What Is the Public Broadcaster's Role Regarding the Coexistence and Protection of Cultural Identities?

September 24, 2007

Notes for a speech by Sylvain Lafrance, Executive Vice-President of French Services, CBC/Radio-Canada, at Société Gatineau Monde.

Good evening,

I would like to begin by thanking Société Gatineau Monde for its invitation and this opportunity to speak to you about some topics I find truly fascinating. Indeed, there are several reasons why I am very happy to be here tonight.

First, I have to admit that after 29 years with Radio-Canada, I still feel the same excitement when I go to work in the morning. Every day we have to move mountains and face extraordinary challenges. So I am still just as enthusiastic as ever when asked to talk about Radio-Canada and our future projects.

Another reason is that when I read what Société Gatineau Monde is all about and what you have accomplished in the last few years, I couldn't help noticing that there were many aspects of your mission and goals that were similar to how we describe our own mission as the country's public broadcaster.

We have many points in common because at Radio-Canada, we describe ourselves more and more as a vehicle for democracy and culture. In a manner of speaking, the public broadcaster "creates" democracy and culture. Radio-Canada is there to enrich the country's democratic and cultural life. That is how we describe our work today. And yet it's more complex than you may think, because once you have made that assertion, you have to define the concepts of "democracy" and "culture" since they probably changed meanings around the turn of the century.

We do not experience democracy today the same way we did in 1980, for example. The same is true of culture, but I'll come back to that later. Their meanings today are very different from what they once were. By way of example, let me ask you the following question. Is there anyone in the room who did not see the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center on television? Just about no one. What if I asked you how many of you have seen those images fewer than 100 times? There would probably be a few more people who could answer "yes." My point is the sheer number of times those images were shown. Now, if I asked you who can explain why it happened, there would probably still be very few hands in the air because the question is extremely complex. This illustrates something that's going on today in the media realm: we see more and more of the world, but we understand it less and less.

This poses a rather unique challenge for the media, because everyone saw what happened. While the complexity of events is growing every day, our ability to explain them is diminishing.

It is extremely difficult for us today to define the public broadcaster's role with regard to this new reality and determine how we can help Canadians grasp and understand the world in which they live. I mentioned that these concepts have changed radically because creating democracy and creating culture is all well and good, but what does that mean exactly in the world today?

Our primary goal as a public broadcaster is probably to determine what has changed in the way people experience democracy and culture. Based on the answer, we should change the way we inform and entertain Canadians, and how we come up with our programming.

Let's take the term "democracy." Of all the things that have changed, I would say that the technologies through which we experience democracy have perhaps changed the most. The Internet has become a powerful tool that enables lobby and interest groups around the world to come together without borders, and to play an active role in our democratic life.

The means by which we provide and receive information have made enormous progress too. There is much more information available than before, and that has significant repercussions on democracy. Personal mobility, immigration and globalization have led to many changes, while sparking new and extremely important social debates that are a big part of democratic debate today.

We can therefore conclude that the definition of democracy underwent a fundamental shift at the turn of the century, and that as a public broadcaster, we must strive to adapt to those changes. We must ask ourselves what steps we should take to respond to this new situation and equip people to lead sound democratic and cultural lives.

The same could be said about culture, which also changed considerably at the turn of the century. To begin with, we could probably define the word "culture" hundreds of different ways without ever really managing to define it fully. But once again, successive waves of immigration, globalization and new technologies have revolutionized the manner in which we experience culture and the way we define it. You need only follow the ongoing work of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission to understand that definitions of "culture" vary a great deal and that people are sometimes threatened and other times enthusiastic about the cultural challenges we face this century. Whatever the future may bring, it is clear that this remains a key issue and that the definition of "culture" is constantly changing.

We might also want to consider the definitions of "communication" and "journalism" because they too have evolved. Today, in the 21st century, there is much talk of "citizen journalism," whereby citizens use simple communication tools at everyone's disposal to inform large numbers of people themselves. The world of communications has been completely revolutionized.

Another shift occurred in the 1990s with the complete breakdown of the concept of "proximity." For instance, when I was young and living in Maniwaki in the fifties and sixties, the concept of proximity was quite straightforward. There was the village, the church and the surrounding area. Loosely speaking, there was radio and—not quite yet—television. The notion of proximity was still quite simple because the people we met lived relatively close to us. Proximity was still pretty much a geographic concept.

Today, with the explosion in communication and increased individual mobility worldwide, proximity has lost its exclusively geographic dimension. We can be close to someone because we both like to collect stamps and talk regularly, whether he or she lives in Pakistan, Burma, Russia or anywhere else. Communicating on a daily basis with people who share the same interests, the same religion, or the same political views anywhere on the planet has become child's play. The concept of proximity has therefore completely changed.

