our attack on commercials was a key part of my discussions with consumer and environmental activists. We also put our arguments to the arts community. We were intent on their not being cynically co-opted by the applicants. One of the syndicates applying for the Vancouver licence was led by Stanley Burke, a former CBC national news anchor, who was attempting to procure such endorsements. Whenever we heard he was talking to some group, we made our own contact with them. We filled them in on what was at stake. In the arts community the public-broadcasting ethos, because of the CBC, had powerful resonance. Through an Edmonton contact, I also managed to pull together a small local group to fight the new Edmonton licence (the licence hearing for Winnipeg had been delayed). By the time the hearings approached, we were receiving some favourable newspaper ink. A few other groups opposing the new commercial licences had also joined the fray.
The first hearing was in Edmonton, for the Edmonton licence. I was struck at how artificial the hearing was. There was a surprisingly small crowd, and the applicants were sterile, banal, and carefully rehearsed - not surprising, since any escape of spontaneity, like admitting they just wanted to make money from the licence, was sure to damn them. Their mercenary eagerness was covered over by a streak of Edmonton jingoism. The room seemed to echo, "Our suits are just as good as Toronto suits, and probably better," and the wary, obliging commission, as the day proceeded, not wanting to be accused of Central Canadian imperialism, seemed to echo back, "We respect your suits, oh, yes, we know they are important suits, rest assured."
Our side at the hearing, on the other hand, was treated as a well-meaning but inconvenient nuisance. My Edmonton friends were cautious and tentative in their presentation, as if the room or the culture of Edmonton itself didn't allow them to make a blunt anti-conventional argument. I had no such compunction. I was intent on getting beyond the commission's pretences and superficiality to what was really happening, and not letting the commissioners off the hook. I attacked the commission. Harry Boyle, a folksy former CBC radio hand who was vice-chair, riposted. Where was the money for a publicly financed alternative going to come from, he wanted to know. Wouldn't the CBC use up any spare money the federal government might deign to provide? I tried shrugging the question off. He was missing the point. The commission itself needed to stop the folly of what it was doing and look at the public-broadcasting options instead. One of the applicants for the licence was fronted by Tommy Banks, a popular local jazz pianist. Their application, an attempt at slickness, was a puffed-up pile of junk, but it was clear from the accommodating way the commission dealt with them that they were going to be given the licence. After the hearing was over, I inadvertently intruded on a
television-camera set-up for Banks and Boyle. Boyle glared at me. I was supposed to
get out of the way.
The Vancouver hearing which followed a few days later was almost the opposite of the one in Edmonton. It showed how different Vancouver was from Edmonton in those days - how different it was from any other city in the world, for that matter. There was a huge crowd - in the Pacific Ballroom at the Vancouver Hotel - and, like spectators at a Roman circus, they expected to be entertained. After all, television licences were licences to print money, so it was assumed, and it had been a long time since such a grand prize had been handed out. The room ricocheted with cynicism. The journalists were gaily cynical. The hangers-on were casually, in-the-know cynical. Interested citizens were instinctively cynical.
The applicants included Dawson Construction, a large construction company, and Jimmy Pattison who owned, among other things, radio station CJOR. They had about them the image of neanderthal, philistine, make-a-buck opportunists, which they were, yet television was supposed to be about programming, drama, creativity, and journalism. In politically lively Vancouver, unlike Edmonton, this juxtaposition invited jocularity and disrespect. Pattison hadn't yet had his image makeover. CRTC chair Pierre Juneau had the reputation of being philosophical and intellectually sharp, Boyle of being down-to-
earth and wise, so the crowd was looking forward to seeing how the different applicants
would contend, much as if they were about to witness a public execution. Allan
Fotheringham, writing in the Vancouver Sun, had a field day. "Lord Lambton through a
transom wouldn't draw half the crowd... Seeing the mighty grovel has always ranked up
there with bear-baiting and so the SRO conditions. Man is cruel."
The applicants ran true to form. They were embarrassing, or at least embarrassing
if one expected cultural imagination. Their real problem was that they were too
straightforward to sufficiently dissimulate, and Vancouver was too grown-up and worldly-
wise for the nouveau-riche boosterism the commission had been fed in Edmonton.
Neighbourhood Radio, one of the constituent groups that were to become Vancouver Co-operative Radio, presented a pretaped radio satire of a savvy applicant concocting ways of pulling the wool over the commission's eyes. The group argued that any new stations should be co-operatively owned. Video Inn, a video library organization, presented a live cabaret-style satire of the token public-service programming being offered. Metro Media, a community video producer, talked about the incompatibility of commercial operation with community purpose. The Consumer Action League, one of the APBBC's backers, attacked commercials. George Ryga (The Ecstasy of Rita Joe) didn't appear, but had sent in a blistering written submission on the applications and what the CRTC was doing. (I had helped George edit his submission, sitting on a bed one morning in his room at the Grosvenor Hotel, while he was in transit from Summerland to Toronto on a television project. I had spent most of our time together trying to convince him to tone down his language. His original was even more caustic.) The APBBC, on home ground, brought a full contingent of officers to the table. The debate had advanced to the point where even the Vancouver Sun's television critic, Lisa Hobbs, wondered in print whether any commercial broadcaster should get the licence.
The CRTC ended up denying all of the applications. The applicants hadn't lived up to Vancouver's potential, the decision said. Word leaked out from Harry Boyle that it mostly had to do with an excursion the commission had made on the Sunday, the day before the hearing took place. Boyle had taken the commissioners on a drive around Vancouver to show them what a unique place it was. Unlike many spring days in the rain forest, the sun was shining. The impact on commissioners' minds of this spectacular day in scenic Vancouver was conducive to making a bold decision. Presumably if it had been raining that Sunday, an uninspired commission would have awarded the licence.
