Thursday, 26 June 2014

Kill the Documentary Unit at CBC... Really???


40 journalists protest reported plans to close down documentary team at CBC | CMG

Below is the letter signed by 40 journalists protesting reported plans to close down the in-house documentary team at the CBC. There’s a broad concern that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and signals a broader intent to privatize more and more portions of the CBC, and weaken it.
The presence of original documentary programming, independent and in-house is at its lowest point in over 20 years on the CBC. The issue should be increasing in-depth journalism, not cutting it even further.
The initial letter is followed by a response by Heather Conway, Executive Vice-President, English Services. The journalists’ subsequent response is also posted 
Hubert Lacroix (President and CEO)
Heather Conway (Executive Vice-President, English Services)
Dear Hubert and Heather,
The undersigned journalists have become alarmed at the precipitous decline of documentaries in the CBC-TV schedule, which has occurred not just for financial reasons, but because of programming priorities over many years.
Now there are plans to shut down in-house production of feature documentaries, including the Unit which has produced “The People’s History of Canada”, “The Canadian Experience”, “Eighth Fire” as well as topical quick-response documentaries such as the award-winning “Syria: Behind Rebel Lines”.
CBC Television, to be true to its core mandate, needs more long-form journalism and legacy programming –not less.
We have observed the steady erosion of long-form documentary production within the CBC in the past few years. Strands like Nature of Things and Doc Zone and fifth estate  have continued, but any documentary mini-series or Sunday night specials outside those strands have virtually disappeared from the CBC TV Network. In fact, the overall production of documentaries –independent or in-house– has fallen dramatically over recent years.
We stress that we continue to believe it is important to support and nurture and expand independent documentary production, which has always been an important component of series such “Life and Times”, “Witness” and “Doc Zone”.    But some productions, such as Eighth Fire, which combined efforts of TV, radio, French and English and aboriginal CBC staff, can only be done internally. On the immediate news fronts, it often takes CBC News and documentary teams to produce quick-turnaround long-form documentaries to provide context and depth to immediate events.
The remedy, we suggest, is not to compound the documentary deficiency of the CBC by eliminating the in-house unit, but strengthen our commitment by embedding that unit as part of the CBC News and Current Affairs department. There is already a considerable sharing of staff and resources between them, on which we can build; the documentary unit would use existing News infrastructure and facilities. This would preserve our legacy production, and give wider opportunities to our journalists, as well as develop our younger staff. Harmonizing our structure with SRC, where documentaries come under the news umbrella, would increase our ability to co-ordinate major bi-cultural projects.
Shutting down the in-house documentary unit would be a negative message to send to core supporters of the CBC, as well as a dispiriting message to our journalists that the management does not value their long-form journalism, and there will be no room for it in the future.
Aligning the strengths of in-house documentaries and CBC News, on the other hand, achieves efficiencies and strengthens the brand of CBC journalism, of which we’re all proud.
Nahlah Ayed (Foreign Correspondent: London)
Lynn Burgess (Producer: “Marketplace”)
Tony Burman (Former Editor-in-Chief: CBC News and Current Affairs)
Patrick Brown (Former Correspondent: China)
Harvey Cashore (Senior Producer: CBC News)
David Common (Host: “World Report”)
Michael Claydon (Executive Producer: “DocZone”)
Sue Dando (Executive Producer: “The Nature of Things”)
Neil Docherty (Senior Producer: “the fifth estate”)
Margaret Evans (European Correspondent: London)
Gillian Findlay (Host: “the fifth estate”)
Matt Galloway (Host: “Metro Morning”)
Erica Johnson (Host: “Marketplace”)
Michelle Gagnon (Producer: “The National”)
Sylvene Gilchrist (Producer: “The National”)
Chris Hall (National Affairs Editor: Ottawa)
David Halton (Former Senior National Affairs Correspondent: Ottawa)
Tom Harrington (Host: “Marketplace”)
Mark Kelley (Host: ‘the fifth estate”)
Neil MacDonald (Senior Correspondent: Washington)
Linden MacIntyre (Host: “the fifth estate”)
Peter Mansbridge (Chief Correspondent/Anchor “The National”)
Duncan McCue (Correspondent: “The National”)
Terence McKenna (Correspondent: “The National”)
Bob Mckeown (Host: “the fifth estate)
Carmen Merrifield (Producer: “The National”)
Wendy Mesley (Host: “The National”)
Terry Milewski (Senior Correspondent: Ottawa)
Don Murray (Former Correspondent: London)
Carol Off (Host: “As It Happens”)
Catherine Olsen (Executive Producer/Documentaries: CBC News Network)
Sasa Petricic (Middle East Correspondent: Jerusalem)
Julian Sher (Senior Producer: “the fifth estate”)
Alex Shprintsen (Producer: “The National”)
Don Spandier (Senior Producer: “The World at Six”)
David Suzuki (Host: “The Nature of Things”)
Anna Maria Tremonti (Host: “The Current”)
Connie Walker (Lead Reporter: CBC Aboriginal)
Tamar Weinstein (Producer: “the fifth estate”)
Hello all,
First, thanks for taking the time to sign your names to the email; your views and thoughts are both welcomed and appreciated.
There is, as you point out, a long and storied history of documentary programming at the CBC, many of which were produced by some of you.  I am sure you are all equally proud that many more, who having been trained here, have gone on to make extraordinary docs themselves.
There does seem to be some confusion and an apparent perception we have an intention to reduce docs on the network(s).  This is especially problematic given that I have stated publicly, as has Sally Catto, most recently at our Upfronts and repeated at Banff last week that we are of the view that docs is a genre we not only favour but also recognize the resurgence they’re having creatively with audiences, especially younger audiences.
To be fair, we have clearly signalled our support for the form and we agree there are many journalists in News and Current Affairs who are capable and interested in making short and long form docs.  That said, there is also a thriving independent documentary community, many of whom were and are mentored by our own teams.
It is true we are reviewing every area of our business to determine whether or not there are opportunities to meet our desired programming needs differently and more cost effectively and, as you know, we are not the only people who can produce documentaries.  Our appetite for docs has not changed or diminished in this context but our willingness to consider options for producing them is open.  There is a real opportunity for docs to be created by some of the talent in News and Current Affairs as well as the option to acquire docs from talented Canadian documentary producers.
The fact that we have documentary capable talent in News and Current Affairs does not support the suggestion to move the current documentary area into that division.  First, documentaries such as “Wild Canada” are neither news nor current affairs but rather nature documentaries.  The Nature of Things is also not a news program.  Part of the power of many documentaries is their very strong and personal point of view approach – a posture difficult to maintain in an environment very much subject to journalistic standards and practices.  I believe the editorial and artistic freedom of the documentary area is better served outside of News and Current Affairs.
