It’s been five years since I worked for CBC in Ottawa. I’m on a different path, now, swiftly approaching the viva for my doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh, and although my past work is a part of the work that I’m doing now, it is only in the last couple of weeks that both the “CBC” and the “Ottawa” parts of that past have been so forcefully top of mind.
The way Canada has made international headlines recently, people would be forgiven for wondering if the docility that weaves into our fundamental fabric has been rent or replaced. We watched the shooting of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo whilst on duty at the war memorial and the subsequent and bizarre attack on Parliament Hill and think, This is not the capital of Canada, surely. To those who say Canadians, Ottawans, parliamentarians were complacent, I say I think it was something more subtle than that: we always knew it was possible that Canada would be the target of an attack; we just didn’t believe it would actually happen. It’s a head and heart thing.
Anyway, I was gutted watching the news on Twitter, and fearful for my friends and colleagues. The places where I had worked were locked down, and the people I had worked with were out on the streets, unsure if there were any more angry people with guns about and transmitting what little they knew to us, the interested public.
Enough about that. The other headline–one that is perhaps less interesting globally but, like the Tragically Hip, a point of peculiar and perhaps obsessive importance in Canada–concerns former radio host Jian Ghomeshi. I will not rehash the details of the story here: there are plenty of places to familiarise yourself, and the likeliest sources are the Toronto Star and independent journalist Jesse Brown and his podcast Canadaland. Although by now, the story is so public that their only competitive advantage over other news outlets is that they got there first and are associated with the story.
Well, but so is the CBC. Ghomeshi, after all, was its star–one of the towering faces on the outside of the Front Street headquarters. Its severing of relationships is one of the catalysts for the story, and its conduct as an employer–to Ghomeshi, to others in the workforce who may have been abused, and to the public which pays for it and to which it is therefore accountable for its practices–remains one of the open questions in this story.
It’s for that reason that I’m writing. The reticence of young and precariously employed journalists to come forward with stories of abusive conduct has been understood through the lens of the broadcast or creative industry: that’s how it is, we’re told. You have to pick yourself up, suffer in silence, “take the bullet out and you go back and you soldier on” as Roberto Veri put it, a former researcher at Q who spoke with Brown about what it was like in Ghomeshi’s environment. When I worked for the corporation, colleagues whom I met in different settings talked about how competitive it was in Toronto and elsewhere. All the other casuals, you have to fight with each other for the good shifts; don’t talk about story ideas because one of your mates will steal it; you have to deal with the egos of the big names. It reminded me of my time working as a busboy and bartender at a high-end Tuscan restaurant, figuratively bruised by my waiter colleagues on Friday and Saturday night rushes.
It did not remind me, however, of my work with CBC Ottawa.
In the years that I worked there, from 2001 to 2009, I had excellent, collaborative relations with my colleagues–my superiors and also my fellow casuals, with whom I was supposedly competing for shifts and positioning. We had constructed an unofficial hierarchy amongst ourselves, mostly based on time served, but there was just no backbiting. Things changed a little once we moved from the Chateau Laurier, where regional radio was sited, to the Queen Street building which had radio and television, English and French, regional and parliamentary all in one spot. We were more diffuse, and there were a few more layers of management present. But it was still a good place to work.
I attribute this to the tone set from the top. I was recruited into CBC in the third year of my journalism degree by Andy Clarke, at the time the executive producer of English radio news and current affairs in the region. At an information meeting about internships, he came along with a recent grad who was working as a casual to make an in-person pitch for interning with CBC. No need to convince me–it was already where I wanted to be. I signed up, and although my supervisor over those two weeks was Rob Clipperton of the Saturday morning show In Town and Out, my desk (the Intern’s Desk) was right by Andy’s. It’s where the cakes were delivered when it was someone’s birthday and everyone left their desk for a moment to sing. That happened a lot during my two weeks, and it says something right away about the kind of workplace it was. I learned a lot from him, and as I proved both my interest and my abilities, he apportioned shifts in news and in current affairs, chasing for the morning, midday, and afternoon shows.
That cross-pollenation was deliberate. At one point, Andy said to me and a few others who were around how different the place was when he started working as a casual AP (associate producer, or chase researcher) back in 1989. It wasn’t just split between news and current affairs–itself a potential divide in broadcasting. The different shows were in silos. They had walls separating them, and if the morning show team got wind of a good story at 10:00, they would hold onto it til the next day rather than share it with the others. He said it was competitive, and he was so glad to leave it for Scotland four years later (hey!) He couldn’t make it stick, though, and he said it was depressing to come back two years later to the same environment.
But if you can’t escape it, you can change it, and that’s what Andy did. When I came in 2001, the walls were down. All formats and programmes had a joint story meeting, and casuals like myself were in the “pool”, so that we were not dedicated solely to one programme. Andy doesn’t deserve (or take) all the credit for it: Miriam Fry was the director for the region, and she was as consistent as he. One summer, when he was on holidays and she was backfilling him, I showed up in a tie (I was still pretty new and trying to show I was serious.) “A tie?” she said. “It’s bad luck! The Goddess of Journalism will frown upon us!” It was that kind of place. If there was a slow moment in the newsroom, someone would yell for Andy to do Chewbacca. He’d gargle out an excellent Wookie impersonation.
I’m not trying to make it sound like paradise. It was still a professional and stressful environment in which to work. But that wasn’t on account of my colleagues or my superiors. Every spring, as fiscal year end came and the bank was empty or, early in to the new fiscal year when they didn’t know yet how much they’d need for the next twelve months, my phone would ring less often. I would fret about it: should I take another job? Should I go back to school? Should I apply to one of the smaller markets, where there are fewer casuals and more work to go around? But I would have these angsty conversations with my colleagues, and we would support each other through it. And Andy and Miriam, and Kelly Dexter in HR, were sympathetic. They would promise us nothing, to keep our hopes realistic, but throw as much work our way as they could, to, you know, keep our bellies full and a roof over our heads. When I had to decline the call for a shift, I was worried that it might jeapordise things. “I can’t do it today,” I would say meekly to Kelly (it was often the day of when I would get the call). “Is that okay?”
“Michael,” she would say, “you always have the right to decline shifts, so long as I always have the right to keep calling you back and offering them to you.”
I could put on my sociologist’s hat and talk about external forces: the more financial pressure the CBC is under, the harder it is to maintain such relations. Perhaps that was just a product of more bullish times. Things have changed in Ottawa. We moved into the bigger building, as I said. Miriam retired. Andy had to contend with more and different management styles (on, to adopt management speak, both vertical and horizontal indices) and left the corporation in 2009, at the same time I and about 800 others across the country lost their jobs. Maybe it is the case that even in Ottawa, panicked casuals might lock themselves in the bathroom because of the pressure or worse from others: superiors, colleagues, the stars.
But I don’t think that explains all of it. I believe that people make a difference and that a good example from the top sets the tone all the way down. What I’m trying to say is, it doesn’t have to be that way.