The CRTC's decision carefully avoided mention of the public-broadcasting versus commercial-broadcasting question that was at the heart of the opposition to the licence. It was as if it had never come up at the hearing and didn't count anyway. The commission also avoided mention of information hearings on the public-broadcasting options, which the APBBC had recommended. It did, however, provide a temporary reprieve, at least for one city. We decided to keep the APBBC going. We opened an office and began publishing a newsletter. The newsletter was produced by volunteers, using Gestetner stencils, like underground Samizdat in the Soviet Union. I began finding out just how hypocritical and evasive the CRTC was, for we did find a separate funding source for new non-commercial television and ended up in an extended battle against the CRTC, which blocked us every step of the way.
The funding source was cable. It required neither new legislation, government funding, nor fund-raising campaigns. It was separate from the CBC. It provided for a regular, assured cash flow. It was also financially efficient: Unlike financing by commercials, with its huge, wasteful overheads, the allocation of an increment of cable revenue to fund a new channel involved only a bookkeeping entry. Most of all, it made Canadian sense. The CRTC kept whining about cable: that it was a monster flooding the country with American programming. Using it to finance a new Canadian channel would turn that monster on its head. As I was to write later, "it was right there in front of everybody's eyes, if only somebody, somewhere, had reason to see it."
We put forward the idea to the CRTC in ever-increasing detail, in interventions, as the commission continued on its commercial licensing round - Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary. The commission declined to discuss it or even mention the matter in their decisions. Their staff, meanwhile, shilly-shallied about whether it could be done. We forwarded a legal opinion confirming its feasability. This made no difference to them. We became all the more intent on intercepting the commission before a second hearing for the Vancouver licence took place. We stubbornly pushed the matter through to their executive committee - the full-time voting members of the commission - asking for a public hearing on the concept. Bringing the matter out into the open in this way was the only way of pinning the commission down. Their executive committee killed off the proposal at an in-camera business session and refused to give reasons. The commission then held a second Vancouver hearing and pushed through a licence, although opposition this time was even greater than it had been initially.
Pierre Juneau and Harry Boyle had been treated by the national media, that is the
central-Canadian media, as nationalist Canadian heroes and tough defenders of the public interest. For us, that superficial image had already crumbled. I had known since the counter-productive licensing of Global that the image had been a phoney one. Just how phoney had now sunk in. Juneau, Boyle and their commission were captive to the industry they were supposed to regulate. The two men themselves looked increasingly like ciphers. As long as nobody challenged them from the public-interest side - and their
phoney image helped them on that score - they could get away with it. When such a
challenge occurred, however, they became increasingly evasive and intellectually
dishonest. Since we were the ones making the challenge, we saw it happen close up. It
was like watching the dignified faces of wax statues melt under heat.
So the commission, and not the cynical applicants and licensees, were the main opposition, yet we were appearing before the commission. They were defence counsel, judge and jury all at the same time. It was as Kafkaesque a situation as one could invent. We would joke about how to handle it. I was on the board of the Canadian Broadcasting League, an organization headquartered in Ottawa, which supported the CBC, and I was close to some of the people in the organization from Ontario. They preferred to be gentle and diplomatic with the CRTC. "If you keep attacking them," they said, "they'll stop listening to you." "That's true," I would reply, "but they don't listen to you, either, so we might as well have the satisfaction of calling a spade a spade, and enjoy the battle." At least our talking frankly about what was happening, out in the open, added to the public discussion.
I wrote the copy for the APBBC Newsletter, reporting the details. It was the easiest journalistic job in the world. We were exposing hypocrisy, evasion, phoniness, stupidity and manipulation, and the CRTC provided us with endless copy and plenty of room for sardonic jabs. We upgraded the newsletter by adding headlines in larger type. This involved putting each headline together with Letraset - pressing individual letters off a transparent sheet onto paper and trying to get them in more or less a straight line - and then electro-cutting the stencil, with headlines, copy and all. It worked. We had an extended mailing list. Given the newsletter's dubious reproduction qualities and its serious subject matter - one had to be interested to read it - a lot of copies must have been thrown out, but we didn't think of that at the time.
We were about as grassroots an organization as one could get, cranking out the newsletter pages on the ink-laden Gestetner contraption and then collating the pages around a table, stapling them, folding, stapling shut, and affixing stamps. I even had our kids helping us. I would dump the boxes of newsletters personally in the drive-in mailbox of the main post office, to expedite delivery. I spoke wherever I could - high-
school classes, public meetings, radio shows. Public speaking engagements didn't always work out the way one expected. On one occasion I was to appear at the University of British Columbia at lunch hour, the usual time for visiting speakers. We had booked the auditorium for it. A few days before the event, we received a request to surrender the auditorium to another event hurriedly scheduled for the same time. Since our notices had already been posted, we declined. The other event turned out to be the appearance of a famous anti-fascist Greek politician living in exile in the United States: Andreas Papendreou. Everybody flocked to see him. He spoke in a room in the Buchanan Building, a classroom complex. The relatively small space was jam-packed, with the huge crowd spilling out into the hall. Back in the auditorium, meanwhile, listening to some marginally known character from something called the Association for Public Broadcasting in British Columbia, there were just seven people. "Seven people are better than nothing," I told myself. One of the seven became our treasurer, a position we always had trouble filling. The meeting had been worth it.
