Sunday, November 3, 2013

My Log 388: Propaganda (3): Randal Marlin rubbishes John Grierson, whose government-employed film-makers carved out a unique, expressive space for their work

Randal Marlin
Randal Marlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
John Grierson
John Grierson (Photo credit: y.mclean)

 In what are laughingly called the Western democracies (it seems to me plutocracies would be a more accurate description) there appear to be two broad sources from which challenges to freedom of expression can emanate: one is the publicly controlled  information services, usually in the hands of governments; and the other the private sector of corporate power with all its advertising, money and vested interests.
This is a conclusion one has to draw from the presentation of facts in Randal Marlin’s brilliant second edition, recently published, of his book Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion (published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, pps 368,  $32.95.)
Marlin, as I have stated in earlier posts, gives an exhaustive overview of everything pertaining to propaganda and persuasion, fair-mindedly making the arguments of both sides. But the overwhelming preponderance of the authorities he quotes are from experts who have a negative view of propaganda, and who make it seem that almost anyone wanting to persuade anyone else  of almost anything, is engaging in one or other form of propaganda.  In his essay on definitions, which I have previously referred to, he quotes 14 experts whose view of propaganda is negative,  three who define it in a neutral fashion, and only two who define it favorably.
One of these two is John Grierson, founder of Canada’s fabled National Film Board, a man who always said he was in the business of propaganda, which plain statement of fact one would have thought would win Randal’s sympathy. But he gives very short shrift to Grierson, dismissing him almost airily in the following paragraph:
“Grierson wholly supported government information initiatives to prepare for public acceptance of government policies.  This could reasonably be described as government propaganda. Grierson himself was discredited later  for his involvement in the Gouzenko affair, but the problem for democracies in combatting propaganda from private and extra-territorial sources remains.”
There follows a quote from Grierson in whch he outlines his plans to “present information that is news, and also information that is pre-news in order to prepare people so that they are not caught,”  a statement for which Randal presents a rebuttal from some American expert to the effect  that Grierson would be “putting a professional group of a very special kind between the government and the media.”
Ten pages later, Randal returns to the charge with a re-statement of his ill-defined comment that “Grierson’s credibility was further weakened by his involvement in the Gouzenko inquiry.”And in his third and last reference to Grierson, on page 281, he returns to the charge once more, repeating --- just in case we hadn’t got the message the first two times --- that, “as we saw above, his credibility was further weakened by his involvement in the Gouzenko inquiry.”
This seems to be an astonishing lapse in a book which otherwise is so carefully even-handed. Because surely it should have been of some interest to Randal that Grierson’s National Film Board, headed by people whom he selected, trained, and inspired, managed to establish over at least four decades a space between the government that controlled it, and  its own freeedom of expression which made it unique among government film boards around the world.
I know something of this, because after spending quarter of a century as an employee in the daily journalism of the private sector, I spent almost twenty years thereafter as a freelance employee of the NFB.  I cannot pretend that the private sector was any further advanced than the public sector in creating space for free expression. In fact, based on my experience, I would say it was rather the contrary, though I do not wish to put that forward as a general principle.
The NFB was  the government’s film-maker. Any government department that wanted a film made on any subject asked the Board to do the job, and provided the money for the proposed film.  On such an assignment, the department called the shots. But in those days the NFB had a substantial budget of its own, managed by a production committee composed equally of film-makers and bureaucrats, and it was under this budget that almost all of the agency’s greatest films were made.
I only once worked on a departmental film. That was when the NFB was contracted to produce four films for use in the centenary year of the National Parks, 1985.  I did the initial research for this whole programme, and I wrote, researched and directed one of the films, a history of the National Parks. That film was designed to be the centrepiece of a massive celebratory meeting towards the end of the celebratory year, but a series of circumstances arose which held up completion of the film long enough that it missed its deadline. The circumstances were these: the bureaucrats overlooking production of these films (a very reasonable couple of young men, I must say, but they had other less reasonable men breathing down their necks), objected to the fact that as part of the recital of the history of the parks, I had chosen the creation of 10 new parks in four years as a seminal event, and had interviewed Jean Chretien, the minister responsible, for the film. This was clearly of special interest, because if I remember correctly, it had taken previous ministers more like 50 years to create four new parks. This was the era of the Mulroney government, so the National Parks bureaucrats in charge of this project didn’t want to publicize Chretien in any way. One of Mulroney’s poorer appointments was to the ministry overlooking National Parks, a French-Canadian woman called Suzanne Blais-Grenier. While insisting that we remove the interview with Chretien, the bureaucrats insisted we allow Blais-Grenier to make a statement in the film.  She had been making statements to the effect that mining and logging could be permitted in the National Parks, and that did not sit well with the message of the rest of the film.
