Journalism and democracy


In a democracy, it is the task of the government to protect and manage the assets of the populace. This is true in both war and peace. In war the government, representing us, is prepared to divert resources away from other tasks and to send our young people to fight and to their deaths. We make these sacrifices not just to retain our wealth but also our freedom.

Freedom is so valuable that we are prepared to die to defend it.
During peacetime, when there is an attempt to power away from the people, those who would do so know that one of the first tasks is to seize the means of communication. We have seen numerous coups where those leading the coup have gained control of the broadcast stations so that they can control all news. They can then keep the populace from knowing and responding to what is happening. Once in control, they can provide one message with no dissent.

Even when there is not a physical coup, individual politicians and their parties can attempt to control the media and, so, control the message. This can be done through intimidation or simply by having wealthy supporters buy control of newspapers, television and radio stations. These stations will not follow the supposed purpose of journalism: to inform, to educate and to entertain. Often, they do little except entertain because that is cheap and people will pay more to be entertained than to be informed or educated. However, when they do inform, the information is highly biased. At its worst, this is yellow journalism. It is filled with lies, distortions, and biases.

This is why it is critical to have an independent national broadcaster such as the CBC. It is the task, without fear or favour, of the national broadcaster to ask hard questions, to seek out answers, to point out lies, to provide information. It is not the CBCs, or any other national broadcaster’s job to be a mouthpiece for government.

One has only to compare the CBC with Pravda. When Glasnot first appeared in Russia, there was great hope that Russia would have a free press, that it would fulfill the three journalism functions. Pravda means truth and was the official publication of the Communist party. It had a specific function in spreading the political messages of the Party. With the demise of the USSR and the rise of Gorbachev, there was a time when it seemed that journalistic independence could blossom. Under Putin, the government is not the Russian government, it is the Putin government and Pravda is just another organ for spreading the policies of the Putin government.

How threatening do repressive governments find journalists? In 2014, 80 journalists were killed. So far in 2015 45 journalists have been killed. Not all those deaths represent the deliberate, targeted killing of journalists but many of them are the result of targeted killings. Those deaths also serve to silence others from reporting or voicing an opinion.

The first signs of totalitarianism, whether it be communism or fascism, is an attack on an independent media. That attack may be something as simple as budget cuts, the selling off of facilities, the removal of charitable status. One can silence critics’ voices with more than a bullet or a bomb.

If we want to continue to be a democracy, something that 42,000 armed forces gave their lives for in WWII, we have to demand that the CBC be independent, that it provide us, the people, with the best information possible, that it inform and educate us first and entertain us last. It has, over the decades created a heritage of trust. Not for all of us, unfortunately. I friend of mine said CBC means Can’t Be Conservative. While it is understandable that the CBC at the moment is delighted at the demise of Stephen Harper because he threatened to dismantle it, that burst of relief will fade and those in charge need to do some soul searching and make certain that the CBC represents all Canadians. Nobody, Liberal, NDP, Conservative, Green should get a free ride.

The Canadian people, that is you and me, have the right to own our resources. It is as legitimate for the people of Canada to own the Wheat Board or the CBC as it is for any private company to own a grain trading company or a broadcast company. There is nothing inherently virtuous about ownership by private corporations. History, recent and in the distant past, is filled with evidence of the harm done by private corporations. Private corporations have no morality, no social purpose, their only purpose is to make money their owners. To do that, they’ve enslaved people, created working conditions in sweat shops and mines, in the forests, at sea that kill people without conscience or concern. If you want to see capitalism at its worst go to Moosejaw and take the Chinese laundry tunnel tour.

That does not mean that all corporations are evil or that capitalism is evil. However, capitalism and corporations must be constantly watched, investigated, chided and, when they does wrong, exposed. The CBC must act as our ears and eyes. And voice. The CBC has a major role to play in informing and educating Canadians about the real conditions in society.
Good journalism holds the politicians and, sometimes, business people’s feet to the fire. That’s a journalist’s job. Unless, of course, you live in a dictatorship.

The Trudeau government gets down to work tomorrow. There are many tasks ahead of it but something that can be done quickly is to restore resources to the CBC, resources that will start to repair the damage done to the corporation.

The CBC is not, in spite of what we have observed for years in the actions of the Harper government, an enemy of the Canadian people. It is our best friend and champion. May it survive long to protect us.

Getting an education, getting a job

I didn’t go to university to get a job. I went to university to get an education.

university graduates

In 1957 the purpose of going to university was to become educated. However, before I graduated in 1961, the government had become involved. Professors had been badly paid. Universities were strapped for cash. The government agreed to provide funding. There was hot debate about whether to accept the money. Many, seeing the chance that their salaries would rise, that new classrooms would be built, were all for accepting the money. However, others were against taking the money because they said, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” They were scoffed at . However, there are no free lunches, particularly where governments are involved.
It wasn’t long after government funding was provided that billboards went up saying, “Get a degree, get a job.”

