The Wisdom of Evan Solomon

Host's departure a chance for our national broadcaster to save its institutional soul.

By Crawford Kilian 11 Jun 2015 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The departure of Evan Solomon from CBC is an opportunity for our national broadcaster to save its institutional soul, and for Canada to get a grip on itself.

But it will take the purge of more than one boyish personality to do it. I'm not asking for heads to roll, but for people to depart from the highest reaches.

Full disclosure: My own writing career began over 40 years ago, when I started selling radio plays to CBC. They'd actually sent me a writer's kit, including samples of radio, TV and movie scripts. I sold them six radio plays before moving on to novels and nonfiction.

Those were the days when Margaret Lyon transformed CBC Radio, and Cariboo Country on CBC TV showed us this country as it was in the 1960s and '70s. We lived in the shadow of American media and American anxieties, from Laugh-In to the My Lai massacre, but we found the time and resources to talk intelligently about our own problems.

We talked as grownups to grownups, and across a wider range of viewpoints than is acceptable now. Vancouverites of a certain age may recall when CBC Radio's morning programs weren't mainly happy talk and traffic reports; in the 1970s, people like Ben Metcalfe and David Cayley woke us up with sibilant warnings about the Trilateral Commission and other sinister doings.

Sure, they were over the top, but they challenged their audience (Cayley found a new home with CBC Ideas). Those were the days when CBC Radio, at least was transforming itself, creating whole new concepts like As It Happens and morphing Radio Free Friday into This Country in the Morning and then into Morningside.

Never easy listening

Maybe it was easier then because the choices for talented Canadians were to move to the U.S. or sign on with the CBC. But it was never wallpaper for the ears, never "easy listening." Whether you loved it or hated it, you could write a genuine letter on paper and get a written reply that treated you with respect. The CBC in those days cared about its audience as individuals, not as demographics or markets.

Those days are long gone, and I wouldn't want to see them come back. Peter Gzowski is dead, and so is that era in our history.

The decline of CBC TV since the 1990s has been more spectacular than that of radio, and it's been well documented: the death of a thousand cuts inflicted first by the Liberals and then (with blunter scalpels) by the Conservatives. Apart from annoying governments, the CBC cost a lot of money in a time when right-wingers were re-framing a free nation as a free market, where a public broadcaster was supposed to live or die by its ratings -- in a market conditioned to whatever sold in the U.S.

CBC TV had done a pretty fair job of covering Canadian politics for a long time, as part of its mandate to inform. But under the new regime, information started to become infotainment, if not outright infomercials.

Rattling off the day's talking points

Which leads us to Power & Politics, CBC TV's major political infotainment program. On the West Coast it runs from 2 to 4 p.m., when retirees must make up its chief audience (given its ads for walk-in bathtubs and stair lifts). I developed a taste for it when veteran newsman Don Newman was running it as just Politics. His deadpan "Welcome to the braaawdcast" intro created the right ironic tone to what followed: interviews with politicians, spin doctors, and CBC reporters about the events of the day.

Newman retired, whereupon Evan Solomon arrived to head a show where power preceded politics. It worked on a tight formula involving ever more reliance on "power panels" of paid spin doctors, plus three-monkeys panels of MPs perched in the lobby of the House of Commons to rattle off the day's talking points. The news, as such, was often whatever idle rhetoric had been vented in Question Period, more discussed for its etiquette than its political relevance.

Presiding over this was Solomon. It seemed no question could be asked without a long introductory speech, no answer ever dismissed as the mendacious crap it usually was. His power panels were shoutfests of party hacks talking over one another, which ended only when Solomon declared it had been a good debate.

Worse yet, when he interviewed a real live Conservative cabinet minister, he was loudly grateful that this public servant, paid by taxpayers, had deigned to come on his show. In all the times a spin doctor has told him, "Canadians don't care about this," I have never heard him say, "Never mind what they care. Is it right? Is it legal? And why are you bullshitting me and our viewers?"

Needed: A purge and a reboot

Solomon is of course only the latest of a series of seismic foreshocks in the CBC. We've learned that anchorman Peter Mansbridge has given speeches for high fees, as has Rex Murphy, the folksy host of Cross-Country Checkup. Amanda Lang has thrived as a business celebrity thanks to her CBC fame, and Jian Ghomeshi's trial will begin any day now.

This is not a funding problem to be solved by regaining the rights to Hockey Night in Canada, or a personality problem solved by replacing Solomon with Rosemary Barton. This is a problem to solve by a purge and a reboot.

First, the board of the CBC should be rebuilt with people who understand radio, TV, and new media, and have a Jobsian contempt for "what the market wants." They should know the CBC serves Canada, not some abstract market. They should also know what Canadians want before Canadians do -- as well as what Canadians need.

The CBC also needs more money, not as a sop to Canadian culture, but as a matter of Canadian national security. We are more threatened by some of our fellow-Canadians than we are by terrorists, and hysteria won't solve our problems with either.

Politics is the real reality show

Neither will good ratings. World events are the true reality show, and we've stupidly ignored them except as they serve the Conservative narrative. If a well-funded, on-task CBC can't show us what we need to do about ISIS and global warming and restoring democracy, that will be our fault, not the CBC's.

Such a CBC will need to be massively overhauled, in programming and approach. Political interviews with government members will be interrogatory, with the journalist in the role of a tough HR supervisor dealing with a problem employee. Opposition MPs won't fare any better. Spin doctors will be shown the door. Real experts -- scientists, for example -- will turn up with solid evidence for policy changes.

It won't always be pleasant, but it won't be just infotainment. Viewers who don't like to be challenged will be ticked off and perhaps turn to Fox News now that the Sun Network has expired. The politicians will hate it too -- especially the government that gives the new CBC the money and resources to do tough journalism.

But like flabby recruits in the hands of a serious drill sergeants, they might just improve under the treatment. They could hardly be worse than the sorry wretches Evan Solomon has interviewed all these years.  [Tyee]

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