Wednesday, February 28, 2007

David Cochrane’s speech on ‘patriotic correctness’

In the days following the collapse of the Hebron talks, the Newfoundland Ocean Industries Association (NOIA) issued a news release, expressing concern about the situation and urging both parties to resume negotiations. Rather than address the points raised by NOIA, Premier Danny Williams ridiculed the association, saying they were here to "annoy ya". Many business leaders were shocked by this behaviour. Yet none spoke out. If you noticed this disconnect, then you aren't alone. On February 21, David Cochrane, Provincial Affairs Reporter for CBC Here & Now, delivered a controversial and hard-hitting speech to the St. John's Board of Trade, in which he demonstrated that, when politics and business collide, business loses. Following is the text of David’s speech...

By David Cochrane

"I’ve been covering politics and provincial affairs in this province full-time since the Fall of 1998. In that eight years, I’ve seen the worlds of business and politics collide many times. In almost every case, politics won.

I have covered stories about resource-based industries involving four different premiers, and intersecting with some of the biggest companies in the province. In almost every case, the government used the power of the legislature to change the rules under which business is conducted to determine a favourable political outcome.

The political climate in Newfoundland and Labrador is having a profound and negative impact on public debate. And the time is ripe for change.

Please note that I am not passing judgement on any of the actions I am about to describe. I’m merely pointing them out and outlining what I think were the consequences.

In almost every case, these actions had tremendous public support. But popular decisions are not always good decisions. And when everybody is nodding their heads in agreement, I think it is the journalist’s role to shout ‘Bullshit!’ from the back of the room.

In 1998, former Premier Brian Tobin was in the middle of highly charged negotiations with Inco over the development of Voisey’s Bay. The central issue was whether Inco should build a nickel smelter in the province. Inco had spent $4 billion to acquire Voisey’s Bay and was proceeding under existing development rules to start mining nickel. On November 17th of that year, Tobin and mines and energy minister Chuck Furey outlined a series of amendments to the Mineral Act. The key element was section 31.1 which gave the cabinet the right to order a mining company to complete primary processing in the province. These changes would be broadly applied. But the clear target was Inco.

The changes were retroactive so that existing discoveries such as Voisey’s Bay were included. And it could not be appealed. Tobin said this was to ensure that companies such as Inco couldn’t use “back door methods” such as the courts to get around that requirement.

This decision had tremendous public and political support. But it was a political decision to change the rules of the game after a company and its shareholders had invested billions of dollars to acquire the rights to a nickel deposit. Investors were not happy. Negotiations reached an impasse. And there was no deal on Voisey’s Bay until Tobin left and Roger Grimes became premier.

It was under Grimes that I covered the second major collision between business and politics. And it’s a dispute that continues today.

In the summer of 2001 Fishery Products International announced its intention to buy Clearwater Fine Foods of Nova Scotia. Shortly afterwards, FPI announced plans to cut jobs at its fish plants in Harbour Breton and the Burin Peninsula.

FPI is a publicly traded, private company. But it was created in the mid-1980s though a piece of legislation called the FPI Act. The Act included restrictions on share ownership and the sale of assets designed to stop the break-up of the company. But it was privatization legislation and not intended to give the government any direct control over the day-to-day operation of the company. However, starting under Grimes that legislation has been amended three times. In almost every case, it was in reaction to the company’s decision to cut jobs or reduce operations.

Most recently it was amended to attach operational and capital spending requirements to the company’s plans to create an Income trust and again to change the structure of the Board of Directors.

But the most controversial changes came under Grimes. Grimes put a halt to the Clearwater takeover bid and delayed the looming job cuts at the south coast plants until last year when the plant closed. He threatened to amend the FPI Act to give government an operational veto over FPI, a privately owned, publicly traded company. He toyed with the idea of legislating the government a seat on the Board of Directors.

Those options never happened. But the government struck an all-party committee that recommended a series of changes to the FPI Act. The most significant was the inclusion of a clause stating that the company and its shareholders could not sue the government, even if government’s actions financially damaged the company and caused its share price to plummet.

FPI may be the most unpopular company in the province. Its management and directors are cast as the current villains of the fishery. Each time the FPI Act was amended it enjoyed enormous public and political support. But each time the FPI Act was amended the industry and the financial sector recoiled. Fish companies complain that it has become increasingly difficult to get financing from Canadian banks. More and more of them are turning to Icelandic banks for loans. Bankers tell fish companies that the political climate in this province gives them cause for concern.

This was underscored in March of last year when the fisheries union held a rally outside FPI headquarters to protest job cuts at fish plants on the south coast. At that rally Tom Rideout, a lawyer, former premier and currently the deputy premier and attorney general of the province, climbed onto the back of a pickup truck, while wearing a fish union toque and accused FPI of breaking provincial law.

FPI has since been charged with illegally exporting fish. But at that time there was no completed investigation or public evidence of any wrongdoing. There was only a crowd of angry fishery workers. And the deputy premier in a toque. I’m not a lawyer, but I know of no jurisdiction in the world where trial by toque is the foundation of their justice system.

The most recent collision of politics and business is the failed Hebron negotiations (I exclude Hibernia South from this discussion because that one’s not over). Last year Premier Danny Williams and the Hebron partners reached an impasse. Williams wanted more then the oil companies were prepared to give.

There is a generic royalty regime on the books here. But that became a starting point for negotiations rather than the terms of a contract. Given ExxonMobil’s disciplined commitment to its business model and Williams’ negotiating style, I’m not sure if these talks will restart soon or if a deal is reachable. What I do know is that despite the stakes, the public debate around this impasse has ranged from “way to go Danny” to “lets go Danny.”

This has been the case in all of the examples I’ve outlined. Politically motivated changes to the Mining Act and the FPI Act had mass appeal, but made many people in the business community nervous or even angry.

But they stayed silent.

One of my frustrations as a journalist is that the business community in this province is soft. They are afraid to challenge the government or criticize it in any meaningful way. We see this now with Williams, a man elected to be the business premier; but a man who is making many in the business community nervous.

We saw it with Tobin, a premier who had arguably the worst fiscal record this province has ever seen. Tobin’s so-called balanced budgets were a house of cards; a shell game of one-time money used to mask enormous structural deficits. The business community knew this, but said very little. And instead of writing letters to the editor, they wrote cheques; donating thousands of dollars to the political parties they spent their time muttering about under their breaths.

When the world of politics and business collide, only half the story gets told because only half of the collision is talking. Business leaders shy away form comment if it even smells of conflict with the government. They react as if the first person to speak out would be like the first person to wander off alone in a horror film… never to be seen again.

Now this isn’t to suggest that business people don’t talk about politics or criticize their government. They just don’t do it in public

I have had hundreds of conversations with business people, many of them imploring me to do stories about the many, many problems they have when it comes to doing business in Newfoundland and Labrador. I agree to do a story if they will go on the record. But they won’t. This reluctance to speak is as understandable as it its regrettable.

