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CanWest's Clumsy Vendetta against CBC

The more the National Post cries bias, the more oddly obsessed it appears

Steve Burgess 10 May

Steve Burgess is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

He writes the Please Advise! column and other effluvia as required. He is a former CBC host and author of the 2011 book Who Killed Mom? from Greystone Books. He has won two National Magazine Awards and three Western Magazine Awards.

Raised on the Canadian Prairies, he has lived in Vancouver since 1988. Find him on Twitter @steveburgess1.

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Do you watch CBC? The National Post does. They're big fans. So avid are the CanWest Global gang about our public broadcaster that they provide regular updates in the Post under the title "CBC Watch." That kind of support must be gratifying to the folks at Mother Corp. If only Canada had a few hundred more neo-con newspapers, CBC would be turning a profit.

The Post, of course, is no fan of the government web. CBC Watch (which is as much about CBC Radio as TV) purports to document the ongoing politically correct, closet socialist, Palestinian-loving outrages of the corporation.

There's nothing wrong with holding a public broadcaster to account. As the dominant broadcasting entity on the Canadian landscape, partly funded by hard-earned taxpayer dollars, the CBC deserves to be held up to closer scrutiny than CTV or, for that matter, Global. But when it's Global that's doing the scrutiny, it makes for a bit of a credibility problem.

Frightening away centrists

And therein lies the frustrating thing about The National Post. It's a paper that has been blessed by talent and some excellent writing, but cursed by blind spots and prone to target shooting its own toes. The Post ought to be able to understand a basic journalistic conflict of interest when they see one-for example, a company that owns a TV network using a company newspaper to viciously attack its TV rival. The late Izzy Asper, Global's founder, even used the pages of the Post to advocate the complete closure of the CBC (a position that might explain Asper's lack of success as a politician).

But the Post doesn't get it. The idea that irrational vendettas might harm your journalistic credibility does not appear to enter their heads. And so the paper continues to preach to the converted on the right, while more centrist readers (who might actually find to their surprise that the Post can be a good read) are frightened away by the perception that the paper cannot be trusted.

This, too, underlines the problem with the Post's CBC Watch-when charging bias, it helps to occupy the moral high ground. CanWest Global's newspaper chain has drawn its own accusations of journalistic bias for dictating newspaper editorials from its head office and firing a publisher who failed to toe the party line. Critics say CanWest management has disciplined or dropped reporters and columnists who failed to toe the party line. That party line is resolutely conservative, rabidly pro-Israel, defiantly pro-Bush, bizarrely anti-Adrienne Clarkson (another little Post vendetta). They were also big on Mike Bullard, but that didn't work out.

Global's take on Jenin Massacre

Global Television, while clearly more focused on re-packaging American TV shows for easy Canadian money, has also entered the political fray, notably with the recent documentary Jenin: Massacring Truth. Filmmaker Martin Himel set out to document the misreporting of what came to be called the Jenin Massacre, an alleged outrage by the Israeli army in the Jenin refugee camp in April 2003 that turned out to be far less dramatic than originally claimed. Watching the documentary, which aired on Global April 28, proved to be a lot like reading the Post-simultaneously enlightening and frustrating.

The National Post has always done a pretty good job of skewering left wing pretension and stupidity. The frustration comes in its refusal to do the same to the right. It's not that the Post is misguided when it attacks its leftist enemies-on the contrary, the paper often scores telling blows. But like a shady prosecutor, the Post can be counted on to bury any evidence for the defence.

Likewise, the Jenin documentary did a good job exposing the poor reporting, fuzzy logic, and even moral cowardice of some Israeli critics. One embarrassing sequence involved a rabid anti-Ariel Sharon cartoon (the Israeli prime minister was depicted eating Palestinian babies) that was voted Cartoon of the Year in Britain. After Dr. Tim Benson of the cartoonists' organization raves about what a historic achievement it is, Himel asks why Palestinian bombers are not similarly depicted. With a cringing smile, Benson suggests that perhaps his peers are afraid of Islamic death threats. So much for fearless criticism.

But viewers waiting for some sort of overview of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, any acknowledgement that the Israelis might have some moral obligation toward their neighbours, waited in vain. Nor did Himel admit that, for all the legitimate anti-Semitism he might find in current European reporting, Israel has in the past benefited mightily from heavy pro-Israel bias in the American media. The documentary, like so much CanWest product, stopped short of telling the whole story.

Cheap but filling

Global TV recently announced its lineup of Canadian shows for next season. Predictably it consists mostly of inexpensive reality programming. The mild success of the network's cheapo production Train 48 does not seem to have won the Aspers over to the noble cause of advancing Canadian drama. Evidently it's the cheapo part that they like.

Well, fair enough-making television shows in Canada is rarely a cost-effective business and you can hardly blame the network for wanting to make money. But when CanWest Global uses the National Post to attack the CBC, it leaves a sour taste. Train 48 is no Da Vinci's Inquest-would anybody really be happy if the fate of Canadian television rested with the Aspers?

Steve Burgess, who writes for Maclean's and other publications, reviews television and other media for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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