Analysis: Exposing Harper’s silencing of independent voices

No one was surprised when a Conservative-dominated Parliamentary committee, examining so-called anti-terrorism legislation, refused to hear Privacy Commissioner Daniel Thouin this winter.

In a memorandum, Thouin warned that government operatives would gain “the potential to know virtually everything about everyone” as they seek to identify suspected new threats.

“The loss of privacy is clearly excessive… All Canadians will be caught in this web,” he wrote.

This was not the message the government wanted to hear, so denying Thouin a public platform made sense to the “boys in short pants,” as the message manipulators in the Prime Minister’s entourage are known.

It was yet another assault on the flow of information under Stephen Harper, nothing less than a campaign to ensure the message Canadians get matches the values in Conservative legislation.

Bill C-51 came too late to be included in recent books assessing Harper’s government, but it fits the pattern of the carefully planned and bluntly imposed measures described in Mark Bourrie’s aptly titled Kill the Messengers (Harper Collins, 386 pp., $32.99).

Bourrie’s exhaustively researched exposé documents the Conservatives’ success in silencing the government’s own experts, and limiting debate on major issues as it reorients policy in radical new directions.

Harper’s “new Canada” is an “energy and resource superpower” rather than a country of factories and businesses, a “warrior nation,” instead of a peacekeeper, an Arctic nation instead of urban clusters along the U.S. border, a country of “self-reliant entrepreneurs” rather than a nation that shares among its people and regions.

To achieve these goals, Bourrie writes, Harper set out along a set of pathways to: “lobotomize” a large part of the country’s cultural memory by trashing archives, remaking museums and replace “third-way” diplomacy that was Canada’s trademark and other politcal maneuver.

If Harper wins the next election and continues along the same trajectory – “killing the messengers” so only his message is heard – the government and the country “will belong to a clique of political
insiders who serve at Stephen Harper’s pleasure, and to their friends in the business world.”

And what about the messengers?

On the government side, muzzling of information is not because of any shortage of staff. A report by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation last summer, based on an Access to Information request, revealed that the government is spending $263 million for communications staff for the public service – $48 million more than the Liberals.

As Bourrie explains, they are part and parcel of an “information” system wherein government
scientists and all experts are “gagged by strict rules laid down at the Centre” – the Prime Minister’s Office. Whereas, until 2007, a reporter could just call up a scientist, no one in government now speaks without permission.

Conservative politicians, and public servants are barred from media interviews unless the PMO approves a “Message Event Proposal.” It lays out the context of the interview, the length and visuals that may be used.

The result, when it comes to government scientists, amounts to a gag. A 2013 survey of 4,000 government scientists found that only 14 per cent felt they could share a concern about public health and safety or environmental threat, without fear of managerial retaliation or censure.

From muzzling scientists, the battleground has shifted to the federal government keeping librarians and archivists from visiting classrooms or attending conferences and speaking at public meetings, even on their own time.

Questioning some Canadians’ approval of the Conservative record, Bourrie suggests that Harper seems to offer national pride, strong leadership in a dangerous world, with simple answers to complex questions.

“It’s an illusion,” Bourrie warns, as he urges concerned Canadians to vote for a party that will reverse antidemocratic trends, and calls on those concerned to become active in groups and on social media.

Above all, he counsels, “Don’t wait for a savior.”

Alain Saulnier learned the hard way about Harper’s war on the messengers when he was fired in 2012 as director of radio and television news at Radio Canada. He wrote a book about the decline of the CBC and its French-language networks.

Ici Était Radio-Canada (les Éditions du Boréal, 275 pp., $27.95) reads like a thriller, except that there are no winners.

The victims include Saulnier, who now teaches journalism at Université de Montréal, and fellow employees who lost their jobs at Canada’s most important multi-media source for news, information, current affairs and entertainment programming.

The biggest loss is to the Canadian public.

Saulnier begins his narrative recalling the dark days of Duplessis-era Quebec, when the CBC’s French network did play something of a savior’s role in developing and deepening cultural awareness, shared values, and opening to a wider world beyond parish confines.