There exists in Newfoundland and Labrador a phenomenon I like to call “Patriotic Correctness.” Like political correctness, it makes certain words or expressions unacceptable.

But most significantly, it has fostered an environment where informed dissent is seen as nothing short of treason. Where the simple questioning or criticism of the government or the premier is viewed as an unpatriotic assault upon the very fabric of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Patriotic correctness manifests itself in times of conflict. Usually it pits the premier and the government against an outside force such as the federal government, a nickel company, Big Oil, or a fish company that happens to be run by a Nova Scotian. It creates an incredibly lop-sided public debate, one where all good Newfoundlanders and Labradorians must rally to the side of the government.

What matters most is a public display of loyalty; of being on side with the stated goal of getting the best deal, best return and most benefits for the province.

What matters least is a public debate about the merits of this stance. Or whether these goals are even reasonable or achievable. Or whether the government is acting in a way that is fair to all parties.

We saw this with Voisey’s Bay. We saw this with Hebron. We are seeing it to this day with FPI.

The first collision of business and politics I witnessed was the Voisey’s Bay negotiation. When I came on the scene, Tobin had won a second mandate after calling a snap-election just 30 months into his first term, supposedly to send a strong message to Inco and give him a “strong mandate” to negotiate the best deal possible on Voisey’s Bay. After all, “Not one ounce, not one spoonful of ore” would leave the province without a nickel smelter being built in Argentia.

The people ate it up. Tobin got an overwhelming mandate. Voters accepted the rhetorical fiction that a snap election was really about getting a mandate to negotiate with Inco. Or if they didn’t buy it, they ignored it, and embraced the blind hope that Brian Tobin – a Newfoundlander – might one day be prime minister. So he had to be supported at all costs.

Again, it was the rush to be “on side.” To embrace the populist myth that Our Leader needed Our Support to take on Them.

I was working for CBC for less than a year at that time and was new to the political beat. But I came to the conclusion very soon after the 1999 election that Tobin’s “not one spoonful” stance was an excuse for inaction. That his stance was so entrenched, the political stakes so high, that he could not possibly get a deal that would satisfy the public’s expectations. Expectations he created. Good politics got in the way of good economics and it became obvious that Tobin would never sign a deal with Inco. When I started to challenge Tobin on this I felt the sting of Patriotic Correctness.

I was new to the press gallery. And suddenly the halls of the legislature were buzzing with talk that I just didn’t understand Newfoundland and Labrador. After all, I was a mainlander. Liberal MHAs openly questioned how someone from up-a-long could understand this province’s long history of disappointment and bad deals.

Now, having been born at the Grace, raised in Mount Pearl and educated at MUN, nobody was more surprised by this than me. But it shows the way dissent – even in the form of legitimate questions – led to an attack on my very character.

For the record, Brian Tobin quit as premier just 20 months into his mandate to negotiate, he never did sign a deal with Inco, he moved to the mainland… and I’m still here.

This attempt to marginalize critics still happens today. When a particular political issue is causing the government grief, it dispatches hit squads to the open-line. Armed with talking points, they seek to hijack the debate. And if someone questions the government on an issue such as Hebron or FPI, the Us versus Them argument is re-opened.

A recent example of this came in the four byelections that we just had. Four MHAs resigned for very different reasons. But the Premier sought to make local elections about something bigger than what they were. These races were cast as a referendum on Danny Williams’ negotiating stance on Hebron and with the Prime Minister on Equalization. Williams said: “It's very, very important that the people I'm into battles with - for want of a better term - understand that I have the clear support of the people of this province."

Never mind what issues mattered to the district. Never mind what you think of the people on the ballot. This was about supporting the premier. This was about Us versus Them.

A vote against the Conservatives in these byelections would mean you didn’t support a better deal on oil. It would mean you didn’t support a better deal on equalization. A vote for a Liberal or a New Democrat would be a vote against a better deal for Newfoundland and Labrador.

I’m not saying people should vote against the government. I’m not suggesting they should vote for one party over another. But people should be free to make up their mind and vote in an election without having their patriotism questioned, before they step into the voting booth. Just as they should be free to question this government – and any other government – without having their love of place put to some sort of test.

Patriotism isn’t the only weapon in this strategy. There are also numbers. In the current government there is a group of backbenchers and new cabinet ministers who like to justify every action by quoting poll numbers. When I say something on the panel or do a story that questions government’s action, the next day at the House of Assembly, I am bombarded with the math of public opinion.

“You may not like it Cochrane,” they shout. “But 75 per cent of the province does.”

But as I said earlier, popular decisions are not always good decisions. Just as popular government are not always good governments. After all, Brian Tobin had poll numbers that rivalled Danny Williams’. Did that make Tobin a great premier?

The MHAs don’t like it when I remind them of that. They like it even less when I remind them that Time Magazine named Adolph Hitler its man of the year about eight months before he invaded Poland.

Good polling numbers are nice. But they are not a vaccine against dissent and criticism.

By all accounts this government has done a very good job of managing its finances. Soaring deficits have been replaced by surpluses. And the new Atlantic Accord is the arguably the most positive development this province has seen since the Hibernia project went ahead. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, or that people shouldn’t be allowed to talk about them.

That includes the people in the business community. Because while Newfoundland and Labrador might have solved its fiscal problem, it may well be on the verge of an economic problem. After close to a decade of leading the country in economic growth, some banks now project that Newfoundland and Labrador will be last in the country in 2008.

One estimate says GDP growth will drop to 1.7 per cent next year. The reason is the lack of any new projects. Projects like Hebron. For the first time since Hibernia, there is no ‘next’ project.

This has done more than just cripple GDP growth. It has single-handedly changed the real estate market in St. John’s, instantly transforming a sellers’ market into a buyers’ market.

It has led to increased anxiety in the local offshore industry and made Oil and Gas Week more of an irony than a celebration.

Now, on the surface, the employment picture looks far brighter. The government issued a news release this month boasting that the Market Participation and Employment Levels for January are at a historic high. But what’s missing from that news release tells a more important story. The Employment numbers for Newfoundland and Labrador include the hundreds if not thousands of people who fly to Alberta to work but leave their family behind. Their job is in Alberta, but their residence is in Newfoundland and Labrador. Because of the way Statistics Canada crunches the numbers, this boosts the employment rate and the participation rate of this province. So while more people from here are working, it doesn’t mean they are working here.

While the economy enters uncertain times, the population continues to decline. Since June of 2003, Newfoundland and Labrador has suffered a net loss of 10,105 people. That’s the population of Gander gone in three years. Of that group, 5,248 were between the ages of 20 and 24.

Instead of slowing down, the pace of the outmigration has increased each year of this government’s first term. There are still many proud young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. They just happen to live in Calgary or Fort MacMurray.

These are enormous challenges that will be difficult to solve. But how can you have a larger public debate about the big problems, when it’s tough to openly discuss the small ones?

