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History Table of Contents
1996 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

The Closing Address: The Canadian Response

PATRICK WATSON
film-maker, broadcaster, former Chair, CBC

In the summer of 1950 I was the sailing instructor at a co-educational camp in Algonquin Park. One afternoon when the wind was calm and there wasn't much point in hoisting sail, I offered a dockside talk and workshop on knots and splices. [It] drew a little group of enthusiasts for marlin spike and whipping and the mysteries of the long splice.

In the middle of which an event occurred which is still vivid in my memory; an intimate, companionable, erotic, passionate event.

I arrested the knots and splices demonstration in process and called their attention to the water near the bow of one of the akroyd dinghies, where a dragonfly nymph on the surface was in the process, or the agony, of unzipping the backplate of its carapace, from which fissure it would now emerge as a dragonfly.

Within seconds I and my little group of teenage sailors — well-to-do Jewish boys and girls from Detroit, urban kids — were on our bellies on the dock, rapt; silent before this re-enactment of a very ancient miracle of transformation.

Painfully, slowly the wrinkled, compressed, ugly little bug emerged from the crack in its own back. It — or God, or the universe — pumped blood into the dull, nubbed, crinkled stubs on its thorax and they began to stretch and became, over several minutes, luminous transparent, fine-veined wings, and they moved tentatively in the sun for several more minutes stretching more, and drying. And then as our hearts seemed to almost stop, they began to beat, slow at first, then faster, until this new creature hovered for a moment and then flew off and became ordinary again and we could all breath again.

I tell this here because that moving picture stole unbidden into my visual memory the other day in this hall as some members of the conference were exulting over the learning potential of virtual experience.

And apparently there was something, or is something, deeply set in my makeup that wishes me to be reminded of the exquisite exultions in the learning from immediate and real experience.

Without arguing the case, I knew intuitively that I had to make it part of the context of what I say to you here about this conference; not that it's about citizenship, it's not about electronics, it is about the me who says to you the things that I am about to say to you about how this conference went and what we said to each other and, perhaps, even what it meant.

In his keynote address on Thursday, setting this conference in motion, the President of PBS didn't say very much about the Electronic Village, but he did say a great deal about his vision of the tasks and tools and methods that attend upon citizenship.

The act of being a citizen. For citizenship is not an idea, it is a doing of things.

Mr. Duggan didn't shade or qualify. His was a clarion call of purpose. He was the herald of the ancient Athenian assembly; the herald who called the citizens together on assembly day — remember, the citizens were the government of Athens — and the herald called them all together and gave them their purpose.

Mr. Duggan gave us our purpose. He did not shade or qualify it. He did not shy afterwards in the face of (say) a very pertinent accusation of nostalgia for a simpler age. He just uncompromisingly gave us our task.

And so I say it was a great keynote speech and it challenged us to look for ways to revive in our citizenship a sense of common purpose in the face of the endlessly changing profile of human intercourse that the electronic age continually confronts us with.

How well did we respond?

Mr. Duggan gave primacy in his quartet of paths towards the new civic society, to the search for truth. He said, "civic discourse has no purpose if its destination is not the truth." A powerful and challenging declaration, but I believe that this declaration is not true.

The purpose of civic discourse in a democracy is not to arrive at the truth, it is to arrive at agreement.

We come together in the citizen spaces, in the public spaces so crucial to democratic citizenship — our parliaments, our union halls, our citizens' forums, our intergovernmental conferences, our student councils, our town halls, our trials in a court of law — not to seek truth, but to seek that kind of accommodation which leads us from confrontation and contention to civility.

Public space, for the democratic citizen, is where we may contend, freely and vigorously our contention mediated by conventions of courtesy and mutual respect, in order to arrive at further conventions.

And these further conventions will protect the continuity of — and lead to the growth of — that very civil society which confers and nourishes, constructs and protects, among its other benefits, those very public spaces and conventions in which we can continue to contend and seek agreement in order to perpetuate the very civil society again.

The great circle of civic action towards civic purpose continues, thus, to turn; sometimes with celestial majesty and sometimes with troublesome rowdiness.

