Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Aristotle coined the phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum" in a political context. He meant that if an important person or institution abandons their role, another soon moves in to take its place.

But power vacuums don't just exist in government or business. They exist in cultural endeavors as well. Therefore, when Canadian television networks don't make Canadian programming, let alone shows that strongly reflect the values of their audience, somebody else is going to move in and make programming for them -- programs sometimes designed to move our hearts and minds in a decidedly different direction.

There's little remaining doubt that Canadian audiences raised on a steady diet of American drama or comedy now prefer that style of entertainment over their home-grown product. Indeed, our most successful indigenous shows now work hard to emulate American models of production and presentation. And quite honestly, their style hasn't really undermined our substance and might even be helping us find a wider audience as well as recapturing those in our own house.

But what if somebody had a different agenda? What if the goal of the shows they created was to change how the country thinks and what it feels is worth fighting for or opposing?

Two years ago, I met a delegation of Chinese television executives at a foreign film market. A couple of months later, one of them phoned me. He was in Toronto and had a project he thought I might be interested in getting involved with. It was a dramatic series of 26 half hours that was already financed. But it needed to shoot in Canada and be written and produced by somebody here.

I met with he and his translator, learning that the show wanted to follow the lives of several young Chinese college students studying in Canada. A kind of "fish outta water" version of "Party of Five", it would be shot in Mandarin and English and explore the cultural challenges these kids faced being half a world away from home and dealing with a myriad of unexpected challenges.

The Mandarin version would play in China and both versions would be made available to networks here to serve both the North American and Chinese community. It would give audiences in China an understanding of what students studying abroad had to deal with and replicate the immigrant experience for the locals.

I thought the concept had enormous potential to explore all the things these kids were being exposed to from the differences in day-to-day life to dating to learning about issues not spoken about at home like human rights and...

He stopped me. No stories about human rights, a free press or challenging authority. The series had to assure people in China that the values their children had learned at home would not be "corrupted" by what they experienced here.

I told him he had the wrong guy.

But for a long time afterward I wondered what kind of effect the show he was imagining might have on those who watched it here. I'm not sure if he ever found somebody to help him. I do know how hard the "already financed" part of his argument would be for most independent producers to resist.

But -- could another country come here and try to shape our views through Canadian produced television programming?

I'm beginning to suspect they could -- make that -- already have, through one of the most influential genres of broadcasting possible -- the News, specifically CBC News.

On Thursday, October 30th, the French language television service of the CBC ran a show entitled "Malaise in Chinatown" portraying a group known as the Falun Gong as a major cause of trouble in Montreal's Chinese community.

For those of you who don't read the papers much, Falun Gong is not some Chinese gang or Triad. It's a spiritual movement founded in China in 1992. Its teachings and meditation exercises seek to develop character according to the principles of Truthfulness and Compassion.

Although a peaceful quasi-religion, Falun Gong has been outlawed by the Chinese government, its followers imprisoned and tortured. According to the UN, 66% of torture cases in China and 50% of the country's forced labor population are Falun Gong practitioners.

And if that isn't bad enough. Former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour and Winnipeg Human Rights lawyer David Matas recently published a report entitled "Bloody Harvest" which documents and details the Chinese government practice of harvesting human organs from perfectly healthy Falun Gong members for transplantation.

That report has been recognized as factually accurate by humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and convinced the Australian government to close its Transplant teaching hospitals to Chinese students to prevent doctors with Australian medical diplomas from becoming part of this barbaric practice.

However, the CBC, in its report, seems to be following the path of Chinese government allegations that Falun Gong members cut open their own bodies, drink blood, have sex with animals and commit other immoral acts. During the course of "Malaise in Chinatown", a CBC reporter calls Falun Gong an "omnipresent bothersome religion" responsible for many of the problems within the Chinese community.

Among those interviewed for the program was David Kilgour, who on seeing it stated, "I have never seen such an unfair representation of our position."

According to the Epoch Times a newspaper founded to provide uncensored coverage of events in China, this is far from the first time the CBC has broadcast material that ignores the excesses of the Beijing regime.

Some of you may recall that during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, CBC took the unprecedented action of pulling a documentary it had commissioned from Canadian film-maker Peter Rowe entitled "Beyond the Red Wall" which explored the Falun Gong persecution. It is alleged that CBC acted after pre-broadcast complaints from the Chinese embassy.

"Beyond the Red Wall" was re-edited to remove or downplay some of its content and broadcast a few weeks later. Apparently that wasn't enough for the Chinese government, who blocked the broadcaster's website for a short time in January.

So what happened with "Malaise in Chinatown"? Was this a small payback, a "make-good" for previously offending the Beijing regime? Was it financed as some kind of reward for not talking about "human rights issues" during the Olympics -- or maybe a "tax" for mentioning them by accident once or twice? Was it just bad journalism? Or was somebody helping CBC reframe public opinion?

Again -- it wouldn't be the first time.

During the final week of the Canadian election, CBC talking heads were endlessly questioning the journalistic ethics of CTV for "ambushing" Liberal Leader Stephane Dion by broadcasting interview material not intended for public consumption.

I tended to agree with them that what CTV did was unethical. But the "we're above all that" tone rang hollow to me after the much more organized "smear-job" CBC News perpetrated on Prime Minister Harper during the Isreal/Lebanon war.

That meticulous and conscious reworking of the truth was exposed by Conservative Blogger Stephen Taylor in a video he released to Youtube.

The CBC apology that resulted is also on Youtube in all it's disingenuous "Gosh, I guess we missed that" glory. Not a high point for our national broadcaster. And it appears that with "Malaise in Chinatown", they've sunk to another low.

The one thing I think we all expect from television journalists is either the truth or reporting that's as close to the truth as they can get. We're living in a time when we need to know what we're seeing is as accurate and unbiased as possible -- and maybe produced by Canadians reflecting the values of this country and not serving the agenda of somebody else.

1 comment:

Rich Baldwin said...

I think that, in the case of the Chinese TV show, most Canadians would just be very bored with it, and stop watching. I mean, how are you going to have a show about teens in North America that don't ever challenge authority figures? Sometimes the values of a culture are so different that the entertainment of one won't entertain the other much at all. Chinese-Canadians might watch for longer - they'd feel a somewhat stronger connection to the issues at hand - but soon enough they'd detect how 'Chinese' the show's values were and most of them would likely feel a disconnect that would eventually lead them turn off the TV (or at least to question the show's premises; audiences are much smarter than they are often given credit for being).

As for the news: This is a *big* problem that grows worse every year. It's about corporations in First World nations who have connections to developing nations, and put pressure on news agencies because of this. It's sad to say, but we're likely to see an overall world decline in human rights and freedoms within the next fifty years as nations like China and India cease being developing nations and become the world's superpowers. At that point, international pressure against criticizing these countries will be much, much worse, so we better get in the habit of doing it now so that by then it will be a tradition - after all, if there's anything China understands, it's tradition.