I had become more involved than I had ever imagined, or wanted to, but there was no help for it. I knew too much. It was impossible simply to sit back and let the CRTC get away with what it was getting away with. We continued our skirmishes with them and they continued their obfuscation. They even tried to keep us out of a national hearing on cable policy.
We still, however, had one last strategic option. If the commission wouldn't consider, much less licence, a new channel using a slice of cable revenue, we would go for the cable licences themselves when they expired and capture not only the ability to create the channel but also the hugely excessive profit margin the current licensees were taking from subscribers' pockets. We had a model for it: the pioneering Campbell River TV Association, a 5,000 household, subscriber-owned cable system in Campbell River on Vancouver Island.
This became our main focus now: subscriber-owned cable and a new, professionally produced, non-commercial channel financed by the extra resources it would make available. I became attached to the concept because it involved a whole new level of democratic ownership. Viewers themselves would govern the new channel. I worked on filling out the idea. The ultimate objective was a national channel. The schedule would be shared by viewer-governed organizations in each province. Schematically, the British Columbia organization would have, say, Monday night, Alberta, Tuesday night, and so on. There was a full-fledged model for this too: the Netherlands broadcasting system, where all of radio and television was operated by viewer-membership organizations, sharing schedules and the public financing available according to the number of members in each association.
In the Netherlands, these associations were based largely on different political and religious views, except for a new organization - still a viewer-membership one - that wanted more popular entertainment and which soon established a place for itself. The rationale behind the Dutch system - to allow for diverse, representative governance - triggered other reflections. Breaking up the dominant newspaper chains would be a good thing, but if all the newspapers were in the hands of right-wing owners - or left-wing owners, if one could imagine it - we wouldn't be that much ahead. They would still reflect the same general view, as did the mass media in the United States. There had been a breakthrough in Canada: the creation of the CBC, which was much more open and diverse than the American networks and Canadian newspapers. Even the CBC, however, reflected its Central-Canadian base and way of looking at things, including the way southern Ontario conceived of Canada. This was perfectly natural: a network has to have its headquarters somewhere and Toronto was the logical place for the CBC's first channel.
The CBC, moreover, was no match for the weight of the rest of the media. No single media outlet, even the CBC, could maintain mainstream credibility if it was always off to the side of the other media. To maintain that credibility, it would gradually conform to the way the other media framed the news, regardless of the other media's bias. The BBC was to run into the same problem, in Britain, in the 1980s. If, on the other hand, there were more diversity in other media ownership, the freer the CBC itself would be.
I coined a phrase catching the idea: "The more differing governing structures there are, the freer are all of the media." The key to differing governing structures was different sources of financing. Accordingly, we didn't want any cable money allocated to the CBC or private companies, whose governing structures were tied to other funding sources or ownership. We should use cable revenue to create a new governing structure instead. Anything else would be a waste of the opportunity that cable-financed programming offered. Inspired by the Netherlands example, where even a small organization could have a piece of a national television or radio schedule, we also talked about a slot in our proposed membership-governed channel given over, separately, to journalists, governed by themselves and with a completely free hand.
In the same vein, while we favoured a CBC-2, we wanted it to be operated at arms length from CBC-1 and above all to have its headquarters in western Canada. We similarly pushed for a new federated, non-commercial network run, on a shared basis, by provincial public-broadcasting companies.
As we talked about the idea, I realized something else: A membership-governed structure, by involving citizens at large in grassroots ownership and control, would generate a critical mass of people coming to grips with questions of media ownership and the challenges of Canadian program production. I had the growing feeling that, without that, any hope for a genuinely Canadian broadcasting system was doomed. Organizations like ours or the Canadian Broadcasting League couldn't do it. We were far too small and were dependent on grants. We had no leverage except for our idealism, and that idealism couldn't be sustained indefinitely. A membership-governed operating organization, however, would have actual programming, national distribution and cash flow to fuel involvement and debate.
That was the concept. It all depended on subscriber-ownership of local cable licences which, given everything we knew, was going to to be a difficult uphill battle. Our even attempting it would be quixotic, but quixotism was in the nature of fighting the commission.
I held a meeting of our Vancouver members to see if they were interested. A large group showed up. I explained what we were facing. We would file an application for the Vancouver cable licence, then in the hands of Premier Cablevision, when it expired. The commission, which told us it would refuse a competing application for an area that had previously been licensed, would send the application back. We would then take the commission to court. Radio frequencies, after all, were public property, and the licences were for fixed periods and did expire. We had a natural argument for the right to apply. The chances of succeeding nevertheless were slim. Was the group interested in attempting the challenge anyway?
None of them were. They had seen enough of the CRTC. The disenchantment with the CRTC was was so great that our secretary, Heather Persons, while still involved in the APBBC, had refused to go to any more commission hearings. She couldn't tolerate watching their pretentious hypocrisy up close.
I scheduled a similar meeting for our Victoria members, with the Victoria cable licence as the target. We met on the premises of Victoria Community Video, a poverty-stricken, largely volunteer, community-video organization. Their common room was in the basement and outfitted with used furniture showing its age. Only three people, besides myself, were present at the meeting. They volunteered that we had no other choice than to take on the commission and Premier Cablevision (which also owned the Victoria system). I pointed out that only three of them had shown up. That didn't make any difference, they said. Others would be with us once we got started. I wasn't quite sure about that, but I wanted the challenge to be made and I didn't have much of a choice.