The sad reality is that for my entire adult life the intellectual leadership of this province has been confined to the legislature and the open line. I believe this has to change. The broader elements of our society need to participate in the larger discussion on how the government conducts itself and how it manages the economy.

People need to be free to question, challenge and criticize their government without fear of reprisal or of facing a public challenge to their patriotism.

Now I have to be careful about what I say here, because I don’t want to get sued. However, because of the recent spending scandal in the House of Assembly, I think I can safely say that politicians have – at least temporarily – lost their place on the moral high ground. And they’ve lost it as a result of their own actions.

This has all happened in an election year. This election will be about cleaning up government. But it should also be about the larger problems I outlined earlier.

The state of the economy. Outmigration. And unemployment.

That means there has to be a debate, one that should include the business community. But I’m not convinced that it will. My past experience leads me to believe that most business leaders will shun the spotlight of public discourse in this election and avoid the potential wrath of politicians.

Instead they will cut the cheques that are the oxygen of any political campaign and watch – as always – from the sidelines.

Yes, politicians can make your life difficult. Sometimes there is risk in speaking out. But what if they called an election and nobody donated any money? Each year everyone in this room is asked to donate to the various political parties. You are an IV bag filled with cash for them. They couldn’t survive without it. That annual donation is your ante to the big table; your licence to speak freely and openly about the government and the direction of the province.

It is a luxury that – quite frankly – the middle-class does not enjoy and cannot afford.

This dynamic presents an opportunity to break the pattern of patriotic correctness… something that needs to be done.

A society cannot progress unless it does so on the strength of its ideas. And good ideas require the courage and the intellectual leadership that isn’t always found in the legislature or from the caller on line 3.

Public debate cannot be ceded to the mob. Because when it is, the mob almost always chooses to free Barabbas and send the good man to the cross."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Poem foreshadowed loss of Ocean Ranger

A few posts back, in my reflections on the Ocean Ranger, I referenced a poem written by Greg Tiller of Mount Pearl. Tiller was one of the 84 men who perished on the Ocean Ranger. Before the incident, Tiller composed a poem that foreshadowed – in a most evocative way – the loss of the "unsinkable" rig and, ultimately, his own demise. I was able to locate the poem and have posted it below as a tribute to Greg, a talented young man who died away before his time.


Huge Iron Island.
37 stories high,
two city blocks square,
impervious to the attacks of an indignant sea…
Our mutton-headed people trail behind this pied-piper,
bickering over the loose change falling through the holes in his pockets.
Mother Earth created us, raised us, taught us, sheltered us
and this is how we repay her.
Beware, she shall have her revenge.

- Greg Tiller

Monday, February 26, 2007

Rob Antle's IEC article will win awards

I have to add my voice to the chorus of praise for Rob Antle, on his incredibly detailed and thoroughly researched article in Saturday's Telegram (February 24, 2007), exposing the sordid history of the Internal Economy Commission. Antle has sifted through a lot of information and presented us with a clear, easy to understand accounting of how the spending scandal evolved and was ultimately exposed. This article should be considered essential reading for every member of the voting public. However, you'd better set aside some time and pull up a chair: the article is more than 6,000 words long! You can read both parts here and here. There's no doubt that Antle will be winning an award or two for this piece of work.

Unionized anchors impede change at Here & Now

In the comments section of the ‘CBC Here & Now could use a makeover’ post below, someone asked why there is so little turnover of hosts on the program. A good question, and one that merits an answer.

You will note that I suggested moving people around. That’s for good reason, since the union does indeed make it difficult – close to impossible – to make changes at the all-important anchor level.

As things are, the anchors cannot be ‘let go’ or demoted without cause. If the brass decides that change is necessary, they have to reassign the anchor to another role within the organization. However, he or she would retain full host salary, which is substantially higher than a reporter’s salary. This would distort the economics of the operation and blow the operating budget.

From what I understand, the union could not oppose the reassignment, but they would certainly watch closely to ensure that there is no loss of benefits or reduction in salary.

In a nutshell, you couldn’t freshen up the show as I described in my earlier post without the consent of the hosts. Nonetheless, my suggestions are still possible because I am suggesting lateral moves into other equally challenging, high profile positions.

The host position can be critical to the success or failure of any show, and the notion that you can’t change it as necessary is ridiculous. In an ideal world, any new appointments to such positions should be on contract. CBC does have the option of hiring on contract, a right they fought to uphold in the strike/lockout of 2005. However, the number of people who can be hired on contract is capped at 9.5 per cent of the full-time work force. I really don’t know if that is enough to address this problem.

The ideal solution is to permit reporters to accept anchor positions under contract – meaning it could end at any time – but allow them to return to reporting with full seniority and benefits, if and when the contract expires. The anchor role should be viewed as a temporary gig; fun while it lasts but not a position in which you are likely to retire.

Now that's a compelling editorial!

When I heard in the news last week that the Students Union at Memorial University (MUNSU) had voted its own president's position out of existence, it struck me as odd... but the issue went away quickly and I thought nothing more of it. Well, a tip of the hat to Craig Welsh, a former Express reporter now working in Iqaluit, for bringing a recent editorial in the MUSE to my attention. The Muse, of course, is the student newspaper at Memorial University (and Welsh is a former reporter*). Now The Muse has had its high points and low over the years, but this editorial shows that the paper is still a force to be reckoned with. If you like to read strong opinions, presented in a gutsy, take-no-prisoners style, click here.

*Revised as per correction in comments.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Standing behind your opinion

My previous post about CBC generated some comment, though all of it anonymous. My policy is to judge anonymous comments on an individual basis, and allow them to stay if they are expressing 'fair comment' in a reasonable way. But when comments go over the top, they are likely to be deleted. In fact, I just zapped a comment because it crossed the line. It was belligerent, insulting and anonymous. If you are going to leave a mean-spirited opinion that cuts someone else but don't have the nerve to sign your name to it, you can expect that it will be deleted.

Why do people prefer to be anonymous in these situations? I expect many are afraid they will be sued. Others may have a hidden agenda and could be using this cloak of anonymity to tear down a competitor or an opposing political party. Either way, I will have no part of it here. Please people... stand behind your opinions!

Friday, February 23, 2007

CBC Here & Now could use a makeover

Heads are being scratched at the CBC, wondering why the new hour-long format and substantially improved program hasn’t resulted in better ratings for Here & Now. There’s no question that it’s a great program. The question now seems to be: are the viewers ever going to come back?

Part of the problem is, the show still looks very much the same as it did two years ago. The only major cosmetic change has been the addition of Jonathan Crowe as co-host, but his face is not exactly new. Therefore, when viewers come by to ‘sample’ the program, nothing leaps out and grabs them… it feels very much like the “same old”. Redesigned sets and new music are not enough.

Here & Now has some great talent, but things have gotten stale. They can shake things up partly by moving people around.