There are fresh and compelling approaches to documentaries and many documentary producers who would love an opportunity to see their work on the public broadcaster.  Some of you have talked about Vice as one example of a contemporary approach to the form.  I can tell you having met with them, as no doubt a number of you have, that they cite the CBC documentary tradition as inspiring their approach.
But the Vice team is only one of many Canadian producers of docs.  There are 114 Canadian independent documentary producers listed in the Canadian Media Production Association’s guide and, at their request, I met with the Documentary Organization of Canada as they feel there should be more opportunities for their members to produce for the CBC.  We have an obligation to listen to that constituency as they too produce high quality, compelling, relevant content.  Many young producers say docs are the new feature films for them and a journalistic form they find more engaging than headline news.
We also have a documentary channel that privileges acquiring and commissioning Canadian documentaries.
So, we are reviewing the absolute necessity of producing our own docs for both financial and creative reasons and are open to engaging with other points of view about how we best achieve those goals of providing great documentary content on CBC’s schedules.
I am genuinely sorry that the speed with which our financial challenges have to be dealt with has short- circuited a more comprehensive consultation with you as individuals.  Regrettably, time is not on our side.
I hope I’ve provided some further context for the thinking behind this review.  Please know that the genre and the individuals, especially Mark, have my utmost respect and that our deliberations in the current context do not single out the genre precipitously or on a cost only basis.
Thank you again for bringing your concerns to the fore.
Dear Heather,
Thank you again for your response to our original note. We have a few points we would like to make in return.
At the core of this issue is the alarming decline in documentary production at the CBC, and, beyond documentary, the network’s declining commitment to in-depth programming, whether produced by us or by independents.  The stark fact is that CBC Television has dramatically drifted from one of the core mandates of public broadcasting.
In the past ten years, the number of original documentaries on the network has been cut by 52 per cent, to the lowest documentary level in over 20 years.  The budget of the documentary department has been cut to a quarter of its size.  Network documentary series and original feature-length Canadian documentaries have largely disappeared from the landscape. The problem, it seems clear to us, is not just money but policy.
You raise the importance of being open to other voices and independent producers across the country. We agree.
Seventy five per cent of the output of the CBC Documentary Department is independent.  Only 25 per cent is in-house. That means The Nature of Things and Doc Zone are overwhelmingly produced by independent companies.  In the past four years alone, figures show these strands have commissioned documentaries from over 60 different companies, from every region in the country.
We are broadly comfortable with the principle that that which can be produced by independents, in most cases, should be. But we are not comfortable with the inverse idea that what can’t be produced by contracting out should not get done – which is essentially the result of the strategy we seem to be embarking on.  And that comes to the core of this disagreement:
The public broadcaster should undertake enterprises that are legacy projects of national scale and importance, like 8th Fire, projects of record, projects that are investigative, projects that are controversial and require the protection and infrastructure support of a major institution. The CBC affords legal, moral and institutional protection that is not always available to an isolated independent company.  The public broadcaster should also undertake projects that bring depth and eyewitness to the breaking news stories of the day.
We have a wealth of talent and experience in our News and Current Affairs department that has virtually no access to producing in-depth documentary journalism. Stories of global crises like Iraq and Ukraine are precisely when we need insight, eyewitness and depth. Breaking and quick-response documentaries are largely un-financeable through independent production.  It takes months to finance an independent production through a maze of CMF funding, Rogers or Bell funds, provincial tax credits, etc.
These documentaries –quick response, legacy, risky or controversial—will become scarcer and scarcer unless the CBC determines they WILL be done and has purpose-built units to assure that.
Then there is the issue of associating Documentaries with News and Current Affairs, which our initial letter endorses.
First there is the immediate practical issue that the network seems intent on getting out of all in-house production and plant infrastructure except for News, and so in-house Documentaries would be swept out for the sake of symmetry and lack of plant support and facilities.  In-house documentaries can easily use CBC News facilities. Second, it is important to give creative space to the talent and resources contained within the News service, which adds up to an efficient use of resources.
There is no contradiction implicit in associating Documentaries with the News and Current Affairs family.
You base your argument on what we feel is a rather narrow definition of News and Current Affairs.  You say documentaries such as “Wild Canada” are neither news nor current affairs but rather nature documentaries, and that The Nature of Things is not a news program, and therefore should not reside under a News and Current Affairs Department umbrella.  In fact, science programming (Découverte) resides within News and Current Affairs in Radio-Canada, and has for over 25 years, without creating any apparent confusion or restriction.  It’s also important to understand that The Nature of Things is far more than nature programming; it is science, technology, environment, ecology, medicine, and the whole spectrum of the human condition from psychology to brain science, genetics to social sciences, all of which also falls under current affairs.
You say that part of the power of many documentaries lies in their strong personal point of view approach, and we agree. But you add that this is “a posture difficult to maintain in an environment very much subject to journalistic standards and practice.”  We should point out that it is a long-standing corporate policy, passed by the Board, that all information programming on the CBC, including all independent documentaries, must be governed by the Journalistic Standards and Practices.  We do not have two standards for ethical conduct –such as chequebook journalism, hidden cameras, entrapment, or misrepresentation– on the same network, nor should we.
Neither has the fact that we are all governed by the same ethical standards proved to be an impediment to editorial and artistic freedom of the documentary form.  In fact the Journalistic Standards and Practices policy explicitly recognizes the POV genre and that documentaries often need to be provocative, and we air them where “There is a compelling argument, well-presented, for a single point of view that provides insight into a controversial subject and may provoke public debate.”
The CBC has a very strong tradition of documentary programing generated by its own staff. We don’t want to lose it.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Words Matter