One of the three, Kay Lines, ran an office assistance outfit, and I set up with a desk and telephone in her common office space. I incorporated a co-operative, deliberately choosing a co-operative rather than an association in defiance of prejudice against co-ops, since it was the more appropriate form for a business operation like a cable system. Several others who joined the group would shake their heads about this - people would have been much more willing to join an "association" or "society," they said - but I was glad I had done it. We called the new organization Capital Cable Co-operative, and I promptly went to work on the application, commuting weekly to Victoria by ferry and billetting in different APBBC members' houses.
We sent out feelers to people who had a profile. John Young, a maverick Victoria auto-parts retailer, became president. John had once been president of the Campbell River TV Association. He was a resolute left-winger, having run for the CCF federally, yet he had also been president of the Campbell River Chamber of Commerce. He was better known, though, as the former principal of the Campbell River high school, which he ran along experimental lines, treating the kids as adults and giving them lots of independence. This split Campbell River opinion in half, and John ended up being the only school principal ever fired by the provincial department of education. The auto-parts franchise, for John, was a ridout where nobody could fire him and from which he could say what he wanted about schools or anything else.
The most important person in our group, however, was Peter Pollen, who had recently vacated the mayor's chair in Victoria. Peter as mayor had had his own run-ins with the CRTC over, among other things, the blatant way the commission allowed Premier Cablevision to overcharge Victoria cable subscribers.
I managed to paste the required licence application together, complete with financial projections done for me by a CGA in Burnaby, who was an APBBC member. The commission required 15 copies. I dutifully made them all up - the package could have been used for weightlifting - knowing they would all come back, which they did. A young downtown lawyer, David Lisson, a partner in his own firm, had agreed to act for us on a pro bono basis and, as envisaged, filed an action for us in Federal Court.
The case was heard in Federal Court in Vancouver a few days before the licence-renewal hearing in Victoria. The commission, on a swing through B.C., was sitting in Vancouver at the time. I had never been involved in a court case before. The courtroom, decorated in wood and wood tones, was cool and elegant. It appeared quite small, as if it were used for private rituals by some highly elitist secret society. Aside from the principals and a Vancouver Sun reporter, the chamber was empty. I wondered how anything of importance could be decided in this out-of-the-way corner. The judge was Jean-Eudes Dubé, a former federal cabinet minister from New Brunswick. Lisson, with whom I had previously discussed strategy, had discarded most of my ideas. He assured me that making an argument in law was different from making an argument in real life. I was dubious about this - so much would be left out of his pleadings - but I had to take his word for it. Now, in court, the two sides said their piece. Premier Cablevision, which was there as an intervenor, had hired a high-powered local lawyer for the occasion, who mocked our case with overblown gusto. The reporter didn't think we had a chance. Dubé, aware of the imminent renewal-hearing date, promised a written judgment for the next morning.
I showed up in the Federal Court office first thing the next day. "You won," the clerk said, handing me the judgement. I scanned the document, and it was true: Dubé had found in our favour. I called Lisson and John Young in Victoria to give them the news. They were probably even more surprised than I was - taking the CRTC to court was my strategy, after all, and I had only desperate hopes for it - but once the news sunk in, we talked about Dubé's conclusion as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Peter Pollen, when I saw him the next day, opined that the court decision - that an independent judiciary was able to come down on our side -showed that our system of government still worked.
The commission, meanwhile, was discombobulated. It suspended the rest of its Vancouver hearings on the spot and headed back to Ottawa. This added to the sensation. We were lead-story and opinion-column material in the Victoria and Vancouver papers the next day. I was besieged for interviews. This was ecstasy. Marguerite, when the CRTC announced it was going back home, overheard a couple of men in suits speculating on how high my fee must be. They saw me as a strategic mastermind who had struck a boldly-executed, exquisitely-timed coup against seemingly impregnable superior forces, and no doubt I was making people pay in spades for my talent.
It wasn't until I received a call from Bruce Lowther, the Victoria Daily Colonist television writer, however, that I understood the symbolism of what we had done. The Colonist ran the story of the court decison under a big front-page headline, "Cable ruling sends CRTC packing." The subhead, playing on Lisson's name, was even more potent: "Co-op's David stuns federal TV Goliath." For Victorians, we had slain not
only Ottawa officialdom but also Vancouver absentee owners.
Lowther was a streetsmart veteran reporter and he was calling to make sure I scheduled a Capital Cable Co-operative news conference in Victoria. With all the tension and excitement, the idea hadn't occurred to me. "You're the hottest story in town," he said. "You've got to do it." I set up the news conference for the next day and then took the ferry over to Victoria first thing in the morning. We cleared a space in Kay Lines' office for the event, where we were surrounded by television cameras and tape recorders. John Young and particularly Peter Pollen, whom the media loved for his outspokenness, seized the occasion. Peter, with supreme aplomb, talked as if we had the money to buy the cable system in our pockets and continued to do so when he was questioned. I could barely believe his bravado.
We now, at least temporarily, had the status of an applicant. Peter had an old machine-shop space across from his Ford dealership, which he was intending to renovate. It had large windows on the street. He partitioned off a part of it and we opened a storefront office. A gang of volunteers came out one night to paint the concrete floor and a few days later we held a reception for our growing list of members and for people around town. Peter was impressed that they actually came.
John Young had insisted that my title should be "general manager," which we all laughed about. (At subsequent AGMs, I would be grandly re-appointed for another year at "the same salary," namely nothing.) I rented the cheapest possible pied-à-terre for myself, in an old house in Esquimalt. I was still commuting, week in and week out. Originally the ferry trip across Georgia Strait had been sheer pleasure - my boarding the ferry to Victoria early Monday morning, fresh and wide awake, then eating breakfast aboard - the whole animated by the view of water and islands. Now the trip was repetitive torture.