In the Eastern traditions, social harmony itself seems to be the purpose of the work of governance, of debate, of consultation, of the search for agreement.

And within that Eastern tradition, the paramountcy of social stability and continuity and order leads people to tolerate the suppression of individuality and to approve the primacy of the state. Personal freedom and subversion and dissent, which we value so highly, there are less valued. The Chinese word for liberty is cognate to the word for chaos, and its emotional freight is negative and menacing.

Contrast, of course, in the Western tradition the fulfilment of the individual person is the final purpose of government and the mark of civil society.

Now, there is loss and contradiction entailed here, just as there is in the Eastern tradition with its contempt for liberty and its tolerance of tyranny in the interest of order.

In the West, the cost has to do with what Ervin Duggan called, "the doctrine of radical personal autonomy," and its tendency to produce dysfunction in the community; alienation, crime, inequity, personal resentment growing into social anger and electoral politics based upon charisma and the illusion of the hero, or saviour leader, which ultimately leads to, and can only lead to, disappointment and cynicism and disengagement.

I said that Mr. Duggan's keynote did not much deal with the electronic universe and its constantly changing challenges.

He did, however, warn of some the "fatuous utopian rhetoric" that abounds about the Internet and we heard some of that on Friday about the powerful new democratization of society flowing from the Internet.

And I heard clearly in the corridors afterwards and in this room that no one in this conference was for one moment taken in or bamboozled by fatuous rhetoric.

We were reminded, creatively and excitingly, during the weekend of enormous opportunities in the Net for personal fulfilment, enlarged context for the marvellous preservation and making visible of our heritage, for the confounding of authoritarian attempts to suppress information — all of these contributions to, and potential strengtheners of, democratic citizenship.

We heard also some thoughtful concerns about the Net. About how it may favour anonymity and the avoidance of accountability; about fragmentation, addiction, about wasting time. Some made light of these concerns. They should not be made light of. We abandon our responsibilities to our children if we do not say to them, watch out for those things.

But in this connection we heard wisdom enter the forum, both from floor and platform, when people said again and again, yes, but those risks have always attended change and discovery.

We can be hurt, socially fragmented, distracted by fire, by engines, by books, by the horse. And the obligations upon us remain in face of the Internet and its successors — let's not forget that there will be successive techno-challenges. The obligation I believe remains this: how do we create, nourish and protect those ways and devices, institutions, instruments and attitudes, that will move us towards and not away from the hopes for a civil society? Those hopes have been the underlying existential fuel-cell of this conference since ever it began 65 years ago.

I put it to you that most of us have been saying all this weekend, and by God Mr Duggan said it, too, and said it first — despite his error over the truth. We have all been saying that when it comes to the struggle for democracy, the electronic environment has not, in the end, changed much.

I'll go further. I'll say that the Internet and its ancestors and its progeny — important and dangerous and useful as they are — transformational in substance and context as they are, these things have changed nothing of fundamental consequence in the meaning and ontology of citizenship.

Democracy remains a struggle. Democracy continues to allow the risk of the tyranny of majority. It continues to permit subversion which may help or harm it. It hungers for consensus. It is made hungry by dissent. It needs them both if it is to flourish. It continues to depend upon the Rule of Law.

It continues to depend on time for deliberation and reconsideration, upon accountability, upon freedom of political and social intercourse, upon the mediation of institutions and time between the sovereign will of the people and the legislated act.

Democracy can thrive only with the act of uncoerced and willing participation of those little platoons of citizens. Democracy continues to be difficult, elusive, messy, contradictory, precious, necessary.

It continues to need the space and time for a young teacher and a group of kids on a dock by a real lake with a real dragonfly nymph in a real public space, like a park, with or without the Internet.

Questions

People [have] spoken glowingly about CBC Radio, but were not as glowing about television. Because Patrick has been so closely associated with television, I want to ask him why he thinks that is?

I think public television in this country has largely abandoned its constituencies and I'm talking about CBC English television. I join those people who are expressing real passionate fear, anxiety — if not anger — about the disappearance of public teleivision.

