Richard Stursberg has written a book to tell all about on-going crises at the CBC. But he does something else, and what he does will be judged by many to be a betrayal of the Corporation and Canadians.
Richard Stursberg and the CBC. Telling It Like It Isn’t.
THE TOWER OF BABBLE, Douglas and McIntyre, 2012.
Richard Stursberg was made CBC’s head of English Services in 2004, plucked from outside, not having grown up inside the Corporation. He held the position until 2010 – when he was dumped. In those years the CBC entered a crisis period which remains. Many factors make up the crisis – the most important being the Harper determination to destroy public broadcasting (to destroy public EVERYTHING).
Stursberg’s tale of those years could be a key reference point for all thinking about the contemporary CBC - and about the future of broadcasting/communications in Canada. He was there. He was at the centre. He saw.
But his book is a gigantic disappointment. Other, well informed reviewers describe it as unreliable in fact and politically infantile. The book is a personalist, fists-first account of Richard Stursberg’s fight against the dead wood, the destroyers of talent, especially CBC president Hubert Lacroix, in an attempt to build CBC, to give it increased audience, to make it alive and fun – with the goal of serving Canadians they way they should be served.
Even while praising Stursberg for his “inside the belly” discussions of the terrors and difficulties of making CBC work, his critics grant him very little. They praise his first-hand, at-the-tiller reports of financing, of overloaded bureaucracy, of rigid Old Guardism, of the incredible failures to share – in the simplest ways – francophone and anglophone broadcasting experience, and of the structural obstructions to moving CBC quickly about … anything.
But they crush his book as repeatedly factually wrong – a matter of huge importance. Martin Knelman, long-time entertainment columnist, calls it, as well – “blatantly self-serving”. Howard Bernstein lists what he claims are factual errors and doubtful claims of achievement.
Of the famous CBC lockout/labour battle of 2005, the union reviewers from the CMG (Canadian Media Guild) claim the chapter on the subject “is so riddled with factual errors that it taints the credibility of the rest of the book….” Still another critic, armed with statistical weaponry, denies Stursberg’s claim to have significantly increased the numbers who view and listen to CBC programs.
Even his apparent frankness, his tell-all determination fades at the end. Of the final confrontation with CBC president Hubert Lacroix, Stursberg writes: “What happened after this I cannot say. The terms of my separation agreement forbid me from describing the moment.” That is rather like General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham sneaking away before he can receive his death wound in order to make sure his pension is safe.
Critics have nailed Richard Stursberg’s Sins of Commission. Probably even worse are his Sins of Omission. He harps on the fact that English Canada, unlike French Canada (and almost everywhere else on the globe), prefers U.S. broadcasting to its own. There is a reason. Stursberg never gives it. And, apparently for the same reason, he will not deal with the fact (which he records) that Canada’s public broadcaster is almost the least government supported in the world! He avoids that subject like the plague.
The answer in both cases is politics – and Richard Stursberg flees from facing up to real politics.
The fundamental fact of CBC’s existence is political. It cannot be dealt with unpolitically. Back in the earliest days, the U.S. media barons fully intended to broadcast without impediment for all the U.S. and Canada. The creation of the CBC was an actively political, anti-imperialist move … to assure Canadians their own voice, their own culture, their own view of the world. The move to create the CBC was daring. It was courageous.
And like all daring and courageous moves to ensure the distinctive quality of Canadian existence, it came under attack from the first hour. The private corporate Canadian opportunists fought and fought, forced Royal Commission after Royal Commission, each time cutting away a piece of the power of the CBC and conferring that power on private, corporate, Americanizing, colonial pirates. They keep the pressure up still (with active Harper government support) to strangle the CBC financially.
As if their work with broadcasting were not enough, the private corporate opportunists did even worse with the other major indoctrination entertainment force that lasted almost one hundred years – the movie industry. That incredible story has been told over and over. (Try Pierre Berton’s HOLLYWOOD’S CANADA.)
It is a story of Canadian governments – one after the other – destroying an always nascent, always genuinely promising, potentially dynamic Canadian film industry – to please U.S. power and movie producers in the U.S.A. It is a story of greedy Canadian corporations and spineless governments sacrificing the right of Canadians (especially English Canadians) to know themselves, to celebrate their culture, to gain employment in brilliant creativity … for what? In order to gain the approval of pirates colonizing Canada, sucking away jobs, wealth, and opportunity that belong rightfully to Canadians in their own country.
The U.S. movie industry – let loose with no holds barred in Canada, and the broadcasting industry – increasingly delivering U.S. culture - almost literally removed a huge number of (English) Canadians from their own country and culture.
The job of the CBC to bring Canadians back to Canadian broadcasting has to be fully explained so it can make sense to the people. By the same token, Stephen Harper’s determination to cut the throat of CBC and responsible broadcasting in Canada has to be exposed, explained, shouted about over and over and over.
Don’t ask for any of that from Richard Stursberg’s book. It isn’t there.
Finally, amazingly – as if self-hypnotized – Stursberg misses a KEY point (and, of course, it is a political point). Hubert Lacroix (like many, many Harper appointments) appeared out of nowhere. He was, I believe, a know-nothing (about broadcasting) placed in a top job to do a very real piece of work. Almost every one of Lacroix’s actions and those of the mostly government appointed Board members have been the actions – I believe – of brilliant, fumble-headed, dedicated, seemingly opaque, even sincere destroyers. They are there, I believe, to engage in destruction that was politically set up to happen.
And Richard Stursberg fumbles again, almost as if on purpose. Throughout his book, he praises people warmly or the opposite. He seems to find people like Brian Mulroney and Leonard Asper pleasing, just as he finds many more displeasing. Readers may not approve of his taste, but he seems to be frank about it.
Except … except … he has to report ugly acts done by Stephen Harper, and does, without comment. Slashing funds. Refusing a meeting with the CBC president. Refusing to communicate – all the bullying and intimidation tactics from Stephen Harper that we are used to. Stursberg reports, because he has to. But he makes no comment about Harper’s actions. Never. Nowhere in the book does he deal with Harper’s long-term policy. And nowhere does he hint that he might have an opinion about Stephen Harper. For once, Richard Stursberg is strangely silent.
That, I would say, is no accident.
Richard Stursberg wants the story of THE TOWER OF BABBLE to be a story of an unpolitical war of personalities, a battle between progressive imagination (his) and stumbling Old Guardism. He wants it to be a story of stupid, backward, insensitive, sclerotic CBC’ers fighting a knight in white shining armour arriving to bring them “the Good”.
He does not want to face reality, that the fight for the CBC – as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be – is a deeply political fight, in fact a major part of the fight for Canada’s very existence. Many will assert I am sure that by failing to tell the real story and trivializing most of the rest Richard Stursberg joins the long list of destroyers he apparently sought to overthrow.