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Book Review: Ici Était Radio-Canada

By guest blogger Francine Pelletier

On February 22, 2012, Alain Saulnier, former head of radio and television news at Radio-Canada, a man who started out as a supernumerary in 1984 and worked his way up, was fired, to most everyone’s surprise and dismay, after being convened to the office of newly minted Vice-President Louis Lalande. It could have been worse. The distinguished and much-loved manager could have been ambushed by someone from Human Resources as he was heading to the loo, divested of his keys and badges, then quickly escorted to the front door. Precisely the fate that awaited Mary-Jo Barr, director of news at CBC Montreal, recently. There have been other similar firings since.

But being fired is only a small part of what Ici était Radio-Canada (This used to be CBC) is about. Alain Saulniers’ book, a rare insider’s take on the gradual dismantling of the CBC, is a rallying cry from someone who believes passionately in public broadcasting. Speaking of himself and his colleagues, Saulnier writes: “We used to say that Radio-Canada couldn’t die, that it would survive any change in government or management. We were wrong. We believed the journalistic culture within the institution, tried and true, would withstand any pressure. It was a mistake. The CBC can disappear. More and more people are complicit to its dismantling, either actively or by sheer indifference. Still others are so overwhelmed with what’s happening they have no idea what to do about it”.

Saulnier’s book does not pretend to have the answer to the question “what to do about it”. But it does provide a great deal of insight on how the vital “arm’s-length” relationship between the public broadcaster and the federal government has been eroded over the years, particularly under the current presidency of Hubert T. Lacroix.

Drawing a stark contrast between Lacroix and his predecessor, Robert Rabinovitch, a man described as having an “acute sense of his role as advocate for the institution”, Saulnier presents the current CEO as being in line with Gérard Veilleux and Perrin Beatty, “civil servants always ready to toe the line”. He also exposes at length the political ties of the current CBC board of administration with the Harper government.

But the real strength of this book lies in exposing Lacroix’s tenure. Saulnier relates how the newly appointed CEO’s first question to Sylvain Lafrance, French Services Vice-President at the time, was: “What do you mean by ‘Radio-Canada, instrument of democracy and culture’? It’s a corporation, a business…”. The tone was set.

The man who likes to present himself as a former basketball commentator is himself a pretty savvy businessman. When first hired in 2008, to more than a full-time job, Lacroix managed to keep lucrative gigs on the side as a paid board member of two important companies, Fibrek (lumber) and Zarlink (telecommunications). He also billed for travel expenses he had no right to. With no real knowledge (or love, one might add) of public broadcasting, the only reason Hubert Lacroix found himself at the helm of CBC/Radio-Canada, are his political ties to the Conservative party and, in particular, to former Conservative minister and senator, Michael Fortier, who pushed to get his friend the job.

There’s another reason why Lacroix was hired as well as offered a second mandate in October 2012, a rare occurrence in the history of CBC CEOs:  as a corporate lawyer, Lacroix’s expertise is deals and acquisitions. Cutting, compressing, reorganising are what he knows best. Saulnier argues that in order to secure that second mandate he had to show “that he had the corporation well in hand”. That meant being, in Lacroix’s own words, “a good corporate citizen”, dutifully complying with all government cuts. It meant also getting rid of the heads of English and French services, Richard Stursberg and Sylvain Lafrance. In another famous quip, Lacroix apparently told his two former vice-presidents he didn’t understand “what their jobs were”. Meaning how many bosses does a corporation actually need?

Invoking a new five-year plan to guide the public broadcaster through difficult times, Lacroix first took care of Stursberg (August 2010) and then Lafrance (October 2010). He then let his new appointee, Louis Lalande, an old Radio-Canada stalwart that no one saw ever reaching the top, take care of Alain Saulnier. Known for his journalism-comes-first approach, Saulnier mentions in passing that the current affairs program Enquête had done an investigative piece, under his watch, which involved Lacroix’s family-in-law. While this never came up in any of his discussions with either Lacroix or the new vice-president, it certainly didn’t help the former head of radio and television keep his job.

There are quite a few other gobsmacking moments in this book, mostly involving political intrusions on Radio-Canada programming. In August 2011, for example, all Canadian Heritage minister James Moore had to do was tweet: “Duceppe?…” for the anticipated hiring of Gilles Duceppe as a weekly radio commentator to go into a head dive. While “nothing proved that having Duceppe on board would skew the range of opinions to be presented”, says Saulnier, Lacroix immediately lambasted the head of French radio for his “lack of judgment”.

Hubert Lacroix is nothing if not the perfect Conservative bureaucrat. For anyone wondering just how perfect that might be, Ici était Radio-Canada is a must read.

Francine Pelletier is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker


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