Right off, we simply didn’t agree that she should be allowed to make a statement, when everyone else in the film had to submit to an interview, including any awkward questions that might arise. But we also objected on the grounds of what his particular minister might be expected to say. At one point, during the argument that went on about this, I asked the bureaucrats if they could guarantee that she would still be minister when the film was finished.  They dismissed the question as irrelevant.  After a lot of back-and-forth about this, we gave ground on the Chretien interview, but stuck to our guns over Blais-Grenier, insisting she should be interviewed, if they absoutely insisted on having her.  So I did an interview with her --- she had nothing of any interest to say --- and we began to cut it into the film. Suddenly, she was fired. I phoned and asked the same bureaucrats if they would like us to take her out of he film, and they responded resoundingly: “Yes, please!” We had not begun to cut Chretien out of the film, so we left him in.
So, we won this argument even on a field on which we had no right to be questioning content, since it was a film made at the request and the cost of the department.
The NFB had to confront government interference, however, even when operating on their own budget. My first NFB job  had been to do research for films for the Challenge for Change programme,  an NFB innovation whose avowed object was to make films designed to prepare Canadians for social and other changes. (A typically Griersonian aim, established decades after his disappearance from the Board!) One of  the programme’s major innovations was to change the relationship between the makers and the subjects of films, the idea being to give the subjects editorial control over what was happening to them.
Any department that wanted to take part could do so by putting $100,000 into the kitty, and 14 departments were members at the time concerned, creating a budget of $1,400,000, roughly divided between making standard documentary films, and video experiments which were working on the processes of social change.
I had two relevant experiences, one concerning the video side of things, the other the film side.  When the James Bay hydro scheme was launched in 1971, the half dozen or so Cree villages in northern Quebec had never in all their long history held a political meeting to discuss their concerns. Since this project promised to bring them massive change, it was tailor-made for Challenge for Change, and their  video experts swung into action, promising to train a Cree to work a video camera, and giving him the budget to travel from village to village showing his videotapes so that the Cree people could be made aware of the general feelings about the project among the various villages.  I was at the meeting at which this was set up, and  a reliable Cree person was chosen for the job.
Two weeks later I returned and asked how it was coming along.  “Oh,” they said, rather shamefacedly, “I’m afraid we have had to can that project., at the request of Ottawa.”  This was all taking place after the insurrection of the FLQ, who in 1970 had kidnapped a British diplomat and executed a Quebec cabinet minister, and the federal government was desperate not to do anything that might upset the Bourassa Liberal government in Quebec City.  So that was the end of that project.
Later, when I was researching a proposed film on Aboriginal Rights that arose from my research, I was told by the director of research at the Justice department, a personal friend of Prime  Minster Trudeau with whom he had been dining the previous evening, that we should not make such a film because there was not a smidgen of credibility in this claim that the Aboriginals had legal rights. A few days later came word that the project had been suspended on  orders from “the highest authority in Ottawa,” which we all took to be the Prime Minister.
Work stopped for a couple of weeks, but Colin Low, the director of Challenge for Change, who might be described as a Grierson man, had spent his working life in the NFB and was wise in the ways of government. He suggested we could recast the idea. Instead of one film on Aboriginal rights, we could make four films on the place of Indians in Canadian society. I agreed, and he circulated the 14 members of the departmental committee for their agreement, which he obtained. We then decided that our first film should deal with the Indians and their life on the land. And we went ahead and made the film we intended to make in the first place.
That was not the end of the story. When we had almost finished the film the Indian Affairs representative on the committee objected to it, said it was full of errors, and refused to vote for its release. Other members of the committee said Indian Affairs would have to justify their opinion with facts.
And  that was not the end of the story. Meantime, Colin Low attended a conference of goverment information officers from the third world in Stockholm, and he took the rough cut to show them the NFB’s work. It created a sensation. None of them had ever seen anything like it, and they could not believe it was a government film, so critical was its tone of current and past policies.