As you may know, I have spent most of my career in radio. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when we used to go down to the United States for conferences, the Americans would tell us that the three most important things were "Localism, localism, and localism." That is no longer entirely true today, because with satellites and Internet we can tune in to stations specializing in hundreds or even thousands of different subjects. There are people out there who identify with those stations and listen to them even though they aren't the broadcasters nearest their homes.

So we're witnessing a complete breakdown of the concept of proximity. As a public broadcaster, our response must be to think about what people want to know about their planet. When you look at issues like proximity and democracy, there's a crucial point you have to understand. Your children's schoolyard may very well be threatened without the problem having anything to do with your city council or local school board. The decision may have been made in Atlanta a few weeks before. Zoning-related questions aside, it's like a runaway train that's almost impossible to stop because some powerful company has decided to set up operations in your schoolyard. That's a new reality we have to come to terms with if we want to play an active role in our democracy, our environment and our own lives. We must understand the international dimension; otherwise, we're missing a big piece of the puzzle.

In light of this new reality, we have a unique responsibility: to help people understand the world in which they live, whether in the field of news, culture or music, because it is not a simple task. At Radio-Canada, we are communication "creators." As a result, this question merits our full attention.

Generally speaking, how do the large-scale broadcasters, the major players, and the big financiers who influence the media react to these challenges? As a rule, the responses they come up with are technological and economic in nature.

First, in terms of technology, the response is "People need news and information. Great! We'll launch new platforms and new gadgets to disseminate it." We can now broadcast on cellphones, iPods, watches, and so on. We're finding all sorts of new ways to get the news out. So it's a compelling technological response, but more often than not we're putting out pretty much the same news but on different platforms. We don't really think about the underlying questions when we do it, and there are more and more gadgets and platforms out there that we can use.

Economic responses are the same. We ask what economic models can allow us to launch new gadgets and new platforms for delivering content.

Of course, the more gadgets there are, the better the economy performs. But taking that approach prevents us from asking questions that are much more fundamental. What exactly are we using these new gadgets and platforms to say to each other? Do they give us a better understanding of the world we live in? Do they help us to "live together" as they should in the 21st century? Do they help us understand one another and the century in which we live? If the answer is "no," we could quadruple the number of platforms and still not resolve any communication challenges, because human communication is not about platforms.

The responses put forward by major media groups are often technological and economic in nature, whereas the issues are neither one nor the other. In fact, they are cultural and social. In the final analysis, they are issues of civilization.

At the same time, in our democratic societies—in Canada as elsewhere—three important trends that affect the media are taking place simultaneously. The first is media concentration. As we speak, the CRTC is wrapping up hearings on this topic and diversity of voices. The question is whether there is too much media concentration in Canada or whether there is not enough, because if our media aren't big enough they won't be able to measure up in the international arena. So the issue of media concentration is currently sparking considerable debate across the country.

The second trend we're witnessing is deregulation. Again, this is a hot topic in every industrialized society. Is the industry over-regulated? Have we built a regulatory "fortress" that is so complex that businesses cannot even make a home inside its walls?

After media concentration and deregulation, the third movement is globalization. It too is moving ahead by leaps and bounds, and many people believe that it could threaten cultural identities, so much so that UNESCO is studying the question and adopting an agreement to protect the diversity of cultural expression.

These three movements are quite important. I like to say that there isn't a single one of these movements that worries me in itself. In other words, media concentration is not a topic that keeps me up at night, for example. Of course the media are heavily concentrated. Yes, we have to set limits on that concentration. Yes, many industrialized countries have tackled this issue. But at the same time, everyone recognizes that a certain degree of media concentration is necessary if we are to generate economies of scale and improve content quality. As a result, the problem of media concentration doesn't stop me from sleeping.

Deregulation in itself does not stop me from sleeping either. It may be true that in the 1980s and 1990s, our governments—in Canada and elsewhere—built regulatory systems layered one on top of another, resulting in a structure that is unwieldy and cumbersome for everyone. And it's true that it might be a good idea to review all these regulation issues. But that doesn't make me toss and turn at night either.

Nor does globalization keep me up all night, primarily because I think it is an inescapable fact of the 21st century. McLuhan pretty well saw it coming years ago. The repercussions of globalization are not exclusively negative, however. It also sparks social debates and a very rich cultural ferment. So once again, I don't lose any sleep over globalization either.

So the question is obviously what does keep me awake all night? Well, the thing that does sometimes disturb my sleep is the fact that these three movements—media concentration, deregulation and globalization—are all going on at the same time. That's more disconcerting because if we don't manage each one in light of the others, something big could happen. To use an example that's a bit of a caricature, let's say one day we concentrate all our media organizations, we deregulate the whole thing, including foreign ownership limits, and then sell it all to the Americans. That would be a real threat for Canadian cultural identity. So when I see these three movements come along at the same time, I get a little concerned and I think: "I hope there's a pilot in the airplane, because if we concentrate everything, deregulate everything and globalize everything, it may be too late to protect our cultural identities."