Natural and trust are some of the "nice", "hopeful" words that we use. One is being terribly abused, and the other is short supply.  A recent report, and a column I wrote trying to find a little light in the deep water-irrigation  tunnel.

What does "natural" mean?

Last year, according to Nielsen, foods labeled "natural" generated $43 billion in sales. That's more than five times the figure for foods carrying an "organic" label ($8.9 billion). A new Consumer Reports survey of 1,000 people found that two-thirds of respondents believed  that a "natural" label meant that a food contained:
  • No artificial materials during processing
  • No pesticides
  • No artificial ingredients
  • No GMOs
More than half of those surveyed said that they specifically looked for a "natural" label on their foods.
There's just one problem: There are no real federal regulations around the word "natural."
According to the USDA, "natural" meat, poultry, and egg products must be "minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients." But the agency doesn't go on to define "artificial." Meat from livestock fed genetically modified corn, for example, can still be labeled "natural," as can animals raised with regular doses of antibiotics. And the USDA has no regulations at all for labeling natural foods that do not contain meat or eggs.
Meanwhile, the FDA just has an informal policy that it issued in 1993, which gently recommends that manufacturers use the term "natural" if  "nothing artificial or synthetic . . . has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food." In January 2014, the FDA "respectfully decline[d]" requests by three federal judges asking the agency for a decision on whether GMO ingredients could be used in foods labeled "all-natural." That decision led one of the judges to terminate a lawsuit against General Mills' Kix cereal, which, plaintiffs said, carried an all-natural label despite its use of genetically modified corn.
Even with the lack of regulation, plaintiffs can sue companies individually for false advertising—and in recent years, consumers have done just that. In 2013, PepsiCo. agreed to a $9 million class action settlement fund after plaintiffs complained about Naked Juice's "all natural" labeling that belied ingredients like genetically modified soy.
Attorney Stephen Gardner of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the news site Real Clear Politics earlier this year that there have been around 50 "natural label" lawsuits in the past decade targeting products from Kraft Foods' Crystal Light "all natural" lemonade mix  to Pepperidge Farms' Goldfish (which, plaintiffs said, contained ingredients from genetically modified soybeans). However, said Gardner, this list "only scratches the surfaces of the number of companies that are making these claims."
"There's so much green noise out there," says Urvashi Rangan, who directs the Consumer Safety Sustainability Group at Consumer Reports. "Labels can only succeed if you get rid of the noise."

