Public Broadcasting and the Power of Definition: How Canada Can Learn From Egypt

Tahrir Square photo courtesy CBC News.

On Friday, February 10, 2011, the world’s eyes were fixed firmly on Egypt. A news bulletin early in the day had announced that Hosni Mubarak would take to Egyptian state television to respond to the massive citizen uprising that had taken shape in Cairo over the previous 18 days. Speculation abounded that this address would serve as Mubarak’s public resignation, an act that would end thirty years of repressive, plutocratic rule.

When Mubarak failed (initially) to step down, Tahrir Square, the protesters’ stronghold, erupted in angry jeers. Thousands aggressively raised and tossed their shoes, a powerful gesture of disrespect in Arabic cultures.

I watched these historic moments unfold in real time. My eyes were glued to the live streaming coverage provided by Al Jazeera English, the English-language branch of the Al Jazeera network, a public broadcaster funded by the government of Qatar. AJE was a natural choice. Throughout the entire Egyptian drama, the channel has kept a watchful eye, attentive ear, and thoughtful mind turned on the politics, personalities, causes, and effects of the protests.

On AJE, information always came first; the coverage was comprehensive, local, and sensitive to what was happening on the ground. It examined the revolution from the inside out, and on its own terms. When thrust onto the world stage, Al Jazeera shone.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the North American media. Since protests in Cairo began, media outlets on our side of the Atlantic have continually shifted focus away from the revolution itself, away from a consideration of roots and impacts for the Egyptian people, and toward what it means for the United States. Rather than asking “what’s happening and why?” major media on our shores have obsessively wondered, “what is Obama going to do, and why weren’t we consulted?” What is, by all accounts, a fascinating and heartening case of citizen activism was dramatically pruned back by the media: only if it could be framed as an American issue was it an issue worth looking at.

We saw the same kind of split when university and high school students in the UK took to the streets last winter to protest the Cameron government’s sweeping cuts to higher education. On November 12, Al Jazeera English ran a story outlining precisely what the students were protesting- how expensive university was going to get, the history of education funding in the UK, and the like. The North American media, for its part though, seemed content to report that protesters had attacked Prince Charles and Camilla’s motorcade with little explanation of the context in which the attack took place. Issues took a back seat to North American priorities; information was sacrificed to the need to sell, broad examinations of complex issues disappeared within the cult of celebrity and personality.

While remarkable in many ways, then, the Egyptian and British cases also act as urgent reminders of the profound importance of public broadcasting within a healthy democracy. In Canada, the CBC is routinely attacked, by those trumpeting the horn of austerity, as a burden of both the state and the taxpayer. The Harper government has time and again dragged the CBC onto the chopping block by the ear. Frequently, its funding is actually slashed, but commonly, a sword is dangled over its head, reminding us all that its end is but a pen stroke away.

In 2009, some may recall, the broadcaster was forced to cut up to 80 news positions and more than 300 more from sports, entertainment, and current affairs, as well as sell $125 million in assets to make up a $171 million budgetary shortfall. While undoubtedly related to the general downturn across all media industries since the October, 2009 economic meltdown, this is a shortfall, says Hubert Lacroix, CEO of the broadcaster, that is also directly linked to the Conservatives’ reticent attitude toward upholding the CBC’s government funding.

Al Jazeera is a public broadcaster supported by the government of Qatar; wholly 85% of its operating budget is drawn from public funds. Headquartered in Doha, Al Jazeera broadcasts to more than 80 million households worldwide, and Al Jazeera English is the world’s only 24-hour English-language news channel that broadcasts from the Middle East.

Neither AJ nor AJE are the domain of advertisers, marketers, or shrewd executives with their eyes firmly fixed on the bottom line. At the heart of Al Jazeera is a structural and ethical commitment to the democratic principles upon which the free press was founded. It’s not about packaging and selling the news to consumers; it’s about gathering and synthesizing information for the benefit of citizens.

Canada must stand up and learn from this shining example. Despite seeing ourselves as a relatively progressive, forward-thinking nation, we live in one of the most heavily concentrated and corporatized media environments in the developed world. Thanks to recent acquisitions and mergers between CTV and Bell, and Shaw and CanWest, for example, the people who deliver content to our televisions and computers are the same people who own the wires and cables that carry that content. All Shaw and Bell need to do is start manufacturing televisions to gain effective control of our media landscape.

Competition? Diversity? Informed citizenship? Think again. Today, we’re more likely to find ourselves addressed as consumers than as voters.  As we give more ever more favor to this privatized media structure, and less support to public broadcasting, we risk handing over our ability to define ourselves on our own terms to organizations that have little interest in Canada as a people, a place, and a culture. We become a market, nothing more.

Al Jazeera’s robust, non-commercial presence in the region from which it broadcasts gives it a tremendous ability to speak to and for its citizens, without having to give into gimmickry to sell content. Being headquartered in Qatar places AJ’s fingers firmly on the pulse of the region and empowers it to address issues from the inside. It’s a powerful bulwark against a North American media landscape bent on shoehorning global issues into an American frame. Josh Rushing, one of AJE’s presenters, puts it best: “CNN films the launch of the missile. Al Jazeera films what happens where it lands.”

By continually putting the CBC on the front lines of austerity cuts, the Harper government puts Canada at the mercy of this way of doing things. Without the CBC, Canada will lose its capacity to define and explore itself as it sees fit. Left without a media platform that is Canadian both in ethos and in practice, we relinquish our own voice. We surrender our sense of self to the highest bidder.

Originally published by Tyler Morgenstern on 14 February 2011. Tahrir Square photo courtesy CBC News.

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