The first move should be a new assignment for Karl Wells. He has been doing the weather for as long as I can remember, and it’s time for a change. Karl is great when he interviews people, and would have made a good co-host of Living NL. Is it too late to rethink this, and move Erin Sulley back into news?

Here & Now lost a great opportunity when they let Krissy Holmes go last year. She filled in as weather host for a vacationing Karl Wells last summer, and positively sparkled. She had a quirky sense of humour and a great presence in front of the camera. Alas, she is gone now, over to Out of the Fog. For an excellent profile of Krissy, written for The Independent by Susan Rendell, click here.

Then there’s the anchors. I suggest moving Debbie Cooper into another role, one that takes full advantage of her journalistic skills (her interview last year with the Withers, about the loss of their daughter Renata, was mesmerizing). Debbie is warmer and more natural when inter-acting with people, as opposed to reading from the tele-prompter, though overall I make this suggestion primarily because change is good. Sometimes you just have to rotate your hosts.

As an alternate host, I would strongly recommend reporter Lynda Calvert, who has performed the anchor role many times in the past and is outstanding. They might even consider hiring someone completely new and totally unknown if they truly want to put a fresh face on the show.

I have no complaint with Jonathan Crowe. He has only been in the anchor chair for a little while so, if other changes are made, it would make sense for him to stay to lend some consistency.

The rest of the news team is great and the quality of the reporting is first rate. I do have one minor quibble with the new sportscaster, Jason Turnbull. He is certainly competent and there are no issues with the quality of his work. But his ascension means we no longer see any reporting by veteran sportscaster Don Power, who is not as young or handsome as Jason but has much more depth and experience.

Here & Now moves along at a pretty steady clip, but the show’s intro is lackluster and doesn’t build excitement. I have some ideas on how to fix this, but I’ll save that for another day. I will close by mentioning that, when Here & Now was at its peak, it aired at 6:30 pm. Viewers could watch NTV for half an hour, then switch to CBC at 6:30. I certainly wouldn't complain if Here & Now dropped back to this time slot, because I would like to see both programs. And it would definitely help to boost ratings.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Independent threatened to sue blogger

Last week, Anne Budgell of CBC Radio Noon interviewed blogger Ed Hollett, asking him how it felt to be singled out by the Premier as the possible target of a libel suit. During the Interview, Hollett mentioned that some time ago a local newspaper had also threatened to sue him.

This was something of a shock. Newspapers are commonly the target of lawsuits, but rarely the aggressor. Hollett has been known to write an unkind word or two about The Independent, and was quick to confirm my suspicion when I called him.

The letter was received quite some time ago and Hollett didn’t have it as his fingertips when I called. He did say that the letter asked him to stop making any further reference to the newspaper in his blog.

I then emailed Ryan Cleary, editor of The Independent, to get his side of the story. After all, The Independent is an opinionated newspaper that could not survive without freedom of speech, so it seems unusual to threaten legal action against someone else for exercising that right.

Cleary replied by saying that he didn’t want to be quoted in my blog, adding that he had no idea what I was talking about regarding a letter to Hollett. “If it happened, it wasn't while I was at the helm of The Independent,” he wrote.

For clarification, I went back to Hollett, who delved into his files, retrieved the letter, and sent over a scanned copy. The letter, dated October 28 2005, is from Ken Young of Derrick White Law, speaking on behalf of his client, Brian Dobbin (at the time, the owner of The Independent). It claims that Hollett made false statements about Dobbin and the newspaper, including speculation that the newspaper was on the verge of ceasing publication

“These comments are wholly inaccurate, misleading and damaging to Mr. Dobbin and The Independent,” the letter reads. “You are hereby put on notice that you are to immediately cease and desist making such statements, and any other defamatory statements regarding our client and The Independent… Should these statements be repeated in the future, Mr. Dobbin and The Independent will be forced to take legal action, and pursue their respective legal remedies to the fullest extent of the law.”

What do I make of all this? Well, as noted, I do think it’s ridiculous for a scrappy paper like The Independent to sue others for expressing alternative points of view. I appreciate that printing rumours about imminent closure can be harmful. I am more concerned about the “other defamatory statements” since these qualify as fair comment, no matter how critical they may have been. I would hope that the paper will cease and desist from such drastic measures in the future.

That said, I take Cleary at his word on this. I really don’t think he knew what Dobbin was doing, since the lawyer is clearly acting on Dobbin’s behalf.

And what did Ed Hollett do? At the time, he did cease and desist, though he continues to mention the paper occasionally.

“I just decided that it was not worth the crap,” Hollett said. “If I had my time back, I would have kept it up to see if they put their money where their mouth was.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

CBC erased priceless local programs (from 1990)

I was browsing the Heritage Newfoundland web site and came across an entry about the history of television in this province. It refers to the breakthrough traditional program ‘All Around the Circle’, which aired from 1967 to 1979 and featured culturally significant singers like John White and Joan Morrissey. It also refers to ‘The Root Seller’, which aired in 1978. What the entry fails to mention is that almost all of these episodes have been lost forever, erased by the CBC to save money. I broke this story back in 1990, while working at The Sunday Express. I did feel some sympathy for Jim Byrd, who was forced to defend a policy that I’m sure he had no hand in. I think it is no coincidence that the shows were erased during that dark period when some elites looked down their noses at traditional Newfoundland music. For those who missed it, or weren't around in September of 1990, I am posting the article here.

CBC erased irreplaceable local shows
to avoid cost of preservation: official

Sunday Express Reporter

And now, from the tape archives of the CBC, a little bad news.

Almost all episodes of the classic CBC TV series All Around the Circle have been lost forever, erased over the years because of financial constraints, The Sunday Express has learned.

“Almost all of them (have been erased), unfortunately,” said Doug Laite, who was host of All Around the Circle, an influential program of traditional music that ran from 1964 to 1977 on CBC. “There are only two left, and I have both of them, as a matter of fact.”

The guardian of the nation’s cultural heritage felt those records of Newfoundland culture weren’t worth the cost of preserving them.

“It’s true to say most of them have been erased. Most of them have been wiped, eliminated – all the old black and white stuff,” said Jim Byrd, director of television with CBC. Much of the material was lost when CBC switched formats from black and white to color in the late ‘60s, Mr. Byrd said. At that time, he said, it was simply too costly to preserve all the old material.

Subsequent seasons of All Around the Circle produced in colour have also been erased, Mr. Byrd said.

“(The film) would all have had to be reprinted, because it was all so brittle. Then it would have had to be put on a $300 tape on top of that. And then we would have had to find a place to store it.”

Because of these costs, he said, the decision was made at the time to preserve only current affairs programs, such as Land and Sea. “If they had any kind of material that showed Newfoundland people, villages or industry – anything that might have been useful in a news story or current affairs sense – that was kept. Then what was kept was anything the Newfoundland Archive or MUN Folklore Department wanted.”