But even that was not the end of the story. When Indian Affairs failed to document their objections and since the film had already gained so much kudos for Canada abroad, the committee ordered the film be released, and Indian Affairs, anxious to be credited with this success, put up $30,000 to ensure they were given a credit as sponsor of the film.
This is an encouraging story, because although it is a fact that a determined, tyrannical leader can impose himself on the work of those under him (as we are seeing in the current federal government), in practice even the Prime Minister of Canada did not succeed in stopping production of a government-funded film that did not meet his purposes.
I am not sure such a result could ever have been achieved in the private sector: in my experience, if the publisher of a newspaper wanted or didn’t want something published, his word was law, no argument about it.
These men who managed this public system, I repeat (unlike Randal I will not repeat it three times, just the mere once) had been selected by, trained by, and inspired by John Grierson, the man given such short shrift by Randal in his book. Apart from anything else, Randal is untypically careless in suggesting that
Grierson’s fall from grace in Ottawa was caused by the Gouzenko affair. In fact, Grierson resigned from the National Film Board on August 7, 1945, and Gouzenko was never heard of until he defected from the Soviet embassy on September 5 of the same year. In addition, Randal should have noticed that at the time Grierson was not only accused of being a Communist sympathizer, but by others of  being “an out-and-out CCFer’, and still others, of “running an organization with Fascist tendencies that gave preference to Nazis.”  An all-purpose whipping boy, was Grierson, and the whipping still goes on, apparently.
A woman who was for a short time a secretary in Grierson’s office was implicated in the Soviet spy-ring, but it is said that when she suggestd that Grierson might be recruited as a Soviet spy, the response from Moscow was “stay away from Grierson.”  She thought this proved he was not an agent; but to J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, obsessed with Communism, it proved that he was already an agent.  On such flimsy material is Grierson dismissed in Randal’s book.
I should add that I met Grierson twice, and both meetings were memorable. Ten years after his resignation from the NFB the Hudson’s Bay Company gave him a contract to tour the Canadian north and write some articles for their company paper, The Beaver. By the time he arrived in Winnipeg he had already over-spent his expense allowance, and so far had written nothing. A friend of mine, director of public relations for Hudson’s Bay, who had set up his tour, phoned and said he would agree to the Winnipeg Free Press interviewing Grierson, as long as I was the interviewer.  So I went along to his hotel room where we sat for a couple of hours drinking Scotch and chatting, with him telling me all sorts of hilarious stories about his past.  I went back to the office, full of whisky but no notes,  and wrote a pretty funny story about the interview in which I quoted him as saying, among many other things, that the Canadian officer class in the war was the most cowardly in the world.  When I took the paper around to him later in the day he seized it as he opened the door, and said, “My God, what have you been doing to me, laddie?” He had already been contacted by a Toronto reporter asking him to explain himself. “Were you ever in the services?” he asked the reporter.  “Well, then, did you never think of your officers like that?”
He came around to my small apartment that night and entertained a few of my friends with a non-stop monologue which charmed all of us.
Five or six years later I ran into him as I was going up the steps of the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh for a Shakespearean play. He hadn’t yet stopped drinking, as he did later, and was slightly the worse for wear. He had been running a show on Scottish TV,  This Wonderful World, consisting of extracts from documentary films gathered from around the world, and was introduced every week as Dr. John Grierson, in reference to one of his many honorary doctorates.
We agreed to meet at the interval at a pub that was accessible through a small door in the back of the theatre. When we found our way there we were just settling down for a chat when an old lady who looked like she seldom moved from the pub sidled up and asked politely in a thick Scottish accent, “Are you Dr. Grierson?”  On being told it was he, she said, “I’d like a word with you, please.”
“Yes, my dear, what can I do for you?” Grierson asked.
“It’s me arthritis,” she said.  She may have been under the weather when she first talked to him, but by the time he had finished with her, telling her how many things she should be grateful for,  she was feeling on top of the world. Maybe it was Grierson’s gift of the gab, his wonderful way with words, that got him into all that trouble.
Randal should have known, too, and as a university man should have respected, that in the late 1960s, when Grierson was almost flat broke, he was given a contract by McGill university to conduct a class. At the beginning he was merely a curiosity. But pretty soon, his lectures were attracting 800 students every week. It is a lasting regret of mine that I was away from the city at the time, and never had a chance to be charmed by him again.
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