The arrival of television in 1952 – CBFT was bilingual before becoming French only – offered a positive window for French Canadian society in Quebec, gave exposure to emerging public personalities in the arts and politics, and propelled the winds of change.

Saulnier emphasizes that he was always committed to the principle that the government must maintain an “arm’s length” relationship with the public broadcaster. But since the CBC is a creature of the federal government, which has ultimate control over its mandate and the bulk of its budget, this is easier declared than followed.

Saulnier makes the point that following the 1995 referendum and under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, CBC and Radio Canada suffered its worst ever financial cutback. Based on Friends of a CBC compilation cited in the book, the Parliamentary allocation to CBC was cut to $1.19 billion in 1998 from $1.64 billion in 1994-95.

The book picks up pace shortly after Stephen Harper began his first mandate, and Saulnier was appointed Radio Canada’s news chief, determined to promote investigative journalism.

Saulnier did not expect Harper to react after he suspended and re-assigned then reporter Christine St.-Pierre from the Ottawa Bureau when she publicly declared her support for continuing Canada’s controversial military role in Afghanistan. Harper blasted the move, saying journalists who support the mission should be allowed to say so.

“Patriotism before journalism: It wasn’t my style, but I was discovering that of the prime minister,” Saulnier observes.

The next run-in was over coverage of a 2007 speech by then natural resources minister Gary Lunn, who said nuclear energy could be used in the tar sands extraction process as a less polluting option than natural gas. A furious Sandra Buckler, then Harper’s director of communications, complained and, in a retaliatory move, ordered Conservative MPs to refuse Radio Canada any interviews for several days.

The problem for the PMO, Saulnier opines, is that the Conservatives did not control the message.

When the network launched a series called l’épreuve des faits (We look at the facts) during the 2008 election, Harper’s abrasive press attaché, Dmitri Soudas, alleged that several of them were “very critical” of government programs, without being equally critical of the other parties’ responses.

Things got worse at Radio Canada after the departure of Robert Rabinovitch – a president Saulnier admired –replaced by the current office holder, Hubert Lacroix.

One of the most telling anecdotes is a chance meeting between Lacroix and Alain Gravel, Radio Canada chief investigative reporter working for the TV news show Enquête, whose work on wide-scale corruption in the construction industry led to the appointment of Quebec’s Charbonneau commission of inquiry and its explosive and corrosive testimony. Gravel proudly tells Lacroix: “Boss, we have a heck of a show on Enquête tonight.”

Lacroix’s deadpan response: “When are you going to come up with some positive investigations?”

Following the 2011 election, the Conservatives won the first majority ever without winning most of the seats in Quebec.

The CBC board, composed according to Saulnier entirely of Conservative party supporters, summoned him and then vice-president Sylvain Lafrance to Ottawa to discuss election coverage.

Saulnier and Lafrance presented an interim report by an independent third party, Laval University’s Centre d’études sur les médias, which compared coverage in other media and among the various Radio Canada programs, and concluded that “there is probably no bias in the attention paid to the various competing parties by Radio Canada.” Still, he remembers being “cut to pieces” by two Quebec board members and left the meeting feeling the writing was on the wall.

Saulnier soon was offered a new job as network Ombudsman, which he had previously refused. He preferred to resign.

He ends with concern for the future and the new focus under Harper. In 2010-2015, CBC’s mission was “to express Canadian culture and enrich the democratic life of this country, we strive to be a socially minded organization in everything we do.”

A more restrictive mission for 2015-20 says merely that the CBC “expresses Canadian culture and enriches the life of all Canadians through a wide range of content that informs, enlightens and entertains.”

This short history of Radio-Canada’s role in shaping and recording Quebec history and contributing to its cultural development comes at an important time in the evolution of the network.

His personal story is a warning about how far this government is prepared to go to control CBC/Radio Canada – one of the country’s most successful cultural institutions and, as a reliable provider of balanced news, documentaries, and investigative journalism, a pillar of Canadian democracy.

With these two important books, it becomes clear that the Conservative assault on the integrity, autonomy, and public funding of CBC/Radio-Canada dovetails with its clampdown on the free flow of information and unprecedented speech controls on scientists and experts.

It amounts to Harper silencing the independent voices that may challenge his political vision for Canada.

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