Phil Hiscock of the Folklore and Language Archive at Memorial University said it was “shocking” that the tapes had been erased.

Mr. Hiscock is a member of the Association for the Study of Canadian Radio and Television, a group dedicated to the preservation of culturally and historically significant TV and radio programs. “It’s exactly stories like that that got us moving… It’s a problem with all radio and television stations that that kind of stuff doesn’t get saved.”

As well, all episodes of The Root Seller, a musical comedy series that gave birth to the Wonderful Grand Band, have been obliterated, according to actor Greg Malone. Mr. Malone, who performed in the series, said when he requested copies of the program from CBC, “I was told they were erased – they’re gone.”

Mr. Byrd was unable to confirm whether or not The Root Seller tapes had been erased.

“They’re in there renovating the building at a cost of millions of dollars every year,” Mr. Malone said. “For the cost of a handful of tapes, a few hundred dollars, they have erased their whole history of the whole institution and the whole island… All those All Around the Circles were a history of the arts, culture, music and drama of Newfoundland. And The Root Seller was a very interesting little miniseries. I just can’t get a grip on it.”

In erasing the tapes, Mr. Malone said the CBC failed in its duty to preserve and promote Newfoundland culture and heritage. “It’s mind-boggling… That’s undervaluing their whole reason for existence. They can’t even show what they’ve done – they’ve erased it. I just get sick when I think about it.”

Mr. Malone said CBC has thrown away a valuable source of repeat programming. “There’s lots of airtime to fill and it would’ve cost them pennies. And people would love to see it as nostalgia. But they can’t – it’s gone. That was just absolutely unforgivable.”

Mr. Hiscock said CBC donated a number of audio tapes to the MUN archive several years ago, including “10 or a dozen” All Around the Circle sound recordings. As well, donations of audio and video recordings have been made to the Provincial Archives in St. John’s.

These tapes have not yet been catalogued, and may be found to contain original episodes or outtakes from All Around the Circle or other culturally significant programs.

Wangersky nominated for major prize

The news is almost two weeks old, but it bears mention nonetheless. Congratulations are extended to Russell Wangersky, Managing Editor of The Telegram, on being nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. An old colleague of mine from The Sunday Express, Wangersky is nominated in the Best First Book category, Canada and the Caribbean, for "The Hour of Bad Decisions", his critically-acclaimed debut collection of short stories. In June of last year, "The Hour of Bad Decisions" was the subject of a panel discussion for an episode of 'Talking Books' on CBC Radio. For more information on the nomination, click here.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

'Living NL' is a great bit of fun

I finally caught an episode of 'Living Newfoundland and Labrador' (Living NL) tonight on CBC TV and enjoyed it fully and completely. The show has a fast pace - they squeeze a heck of a lot into 30 minutes - so if one subject doesn't really grab you, it only takes a moment and they are on to the next thing. The production values are first rate and Krysta Rudofsky has really come into her own as a host.

I have to say, it is refreshing to see so many local faces doing interesting and fun things, and, unlike the newscast that precedes it, none are there for reasons of scandal, crime or controversy. It's a harmless and entertaining half-hour of frivolous fun, and that's fine by me. Despite the glowering picture at right, I am not serious all the time!

I am a little surprised that it took CBC this long to begin repeating the program in the evenings, but I suspect there wasn't a slot open until the recent cancellation of 'Canada Now'.

You can view recent episodes of the program by visiting the Living NL web site.

Monday, February 19, 2007

CAJ 'Media' magazine is highly recommended

I assume you come to this page because, like me, you are fascinated with the workings of media. If so, I direct your attention to the web site of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ).

No, I am not suggesting you sign up as a member (at least, not unless you are a journalist). But the site does have some great content that is available to anyone who drops by.

There is insightful commentary on issues that affect journalism, but I draw your attention in particular to the CAJ ‘Media’ magazine, which is one of the best association newsletters I’ve seen. It’s a quarterly magazine that is professionally produced and chock full of provocative articles about journalism in Canada and the world. You can download the full library of back issues in pdf format. If you are fascinated by the craft of journalism, you will absolutely love this magazine.

Check it out here or click the link on the right.

Russian deportee may have been killed

CBC News is reporting that a local advocacy group has lost contact with a deported Russian, and there are fears he may have been killed. The Refugee Immigrant Advisory Council in St. John’s says that Alexander Kruglov was supposed to stay in touch by email when he was deported more than three months ago, but there has been no word from him. There were plenty of warnings about what would happen to Kruglov if he was sent back to Russia so, if he has been killed, there are people at Immigration Canada with blood on their hands.

In March of 2006, I highlighted Kruglov’s desperate situation in a media column for The Express. Things might have been different if Kruglov had received more media coverage, but that agenda was dominated almost entirely by the Portnoys (whose case was frivolous, to say the least). Check out my full column on the ‘Time to probe deeper on immigration’ link, below.

Another issue at play here is the fact that there is no Director General of Immigration in this province, but two in Halifax! The problem is, even if we can prove that Kruglov has been killed, we won’t get any comment from Immigration Canada because their policy is to not comment on specific cases. It is an abhorrent situation brought on by our privacy laws, which have created a cloak behind which public officials can conveniently hide when the questions start getting tough. For more on this, check ‘When privacy and accountability collide’ below.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Reflections on the 'Ocean Ranger'

I was a young journalist - just 25 years old - when the 'Ocean Ranger' was lost. However, I was working the entertainment beat at 'The Newfoundland Herald' so I was not chasing the story the way my colleagues were; I watched it unfold more as a citizen than a reporter.

Word filtered out slowly about the severity of the incident and I became aware - one person at a time - that I knew four people on the rig. They were Ron Heffernan, Derek Holden, Ted Stapleton and Greg Tiller; all from Mount Pearl, where I grew up.

Of the four, I knew Ron Heffernan the best. He was one of the crowd I hung with at The Shack, a teenage hang-out where many, many Blue Star, India and Dominion mysteriously evaporated, though none of us were old enough to buy it. I saw less of Ron when we all finished high school, and the shack was abandoned for Chevy Novas and souped-up vans with plush interiors. I last saw Ron at The Roxy nightclub, some months before the Ocean Ranger went down. I asked him what he was doing.

"Working on the Ocean Danger," he said.

"You mean... the Ranger?"

"Yeah... but we calls it the Danger. Man, that place is scary."

I forget precisely what his complaints were, though I formed the distinct impression that safety was not a priority for the rig owners. I still get goosebumps when I recall that encounter.

Even more chilling is the poem by Greg Tiller, which foretold the disaster - and thus his own death - in a most eloquent way. I have been scouring my files trying to find a copy, but no luck yet. When I unearth it I will post it here, as an update. (And if any readers have a copy, I would be grateful if you could email it to me.)

For more on the Ocean Ranger, check the 'How Journalists Deal With Death' post in the archives below.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Speaking of errors...