That's why it is extremely important for me to be part of this debate and ask at least one essential question: do all these movements, new technologies and ongoing trends threaten cultural identity—chiefly Canadian cultural identity, but also identity in general—and are they a threat for culture and identity? My answer is "Not necessarily." But the question deserves serious consideration so that we can avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

How should a public broadcaster respond, and how are we at Radio-Canada responding to this situation? How are we dealing with these phenomena and what do we foresee as the future shape of the public broadcasting service in the 21st century? At CBC/Radio-Canada's French services, we have adopted a master plan comprising three main thrusts.

The first of those thrusts is programming. That goes without saying, since it is our main function. But what type of programs should we provide? What programs should we air in response to the points we just talked about and to help Canadians understand the world? Clearly, programming produced by the public broadcasting service must become increasingly distinctive. It must be very different from content produced in the private sector. It is becoming increasingly clear that that's the road we must take.

For instance, if we look at the Télévision de Radio-Canada schedule this year, new developments include Une heure sur terre, a major international program with Jean-François Lépine premiering this week; a major new cultural magazine on Sundays with Catherine Perrin; a revised youth lineup; a new concept for newscasts; and new regional newscasts in certain areas across the country. Indeed, we're consolidating our news and information, culture and drama production capacity because those are areas where the public broadcaster has traditionally been relatively strong and where it can make a difference.

With respect to Réseau de l'information (RDI), we must ensure first that it remains an all-news channel, and second that it accurately reflects events across the entire country and in every region. That is critical in our opinion, and we must move in that direction.

As for radio, no one can accuse Première Chaîne of sounding like other radio stations. It is completely different from other broadcasters and in that respect it fulfils an extremely important mission. Espace musique must become a true vehicle for musical diversity and showcase every type of music we will be hearing in the years to come. It is very important that we broaden its musical range. Radio Canada International (RCI) is also part of our group; it will become a radio service that not only talks about Canada to foreigners, but that also speaks to new immigrants.

In RCI, Radio-Canada has a radio service that broadcasts in eight languages: Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Ukrainian, English and French. Until recently, its target audience was exclusively foreigners. But faced with the fact that 50% of newcomers to Canada speak neither French nor English, we began to look at how we could help. For a year now, RCI has been developing programs for immigrants in their own language, not to ghettoize them within their own linguistic group but to prepare them for Canada and inform them about CLSCs, school boards, city councils and the electoral process, to give just a few examples. It's a new and very important role for RCI.

All these characteristics make for very distinctive radio and television services. Tonight, for example, if you were not sitting here listening to this lecture, here's what you might find if you were to check through all of Radio-Canada's offerings: on Espace musique, you would be able to enjoy a classical music concert recorded this summer at the Domaine Forget International Music Festival; on RDI, you could watch the hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission live from Saint-Jérôme; on television, you could see a Canadian-written drama featuring Canadian actors, which is something truly special; on Première Chaîne, you could listen to Je l'ai vu à la radio, a cultural magazine; and on Radio-Canada.ca, you would have access to millions of pages on as many subjects. So whenever someone tells me that the public broadcasting service is not all that different from other content providers out there, I am always a little surprised. I think that our offerings are highly distinctive, and we should make sure that is always the case.

Still talking about programming, the first thrust in our plan, another critical issue is diversity. For us, diversity means many things. When you think about diversity, the first thing to come to mind is cultural diversity. Newcomers to Canada must identify with and see themselves reflected in our programming, and we have to portray the country as it really is. But there are also other types of diversity we cannot forget. One example is regional diversity. We have to talk about every region in the country, and those regions have to see our programming as relevant to them. I would also add diversity of opinion to this list. The public broadcaster must allow the whole range of opinions to be expressed on its airwaves. We have undertaken an in-depth review of this issue to ensure the public broadcaster is indeed a vehicle for diversity, because that is critical if it wishes to be a vehicle for democracy too.

In terms of programs, that just about wraps up where we currently stand and Radio-Canada's response. I should add that international coverage is also being strengthened, and that is very important for us. For instance, supper-hour regional newscasts—here, for example, in Gatineau—now include national and international news because we caught on that in the 21st century the human brain does not work sometimes in national mode, sometimes in regional mode and sometimes in international mode. It focuses on what is happening right now, no matter what time it is. So the public broadcaster has to be there to tell people what is going on, first in their own immediate environment and then taking them by the hand for a quick tour of the planet, telling them where events are unfolding and giving them the information they need so that they can react appropriately. That is the public broadcaster's role when it comes to programming.

