‘We got a lawsuit every week’: How CBC’s Marketplace began and why it’s still thriving 50 years on
Murray Creed may be 95, but his memories of creating CBC’s investigative consumer program Marketplace are so clear, it’s as though it happened yesterday — not in 1972.
“We talked straight. Named names. And we got famous for that,” says one of the first producers on a program that is now marking a milestone — 50 years of programming, the longest-running news, consumer or current affairs television program in Canada.
Those early days came with a lot of threats, Creed remembers.
“We got a lawsuit every week.”
But as Marketplace celebrates its rare achievement with a one-hour special airing Friday night, consumer advocates say what’s unfolded in Canada over the decades is cause for concern: consumer protection is under threat.
“There’s been a steady decline in consumer protection over the past few decades,” says John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), a non-profit that acts on behalf of consumers.
“That’s partly because the energy behind the consumer movement that thrived in the ’60s and ’70s has slowly dissipated, like the air going out of a tire.”
He credits Marketplace for continuing to fight for consumers and shed light on wrongdoing.
How it all began
Marketplace debuted as a wave of consumer activism swept across North America, led south of the border by outspoken advocates such as Ralph Nader, founder of the watchdog group Public Citizen.
Here in Canada, the Liberal government of Lester Pearson had created a first-ever federal department for consumer affairs in 1967.
Shortly after, provincial governments, led by Ontario and Quebec, established their own consumer protection ministries.
News executives at the CBC figured the time was right for a network television investigative consumer program, the first of its kind in Canada.
They made a bold and unusual choice for the era, appointing a woman as one of the two original hosts. The trailblazing Joan Watson, along with George Finstad, took on corporate giants and found themselves in tricky situations.
Now living in Halifax and 90 years old, Watson told Marketplace host David Common that she “got a kick” out of tackling difficult topics and fighting for families who often faced inequity.
“That gave me the will to step in and see if there was something we could do,” says Watson. “Usually we could do something, that was the great part about it. We made change.”
WATCH | First Marketplace co-host, Joan Watson, on being a trailblazing woman in television:
Not available for an interview
One of the biggest changes over the years has been a growing trend for people in positions of power — be it politicians, CEOs or those orchestrating massive scams — to decline interview requests, says Common.
“Part of the process of putting our special together involved screening hours and hours of past shows,” says Common.
“It struck me how accessible politicians were, back in the day. You see Joan [Watson] interviewing the federal minister of consumer affairs — that kind of access is extremely rare today.”
Instead, says Common, requests for interviews often turn into lengthy exchanges with “handlers” who might take weeks or longer to eventually decline the request, or only agree to answer questions in writing.
The increasing tendency for publicly elected officials to shirk tough questions from Marketplace journalists is a disturbing trend for Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada.
“That’s really communicating that consumers aren’t owed any answers, and that’s been a very concerning development,” he says.
Corporate leaders are also less inclined to give interviews today, says Erica Johnson, who noticed a marked change during the 16 years she hosted Marketplace, before moving into the role of Go Public host six years ago.
“Over the years, the number of people willing to answer questions about their products or services dropped dramatically,” says Johnson.
“And you see that on the TV special — business leaders fleeing down the street, trying to avoid any accountability.”
There’s no sustained consumer movement
Lawford says politicians and corporations don’t feel obligated to answer questions in part because Canadians aren’t demanding that they do.
“There hasn’t been a 10,000-person march on Parliament Hill to complain about cellphone fees, so no one in government feels compelled to do anything about that,” he says.
“The issue comes up, it goes away. There’s no sustained movement where we can exert pressure.”
Whitehurst says the lack of a consumer uprising can partly be explained by people feeling their voices won’t make a difference, since corporations and governments seem resistant to listening to their concerns.
“They’re feeling distrustful that the system will deliver the results they’re looking for,” says Whitehurst. “So that’s fatalism, not apathy.”
WATCH | A look back at 50 years of holding companies, governments accountable:
The lack of a strong consumer movement can also partly be explained by dwindling financial support from the federal government, say consumer advocacy groups such as PIAC, the Consumers Council of Canada and the Consumers’ Association of Canada.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development hands out about $1.6 million in grants each year to nonprofit and volunteer consumer groups.
That dollar figure hasn’t changed in roughly 25 years, says Lawford, who points out that the money is also not stable funding.
“It’s very hard to make long-term plans when you don’t know what sort of funding you have year to year,” he says.
The uncertain climate makes Marketplace all that more crucial, says Lawford, who credits the program for focusing a spotlight on such things as unfair banking and telecom practices.
Special includes astonishing hidden-camera moments
The special highlights other impacts Marketplace has made — on everything from shady health scams to nursing home investigations and racial discrimination.
“We’re known for testing people, products and promises,” says executive producer Nelisha Vellani. “And we have a wide range of tools to get to the truth. We do more hidden camera investigations than any other journalists in the country.”
The special features some astonishing hidden-camera moments — such as a garage door repairman who not only tries to rip off a homeowner by needlessly replacing a brand new circuit board, but also urinates in a bucket when he thinks no one is watching.
“Some of the things we’ve witnessed on hidden camera during home repair exposés — and other investigations — is unbelievable,” says Vellani.
It’s those unexpected moments — and the big wins for consumers — that Vellani says keeps the team behind Canada’s most popular investigative consumer program going.
“Fifty is an amazing milestone,” she says. “But we’re not done yet.”