Kay Lines' daughter, Rosamund, joined me in the office and we began organizing in earnest. We worked up a prestigious list of honorary directors. I put together information sheets on different aspects of what we were trying to do, copies of which also went up on the large street windows. Peter had a sign made up for us. Three attached "C"s, for Capital Cable Co-operative, served as a logo. We held workshops and staged special publicity events. We intervened at a rate-increase hearing that came up. We also pursued the CRTC about their official policy of preferring local ownership, which they were trying to ignore. From time to time, I would put out news releases based on some specific issue, which the Victoria media could get their teeth into, and they almost always gave us play. We now had about 500 members, each of whom received an elaborate, official-looking share certificate making them a bona fide shareholder in the co-operative.
The organization spanned the political spectrum, from genuine, old-generation Social Crediters to young lefties. We made our pitch to the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary as well as to local cultural groups. A journalist once stopped me on the street to ask me what he described as a personal question. He wanted to know how I was able to manage with Peter and John in the same organization, given that the two had such visceral disdain for each other's political views. My feat apparently was intriguing all the journalists in town. I told him the truth: I purposely avoided talking politics with either of them.
I thought often of Peter's steadfastness, for he was one of the very few of us who had something to lose. He lived in the Uplands, a posh Victoria area, was a member of the Union Club, and had conservative business and social connections. Capital Cable Co-operative, meanwhile, a "co-operative" no less, was rocking the boat. We undertook some preliminary discussion with bankers about financing purchase of the system should we get the licence. Peter's own bankers, the Bank of Montreal, wondered out loud why, since we had made our point, as they somehow imagined it, we were still pursuing the licence? This irked Peter no end and he switched banks.
Victoria turned out to be the ideal place for the test case we had launched. The Capital Cable Co-operative concept of local, democratic subscriber-ownership had a special resonance with Victorians, who didn't like being in Vancouver's shadow. The city also was big enough to have a good crowd of sophisticated activists to draw on, while small enough that people knew each other, which made it easy to organize. We managed in a short time to create so much presence that 20 years later, when I appeared on a Victoria open-line show on some subject I had written about, the veteran host asked me where I had been. He had assumed that I had always lived in Victoria and, for some reason, I had just dropped out of sight.
The commission immediately appealed the Dubé decision, and the Federal Court of Appeal, when it dealt with the case two months afterwards, threw the decision out. In effect, the appeal court said the CRTC could do whatever it wanted to, as long as it paid attention to the niceties. We closed our office and I went on holiday. Lisson appealed to the Supreme Court, but the court's review panel, which decides which cases go to the court, turned him down. The battle didn't end there, however, because Premier Cablevision, and with it the Victoria system, was put up for sale. This involved a so-called "transfer" of the licence, which really meant a new licence to an altogether different party. The commission still refused to allow us to apply, which was even less defensible than blocking us at expiry-and-renewal time.
We kept hammering away, using any tactic we could think of, like guerrillas making forays against a lead-footed, thick-headed, but highly fortified and entrenched army. At one point, in connection with a takeover application for Premier, we made a formal offer to buy the Victoria system, for $4.5 million, equivalent on a per-subscriber basis to the takeover offer, to help clear the CRTC's head of all the phoney excuses they were making. "Here it is," we were saying, "now do something." Harry Boyle, who had taken over as chair, and the rest of the commission just squirmed and ducked instead.
Toronto cable owner Ted Rogers, after making a sweetheart deal with Premier Cablevision's principals, was then handed the Victoria licence by the commission, plus the licences for the Vancouver and Coquitlam systems. As usual, Capital Cable Co-operative wasn't allowed to apply for the Victoria licence. Rogers was tortured and driven in his ambitions. I ascribed it to the memory of his late father, the original Edward Rogers, inventor of the "Rogers Batteryless" radio, founder of radio station CFRB, and a prominent Toronto business personality. Ted, I speculated, had a desperate need to emulate his father by pushing himself high up in the Toronto business firmament. At an earlier attempt to take over the Vancouver and Victoria licences, Ted, during a recess, bumped past Peter Pollen, almost knocking him down, as if to say, "You are a traitor to your class." It was one thing to have a bunch of protesting citizens in his way - there was no accounting for them, and any influence they had could be undermined - but to see someone like Peter there, talking gaily to some of his peers in business as he was at that moment, was too much for Ted.
The hearing which gave Rogers the much-coveted B.C. cable licences was held at the Sheraton Landmark on Robson Street in Vancouver. One of the commissioners at the hearing, Roy Faibish, with the commission acceding, threatened me with a contempt citation, or so it appeared, for a phrase in Capital Cable's written intervention about the commission's behaviour. I had described them as "morally corrupt" for not dealing with the question of our right to apply. The commission as I discovered had the power to cite for contempt. The provision was really meant to ensure the commission could maintain order at its proceedings, but it was now being used in an attempt to force an intervenor to withdraw some of his comments. Somehow, maybe because I had become something of a barefoot lawyer, I had the wit to ask for the matter to be put over to the next day so I could consult legal counsel which, of course, I didn't have.
Jim Lipkovits, one of the pioneers of Metromedia, the community video organization, had rented a room in a low-priced hotel across the street, as a hangout for our forces. I was impressed that he would put out actual dollars for it - Capital Cable never spent money unless it had to - but now the room came in handy. We repaired to this haven to talk strategy. I knew the name of a lawyer about town who had an anti-establishment reputation and had done federal court work, Don Rosenbloom. I called him up cold, and he agreed to come up to our room and meet us.