That is the first part of the plan, the section dealing with programs. The second thrust involves integrating services, the famed "radio/television/Web" combination. It's interesting to see that when they talk about integration, some people use the "mean" word, "convergence." I always say that it's not really convergence at Radio-Canada because we were already a single organization. It is just good common sense and understanding that if we work together, share our resources and communicate more, it will be better for everyone and allow us to produce better news content. We will be able to present that content so that people can use it whenever and wherever they need it.

At Radio-Canada, integration is neither a technological issue nor an economic issue. Our goal was not to reduce the number of journalists or to cut budgets. For us, it was a matter of branding. Whatever the platform you choose to see, read or listen to our content in 10 years' time, we want the quality and values that are the hallmark of the public broadcasting service to come through. That was our goal and the reason why we integrated our services. Another objective was to ensure that Radio-Canada journalists have a solid understanding of the public broadcaster's role, its values and the quality its audiences expect. So integration is really about strengthening the brand and ensuring that that quality and those values are consistent, whatever the platform.

That's it for integrating our resources. The third thrust of our plan deals with mobilization. There is an English word that always comes to mind when I describe mobilization, and it's "people." The French equivalents, "gens" or "personnes", do not really capture what we want to convey—the mobilization of everyone who believes in the public broadcasting service. First and foremost, that means our employees, but it also means the actors and writers involved in producing our programs. It also includes the intellectuals, the politicians and everyone who plays an active role in society and who takes part in our public radio and television services, that great collective undertaking. In fact, many people are involved in making Radio-Canada's radio and television services what they are. I am sure that they include many of you here today. Our challenge is therefore to mobilize everyone who believes in the idea of public broadcasting and tackle that challenge from every possible angle.

You know, Graham Spry, one of CBC/Radio-Canada's founders, said something to this effect in an inaugural speech in 1936: "We are a group of Canadians who has fought for eight years to give Canada a public radio service. You will have to fight your entire lives to make sure it lives on." He was a real visionary, because it's true. Having a public broadcasting service can never be taken for granted. People are never unanimously in favour of public broadcasting: instead, we aim for a consensus. So there is no unanimity surrounding what I call the public broadcasting service, and it's something that is always a little threatened. It is interesting to note that most industrialized countries have created a public radio and television service, but that the one I represent is an exception in North America because there is no such service in the United States. There are of course NPR and PBS, but those networks have an entirely different operating structure. Public radio and television in Canada is closer to the European model.

So we will always have to fight for the public radio and television broadcaster, a citizen-centred institution that is a big part of the response to the diversity of missions and programs. For us, it is a constant struggle.

A few words by way of conclusion. There are some major challenges facing the media, and I continue to believe that they are neither technological nor economic in nature. Technology and economics don't hold any secrets for Radio-Canada; they're fields we excel in. The main challenges, those that are really difficult to come to grips with, are the social and cultural challenges we face. Whenever we communicate and develop new platforms for delivering news, we have to take time to think about what we really want to say and to what end. Those are the real challenges facing communication in the 21st century, and it's a fact that far too many people forget.

Because we have to learn to speak to one another and find a new way of living together, we have to create communication rather than merely creating "platforms." At Radio-Canada, if we have a clear political option, it's the fact that we can say that more communication generally creates better understanding, leading in turn to more democracy. For us, that's fundamental. We must create a space for Canadians where they can debate, where they can sing at times, where they can share cultural experiences, but first and foremost where we can create a world of our own out of our own reality. That reality is one where newcomers are welcomed, and where information and cultural references are provided. For Radio-Canada, that also means coming to terms with our own historical heritage as well as the country's, and doing so in an appropriate fashion.

We must therefore create an immense public forum. I like to say that radio and television today, particularly television, are the equivalent of town squares in the Middle Ages, where there were town criers discussing issues of the day, performers, singers, troubadours and so on. They could all be found at the town square. Today, in the 21sg century, that public space is called television and it has become an international arena. Creating such large-scale public forums is essential. In Quebec, in the 1960s, it was a function probably fulfilled by the church steps in each village or town. Today, our public forums play that role.

In conclusion, I would say this to you: in every decision made by the media, in every decision made by our governments, and in every decision made by regulatory bodies, financiers or anyone managing communications and journalism today, we must never forget that behind the platforms, behind the economic models, behind the satellites and behind the gadgets that transmit content there are men, women, cultures and civilizations. That's where our mission begins: creating communication to improve our world, our democracy and our culture.

At Radio-Canada, that's how we see the world and the direction we think the public broadcaster should take. That vision should come across on air in different ways. Of course, it is not always reflected in every program in exactly the way we would like, because we produce thousands of hours of radio and television content every week. But I will say this: the way forward is clear, and we are extremely dedicated to and focused on the idea of becoming a vehicle for democracy and culture that the country absolutely needs in order to create diversity among the media.

Thank you.

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