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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mandate Vs Mission: Public Broadcasting Values in Canada Vs the US

Every once in a while, it's worth reviewing first principles just to see whether our public broadcasters are still doing what they are supposed to. Or if they aren't, why not?

In Canada, the CBC has been guided throughout its 73 year history by something referred to as "the Mandate." This "Mandate" is the preamble that the CBC uses as part of its charter as a Crown (government funded) corporation. It has been re-written and adapted to changing circumstances over the years. But it remains essentially a justification for public broadcasting that is deeply rooted in the Canadian experience of nation-building and as a unique cultural assertion.

The latest version is from 1991 and it says:

"...the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains;

...the programming provided by the Corporation should:

1. be predominantly and distinctively Canadian,
2. reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions,
3. actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression,
4. be in English and in French, reflecting the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including the particular needs and circumstances of English and French linguistic minorities,
5. strive to be of equivalent quality in English and French,
6. contribute to shared national consciousness and identity,
7. be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose, and
8. reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada."

Note that the Mandate refers to the obligation of the CBC to "inform, enlighten and entertain." And in that order.

Compare the CBC Mandate with the mission statement of intent written by Bill Siemering, NPR's first program director in 1970:

National Public Radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness...

In its cultural mode, National Public Radio will preserve and transmit the cultural past, will encourage and broadcast the work of contemporary artists and provide listeners with an aural esthetic experience which enriches and gives meaning to the human spirit.

In its journalistic mode, National Public Radio will actively explore, investigate and interpret issues of national and international import. The programs will enable the individual to better understand himself, his government, his institutions and his natural and social environment so he can intelligently participate in effecting the process of change.

The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.

Much can be made of the cultural differences between the approaches: the Canadian top down style vs that American Emersonian identification with the individual. Both have value, but it appears that NPR has remained true to its original values. CBC on the other hand seems to be split: Radio remains closer to the mandate of service than CBC Television with its relentless trolling for ratings.

Interestingly enough Bill Siemering's inspiration was CBC Radio back in the 1960s when he was running a public radio station from and for the African-American neighborhoods of Buffalo, NY. CBLT Toronto could be heard clearly in western New York. Bill told me that "As It Happens" was a clear inspiration for NPR's first program - "All Things Considered."

(Bill remains an active proponent of the power of radio and public service having founded Developing Radio Partners, an organization dedicated to supporting independent radio stations in the third world through professional development in journalism, programming, station management, and finance.)

The CBC Mandate remains a powerful definition of how CBC should serve the country. But too often, it is used as a reason why CBC cannot change. The NPR mission statement on the other hand, seems even more valued and relevant these days than when it was first written.

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