I showed him the phrase in question, which I considered an objective evaluation of the commission's integrity. "It's the clearest case of contempt I've ever seen," he laughed.
"But it's true," I replied.
"That doesn't make any difference," he said, "it's still in contempt."
I had a choice of being cited and presumably going to jail or withdrawing the phrase. I knew that going to jail would have the greatest impact, but my son was falling ill with schizophrenia - there was intense pressure on both Marguerite and myself - and I owed it to the two of them to be available. I wasn't sure as well that Faibish didn't also have a libel action in mind, and I couldn't afford even the remote chance of losing such an action. I decided to withdraw the phrase, with an explanation. In retrospect, if I had to do it again, I almost certainly would choose the other option.
Still, it was a decision. Rosenbloom, who was helping us gratis, came with me the next morning. He said I didn't need a lawyer, but his sitting there beside me would add stature in that world of appearances. As I had planned, I withdrew the remark in question, but explained in detail why we had made it. When I finished, Rosenbloom leaned towards me and whispered, "That was more in contempt than what you just withdrew." The Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun had lead editorials angrily attacking the commission for misusing its citation powers. This all happened in the spring of 1980. In the fall, Roy Faibish, newly retired from the commission, became a Rogers vice-president.
Rogers had two young lieutenants trailing around behind him - Phil Lind and Colin Watson, otherwise known as the Golddust Twins or the Bobbsey Twins. Their strategy was to drown the commission in paper. A Rogers' application would be a thick, impressive-looking, multi-part production. Rogers and his operatives would hire consultants to produce high-flown reports. They would make marginal, window-dressing promises, which nevertheless they could puff up and for which subscribers would be paying anyway. They would protest how they were going to help keep the country together and otherwise would try ingratiating themselves with breast-beating references to what they thought Ottawa had on its mind. They would shamelessly namedrop with as many cute little quotes from important people as they could possible fit in. The schlocky phoniness of it and the attempt to manipulate were transparent. We would satirize it. The feckless commission, however, swallowed it hook, line and sinker, like dim-witted suckers biting on a crude but gaudy fly. At the hearings themselves, a whole phalanx of Rogers executives and operatives would show up; Rogers didn't mind spending money freely to cover all possible bases.
Several years later, I was acting for the City of Victoria, opposing a Rogers' rate-increase application for the city. The work I had done for Capital Cable and the APBBC had turned me into a practised analyst of financial data, alert to all the tricks that a cable company might pull, like padding expenses or rigging the rate base. Rogers' figures this time made no sense at all, no matter how hard I worked on them. I retained a veteran UBC accounting professor, C.L. Mitchell, to help me out. He couldn't square them, either, and ended up drafting a complete set of corrected figures on his own. The corrected figures showed that Rogers was already taking Victoria cable subscribers for a ride. We filed this with our intervention. The commission and its staff, meanwhile, had noticed nothing or chose not to notice, and then ignored the differential we pointed out and submissively awarded a rate increase to Rogers anyway.
I took Mitchell along with me to the hearing, at the Sheraton Plaza 500 on West 12th Avenue. I knew it would add to his education. As we walked out into the hall during the coffee break after Rogers' presentation he was shaking his head. "What's wrong, Mitch?" I asked. He looked at me dolefully. "They're either knaves or fools," he said, "and I can't figure out which."
While all this was going on, we were struggling with another endless run-around on the issue of the right to apply, in this case from the federal government. CRTC decisions could be appealed to cabinet. Capital Cable had conscientiously filed appeals on the issue and, through its contacts, pushed for the appeals to be properly dealt with. I had friends inside the Department of Communications who tried helping the process along, and I even managed a personal meeting with Jeanne Sauvé, then minister. When it came to the crunch, however, Sauvé and her successor, Francis Fox, kept ducking too, Fox even ignoring the recommendations of a study on the issue which the department itself had commissioned.
The hidden factor, which the CRTC and the federal government would not talk about, was the private trafficking in the public cable licences. This was the underlying reason, we knew, that Capital Cable was being denied the right to apply. The trafficking was blatant. The holder of a television, radio and particularly a monopoly
cable licence would sell out at a hugely inflated price to the takeover company.
Properly, in this regulated, publicly-licensed sector, the price should have been based
on the depreciated book value of the assets. The fat extra margin was the trafficking
in the public licence - other people's property. It was tantamount to theft.
If one permitted competing applications, on the other hand, each applicant would be committed to buying the outgoing licensee's assets at a fair price, but the trafficking margin would be eliminated. The CRTC, captive to the industry, wouldn't allow that to happen. All of the CRTC's and the federal government's evasive counter-manoeuvres against Capital Cable Co-operative were dedicated to allowing the trafficking payoff to continue. They were, in effect, running a racket.
The APBBC meanwhile was taking the licence-takeover issue to the courts. Andrew Roman, of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) in Toronto (they also had an office in Ottawa), had begun acting for the association. The PIAC itself looked after costs; otherwise we could never have managed. Andrew was the husband of Kealy Wilkinson, the former executive director of the Canadian Broadcasting League in Ottawa, who had become a close friend. He had been doing this kind of litigation work for years and went at it with hedonistic gusto, like a perpetually hungry man eating his way through one delicious buffet after another.
