corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

06 Jan '06

Behind the CBC’s Hit Piece on Medicare

The bias, the blank spots and the damage

Welcome to the CBC, the Corporate Broadcasting Company, disseminators of the propaganda video Medicare Schmedicare. This distorted and biased attack on our public health care system aired twice on the CBC in December, during the second week of the federal election.

The thesis of the program is that one-tier Medicare is a myth. Funny, I don’t think I dreamt seeing my family doctor and heart specialist and I really believe I was operated on at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, all covered under the public health system and delivered in a timely and satisfactory fashion.

Everyone knows that Medicare doesn’t cover everything and that the wealthy can pay for their own treatment. So the point of the video must be to demean and disparage publicly-funded medicine.

Tommy gunning

The villain in the piece by long-time documentary filmmaker Robert Duncan, is Tommy Douglas. Duncan claims “we’ve been swallowing the Medicare myth, saluting an emperor who has no clothes (over a picture of Tommy Douglas) … Big surprise Tommy, a parallel private system already exists.”

The attack on Douglas is ironic because just before this program was broadcast, the CBC postponed for two months a mini-series on Douglas’s life set to air a week before the federal election.

The combination of the two decisions provoked a storm of protest. Complainants had a right to be annoyed. The video was financed largely by Canadian taxpayers through the Canadian Television Fund ($135,000), Knowledge Network (unknown amount), and the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit and Film Incentive BC (substantial federal and provincial tax credits). The people who want and benefit from Medicare unwittingly financed this attack on it.

Eva Czigler, acting head of CBC network programming, wrote a boiler-plate response to the complaints. The Douglas program was pushed back until March because of the “appearance of partisanship” if it was aired during the election campaign, she wrote. Fair enough. The Douglas program, Czigler explained, emphasized Tommy Douglas’s “profound commitment to socialism” and would surely be lambasted by the right.

But Medicare, Schmedicare, a film advocating a full-blown, two-tier system of health care, which is promoted by only one party, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives — even though they are pretending to support Medicare during this election — must be non-partisan.

What’s going on at CBC’s headquarters in Toronto?

The ones in charge

The CBC is accountable to Parliament and the Canadian people through its board of directors, which is appointed by the federal cabinet. The Liberals have selected an odd assortment of people to be accountable to us for CBC programming. They are:

  • a professor of marketing and former CBC bureaucrat
  • an Aboriginal lawyer who practices corporate law with a major Bay Street law firm
  • a chartered accountant
  • an information technology executive
  • an advertising agency executive
  • the president of one of Canada’s largest real estate companies who is famous for his hostile takeover bids
  • three former journalists and broadcasting executives.

Recognize yourself in the mix? Recognize any champions for public health care or any public programs?

Directors are selected on a regional basis. BC’s representative on the CBC board is Nezhat Khosrowshahi, wife of the 64th wealthiest Canadian, with a net worth of $540 million. Nezhat, and husband Hassan, made their fortune in Iran under the Shah and extended it in Canada through ownership of Future Shop. Hassan is one of Gordon Campbell’s most generous patrons. He’s also a vice-chairman of the Fraser Institute, which must mean he’s a large contributor to its missions, such as the destruction of Medicare.

This is not to say that the wife must espouse the interests and values of the husband. But it is instructive to follow the money. In 2001, the Khosrowshahis sold Future Shop to Best Buy rather than compete with it. They used the proceeds to buy a drug-financing business, which finances the development of new drugs and receives royalty streams when the drugs are successfully marketed. The Khosrowshahi family will undoubtedly benefit from privatized health care.

It’s a small, insulated world at the CBC. Eva Czigler bears ultimate responsibility for airing the anti-Medicare program. Czigler is married to former broadcast executive Peter Herrndorf, who is a member of the CBC Board of Directors, so she is accountable to him. Herrndorf used to chair the Canada Television and Cable Production Fund, which has funded other work by Medicare Schmedicare producer Duncan. And Duncan has worked on many CBC productions.

With such a strong crony system in place, Duncan likely had carte blanche to produce the video he wanted.

Softening the opposition

Czigler claims that “the views of those who advocate ‘two-tier’ medicine are not the only views heard … throughout, the documentary returns to a staunch critic of the ‘for fee’ system…”

That would be the hapless Mike McBane of the Canadian Health Coalition. Hapless because Duncan pulls every trick in the book to make McBane look bad. Duncan allows five private medicine practitioners, filmed in their professional contexts, to speak and set the frame for the documentary before he turns to McBane. Looking down on McBane is a large picture of Tommy Douglas, the guy Duncan has just slagged as the emperor with no clothes.

McBane is earnest in his criticism of private medicine, but has a weak television presence. He’s confined to a seat in a cramped office, with bad lighting and a solitary camera angle for the entire production, looking artificial and stilted in his owl glasses and crumpled shirt.

In contrast, his 13 adversaries are out in the real world walking around, talking, joking, looking professional and in charge and viewed from many camera angles.

Duncan uses other tried and true propaganda tricks to disparage Medicare. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis can help us here. It was created in 1937 to educate Americans about the widespread nature of political propaganda. It is known for identifying basic devices, words and phrases that indicate a deceptive purpose to communication. Medicare Schmedicare is evidence the IPA’s work is relevant today.

Words that glitter

Glittering generalities are virtue words, like democracy or civilization, about which we have deep-set ideas. The IPA calls them glitter words because they mean different things to different people. Duncan’s best glitter word is “choice.” One private clinic operator says that “choice is a good thing, having choice in the delivery of health care.” But if the choice is $25,000 for a new hip in a Bellingham, Washington hospital, how relevant is that word to most of us? Choice does not serve our best interests but expensive, privatized medicine is sold to us by giving it a name we usually like.

