One night last week, when certain CBC TV somebodies were attacking other CBC somebodies online, I made some remarks on Twitter. Baffled by the adolescent arguing, I was more sarcastic than serious-minded.
In reply, the playwright and actor Michael Healey wrote, "I recognize this from theatre. A starved, stressed culture turning on itself."
It's a very useful remark. And it obliges us to ask: Is this what's happening at the CBC – is it coming apart at the seams? At times, it sure looks like an organization, an institution, that's unravelling and descending into internal, pointless bickering, posturing and feuding.
The conditions are ripe for what Healey intuits at CBC. Years of budget cutbacks, massive staff layoffs and the outright hostility of the federal Conservative government have put it under grave strain. In Quebec, it seems that most of the staff at Radio-Canada is at war with network CEO Hubert Lacroix. As colleague Konrad Yakubuski pointed out, Heritage Minister Shelly Glover rose in the House of Commons recently to note that CBC is attracting fewer viewers than before. A redundant remark, but echoed by other government figures who are, in essence, entirely responsible for a shrinking CBC.
Less money has meant a frantic retooling of CBC plans. Now the corporation is all about digital, and what that means is unclear. It certainly means fewer resources put into traditional TV and radio. Stressful? Well, yes! Then along comes the Ghomeshi scandal, one that now involves criminal charges, and the CBC radio area – the network's jewel, as many supporters see it – is unveiled as an arena in which narcissism and tyrannical egotism can thrive. The curtain pulled back. A resource many Canadians adore is revealed as, sometimes, an appalling place to work.
So yes, it's an institution under severe stress and, in that situation, the dynamic of in-fighting takes hold. So many celebrated, high-profile people behaving badly – "a starved, stressed culture turning on itself."
But let's be clear about some positives. CBC TV is not in terrible shape. It's in poor shape, but shifting. Strange Empire is the most important CBC drama in years because it is creatively ambitious, utterly unfamiliar in tone and content. Also, it's not a cop drama, the genre that Canadian TV has relied on with depressing persistence. That fact that Strange Empire was made and aired is a gloriously good sign.
Coming in the new year are the comedy Schitt's Creek and the Second World War spy thriller X Company. Both are spun in advance as different, ambitious shows. It remains to be seen if they match expectations, but even if they disappoint, Strange Empire suggests there's a determination to move away from the derivative, the ordinary.
It's in news and current affairs that we see real evidence of "a starved, stressed culture turning on itself." The unseemly sight of aggressive online sniping by CBC News people and cheerleading by colleagues is beyond dismaying.
And this is where we see, vividly, the impact and resonance of the Ghomeshi scandal, even though some of the sniping CBC stars seem oblivious to it. No organization is bereft of egotism and infighting, but television creates its own trouble. Collaborative work diminishes when some journalists, hosts and anchors are self-consciously famous, pompous and ostentatiously self-involved.
The mail and phone calls that have come to me in the wake of the Ghomeshi scandal present a picture of a dysfunctional hell inside some CBC departments. Some of those who write or call are airing old grievances. Others are just telling their stories: tales of CBC news stars using editorial assistants (mostly young people doing "elementary journalism assignments" and learning the ropes) as valets to pick up dry cleaning and run personal errands; big-shot anchors and hosts who never speak to anyone below them in the hierarchy; shouting matches and personal vendettas; radio hosts who throw things at production staff.
The Ghomeshi scandal revealed what can go terribly wrong inside CBC. It created another form of stress, and perhaps accentuated the last-gasp sense of entitlement that epitomizes an institution sensing defeat. There is the stress of change, the stress of assault from outside, and, looming, the stress of the inevitable revelations that will come from a hard look at why Ghomeshi thrived.
An institution under outside and internal pressures is put adrift, directionless, and in that circumstance egotism rises up, mediocre work is done, while the craving for praise and entitlement balloons. That's a portion of CBC right now. The playwright and actor is correct.
Come 2015, maybe Schitt's Creek is a huge hit and CBC's drama and comedy slate looks great. Or perhaps the show's title becomes the darkly comic summation of where a good portion of CBC, as an institution, is located.