The Birmingham Press profiles City TV’s Debra Davis – Birmingham City Council’s former public affairs chief – who talked to Ros Dodd about her past, her present and the future.
Debra Davis was 20 when both her parents were killed in an airline crash at JFK Airport, leaving her to become her 13-year-old brother’s official guardian. Three years later, her skydiver boyfriend also died in a plane crash.
Such trauma affects people in different ways. Debra was resolute; determined to fight for political change to help improve the lives of others. Today, more than 30 years later, she comes across as tough, no-nonsense and more than a little formidable, but there’s also softness, kindliness and a hint of vulnerability.
“My brother, Bruce, and I are both driven and focused — and we’re both workaholics,” says Debra, Birmingham City Council’s former public affairs chief who is now one of City TV Broadcasting’s directors. “We both ended up in politics. I remember one time we were trying to analyse why we’d done that and he said, ‘it’s because we don’t want other people to hurt the way we have hurt’, and he was right: we both wanted to do something to make other people’s lives better.”
Although Debra describes her brother as “a bigger social activist than me” – he stepped down as chairman of the Toronto District School Board in 2010, the fourth largest school board in north America – her lofty career has spanned working for no fewer than three Canadian prime ministers, including Pierre Trudeau, and a diplomatic posting to the Canadian High Commission in London. Her address book is packed with well-known and powerful names and she counts a smattering of local, UK and Canadian celebrities as friends.
Today, she is one of the key players involved in bringing a local television station to Birmingham in a high profile city centre location. With her fellow directors Jacques de Suze, one of the key people who helped to develop Citytv in Toronto, Des Tong, producer and guitarist with Sad Café and long-standing partner Alan Grindley, she is building the City TV brand and working hard to secure the multi-million pound investment.
“I grew up in an environment where local television was really quite important. People want to know about city news – where the traffic problems are, what sports events are going on locally, which artists are performing in the city and so on. We wanted local news then as much as provincial and national news.
But in a difficult economic climate, with paid-for media outlets falling victim to free online alternatives, why is Debra so confident that the City TV concept is the way to go in a country where local television is almost non-existent?
“Because City TV is about entertainment – information, arts and culture, lifestyle, discussion, participation and current affairs as well as news – all of which are highly localised on all platforms. It will attract the audience advertisers and sponsors want to reach.
The timing is perfect. The debate for local television in the UK has caught up to the ambitions of City TV. The government has clearly outlined its initial proposals to change broadcast regulation to make local television more commercially viable. City TV Broadcasting intends to apply for the local licence in Birmingham in 2012 and to create Birmingham as a super hub for local TV.
“There are a great many challenges: affordability of transmission, broadcast-IPTV-mobile technology convergence which is not quite complete, the prominence of an EPG required, and an advertising culture that still bases its media buying on regions – not cities. But these will be overcome as the government levels the playing field.
“We have a strong business proposition but changing perceptions of local television and attracting the right investment are two of the greatest hurdles to overcome.
“We can adapt the style of local television that works well in other jurisdictions into a UK model. And we will get to the heart of local – not simply recreating a national network with a limited local TV offering. With broadcast quality standards, local television has to be more than the cable look and feel, more than community TV or local features on YouTube.”
Debra was born and raised in Montreal with two sisters and her brother. All were left shattered when her parents were killed, but the family held closely together with the help of her aunts in those early years.
“At the age of 20 I found myself in a split-level house in the suburbs with two cars, two dogs and, in effect, a 13-year-old son. I grew up rather quickly.”
Soon afterwards, with her brother settled at boarding school, she decided to up sticks and move to Ottawa to start life afresh. Leaving behind her job, she enrolled at Carleton University to study for a degree in social science majoring in psychology and law. It was here that she was introduced to politics.
“During my first year there, 1979, the Liberal Party, which I supported, was in opposition. Mr Trudeau, who had headed three governments, lost the election to the Conservative Party – resulting in a hung Parliament – and he decided to retire. But the new government was very unpopular and the Liberals brought about a situation where they would vote against a finance bill in the House of Commons and bring Mr Trudeau out of retirement to fight another election.
“I remember hearing on the radio, on December 13, news that the House had fallen. The next day I called a friend of mine who was working for Mr Trudeau and said I’d like to volunteer to help with the new election campaign.”
Her offer was accepted and Debra was drafted into Mr Trudeau’s office, where she would transcribe tapes of his speeches, type them up and distribute them to the Press.
Trudeau was swept back to power in a majority government in February 1980.