Another glitter word is “revolution.” Duncan uses this word at the beginning and end of the documentary. “Brian Day is a leader in the middle-class revolution tired of the contradictions built into the system,” Duncan says.

According to the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, a revolution is sudden radical change in ruling classes and social institutions. But private medicine is what we used to have. The correct word is reaction: a move to turn back the clock and return to an earlier order of society when the wealthy and privileged possessed the rights and entitlements they believe society owes them, such as the right to obtain their own medical treatment. Day – also known as Dr. Profit — is leading the reaction against public health care and blocking progress towards a more just, equal and enlightened society.

Euphemism. The purpose of this propaganda device is to pacify an audience in order to make an unpleasant reality more palatable. One classic example is that during Word War II, the U.S. changed the name of the War Department to the Department of Defense. Duncan’s best euphemism is calling private medicine a “parallel system.” This is a cunning phrase because, as we all remember from grade six geometry, parallel lines never meet. The private system does not intersect with the public system and, consequently, will have no impact on it. The reality is, of course, that if the private system is allowed to grow unchecked, the public system will be destroyed.

The Bandwagon. This technique is used to convince us that everyone else is doing it and so should we. Says Duncan, “there are now too many medical options and too many people using them to still believe there’s only a one-tier system in Canadian health care.” But, as the IPA points out, there’s never quite as much of a rush to climb on the bandwagon as the propagandist tries to make us think there is. Duncan’s video accounts for the health treatment of perhaps 30,000 Canadians, or 0.1 percent of the population. Some bandwagon!

Why not follow the money?

Duncan could have contributed to the debate if, rather than simply applauding private medicine, had he investigated it to expose the financial and political interests promoting it.

When Duncan gushes enthusiastically about Ann Kaplan’s company, Medicard Finance, which lends money to people who want cosmetic or veterinary surgery, he tells us her investors include “a major Canadian bank and a big insurance company.” But which ones? This is important because he subsequently tells us that these big financial institutions are “watching the public-private debate very carefully.” Kaplan, you see, is waiting for the day she can sell you private insurance or lend you money for normal medical surgery. Is that day going to just mysteriously occur, or are powerful interests like the major banks and big insurance companies working secretly behind the scene to make it happen? Duncan doesn’t tell us but Googling Kaplan’s company reveals that the bank is the Bank of Montreal.

It would also be instructive to know who invested the $10 million in Brian Day’s Vancouver clinic. Neither Duncan nor Google help us here.

Why does the private system continue to expand when, in most cases, it contravenes the Canada Health Act? Duncan’s glib answer is that Health Canada and provincial health authorities appear to be suffering from “temporary blindness or permanent amnesia.”

For people familiar with the exercise of power, this answer is unsatisfactory. Duncan could have explained that the reason clinics have been allowed to survive and expand is not because of government blindness or amnesia, but because of the industry’s vaunted economic and political clout. The chief lobbyist for the Canadian Medical Association, for instance, worked for Health Canada for more than a decade before joining the doctors’ organization.

The pr machine

Several years ago, a dozen private BC clinics joined together in the Coalition for Health Care Options (Options is another glitter word). They retained the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm to lobby for them in Victoria and promote their interests through the media.

In 2003, Hill & Knowlton orchestrated a successful campaign to defeat a law that would give the province power to levy penalties against doctors and clinics which accept payment for medical treatments that should be covered by the public system. This would have put the clinics out of business, or at least drastically curtailed their operation.

One Hill & Knowlton lobbyist on the file, Dale Flood, went on to become a special advisor to federal Industry Minister David Emerson. Bruce Young is another Hill & Knowlton executive who promoted the private clinics. He is a long-time federal Liberal insider and was an advisor to Liberal MP David Dingwall when he was Minister of Health. Young left the PR firm to become senior special advisor in B.C. to Prime Minister Paul Martin’s office.

It’s not blindness and amnesia at work, but greed and undue influence.

Duncan mentions the important decision last year by the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that prohibitions against private health insurance in the Quebec Health Act were inconsistent with the Quebec Charter.

His bias was evident in describing the decision: “Those who support a parallel private system (there he goes again) announced the court had recognized there was no sense giving a heart transplant to a system that was brain dead,” while “those who cling to one-tier saw it as a victory for the establishment, a conspiracy of social and business elites had ganged up to destroy Medicare.”

He then cuts to critic Mike McBane, who must be one of those who ‘cling’ to one-tier.

Funders of the agenda

Instead of the rhetoric, Duncan could have added to our understanding of the forces behind the “parallel” system. He could explain that private medicine’s hero, Dr. Jacques Chaoulli, usually portrayed as a concerned physician, is also a senior fellow at the libertarian Montreal Economic Institute. Like the Fraser Institute, the MEI is on a mission to destroy Medicare. Among MEI’s prominent backers is the Desmarais family (net worth $3.94 billion), which owns Power Corporation – Helene Desmarais, wife of Paul Desmarais, Jr., is on the MEI board. Power Corp. owns three major Canadian life insurance companies, including Great West Life, the largest provider of supplementary health insurance in Canada and probably the single biggest beneficiary of the Supreme Court decision.

Duncan applauds Montreal as the private medicine capital of Canada, but tells us nothing about how this happened. In 1997, Helene Desmarais wrote a report for the City of Montreal suggesting that downtown Montreal become an international centre of the health care industry. That’s health care as a profitable industry, not a public service. Business and profits, not treatment and care.

Her family has been lobbying ferociously – and successfully – to make this happen.

And now that deputy Conservative leader Peter Mackay is dating Sophie Desmarais, (they met at Mila and Brian Mulroney’s house) where does that put the Conservative Party?

And where does that put Canadian health care if the Conservatives win the election?

First published in The Tyee.

Buy Now