It's primarily the fault of the public broadcaster, but it probably has a great deal to do also with the rise of corporatism and consumerism and a number of other forces at work in the community that we've been talking about.

I anticipated there would be a question about television and I made a couple of notes in response to two things that were said by critics of television, which I think were glib and thoughtless.

John Godfrey referred to studies that show a correspondence between heavy television watching and low citizen participation...that particular statistical correspondence is meaningless as presented.

It could become meaningful, if it were to be accompanied by a study that shows whether citizen participation has gone up or down since the advent of television. We know that political awareness has gone up hugely. Knowing the players and assessing them and discussing them has become a major national sport as a result of television.

We know that since the advent of television the making of homemade music, the writing and publishing of poetry and fiction, the production of local drama and attendance at theatres have all gone up hugely since television. And some would argue — me among them — because of television.

We do not know what the non-participants and heavy TV watchers as a demographic slice were doing before they had television. Does television keep them from the citizenship arena, or from the beer parlour, or the garden, or the track, or the tennis court, or from day dreaming...we don't know that, at least from the John Godfrey report.

So we should not be glib about these things.

David Ellis said, if I watch more costume drama, will I become a better Canadian? And you all laughed, I guess, in agreement with his implication.

Do I really have to explain to you why the answer to his question is, yes, he will become a better citizen by watching more costume drama? Would somebody else like to try the answer?

Here's some indicators: young people, and old, too, several here in this conference, have been telling me over and over again that they have become more intrigued with Canada's history as a result of watching the Heritage Minutes than by any history they ever had at school.

Large numbers of Canadians wrote and phoned the CBC to say thank you for the insight and compassion conveyed by The Boys of Saint Vincent.

Some three million Canadians watched together, many of them weeping as they did so, the four-hour production called Dieppe; united in anguish before our common loss, hundreds of thousands of people sharing a profoundly meaningful moment of common grief.

Watching these [and numerous other] things on television deepened our understanding of and concern with and pride in and compassion for our fellow Canadians and gave us new currency of exchange, new cultural material around which we could gather to discuss and exchange. And everyone one of those pieces, David Ellis, was a costume drama.

My question refers to the free market fundamentalism which Mr. Duggan mentioned. Is the best way to combat this from within or from without? I think the best person to answer this is Mr. Watson, because I've heard negative things said that in CBC he didn't fight for the preservation; he allowed these free market guys, these downsizing guys to walk all over the CBC. On the other hand, I've heard very positive things that was the best way to do it; the best is when you're there you can talk to chiefs, talk to the bosses. If you're without, you're just a critic and they can put you aside. On that philosophical basis, what is the best role of the citizen when he is facing a government where he sees things he doesn't like. Is it to fight it from within or to leave and criticize from without?

Part of the answer is, try and assess what your best skills are and deploy them where they work best. If you're good at harassing the battlements from without with weapons that work there, fine. If you're good at infiltrating and working from within, try that. I tried both.

I think I'm probably more effective from without, than I was from within, although you see when I went into the Corporation it was grossly overbloated in terms of its redundant structures and personnel and it needed somebody to support at the policy level the shrinkage that had to take place and still hasn't entirely taken place and I have no apologies to make for that.

It is a place that can still be more efficient, but its real problems are programming problems and the resistance to profound programming change is deeply invested and still and it's going to a long time to overcome. I don't know whether it can before the institution disappears.

But, I think the either or of fight from within or fight from without is too categorical for me. I think you have to assess from where you believe you can be most effective and try not to kid yourself.

If you were suddenly handed dictatorial powers to run the CBC, and assume you have to be somewhat fiscally responsible in doing this, what major changes would you affect in programming?

I would quickly ask the English television service to recognize that it does live in a 70-channel universe and it is absurd to run something like some of these major dramas that I've just spoken of, let's say The Boys of St. Vincent, twice in the first month of its existence, then we don't ever see it again. That thing cost $4.5 million. It belongs to the Canadian people.

The Canadian people who want to see it also have a right to look at the Bravo Channel and the Sports Network and CNN and the Discovery Channel and YTV and Vision TV without having to give up the opportunity to see the strong Canadian material, documentary, news, current affairs, drama, entertainment, whatever you like that the CBC has to offer.

