Chancellor’s panel spars on public broadcasting

The third annual Mansbridge Summit brought a group of 40 Mount Allison students together with academics, artists and Mt. A’s Chancellor Peter Mansbridge to discuss the role of a public broadcaster in modern society. Throughout the summit, students played a key role in shaping the debate. The Jan. 16 event was structured around a series of roundtables facilitating discussion between students, three panellists and the chancellor, in which students were tasked with coming up with the questions that Mansbridge would later ask the panel.

“I felt the structure of the whole thing was very well done. They put a lot of thought in allowing us to have time to talk to the panelists before, have our ideas, discuss it for a couple of hours, and then we got to talk to Peter Mansbridge himself about it,” said Carlie Fyfe, a second-year political science major.

This year’s theme was particularly relevant to the chancellor’s work as the anchor of CBC’s flagship news show, The National. “I kept trying to distance myself from my real job, but it’s hard. Obviously, things come up, and you want to say something,” said Mansbridge. The CBC had a rough 2014, a year that saw the broadcaster cut its programming and a widely condemned handling of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal.

The panellists were Lydia Miljan, political science professor at the University of Windsor and senior fellow at the Fraser Institute; Marshall Button, actor, director and artist in residence at Moncton’s Capitol Theatre; and David Myles, singer-songwriter and host of CBC’s The East Coast Music Hour with David Myles, who is also a Mt. A alumnus.

The panel, which was open to the general public, sparked lively discussion on the role and  mandate of a public broadcaster, in this case  CBC. Panellists, in particular Myles and Miljan, clashed views frequently through the discussion. While Myles focused primarily on the CBC’s mandate – putting ratings aside – Miljan said that the CBC should focus solely on ratings in order to determine which shows are viable.

“The sole pursuit of ratings inherently makes the mandate difficult to pursue when the mandate suggests minority voices,” said Myles. “Why play Acadian music to Anglophones? There is value in that. In New Brunswick, we should all be listening to each other’s music all the time. It’s a way of understanding each other’s culture, but does it fit into a ratings-based mandate? Probably not.”

Miljan was invited in order to provide an alternative perspective. “One of my goals was that I wanted to bring somebody to campus that usually would not be brought in to speak at Mount Allison,” said Steven Black, Mt. A’s Mansbridge Summit intern. “That took shape perfectly with Lydia [Miljan]. Conservative through and through, partner at the Fraser Institute, but fiendishly intelligent and very articulate. She really did a great job of getting the students to think,” said Black.

Myles, who was recently hired by the CBC to host his own radio show, was worried that his presence, along with the presence of Mansbridge, who is one of the most recognizable faces of the CBC, would skew the discussion and lead to a stale debate. However, as soon as he met the other panellists, he was reassured that the discussion would not simply be a praise of the CBC. “[Miljan] is totally informed and she shares the opinion of a lot of Canadians. It’s really important. If people are going to figure how [the CBC] is going to look like in the future, they have to be ready to face all those arguments that she is presenting, which I think are valid,” said Myles.

“I think you need that kind of energy to make a panel work,” said Mansbridge. “At a certain point, it’s pretty clear where everybody’s coming from, so once you get beyond that, you can actually start to get some constructive discussion going on… it was clear where people stood, but they put that aside and had some good, constructive thoughts that weren’t all based on ideology,” said Mansbridge.

 The chancellor noted modifications that were brought to this year’s summit, such as the smaller number of students allowed to participate. While the past two years have seen between 60 and 65 students partake in the program, this year’s summit was capped at 40 participants.

“[This year’s summit] was another step forward in terms of the progress of the program,” said Mansbridge. “Of the three years, these were the most focused group of students. When we sat down this afternoon, they knew exactly what they wanted out of this. I was very impressed right away.”

Jean-Sébastien Comeau