Trust in Short Supply

Trust is one of those touchy-feely concepts spoken about in polite circles. Even so it’s important, and in very short supply when it comes to discussing environmental issues in general, and the demand for increased use of high capacity wells in particular.

A lack of trust means people stop listening. That’s on top of convincing evidence that people’s beliefs are way more important than new information or facts.  We come to our beliefs through our upbringing, education, experiences,  what we learn from people we trust.  

Everyone in the debate over new irrigation wells says they’re waiting for the science,  the peer reviewed proof  that it’s OK, or it’s not.   Some say this because they mean it. Others say it because it’s good public relations,   still others because it delays the government making a decision.  I  think most of the  scientific proof we can expect is in, but that doesn’t make getting to the proper decision any easier, and the lack of trust is a big reason why.

Let’s state the obvious, that many in the general public don’t trust potato farmers, and potato farmers don’t trust them.  This Bermuda Triangle where thoughtful, rational discussion and decision making  go to die is completed by the lack of trust by both in the government’s willingness and ability to fairly enforce regulations. “Ghiz’ Gestapo” is what some farmers are now  calling conservation officers, while many, many in the general public think conservation officers only swing into action once the fish are dead.  This is really troubling.

The evidence I’ve seen including a pretty thorough presentation by hydrogeologist Cathryn Ryan recently at UPEI is that there is lots and lots of groundwater, and that irrigation would take just a small single digit percentage of it.  If this were just a question of quantity, it would be a no brainer (as Stephen Harper would say) but it’s not.  That’s big picture stuff, whereas water use and water extraction impact, is very local (see Charlottetown).  And  there’s a further complication. When it comes to potato production, it would be concentrated in a handful of watersheds that are already  dealing with high nitrate levels.  That’s where Dr. Ryan’s “science” becomes important again.  She had good evidence that if these wells are placed properly relative to local streams, and just as importantly cased for the first sixty metres or so, their impact on stream flow and aquatic life would be greatly reduced.  Water regulators need to demonstrate the ability to find these low-impact zones, and farmers need to indicate whether they’re prepared to  live with them. 

I am convinced that farmers do need the ability to irrigate, and I think the need will only increase because of climate change.  Let’s remember that it’s not just potato growers who use irrigation.  The demand for quality at the retail/consumer level is very high, and  if crops don’t get enough water at the right time,  quality can suffer, markets can be lost.  I also think used properly irrigation can lesson the impact of nitrates, but this requires a lot of precision and commitment from farmers to do this right. (there’s the issue of trust again, because if there’s too much irrigation then excess nitrates will be forced down into the aquifer.) And irrigation must not be a substitute for good soil management, proper crop rotations, and building up of organic matter.  The lack of trust by many that  farmers and government take these seriously is again part of the problem.

Another big  challenge to trust is whether farmers would stop irrigating if told.  It’s the middle of a long hot summer, there’s been no rain for weeks, stream flow drops  by 35% or whatever figure is considered necessary to maintain aquatic health (certainly no agreement there either), but a farmer has invested two hundred thousand dollars in irrigating equipment, another half million in inputs, and is facing a buyer that’s just lowered the base price and increased quality standards.  I can see the conflict and hear the news stories that would generate. 

The challenge is that trust must be earned, and that takes time.  There has to be actions and results,  not just news releases.   I think the government took a positive step making Todd Dupuis an assistant deputy minister in environment department.  The danger for Todd is that his hard earned credibility on environmental issues will be co-opted by the government.   Will he say the same things to government  officials  behind closed doors that he’s said in public. I think he will. There’s trust at work again.

I think the principles laid down by the Federation of Agriculture are a reasonable way forward:  an Environmental Impact Assessment of the policy done by an independent third party; rigorous monitoring of current and any future use of irrigation wells that includes local watershed groups (something the government has not done well to date);  the granting of any new permits would be done incrementally and rigorously monitored;  granting of permits would have to  include  proper nutrient management and soil building practices. I would add  one more: the need for more research on the impact of irrigation on nitrates in groundwater in PEI soils.  If that can’t be managed properly,  I couldn’t support any further development of irrigation wells.

I think the continuation of the moratorium is the right decision for now.  I’m hoping people can take a breath and give the issue a little more thought. The issue has huge economic, environmental,  and political implications.  And it’s not going to go away. Trust me.