The halls of learning were going to change. Money once provided creates conditions that make it virtually impossible to refuse.

The government wanted more people going to university. The hook was “go to university and get a job.” Except, people like me were taking English, Philosophy, Political Science, Economics. The only one slightly connected to getting a job was Economics and a Bachelor’s level in Economics isn’t going to get anyone a job. A Master’s degree in a specialized area in Economics, like Agricultural Economics, would get someone a job but that was another two years of study.
We graduated able to read and write, to think more clearly (those philosophy courses in Logic), more knowledgeable about the role of government because of Political Science, and with a general idea of how the economy worked (the economics of small business, money and banking, international trade, labour relations). None of these courses provided training. We weren’t in a trade school. We were being provided with knowledge and the tools with which to apply it. It was expected that when we got jobs, we’d get specific training about an area, banking, for example, on the job. At university, we had learned how to learn.

We got jobs. I went into teaching and taught, over my career, in high school, junior college, and university. During that time, I took a year off to get a permanent high school teaching certificate. Then I went to summer school over three years to get a B.Ed. Finally, I went to graduate school to get an MFA. The teaching certificate and the summer schools were a “get a job” education. The MFA wasn’t. It taught me to write and read at a very high level. However, it opened up the possibility of teaching first at a junior college and then at a university. That was simply a bi-product. The purpose was to turn me into a published writer. Fourteen books, twelve plays, scores of articles, an editorship, I can confidently say it did what it was supposed to do.

Unfortunately, the government and the universities had different goals. The government wanted people to obtain degrees because employers gave preference to people with degrees. What the governments didn’t grasp was that that preference was given for the knowledge that came with the degree. All governments saw was people with degrees get jobs. They didn’t care whether anyone actually learned anything. They didn’t put up billboards saying get educated and get a job. If they’d done that, they couldn’t have endlessly tried to force the universities to lower their academic standards and increase their class sizes. The government simply wanted more numbers. Churn out more people with degrees. The result, of course, is that the public bought into the advertising. Get a degree and get a job. Except, after a while, the guarantee of getting a job because you had a degree faded away. Lower academic standards for admittance and graduation and increase numbers and it doesn’t take long for employers to realize that a degree does not mean that someone is educated, knowledgeable, and capable of thinking.

The graduates victimized by this misdirected strategy created and promoted by politicians are left confused, even infuriated because not only does their degree not turn into a guaranteed job but because the costs of a university education have gone up exponentially. Arts students can be taught effectively at a reasonable cost. However, medical students, science students, engineering students have to have expensive equipment, expensive spaces, expensive everything. The tuition cost for many of these programs is astronomical. That cost is spread out over the university so that even if someone like me taking English, Political Science, Philosophy, Economics needs little more than textbooks, the price of the courses still goes up.

The result is headlines blaring that a local barista has a university degree in the Arts or Fine Arts. Of course, it was never intended that courses which educate people rather than train them would guarantee jobs. That’s not the university connection. That’s the politician’s connection.

There is, of course, a solution or, at least, a partial solution that was begun, I believe, at Waterloo, and implemented at the University of Victoria. That is to have a Co-operative Education program. I taught in the Creative Writing Department in the Fine Arts Faculty. How airy fairy is that? Except that people who are learning to read, write and edit are the people who are best able to work in fields where communication is required. Those TV, radio programs, those movies, those brochures at the bank, those reports from the banks, everything that needs to be conceived, written and produced require people who are highly literate. Poets make fine editors. They know to pay attention to words and punctuation and space. Fiction writers and dramatic writers have the skills required to produce material for business and government.

There is nothing wrong and much that is right in marrying job specific opportunities for students where they get to develop particular skills and amass job-particular knowledge. However, it isn’t in the classroom where that should take place. The university’s job is to provide education. The job of the business community, the corporate community is to provide training.

The universities have been meeting their obligation. The corporate community has not. It has not met its obligation at the professional level nor at the trade level. It has, for the most part, shrugged off its responsibility with the attitude that someone else should do that and then it complains loudly that there aren’t the trained workers it needs. The corporate mind-set is always to socialize costs and privatize profits.

Government, and it doesn’t seem to matter what party is in power, needs to disconnect from the “get a degree, get a job” mentality and learn to say, get an education and get a job. Corporate Canada needs to commit to its responsibility in providing work experience for the generation soon to enter the work force.