There was an innocuous yet significant error in Jeff Gilhooly's intro to the CBC Radio Morning Show today at 6 am. Pretty much the entire program is marking the 25th anniversary of the loss of the Ocean Ranger, and there is some powerful content here (I am still tuned to the show as I write).

In his opening remarks, Gilhooly said, in effect, that the people of this province awoke 25 years ago to news that the Ocean Ranger had been lost. I remember those terrible days clearly, and one of the most troublesome aspects was the lack of such information in the early hours. All we knew at first was that something was wrong. By midday, if memory serves, we knew that the rig was no longer showing on radar and several more painful hours elapsed before it was confirmed that all hands had been lost.

This is less a criticism than an observation. I can appreciate how perceptions of events can become compressed with the passage of time. And if you weren't here to experience the disaster, it's an easy mistake to make.

Quite a retraction from 'Consumer Reports'

When a respected and trusted media institution makes a mistake, it can do a deadly blow to the subject of that error. ‘Consumer Reports’ is trusted by millions for the rigorous science it brings to product testing, and the objective way its findings are presented (the publication will not accept advertising or allow its endorsements to be exploited in advertising).

The February issue of ‘Consumer Reports’ contained the startling revelation that infant car seats were much less safe than presumed, and shocking crash test footage was released to media.

Soon after, Consumers Union President Jim Guest issued a complete retraction of the story, announcing that the side-impact crash tests – which were conducted by an outside lab – had been compromised by serious mistakes. The tests were supposed to have been conducted at 38 mph, but were actually “much more severe than that,” according to Guest.

The magazine took immediate and decisive action, publicizing its decision to “withdraw” the article and its rankings from the record. This is helpful to those accessing the online database, but will not undo the perceptions created among readers who didn’t catch the retraction (which no doubt received fewer headlines than those generated by the original report). Such is the reality of any major error that creeps into a story; almost invariably, the correction will get less notice than the story that engendered it.

While on the subject of retractions, I encourage you to check out the Regret The Error link on this page. It’s a comprehensive roundup of corrections from newsrooms large and small, the world over. The topics range from deadly serious to quite funny, such as this correction from the Sentinel-Review of Woodstock, Ontario:

< In an article in Monday's newspaper, there may have been a misperception about why a Woodstock man is going to Afghanistan on a voluntary mission. Kevin DeClark is going to Afghanistan to gain life experience to become a police officer when he returns, not to shoot guns and blow things up. The Sentinel-Review apologizes for any embarrassment this may have caused. >

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

'Current' sold to James Baird

News flash! The saucy alternative monthly Current has been sold to James Baird, who indicates in a press release that he plans to go weekly with the publication. Baird bought Current from Roger Bill and Greg Locke. I'll have more on this later. In the meantime, the full text of the press release appears below:

St. John's Businessman Buys Current

Current Communications Inc. wishes to announce that its monthly newspaper, Current, has been sold. The eight-year-old alternative newspaper has been purchased by James Baird.

Mr. Baird says, "The potential for a weekly, arts and entertainment paper in St. John's has existed for some time and my organization believes Current provides a solid base on which to build a newspaper that reflects and supports our dynamic culture."

Current was launched in February, 1999 by Tom Thorne, a St. John's animation artist. Following a colourful and sometimes controversial beginning, Current was joined in 2003 by graphic designer Mark Smith. Smith, who was Current's publisher for 3 years, was joined by journalist Roger Bill in 2004, and with the addition of photojournalist Greg Locke the paper established itself as a regular fixture in the St. John's media marketplace. Bill says, "It took Current several years to get into the black, but the paper is financially successful, and we wish James Baird and Current continued success."

Greg Locke, a co-owner of Current Communications with Bill, is an experienced photo journalist and the first editor of the Sunday Independent. He says, "It's always a pleasure to be part of a publication that offers the public a unique product with intelligence, humour and high production values. Current always stood out from the crowd and truly was an alternative newspaper."

The next edition of Current is scheduled for distribution March 8th.

David Cochrane to address Board of Trade

He's not a high profile politician or esteemed business leader, but David Cochrane's address to the St. John's Board of Trade (February 21 at the Capital Hotel) promises to be fascinating indeed. One of the smartest and hardest-working journalists in the province, Cochrane is the provincial affairs reporter with CBC Here & Now. He is also wickedly funny.

Cochrane is going to explore how companies and government have clashed over high profile resource development. "I will talk about the impact this has had on the business climate and the lack of a broader debate about these issues," Cochrane told me. "In my experience these incidents have led to largely one-sided discussions which are driven by the legislature and the open-line. I think this has led to a chill that has stunted public discourse, something I don't think is good for the province."

To find out more, visit

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tactical error for Hickey and Williams

Transportation Minister John Hickey’s decision to sue Roger Grimes – and the Premier’s willingness to pay for it with our tax dollars – is a major tactical blunder.

With the so-called “vindication” of Hickey, one would expect Williams to leave this mess behind and get on with the business of running government. Instead, he is getting sidetracked into a legal battle that will keep this issue in the media for months to come.

According to Simon Lono (, the premier warned that other commentators might be the subject of future lawsuits, including Ed Hollett ( and Sue Kelland Dyer ( In fact, it sounded to me like Williams was firing a warning shot over the head of anyone with the temerity to criticize his government.

“I’ll tell anybody out there, if they are going to take down the reputation of people who are in public life, then they will have to basically answer for it… and they will have to answer for it in court,” Williams said in a media scrum.

Should you be intimidated by this? Should the open lines fall silent? Should we stop expressing outrage at the scandals coming out of Confederation Building? Absolutely not.

First of all, you can never, ever be sued for telling the truth – no matter how unpleasant or inconvenient the truth may be. Secondly, defamation law in Canada entitles each of us to make “fair comment” on issues of the day. Lloyd Duhaime of Duhaime Law in Vancouver sums it up this way:

“The author of the remarks may even go so far as to presume motives on the part of the person who's actions are being criticized provided only that the imputation of motives is reasonable under the circumstances. The rule of thumb is that the fair comment must reflect an honestly held opinion based on proven fact and not motivated by malice.”

(To read more on this, click:

The proven fact in this case is the 20 claims that were double billed by John Hickey; Grimes might reasonably argue that he was speculating on the proven facts.

Finally, the courts generally give more leeway to “fair comment” when the subject of derogatory remarks is a public figure. And that’s fair enough. When you enter public life, you invite such scrutiny and criticism. It’s part of the game.

Perhaps there was no criminal intent on John Hickey’s behalf. But the fact is, he did double bill according to the Auditor General’s report. This suit will inevitably drag out the embarrassing detail of how that happened, and there are going to be some tough questions raised about Hickey’s competence. It’s a can of worms that can only grow more putrid with the passage of time.

Williams and Hickey should let the matter drop and move on.

UPDATE: I hear on the news that Hickey is now going to pay his own legal bills, if the case proceeds. Which begs the question: did they not anticipate that the public, already angry from MHA spending scandals, would be unhappy about paying for Hickey's lawsuit? This is truly remarkable.

