WikiLeaks “Bombshell”: The CBC is the Enemy

December 1, 2010
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While I knew that the ongoing WikiLeaks release involved memos related to Canada, I expected discussion of Prime Ministers and ambassadors. I did not, however, expect memos regarding Canada’s public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And yet, documents acquired by The National Post (and expanded on by The Globe and Mail and CBC themselves) indicate that American diplomats were apparently avid viewers of the network’s primetime lineup.

In a 2008 memo which was one of five disclosed to the U.S. and Canadians administrations by news outlets ahead of their release (available at the New York Times), an unnamed officer at the American embassy in Ottawa runs down the numerous ways in which the CBC has “gone to great pains to highlight the distinction between Canadians and Americans in its programming, generally at our expense,” arguing that their depictions of American Border officials in shows such as The Border (canceled earlier this year) and Little Mosque on the Prairie are “an indication of…insidious negative popular stereotyping.”

I can see why the memo might theoretically exist. The author is right that shows like The Border and Little Mosque on the Prairie utilize tensions between Canada and America as it relates to border security – The Border, in particular, uses clashes with Homeland Security in order to emphasize the bureaucratic challenges facing cross-border security efforts. In the case of Little Mosque, the author refers specifically to an instance where one of the Muslim characters is placed on the “No Fly” list and visits an unwelcoming American embassy (the same kind of embassy where the author likely works). I would even argue that Little Mosque very purposefully engaged Canada’s perception of Americans in its pilot, introducing elements (airport security officers partaking in racial profiling, loudmouthed locals protesting the new Mosque, a conservative shock jockey) that felt marked as American even if they could, theoretically, exist in Canada.

The problem, of course, is that the memo does not seem to read these elements as subtext, instead spinning them as a distinct political agenda. While one could argue that CBC is vaguely “political” (in that one would perceive its news coverage as liberal relative to other outlets), the presence of an overarching political/creative agenda seems a dubious claim. Canadians see so much American culture, and learn so much about Canada’s efforts to protect its own culture against our neighbors to the south, that to highlight those differences is a way to relate to the audience (whether through drama or comedy) rather than a way to make a grand political gesture – the memo seems to understand this is a pre-existing condition, but still suggests that CBC is actively weaponizing this characterization.

At first, it seemed odd that the memo ignored Rick Mercer’s “Talking with Americans” segments – where the comedian goads Americans into revealing their ignorance of Canadian culture and politics – in favor of fictional series, especially considering that Mercer’s purpose is to draw distinctions between the two countries along the lines of intelligence. While this could simply be seen as a sign that the author was uninterested in a historical survey of this subject, the fact that Mercer specifically lampooned George W. Bush within one of these segments seems like it could have warranted a mention in the memo.

However, if you’ll indulge the speculation, here I think we find the key to understanding why the memo was written: the concern is not that Americans in general are being stereotyped or made fun of, but rather that the government and its various agencies have become a villain. If Little Mosque features a character loosely modeled on Rush Limbaugh, or if Rick Mercer tricks George W. Bush into believing that “Jean Poutine” is the Prime Minister of Canada, those can be brushed off as comments on specific individuals within the realm of comedy. When border agents become a stereotype, in particular when they become a stereotype in a show about terrorism or crime like The Border or Intelligence, alarm bells go off.

Their concern over The Border is particularly telling: the author claims that “when American TV and movie producers want action the formula involves Middle eastern terrorists, a ticking nuclear device, and a (somewhat ironically, Canadian) guy named Sutherland. Canadian producers don’t need to look so far – they can find all the action they need right on the U.S. border.”

This correlation has more problems than I have the space to deal with: not only does it essentialize production culture on both sides of the border, but it also curiously ignores the fact that The Border features threats from a wide range of nations, and predominantly places the Americans in a cooperative (if contentious) role as opposed to the role typically reserved for the “Middle Eastern terrorists” on shows like 24. A possible reason could be that the memo was written only three weeks after the show’s premiere, which means that they are basing their argument largely on the very principle of the show’s existence (as opposed to its long-term treatment of the characters in question).