We chose as a test case the allocation of a new licence for the Courtenay-Comox cable service on Vancouver Island. To accommodate the particular deal the seller of the system had made with the buyer, the application had been framed as the surrender of the licence and the awarding of a new one, rather than as a "transfer," as was usually the case. This left no doubt as to what was actually happening and, again, no competing applications were allowed.
The Federal Court of Appeal upheld the commission. By this time, I couldn't bear to allow myself to have expectations. Even then, the written judgement explaining the decision was a shocker, not because we lost, but because of what it revealed about the courts. The judge who drafted the decision astonishingly skirted the basic question. He worked his way, instead, through a tortured, roundabout - and specious - side issue to arrive at the given conclusion. The other two judges on the panel concurred. This was an eye-opener for me about administrative law. It was obvious the court had gone out of its way to find against the appellant. The Supreme Court, when Andrew subsequently took the case up the ladder, did not want to get involved and shut the door on him.
"We lost most of the battles and all the wars," I liked to joke. Along the way I had been involved in a wide range of other issues - renewal of the CBC's licences, advocacy advertising, television commercials directed to children, and many others - and in each case the CRTC played the evasive, intellectually dishonest and captive agency, as if doing so were programmed in its genes. We would play a game among ourselves predicting the commission's behaviour - for example, that they would cave in to some artful licensee after insisting that they wouldn't, or that they would let Rogers milk cable subscribers to pay for his takeovers despite his effusive promise to the contrary. No matter how outrageous and cynical any particular scenario might be, we would still project it, and - this was the black humour to the game - we would always be right.
After the last appeal to the federal cabinet over the Victoria cable licence, we wound up Capital Cable Co-operative. I was already nostalgic about it and jealously saved my share certificate.
We kept the APBBC nominally alive for a few more years, as if on life support, as a vehicle for any future interventions, and then let its incorporation lapse, too. My last appearance before the commission as APBBC president was in 1982 in Ottawa, on Pay-TV, another self-deluding CRTC fiasco. I had no expectation now the CRTC would listen to us; my trip to Ottawa was a matter of closing off some unfinished business for the record. Our intervention - the written submission was on public file - had nothing to do with cable companies themselves. By the time I appeared, on the last afternoon of a long hearing, hardly anybody was left in the meeting room. I noticed, however, a communications lawyer hanging around. I knew all the lawyers in the trade personally. Most of them, like this one, had worked for the Department of Communications or the CRTC before going through the revolving door to make big bucks acting for operators. I wondered what he was doing there. Just before the session began, he came up to me with a bashful look on his face.
"I want to apologize," he said. "This is silly. I shouldn't be here. But Ted Rogers insisted I come out just in case you said something about them that I should object to."
He was almost laughing because he knew it was worth a laugh and that I would also take it that way. My $500 a month honorarium was long gone. He was probably charging out at something like $1,500 a day, which cable subscribers in Vancouver and Victoria, among other places, would pay for.
"I should charge you a commission," I joked.
If nothing else, I thought later, I had generated a nice stream of income for a handful of communications lawyers in Ottawa and Toronto.
I had never been bitter about anything in my life, but I realized, with amazement, that I was actually close to being bitter about my experience with the CRTC and Ottawa. It was a new feeling and it was tenacious, too. It kept at me, no matter how hard I tried to disregard it.
It wouldn't have been so bad, I reflected, if public-interest advocacy had been my profession and if I had been paid for it, which would have added distance. Comrades-in-arms, like Kealy Wilkinson and Andrew Roman, had received respectable salaries because their organizations were properly funded. I was aware of the irony - everyone else was being properly paid except me and, save for a few full-time years, I wasn't paid at all - but that didn't bother me. What the hell, I was trying to do something and, where I was, I couldn't do it any other way. I didn't write A Nation Unaware to make money, either. Besides, I wasn't destitute. There were two cottages on our property and the second one, being right on the water on Burrard Inlet, was always rented, so Marguerite and I had a small rental income to help us out, in addition to whatever earnings we might manage (she was selling herb plants and teaching courses on herbs). If need be, we simply drew on savings. Writers and other freelancers like me were used to eating up savings. I built them up, drew them down, built them up, and so on in repeated cycles.
No, the problem was that what I was left with from the experience was stark and unrelieved. All I had was what I had seen, and what I had seen had been deeply disillusioning. This was so even for me who, being on the left, thought he had no illusions about the powers-that-be to begin with. The evasions and hypocrisy I had observed ran too deep, into the minutiae of how things were done, and involved people with bright images from whom one expected better. The experience had outstripped my cynicism. I vaguely thought of writing about it, but in a state of languor I kept delaying until I finally decided that leaving it alone wasn't going to work. Low-level bitterness still nagged at me. I had to purge myself of the experience, and a book was the only way to do it. I would put the story on the record and get it out of my system. A writer, I joked, always had that ability to square accounts.
I approached the story more or less chronologically. It was so long and involved that I didn't know how to come to grips with it otherwise. I ended up with a thick manuscript of interwoven fragments. Douglas & McIntyre (the successor to J.J. Douglas) nevertheless agreed to publish it. Denise Bukowski, their new senior editor, was assigned to edit it. She took me out to lunch on Commercial Drive, just off Venables where D&M was located. At the dessert-and-coffee stage, she asked me to get a good grip on my chair so I wouldn't fall over and then told me that she would be cutting the manuscript in half. It was the only way that D&M could handle it.
"You're going to take out an entire half?" I exclaimed, incredulous.
"Yes," she said. "Take it from me. You'll be thankful. Otherwise, no one will read it." I blanched. She could say what she wanted, but I didn't believe that I would be thankful. It was an offer, however, that I couldn't refuse. I was desperate to see the story in print, and D&M was my publisher. Besides, I surmised, she was probably exaggerating. I played along.
