Canadian Public Affairs Program

In an attempt to mirror the huge success of the U.S. program 60 Minutes, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1975 inaugurated its weekly public affairs program The Fifth Estate. Following the "four estates" of respectively, the clergy, nobility, the legislature, and print journalism, the "fifth estate" refers to the role of electronic broadcasting in society.

At the outset, the program's stated format and mandate was to be a weekly hour of innovative and inquisitive personal journalism. As such the program adapted the American style of segmenting individual stories, introduced and narrated and from time to time produced by one of the program's hosts. Dubbed a magazine-type show The Fifth Estate typically runs three such segments per show. Although based on American forms of public affairs programs The Fifth Estate maintains a distinct link with Canada's tradition of documentary film-making. In particular, as a CBC produced program, whose mandate is to foster Canadian national identity, The Fifth Estate's subject matters are drawn from all regions of the country. The program, therefore, also serves to educate Canadians about their own nation, its distinctive geography, cultures, languages and social problems.

Falling under the public affairs section of CBC programming The Fifth Estate's stories are framed within the language of contemporary news journalism. Not unlike the evening news or beat reporter The Fifth Estate's sees its role as a watchdog of government and public policy. And not surprisingly the program's hosts are usually drawn from the ranks of Canada's metropolitan daily newspapers. Similarly, hosts such as Hana Gartner have used the program as a stepping stone to prestigious anchor positions with the networks flagship newscast The National.

The journalistic experience on The Fifth Estate's staff has resulted in an aggressive and topical approach to public affairs in both Canada and abroad. From time to time this stance has raised the ire of individuals in question. In September 1993, for example, The Fifth Estate made front page news when an entrepreneur unsuccessfully petitioned a Canadian court to place an injunction banning the broadcast of the prime-time program. At the international level The Fifth Estate's documentary segment "To Sell a War", originally broadcast in December 1992, received widespread attention and acclaim for its detailing in no uncertain terms, the Citizen's for a Free Kuwait misinformation campaign in the months leading up to the Gulf war. In 1993 "To Sell a War" was awarded the International Emmy for best Documentary.

-Greg Elmer

The Fifth Estate
Photo courtesy of CBC

Adrienne Clarkson, Eric Mailing, Ian Parker, Bob Johnstone, Peter Reilly, Warner Troyer, Hana Gartner, Bob McKeown, and others

Glenn Sarty, Ron Haggart, Robin Taylor


September 1975- One Hour Weekly, Fall/Winter Season


Stewart, Sandy. Here's Looking at Us: A Personal History of Television in Canada. Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1986.


See also Canadian Programming in English