New sports paper could use a good editor

There is a stereotype in media circles that broadcast journalists are not great writers; that they are good at talking their way through a piece but lousy at spelling and punctuation. I know some electronic journalists who are fabulous writers, but there is some truth to this notion. And The Sports Page, a new publication, bears this out. Owned by Carl Lake, a former TV sports broadcaster with CBC, it is plagued by poor writing, bad punctuation and sloppy design.

The Sports Page is a monthly eight-page tabloid that is distributed free of charge in the St. John’s area.

While the layout is haphazard and inconsistent, I could forgive that if there was something here worth reading. Alas, it sounds like the ‘writer’ of the articles – and Lake is not the only contributor – has dictated the story into a tape machine, then had it transcribed by someone with dubious knowledge of the English Language.

Read this paragraph, from the first issue, and try to figure out what it means:

< The night before I spoke with Geri, Ian was inducted into the Mount Pearl Sports Hall of Fame as a builder for his dedication and tireless work with the Mount Pearl Minor Hockey Association, Geri presented her husband for induction and the joke Ian made was that he had to have her do it so he could ensure she would be there and not the Fog Devils hockey game. >

Painful! And there is this sentence from the same article, which screams to be fixed:

< She says she tries as much as she can, as a Fog Devil parent, to do as much as she can with Ryan and not leave it as much to the association, it is there for him, they have a great system set up whereby they have drivers that will pick them up and take them to classes, take them to practice etc, however, Geri drives Ryan to MUN three mornings a week on her way to work because it makes sense to her to do that. >

This lead (or lede, for purists) from another story is the literary equivalent of nails scratching the blackboard:

< It’s basically out with the old and in with the new. The times have started changing.

Two venues in St. John’s have changed their name reflecting, what many see as, a necessity in these changing times.

Sports Organizations, and many will back this statement up, need help from the corporate community to survive. That’s no secret.

Well for many years it was known as the Prince of Wales Arena. However things have now changed. >

One can safely infer, from this intro, that something has changed.

In the second issue, Alex J. Walling, author of the book “Golden Gushue” (Nimbus), offers a rambling, almost incomprehensible account of how the book came to be. A better question would have been why the book happened at all, given the shoddy writing here. It also reads like an interview transcript. If this is the case, then the lack of editing does Walling a disservice. Check out this excerpt:

< But the publishers were after, not so much the competitive curlers, but rather the people across Newfoundland and this country who took in the Olympics. The example would be one can get a five star dinner at a great restaurant but this book and plenty of pictures is geared for McDonalds. Who sells more meals and attracts more families than anyone in North America? >

The Trivia Guy piece by Steve O’Brien is not bad, but there is precious little else to get excited about. Sports fans who are looking for more local content, and don’t care about the quality of what they read, will enjoy this publication. The rest of you should take a pass.

Note: You can download all three issues of the publication here:

Saturday, February 10, 2007

It's time to probe deeper on immigration (March 2006)

When you think about controversial immigration stories, what is the first name that leaps to mind?

Chances are, you said ‘Portnoy’.

This is not a surprise, given the massive amounts of media that the Portnoys have generated in recent months. Unfortunately, there are other, far more important immigration stories out there that are receiving little or no coverage.

Let’s strip away the emotion from the Portnoy case. If sent back to Israel, are their lives at risk? No. Will they live in poverty and hardship? Probably not. (In 2005, the United Nations ranked Israel at 23 of 177 countries in terms of life expectancy, education and income.) What occupational skills does Portnoy bring to this country? He knows how to make pizza. There’s also the murky area of Portnoy’s alleged criminal record and the fact that he lied to immigration officials.

Donna Jeffrey is the Director of the Refugee Immigrant Advisory Council, a volunteer group that advocates on behalf of those trying to navigate the immigration labyrinth. Before Christmas, Jeffrey was quoted in a media interview saying, in effect, that the Portnoy case was drawing public attention away from other more pressing cases.

In an interview last week, Ms. Jeffrey was more circumspect in her remarks, noting that some of her colleagues were not pleased with what she had said. She was careful not to criticize the Portnoys and emphasized that she did feel for their plight. “All I can say is, there are other cases. And I think the cases speak for themselves.”

For example:

Alexander Kruglov fled St. Petersburg Russia, after the political candidate he worked for lost the election. The winning candidate, an organized crime leader, promptly began murdering those who opposed him. Kruglov and his wife fled for their lives, leaving behind well-paying jobs, a comfortable home and a good life. But Immigration Canada has rejected their application and the Kruglovs will be deported. “This man cannot go back,” Jeffrey said. “He will be killed if he goes back there.”

Until recently, Igor Kharpol was in charge of quality control at Exploits Design, a textiles manufacturing facility in St. John’s. Kharpol’s immigration application has been denied and he will soon be deported, despite the fact that his skills are critical to the operation. Exploits Design will likely have to leave the province, taking five local jobs with it.

There are other examples, such as Vladimir Ronenson and Alexi Kolosov, but space doesn’t permit me to use them here (though I will say this – any reporter who invests 30 minutes talking with Donna Jeffrey is going to get some strong story material). On March 4, as I was writing this column, CTV’s W5 program aired a story about immigration, in which they used Newfoundland cases to demonstrate the heavy hand of immigration officials. (You can read the transcript at

Another under-reported story is the fact that Halifax has two Directors General of Immigration while this province has none. (Talk about a declining federal presence!) What do officials in Halifax know about the life or death circumstances faced by our immigrant and refugee claimants? What do they care about how their expulsion affects our local economy? This situation is untenable and has to be addressed.

Why do the Portnoys receive so much media attention, when their case is nowhere near as urgent as the others? Three reasons. First, the Portnoy story has dramatic elements, including small children and a pregnant mother, that are irresistible to media. Second, a well-organized volunteer group in Marystown is pushing Portnoy’s case. Third, Alexi Portnoy knows how to manipulate media (one reporter who covered this story told me that he initially liked Alexi, but eventually realized that he was being exploited and came to resent it).

I have no problem if media want to follow the Portnoy case. But I will be concerned if they fail to give equal time to other, far more important cases.

The best media job in the province (February 2006)

Of the many happy and fulfilled journalists out there, I think I’ve discovered the most contented in the province.

Meet Dwight Blackwood and Gord Follett of the Newfoundland Sportsman franchise, which includes a popular magazine, TV series and now a set of DVDs. Other people work, and take their recreation when they can get it. These lucky guys do recreation for a living.

To research stories, they go hunting and fishing. They fly into remote wilderness camps, where they catch enormous sport fish while being feted like kings – usually at the lodge owner’s expense. They also do hunting and fishing trips on their own, which are less glamorous but still great fun. They are showered with free sporting gear, including two top-of-the-line ATVs, on loan from a sponsor. Two snowmobiles are also coming soon.