Regardless of the fallacies this argument may contain, the memo makes clear that the fact Canada would even consider the U.S. border to be a site for these types of national security storylines has been considered a purposeful, and political, attack on the United States by the author, a conspiracy theory if I’ve ever heard one. Considering that even the memo admits this is not a serious threat to diplomatic relations, though, I doubt this constitutes a WikiLeaks controversy – in fact, the very notion that Canadian television was part of the memos is so ludicrous that even the CBC is likely considering this a public relations coup rather than an attack on their mandate.

However, I do have to wonder why this memo was among those initially disclosed to the Obama administration by news organizations. That a consideration of fictional representations of border politics would be released at the same time as inflammatory comments relating to actual border politics seems like it could lend legitimacy and representative power to the CBC’s mandate that is (sadly) not reflected in Canadian culture.

It is more likely, though, the news agencies simply decided that a humorous overreaction to a couple of CBC programs was a nice counterbalance to the serious (but “boring”) foreign policy ramifications of the rest of the documents.


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One Response to “ WikiLeaks “Bombshell”: The CBC is the Enemy ”

  1. Tausif Khan on December 2, 2010 at 3:21 PM

    I find this story to be very important. I feel that fictional portrayals often reveal truths about groups or cultural concepts that can not be revealed in straight documentary non-fiction news reporting. I found it very important the American working in the embassy focused on fictional representations.

    I grew up around Buffalo, New York and the only thing I ever heard about the American-Canadian border was that it is the longest peaceful undefended border in the world. Americans to my mind do not worry about the Canadian border. It is very important and interesting to me that Canadians (in terms of television executives of the Canadian governments own channel) see Americans as cooperative but contentious in our relationship as it pertains to border security (this also might be because there is some truth to the perception that Americans think rule the world and other variations of American Exceptionalism). This reveals some nuances to American character that are very hard to notice when living in America.

    When people mention border security in America, while the specter of 9/11 hangs in the background of their mind, their thoughts generally go to the politics of defending the physical land boundary between the United States and Mexico. People are afraid that they will come and take all of the jobs and force everyone to speak Spanish (irrational fears both). However, the concern over the Mexican border is more of an economic concern not over threats of mass violence. The stereotypes about drug use and violence actually stem from these economic and cultural fears rather than from any real empirical evidence (these fears have in fact through empirical research has shown to be false). But this is what actually constitutes border politics in America. There is little to no depiction of everyday Latin-American living on American television.

    Terrorism as it pertains to Muslim immigrants is such an abstract concept that it only is addressed in the form of international politics. There is little depiction (only in the form of news stories and news exposes) of how Muslims live in America and their relation with immigration services and how they cross borders.

    I am a little disappointed that you did not address how Muslims in Canada help to develop culture differently than French-Canadians or Anglo-Canadians. This would have giving Americans a different view of how different cultures help to create to culture of a nation-state.

    As a last point I would like to return back to the point I made at the beginning of this post that of fictional cultural representations. Armando Iannucci after filming “In The Loop” did an interview with Charlie Rose in which he discussed the way that British Politicians are portrayed as opposed to American politicians. Iannucci referenced a quote by a British politician who has said that he wished that British politicians might be represented on british television as American politicians are on the West Wing as tired heroes. Iannucci said that in England this type of depiction would be laughable because English people have a mind to be inherently critical of their politicians and see them as unimportant people while the power they hold is great (which to my mind as a Politics student maybe due to the fact that they have a parliamentary government and we have a government which has strong executive which lends to more hero worship on our side).

    This to my mind is the reason why The office had to be remade in America as people stuck in a dreary existence but make the most of what they have and have small successes while the british office is starkly about the soul sucking of working a cubicle.

    These different representations of similar cultural institutions help me to learn a lot of different cultures and help me to put American culture in a broader context.