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Our imaginary reality

Falling crime rates and the CBC

by Arthur Milner

2Stockwell Day is a very funny man. His best joke came in 2010 when he was Treasury Board president. Spending billions on new prisons was necessary, he said, because of the alarming increase in unreported crime. “Yes,” I laughed, “for all the unreported criminals.”

If there’s one thing that Canadian experts, journalists, academics and letter-to-the-editor writers agree on, it’s that the Tories’ Safe Streets and Communities Act (Bill C-10), passed by the House of Commons a year ago, is a mistake. A quick trek through headlines on the Internet reveals near-unanimity:

  • Tory crime bill a solution in search of a problem, criminologists argue
  • Lawyers attack Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda
  • Coalition of churches condemns Ottawa’s justice plan
  • Health researchers slam Tory mandatory-minimum-sentence proposal
  • Tory crime bill will overburden court system: retired judges
  • UN criticizes Canada on crime bill and youth
  • Texas conservatives reject Harper’s crime plan
  • Crime bill unfairly targets women, Aboriginals, critics say
  • The Conservatives’ crime bill: mean, but not lean
  • Tory “tough on crime” bill off the mark, SFU researchers say
  • More than 550 doctors, professors, social workers sign letter opposing Bill C-10
  • Conservative senator says he can’t support government crime bill
  • Nunavut fears crime bill will overwhelm jails
  • 10 reasons to oppose Bill C-10: Canadian Bar Association
  • Elizabeth Fry Societies say Conservative bill will not deter crime
  • Canada’s homicide rate falls to its lowest level in 44 years
  • Tory crime bill: Budget Officer slams Conservatives’ cost estimate
  • Tory crime bill an attack on our liberty
  • Crime bill won’t actually help them at all, seasoned victims-rights advocate says
  • West Vancouver Police boss worries cops will be spending more time in the courts and less time protecting the public.
  • Author of Tory-supported study says crime bill goes too far
  • Tory crime bill a very strong case for Quebec independence: Parti Québécois
  • Tory crime bill to make matters worse for mentally ill: expert

Apart from some provincial governments – Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia and New Brunswick – yea-sayers are few and far between:

  • Former NHL star supports Tory crime bill
  • Macdonald-Laurier Institute study questions StatsCan’s crime numbers

Even police support is iffy:

  • Police chiefs urge more “balanced approach” while supporting omnibus crime bill

The complete legislation,1 as adopted by Parliament, is 100 pages long and contains this kind of thing:

16. (1) Subsection 161(1) of the Act is amended by striking out “or” at the end of paragraph (b) and by replacing paragraph (c) with the following …

So you might want to try the Department of Justice’s summation.2 At a single page it’s far more digestible, but I wouldn’t rely on it. We are told, for example, that the Penalties for Organized Drug Crime Act “would target organized crime by imposing tougher sentences for the production and possession of illicit drugs for the purposes of trafficking.” Who could object to that (unless you’re one of those people who believes the war on drugs drives up prices, to the benefit and encouragement of traffickers)?

But if you go back to section 41 of the actual legislation, keeping in mind that, in Canada, drug trafficking is defined as: “to sell, administer, give [my emphasis], transfer, transport, send or deliver,” 3 you will learn that if you grow six marijuana plants and give a joint to your mother, you get a minimum six-month sentence.

You can see why a lot more people might end up in jail. That and a great many other new legislated minimums means more spending on, and overcrowding in, prisons.

Oddly, there doesn’t seem to have been a great outcry for government to get tougher on crime. A 2009 Statistics Canada survey found pretty much what a 2004 survey had found, that “93 per cent are satisfied with their personal safety.”4 So why are Conservatives spending more on crime where they’re cutting back in almost every other area, and when the consensus is that crime rates are falling and that Bill C-10 won’t reduce crime anyway?