“I remember him coming into a big ballroom and I was on the mezzanine floor looking down. He did a pirouette on the stage and said, ‘welcome to the 1980s’. It was amazing.”
Over the next 17 years, Debra worked not only for Trudeau, but two more prime ministers, John Turner, briefly during the 1988 campaign, and Jean Chretien (1989-1997) as a special events coordinator working on state and royal visits and as a political organiser specialising in young people and women. She managed campaigns, raised money, trained staff and, importantly, organised special communications projects, including targeted direct mail campaigns – at a time when the Canadian government was going through great economic restructuring.
Interestingly at this time in Birmingham’s political history, Debra also co-chaired election days for the Mayor of Ottawa. Municipal politics is never far from her mind.
By 1997, Debra had married, had three daughters and was divorced – and she was ready for a career change.
“I asked for an overseas post and was appointed counsellor of public affairs to the Canadian High Commission in London. So, with two of my three children, who were then aged 11 and 14, I moved to Britain as a diplomat, arriving three days before Princess Diana died. I was excited about the move, although the start was marred by her death; we were all in mourning. I’d met Diana during her 1983 visit to Canada.”
In her new role, Debra was responsible for managing the communications and public affairs programme at the High Commission, which included monitoring and analysing international and domestic issues and current affairs and helping to raise Canada’s profile with opinion leaders as part of her public diplomacy and academic relations programmes.
And, of course, she rubbed shoulders with people who travelled in such circles. One of the people she met at Canada House, the High Commission’s headquarters in Trafalgar Square, was Alan Grindley, a television producer/director of celebrity-driven documentaries – since 1983 – and a musician. Alan also founded and was chairman of Town TV, one of the UK’s first local cable channels which broadcast in Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire.
“Alan had produced and directed a cross-Canada TV show with host David ‘Kid’ Jensen. There he met Lenny Gallant, a talented musician from Nova Scotia who happened to be a friend of my brother’s. So when Lenny came to the newly reopened Canada House, I went to see him – and Alan came to see him too, so that’s how we met.”
Through thick and thin, Debra and Alan have been together ever since and he moved to Birmingham with her five years ago when she became director of public affairs and communications for the city council.
After taking a leave of absence from the Canadian Government in 2001, Debra toyed with the idea of returning to her native land. But she decided to stay. Debra set up her own communications consultancy specialising in public affairs, communications planning and project management.
She was managing director of Canadians in Europe Chapter from 2001 until 2004 and is a Founding Board Member for the Arab International Women’s Forum, a non-profit organisation launched in 2001 to expand access to international markets for Arab women based in London.
She arrived in Birmingham in 2007, but resigned from the £100,000-a-year position three and a half years after her appointment. Speculation about her future at the council had been rife for months after she wrote a report slamming the failures of her Council communications. Communications, she claimed, lacked strategic planning and wasn’t monitored effectively. “However, there was a committed team and the report was, in fact, only a small part of the business case to make communications more strategic, evidenced-based, measured and affordable. The resulting press reports made no mention of any of the solutions we were proposing in that same report!
“This is what I was hired to do. Change the way in which the council managed its communications and save money. The headlines were inflammatory and written to cause the Council embarrassment.”
Since stepping down from the city council – which she still describes as a “great but tough job” – Debra has been hard at work promoting City TV where she believes she can make a bigger difference to life in Birmingham.
“Alan has been very supportive of everything I’ve done and it was time to focus on City TV,” she says. “His dream of bringing City TV to Birmingham makes perfect sense and I have the skills and business acumen to help drive that dream forward.
“It is also an important way to make a substantial contribution to civic affairs and the Big Society agenda.”
Having been a Birmingham resident for nearly five years, Debra feels at home in the city – or, at least, as at home as it’s possible for her to feel.
“As an ex-pat, I do have divided loyalties and in a way it’s difficult to feel that I truly belong anywhere. My Canadian values often conflict with UK norms – and in Canada I’m out of sight, out of mind! It’s not easy sometimes.
“I am dismayed that the Liberal Party of Canada has gone from government to opposition to now the third party in 10 short years. And I am equally concerned about voter turnout in the UK, financial instability in Europe, the hyperbole about the evils of an ‘elected’ mayor! My frustration reaches its peak when I see Birmingham overlooked by its own business and political leaders, the regional and national media and its own nay-sayers.
“On the other hand, I’m in good health, my children are safe, I’ve done some amazing things and will continue to do so – so I’m not complaining.”