So, I would say first of all — remembering what I said earlier about the constituencies of the CBC feeling that they had been abandoned — why do they feel they have been abandoned by English television?

Well, it's because too often when they tune into English television, like you, they think they're in some other television channel that looks like something else.

Why? There's too much advertising. It interrupts long form broadcasts, long form documentary and long form drama and doesn't belong there. Sure, it's OK in a hockey game, it's OK in light entertainment, but it's an insult to these constituencies to place advertising where it doesn't belong and even worse an insult to let advertising pressures choose the program itself.

This is a rabid insult to anybody who cares about quality broadcasting.

Secondly, we don't have enough opportunity for a second chance to get at those great programs and there are great programs being done in the documentary and drama field.

Third, there is no reason in the world for anything to be on a public broadcasting channel that does not fill the mandate.

Fourth, there is enough money in the existing Parliamentary allocation to provide this kind of quality mandate program in a repeat schedule that acknowledges the 70 channel universe and the terrific fragmentation of the audience and allows programmers to emerge from the old hypnosis of ratings, which is no longer a consideration of any value in a public broadcasting environment.

Of course, it's important that numbers of people get to see The Boys of St. Vincent. Well, if you run it 30 times in its first year of existence, its accumulative audience will be far bigger than it ever was when you ran two or three times, even though you had the additional benefit of its having been banned by the courts — so it was very enticing.

The simple plan is high repetition factor, nothing on the air that does not meet the mandate and that means almost all Canadian and almost all excellent. It means getting into the inventory of 20,000 programs in the vaults, perhaps 5,000 to 7,000 which are really excellent programming, and doing a deal with the performers' union that will make it economically feasible to rerun them, which it is not now — it is too costly. There's a wealth of wonderful drama going back to the beginning of television. There are programs — - one done in black and white on the first videotape machines that we got in 1959, Stravinsky rehearses the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; not a performance, a rehearsal.

Spellbinding treasures sitting there in the damn archives. Would you watch that? You're damn right you would! And it could be played and played and played. If it's a bit antique now, maybe it needs bookends in the form of a provocative host or panel of people to rip it apart or give it some content. To come back to how to fix the CBC, live within your budget, mandate only — if that means you have to reduce the number of original programs per year by 60 per cent in the 70 channel universe you can do that and win your constituencies back. I'm floating this very actively with the Board and management of the Corporation whenever I can get anybody's ear and they're thinking about it and somebody's going to cost it and they're saying, isn't it risky

And I say, yes, it's risky as hell, but the path you're on now has no risk at all.

What about all this CBC programming? Would you keep a proprietary interest or sell it and make it available to other networks?

I think one of the big opportunities is to go to work in co- production and pre-licensing agreements with the specialty channels. There's going to be a history channel licensed next month, probably. Think of the opportunities there for the CBC, both for inventory and new programming. Downstream Moses Znaimer wants to have a learning channel. So you can have multiple windows, multiple places where people can get a fix on the learning channel. They're going to use it all the time. Some of that is happening now and it just needs to be expanded and it will if the thing survives.

You eluded to the Rule of Law as one of the tenets of democracy. I'd be interested to hear your perspective on the chaotic and somewhat anarchistic culture of the Internet and some of the lack of fit between traditional legal concepts and

the Rule of Law as it is manifesting on the Internet with the availability of pipe bomb home pages and a culture of chaos, but a culture that is somehow at odds with some of our basic notions of the Rule of Law?

I'm not sure you can say it's at odds with our concept of the Rule of Law. Our concept of the Rule of Law is that you can do anything you want as long as it doesn't hurt anybody. That's an oversimplification, but it's the John Stuart Mill concept. It's often difficult to discern where hurting begins and mild irritation leaves off and we continue to try and re-interpret that and that's how the English common law got built.

Will Tacy dealt with that when he pointed out if the law is being broken you prosecute. I take the same view about things like snuff films and child pornography. You go and find the people who abuse the children and you put them in jail. It's much more effective than trying to censor the films.