"I'll start with a rough first cut," she said, matter of act.
When I received this cut, I leafed through the manuscript two or three times, trying to absorb what she had done. Page after page, in some instances entire sections, were struck out. She deleted pages with a single line in pencil, from the bottom left-hand corner to the top right-hand corner - zip, one page, zip, another page. Her modus operandi, as I noticed later, was to begin with a fistful of sharpened pencils and work through her pencils. She had also reorganized the manuscript, lumping fragments together by subject while still maintaining a loose chronological order.
I could see where she was heading. The second cut was tougher to take, but I managed to swallow most of it, too. Denise also went after me to delete my choice sarcastic asides. "Kill all your little darlings," William Faulkner had advised writers. Denise was murdering all my little darlings or forcing me into infanticide myself. "This is ratiocinative," she would say. "Get rid of it." I looked up "ratiocinative" in a dictionary. It didn't seem to jibe with the way she was using it, but I knew what she meant. I began, jokingly, throwing in the word "ratiocinative" in my conversations at home.
By the time we arrived at the final cut - it involved just a few thousand words - we were at loggerheads. She was preoccupied with pace, I wanted to save what I considered essential detail. Publisher Scott McIntyre was alarmed at all the editorial time we were using up. Lying in bed at night, still fuming after one of these meetings with Denise, I would expostulate to Marguerite about Denise's impossible, high-handed aggressiveness, and then toss and turn for a couple of hours replaying the encounter in my mind. I ended up at the remaining session or two arguing back with the same outspokenness. By that time, I took forceful argument as part of the process: how the final remaining editorial differences were to be resolved. Much later, in another life
for both of us, Denise let slip that I had hurt her. I was surprised. I thought I was
the only one who had been bruised - that she was the hard, tough, thick-skinned editor
whom nothing could injure.
The manuscript then went to D&M's "house lawyer" for a libel reading. She reported back that at least half of it was libellous. I was thunderstruck. This would mean a death sentence for the manuscript, yet I was convinced that she was wrong. The manuscript was just investigative journalism - except that I had lived it and had the files, so I didn't have to investigate - and it was all documented, or could be. If it were libel, then so was a lot of newspaper copy. I went to the library and took out a copy of "Gatley on Libel and Slander," the authoritative reference work on the subject. It seemed to vindicate my position. In publishing contracts, the judgement of the publisher's lawyer takes precedence over the views of the author's lawyer when there's a difference of opinion. I insisted to Scott that, such being the case, he should at least have a bona fide libel lawyer read the manuscript. He sent it to Julian Porter in Toronto, who happened also to be the husband of Anna Porter, founder of Key Porter Books. Porter responded with a short letter of not much more than a page, itemizing nine or ten minor references, mostly as precautions. I quickly made the requested adjustments.
I told Scott, to reassure him, that everything in the manuscript was absolutely accurate. This was saying a lot, given all the damning details.
"I have more to lose than you if my facts are wrong," I said. "My credibility's at stake."
He looked at me wide-eyed and speechless, as if to say, "I guess I'm going to have to take your word for it, aren't I, but do you actually expect me to believe you?"
Closed Circuits: The Sellout of Canadian Television appeared in 1986. It was ostensibly about the CRTC and shifty operators like Ted Rogers, Murray Chercover (CTV), Moses Znaimer, and a host of other suspects, but it was really an intimate exposé of how power works, that was good for an understanding of any sector. The reviewers all caught this exposé quality. It would have been hard to miss: the sham, evasion, hypocrisy, phoniness, cant and pomposity that I documented leapt out at the reader from the page. Peter Desbarats, writing in the Montreal Gazette, got it down best. "A wonderful book," he wrote, "wonderfully passionate, sardonic, incisive and gleefully vicious." He was right except for the last adjective. I wasn't vicious, it only seemed that way to Desbarats because I had a keen sense of irony. I had merely told it as it was.
I heard later, through the grapevine, that Murray Chercover, the head of CTV, had been in Ottawa doing some lobbying when he spotted somebody carrying a copy of Closed Circuits he had borrowed from the Parliamentary Library. Chercover accosted the passerby and loudly berated him for what he was holding in his hand. I couldn't have asked for more. Neither Chercover nor anyone else ever contested any of the details in the book. As I had promised Scott, all my facts were right, amazing as that might have seemed for someone originally reading the manuscript.
Writing the book also liberated me, just as I had hoped. With the story on the record, I was able to put the whole experience behind me. I knew that nobody any longer would mistake the CRTC for a defender of the public interest: I had shattered that phoney image. I made a conscious decision not to follow broadcasting closely any more and to work in other areas. Sure, I might have been the country's leading expert on broadcasting politics and could trade on that as a commentator. Sure, as I liked to joke, I knew more about it than I had ever wanted to and that was good for any one person. I would also have to create a new working life for myself, starting again from scratch, or so I felt. I knew, however, that I had to cut myself off from broadcasting issues if I was to move on.
I now saw the country differently, however, and that I couldn't put behind me. My identification with a Canada led by a creative federal government was gone, just gone. That world, with its powerful imagery - and it had existed, it wasn't just my growing-up Canadian that had made it seem so - I knew now was finished. Gone with it, too, was the particular joyous quality of what it was to be a Canadian in the post-war years. Maybe, as Pierre Berton later suggested, it had all ended in 1967, Expo year. "The last good year," Berton wrote. Whenever the turning point, it was over.