Yesterday morning, CBC president Hubert Lacroix, Radio-Canada VP Louis Lalande, Chairman of the Board Rémi Racine and CBC Exec VP Heather Conway took questions from staff in studio 47 here at La Maison in Montreal.
Perhaps the best way to quickly describe the meeting would be to turn back to history. Back to a boxing ring in 1966 where Canadian George Chuvalo challenged superstar Mohammed Ali:
“A left and a right high to the head, Chuvalo is trying to keep his hands up in front of his face. Ali drops his left hand down by his hip, bouncing around with great speed, Chuvalo dancing up and down, oh Ali takes it on the chin from Chuvalo….”
What follows is not word for word, the quotes are all approximative. What follows is not journalism but rather my quick, impressionistic sense of what happened in that room.
Think of Dumphy calling that famous punch-up.
So…150 Radio-Canada employees fill studio 47. Spotlights on the ceiling. The three CBC execs and a board member on a small stage, on stools.
First question: “Over the weekend the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists (FPJQ) had their annual meeting, both Liberal MP Stephane Dion and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair spoke in a workshop and said should their parties win they both had plans to put more money into the CBC; and had all kinds of other ideas about how to revitalize the public broadcaster.
Here is how Mulcair’s statements were reported by the SCRC (Radio-Canada journalist’s union):
Thomas Mulcair a promis de rétablir sur trois budgets les 115 millions de dollars de financement fédéral supprimés par les conservateurs en 2012.
Mulcair promised to re-establish over three budgets the 115 million cut from the CBC since 2012.
Question continued to Hubert Lacroix: “Will he publicly endorse the two parties who plan to put money back into the CBC and strengthen and modernize the Broadcasting Act etc?”
The President turns in circles. Shades of Ali….dancing like a butterfly. “Bell cutting, Rogers cutting, public broadcaster all cutting etc.” The same answer he has been giving for a couple of years now whenever his strategies are questioned.
There are boos from ringside.
Second question: “President Lacroix you have been there for seven years and you have not learned to skate like superstar Sydney Crosby but more like Georges Laraque former enforcer with the Montreal Canadians who used his fists but could not skate. So here is the question again: Will you say in public that the NDP and Liberal promises are steps in the direction of better funding the CBC and promoting public broadcasting?, hold them to account but still say they are better solutions than the Conservatives who refuse to put more money into the CBC?”
Hubert Lacroix again dancing like Ali. More catcalls. “Don’t you see why,” says the questioner, “that none of us here believe you are independent from the Conservatives? You gave money to the party months before you were appointed.”
“Rémi Racine who is sitting beside you on stage, the chairman of the board, gave money to the Conservatives while he was a sitting board member. All of the board members have been appointed by the Harper government. Nine of them are on the record as donating to the Conservative party while sitting on the board. How can you say you are independent?”
This is the end of round two, the bout has begun in earnest and Hubert Lacroix is punching back hard. “I am independent,” he says, “do you expect that I can be bought for a measly thousand bucks?” He neglects to mention Rémi Racine’s Conservative Party contributions, or that other board members are also Conservative Party funders.
There are more questions about whether Hubert Lacroix is independent, about whether he will resign? (No, when he gets up in the morning he reminds himself how much he loves his job of working to save the CBC at a time when there are cuts to Bell, to Rogers, to public broadcasters all over the globe.)
Another question about why he continually talks about the CBC as a business,why does not see the CBC as a public service?
More catcalls when he tries to avoid an uppercut.
“We don’t hate you ,” shouts someone, “we pity you as you are clearly not the man for the job,” says someone in the cheap seats.
“We think Harper wants to see the end of the CBC and you are doing his dirty work,” says another.
Another question: “There was a demo with 20 odd thousand in Montreal on Sunday, thousands more marched in other demonstrations around Quebec. How can Hubert Lacroix still believe that people trust his vision when they are clearly saying that they do not?”
“Why do I have to keep repeating myself,” he says, “I have a vision, I love the CBC,” he says, “I know it hurts but want it to survive and this is the way to do it.”
More boos. “Listen to the streets,” says someone. “They don’t buy your arguments. They do not trust you either.”
An hour and a half fly by.
Round after round and just like Chuvalo versus Ali in ’66 the fighters are not giving up.
Hubert Lacroix never loses his cool, he remains polite despite the cat-calling. But he is clearly shaken by the heft and passion of his opponents.
One stands at the microphone brandishing internal documents that he says shows that the CBC board of directors has considered making the real-estate sector into a PPP – a private public partnership. And that has never been made public.
“How can you guarantee that selling the Rad Can tower and studios and renting elsewhere with only one studio will be cheaper and will pump more money into the CBC?” he asks.
“There are no guarantees,” says someone from real estate, “this is the future.”
More boos. A right hook: “What about your promise of transparency?” mutters my seatmate?
More applause. The room is hot from the spotlights, hot from anger, hot from emotions that are boiling over.
The meeting is all in French. CBC VP Heather Conway sits quietly on her stool.
Clearly President Lacroix is ready to take on all comers. He thinks he will win.
He stands taller when he hears the audience titter when he talks about his working for the CBC at the Seoul Olympics where he called basketball games with Richard Garneau, a Radio-Canada broadcasting hall-of-famer.
“I love the CBC,” he pleads. “I grew up watching Radio-Canada kids’ shows like Bobino. I want my own two daughters to accompany them as they grow, just the way Radio-Canada and the CBC were there for me.”
More catcalls – “So why are you destroying the place you say you love?”
Someone asks about the in-house productions of kids programming, about the abolition of the costume department, places where people have worked for decades.
VP Louis Lalande says, “that world has changed. It is not coming back. Period.”
A couple of last questions: “Mr Lacroix what does it feel like knowing no one believes you?”
“It is difficult but I am doing what needs to be done,” he says. “I am staying until my mandate ends in 2017. I was headhunted and won this job fair and square. I will not abandon it.”
One last person at the microphone: “Mr. Lacroix, with all due respect I feel we have to agree to disagree. We do not speak the same language. You keep talking about the private sector and business models. We are talking about protecting public broadcasting and the future of a much loved and needed cultural institution.
It is like we have completely different goals.”
And then it is over.
Everyone in the room looks exhausted, like they have been in the ring themselves.
Remember Chuvalo’s face. Remember Ali’s.
Mike Tyson (former world heavyweight) had a brilliant manager -the late Cus D’Amato. I shall leave it to him to sum up President Lacroix’s performance:
I love my job.
I love the CBC.
The CBC is part of my soul.
Never have I seen anything like this.
Studio 47 has to be readied for the public meeting in an hour.
We head down the hallways back to work.
The president, the board members their their people go one way.
And the rest of us go the other.
I need coffee.
David Gutnick is a CBC radio broadcaster in Montreal.