Presumably, C-10 is popular with a significant part of the Tory base. Who cares what the experts say? You don’t need to be an expert to understand simple logic: if more criminals are in jail, fewer will commit crimes. And besides, it’s not about rehabilitation and crime prevention; it’s about punishing people who deserve punishment: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

As for the rest of us, we’re torn. Maybe there is less crime than there was 20 years ago, but there sure seems to be a lot. We know the stats, but would you let your 10-year-old walk to school? We believe in “innocent until proven guilty,” but so many people get off on technicalities, don’t they? We believe in rehabilitation, but why are so many crimes committed by people on parole? Did you hear about that guy who killed his whole family and …?

The commercial media are often accused of following the principle of “if it bleeds, it leads.” But happily CBC radio helps us keep things in perspective, right?

On Tuesday, March 26, 2013, I recorded 20 hours of CBC Radio 1, Ottawa. I began with the start of local programming at 5:30 a.m. and stopped after the 1 a.m. news.

There were short “promos” for upcoming CBC stories and shows, and there were “news headlines.” Then there were longer stories and proper newscasts. In the list below, items that involve crime, accidents, violence or natural disaster are in bold. What to include is not always clear. Do you include a story about university binge-drinking? I did. Do you include a story about asbestos in public buildings? I didn’t.

5:30 a.m.

Promos for upcoming stories:

  • brutal attack at a nursing home
  • binge-drinking in university
  • a provocative antismoking ad

CBC local news:

  • parents brawl at amateur hockey game
  • sexual assault on Greyhound bus
  • sexual assaults on city buses (separate story)
  • asbestos in public buildings in Gatineau, Quebec
  • new safety program for children “as young as eight” about online predators and pornography
  • women’s curling team returns

Promos for breaking international news:

  • Italian courts call for retrial of Amanda Knox, an American woman previously acquitted of murder
  • Cyprus bank crisis
  • same-sex marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court
  • fear of too little snow at next year’s Winter Olympics

Business news:

  • controversial Ford ads in India
  • 17-year-old app developer
  • service workers take revenge on rude hotel guests

Story: immigration appeal offices in Ottawa have closed

Promo: dog park dispute

Local news headlines:

  • brawl at amateur hockey game
  • sexual assault on Greyhound bus
  • sexual assaults on city buses
  • asbestos in public buildings in Gatineau, Quebec
  • women’s curling team returns

6 a.m.

World Report:

  • U.S. Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage
  • Amanda Knox retrial
  • Russian tycoon found dead in British hotel; possible suicide
  • New Brunswick deficit
  • Saskatchewan’s electoral map
  • report to be released on the possibility of flooding in Manitoba

promos for upcoming stories:

  • wall of building under construction collapses; no injuries
  • brutal attack at a nursing home
  • binge-drinking at university

local news headlines:

  • sexual assault on Greyhound bus
  • sexual assaults on Ottawa transit
  • parents brawl at amateur hockey game

stories:

  • wall of building under construction collapses; no injuries
  • brutal attack at a nursing home

6:30 a.m.

CBC local news:

  • parents brawl at amateur hockey game (The fight was caught on video. “You can see the video at cbc.ca/ottawa.”)
  • sexual assault on Greyhound bus
  • sexual assaults on Ottawa transit
  • asbestos in public buildings in Gatineau, Quebec
  • new safety program for children “as young as eight” about on-line predators and pornography
  • women’s curling team returns

That pretty much set the pattern. Through the day, about 68 per cent of local stories, news items, headlines and promos involved crime and/or violence.

The top three local news stories involved crime and/or violence, as did 10 of the top 12. None of these stories made the national news, meaning that, for example, while the top local news item – the acquittal of a young man charged with a 2010 murder – was considered worthy of 16 mentions, it was not considered to be of national (or even provincial) import.

I didn’t include music, weather, sports or traffic reporting. There were no reports of sports violence or injury that day. One change I’ve noticed recently involves traffic reports. In the past, traffic delays were reported, and sometimes the cause was mentioned: construction, road conditions, collisions, etc. Now the reporter always leads with collisions – even if it’s to say there haven’t been any, as was the case that day.

For national news items and headlines, about 50 per cent involved crime and/or violence. The top story (mentioned 21 times) was the U.S. Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage. The next two were the Amanda Knox retrial (12 mentions) and Manitoba flooding (10). A serious flood demands coverage; a story about the upcoming release of a report into the likelihood of a flood, less so.

As a regular CBC listener, I can assure you that at both the local and national levels, March 26 was a typical crime day: there were no local murders or taffic fatalities involving children; no terrorism, mass murder or celebrity killings.

I don’t have a similar recording from 20 years ago, so I can’t prove that there is a great deal more crime and violence on CBC radio now. But clearly that was the plan.

Richard Stursberg was executive vice-president of CBC–Radio Canada from 2004 to 2010. On April 22, 2012, he was interviewed by Michael Enright of The Sunday Edition5:

STURSBERG: When I got here in 2004, in terms of television news viewing in Canada … all in, local and national, CBC took 12 per cent of total viewing. The other 88 per cent was on Global and CTV. With the exception of The National, CBC television news had basically vanished from people’s radar. … We redid all the local news shows, we redid The National, we rebuilt the sets, we redid Newsworld, we redid everything, and now they’re doing much, much better …

ENRIGHT: You hired a company from the States … and they come up with the theory that people are interested in two things primarily, crime and weather.

STURSBERG: No, that’s not quite right. What they’re interested in overwhelmingly – this is largely about local news but it translates into national news as well – is they’re interested in security and safety. … It includes things like the environment, public safety in the streets, it includes weather … Before we redid the news we did a very, very large study of what it is Canadians wanted by way of their newscasts. It was pretty clear that the most important items, the sort of price of entry … were that you had to cover personal security and weather. Once you get in the door, can you cover other things? Yes. But you have to get in the door.

Note that in describing how badly CBC news was doing 2004, Stursberg doesn’t mention CBC radio. Presumably radio news, like The National, was doing just fine.

In 2003, the Canadian Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservatives to become the Conservative Party of Canada. The next year, Stephen Harper won the CPC leadership and Stursberg arrived at the CBC.

Let’s accept Stursberg’s insistence that the CBC’s increased coverage of “security and safety” was purely a search for increased market share and that these changes had nothing to do with the new regime in Ottawa. Still, at some point, CBC management must have noticed that its new policy fit nicely with the Conservatives’ focus on crime. And the CBC could not have been ignorant of the possibility that its new focus on crime might make it safer from government cuts.

That day that I recorded the CBC, I heard intelligent and informed discussion of the prospects of same-sex marriage in the United States, the economic crisis in Cyprus, the BRICS meeting, cutbacks in Newfoundland and tax increases in New Brunswick, the immigration hurdles faced by an Afghani who translated for the Canadian military, a study of racial profiling, and even Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s most recent troubles. All that is what we expect of a public broadcaster.

But it might be that what the CBC does is more important that what it says, and what it does is contribute to a sense that there is a great deal of crime in Canada and that serious criminals regularly go unpunished. As Jeffrey Simpson wrote, “intelligent discussion doesn’t stand a chance in a media world convinced that simplistic crime stories sell.”6

That same evening, on Ideas, physicist Neil Turok of Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute talked about “Our Imaginary Reality.” I didn’t hear the program, but I can’t help wondering whether he was talking about the imaginary reality the CBC is helping Prime Minister Harper construct.

 

Notes

1 www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Docid=5124131&file=4

2 www.justice.gc.ca/eng/news-nouv/nr-cp/2011/doc_32631.html

3 www.duhaime.org/LegalDictionary/T/Trafficking.aspx

4 www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/12/01/pol-cp-crime-stats.html 

5 www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/features/2012/04/22/featured-audio-richard-stursberg/

6 Jeffrey Simpson, “Playing the politics of slogans and fear,” Toronto Globe and Mail, February 23, 2011.

 

Arthur Milner is Inroads’ culture columnist. Following a nine-city tour through Palestine and Israel, his play Facts recently completed a sold-out four-week run in London, England.



About the Author

Arthur Milner
Arthur Milner is Inroads’ culture columnist and a member of its editorial board. He is a former artistic director of Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company.




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