The toughest part about their job? They have to come down to earth long enough to write about it.

Gord Follett laughed when told that he had the best media job in the province.

“I’ve heard that countless times,” said Follett, a former sports reporter/editor with The Daily News, The Telegram and The Sunday Express. “Put it this way – there are very, very few complaints in this line of work. The worst thing I have to do is get up at 4:30 in the morning to go salmon fishing. And that’s not much of a complaint.”

Newfoundland Sportsman magazine was started in 1990 by Blackwood, financed in part by previous business successes, including the sale in 1988 of Creative Printing, which he co-owned, to Newfoundland Capital Corporation (NCC). Blackwood then went to work at Robinson-Blackmore, which was owned by NCC. He met Follett in the smoking room, where they talked at great length about hunting and fishing. When Blackwood started the magazine, he asked Gord to help with editing. They soon became a team, as well as good buddies (which is important if you’re going to share a tent).

“And we never looked back,” said Blackwood. “We knew there was a market there, but it was more a labour of love than anything else. There were no other publications that focused on the outdoors in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The gamble paid off - the magazine now has a circulation of about 15,000 copies per issue.

In 1996 and ‘97, knowing that there must be an appetite for outdoors material on TV, they produced two seasons of shows on NTV. The program was popular but not sustainable – the cost of the betacam camera, equipment and crew, as well as the editing suite, was prohibitive.

The advent of digital camera technology and desktop video editing software changed everything. “We went out last year and filmed a few shows on spec,” Blackwood said. “When the Stirlings (at NTV) saw the shows, they liked them. And from there, the ratings speak for themselves… The afternoon is not a prime time, but if memory serves we were the third highest-rated local program. We had anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 viewers per show.”

Some valuable synergies have been created by the show, which airs Sundays at 2:00 pm. Blackwood said there’s been a rush of magazine subscriptions from viewers in other provinces. And now, there are several outdoor networks in the U.S. that want to air it as well.

Late last year, the first season of the program was released as a four-DVD set, retailing for $19.95 each. Though he wouldn’t reveal actual numbers, Blackwood did say that sales are already in the thousands.

Okay, so their business model is a success. But that’s enough business talk. I want to hear more about that odd notion of doing recreation for a living.

Follett estimates that he and Blackwood take about 30 trips per year of three days or more (which doesn’t include numerous day trips). Of those, about 60 percent are self-directed, in which they camp in a tent, stay at Blackwood’s cabin, or at cabins belonging to a network of friends across the province. The other 40 percent are to fishing camps, which generally cover all their expenses (the publicity generates business that more than offsets the outfitters’ investment). Not surprisingly, Follett is diplomatic when asked if he has a favourite fishing camp.

“I wouldn’t be able to pick one particular camp over another,” he said. “But we do have favourite places, like the Gander River and the Flowers River in Northern Labrador… In Flowers River, in one general area, we can fish for big salmon, big brook trout, big arctic char and big lake trout, all within 10 miles of the lodge.”

The biggest fish Follett ever caught was an 18-pound lake trout in Labrador, which doesn’t hold a candle to Blackwood’s 25-pound salmon caught last year on the Humber River.

“That was an experience… biggest fish I ever caught in my life,” Blackwood said. “It was almost 40 inches long… it took me about 45 minutes to land. I caught it just before dark and by the time I played it out and got it in, it was pitch black. Here we were with no light on the camera… We did take some still photos which we used at the end of the program so you could see how big it was.”

Follett said that the many perqs they receive from sponsors do not compromise editorial independence.

“We’re not a hard-hitting newspaper, like the old Sunday Express. It’s all feature articles.”

The magazine doesn’t publish reviews of equipment, Follett explained. Instead, what the sponsors are looking for is product placement. “They’d like to see a picture of their product appear on our pages,” he said. If you watch the program or read the magazine, you can see what he means. The stories are all about the thrill of catching fish or bagging game – they don’t plug equipment in any overt way.

The key to the success of the magazine and TV show is its lack of pretension, Follett said. “We keep it real. Everybody says that to us. We’re just a couple of fellows who go out, get a few fish and harvest a few animals, but we’re down to earth, having a good time wherever we go, and making a few mistakes too. But it’s all natural.”

Blackwood echoed those sentiments. “We’re just two ordinary guys out in the woods having a great bit of fun for ourselves. People relate to that.”

When privacy and accountability collide (Dec 2005)

Privacy legislation has shut down public accountability in this province and clear across the country.

The issue has been festering like a boil on the back of journalists for some time now. And last week, in a fit of frustration, Ted Blades of CBC Radio ‘On the Go’ stuck a pin in it.

It was a textbook example of what typically happens in cases like this. The reporter presents the person who is accountable – either a public servant or minister – with powerful testimony, usually from a family member, detailing a failure in the system and the painful consequences for those involved.

However, rather than explain what went wrong, the person responsible says, “We don’t comment on specific cases for privacy reasons.”

In this instance, it was the removal of a four-year-old Innu boy from the home of his foster parents, Paul and Jane Tulk, to be sent back to his home community of Sheshatshiu. The reason for the move – to enable the boy to grow up in his own culture – was valid, but it was handled in a hamfisted manner that was cruel to the foster parents and probably traumatic for the boy.

When Ted Blades tried to question Ivy Burt, Director of Child and Youth Services for the province, he received the standard reply: “I can’t speak to the specifics of this case.” He continued to probe, growing increasingly frustrated by her steadfast refusal to comment.

When he raised the foster parents’ complaint that the social workers arrived to take the child without a child safety seat, the reply was, “I can’t comment specifically on that specific case or answer that question.”

Now, is it just me, or does that sound like nonsense to you? Rather than assure us that the child’s basic safety needs were met, which in no way compromises privacy, it would seem that she dodged a potentially embarrassing question by hiding behind the cloak of confidentiality.

“The Tulks are willing to talk about this and clearly have concerns – why can’t you talk to the specifics of this case?” Blades asked. Again, same answer: “Not our policy to speak about specific children in the media…”

“As the media, we run into this every time we want to do a story involving Social Services,” Blades continued. “But that leaves a lot of our listeners frustrated. It means there is a sheet that you can hide behind; that the department, the people in the field and you are not accountable. If you can’t talk about it in public, how does accountability happen?”

Ms. Burt’s answer was that accountability can happen internally (as it did, no doubt, when Social Services was managing the Mount Cashel file) and through the office of the Child and Youth Advocate, which is a fair point. (I tried to interview Darlene Neville, the province’s Child and Youth Advocate, but we played phone tag and failed to connect.)

Ryan Cleary is Managing Editor of The Independent and a seasoned investigative reporter. He agrees that privacy concerns are stifling public accountability. “I have run into that on numerous occasions, where you have a specific story, you go to a department for comment on that story and they will say ‘No we do not respond to individual cases’ and then talk in generalities. It’s a way out. When they don’t comment on a specific story, it takes away from the legitimacy of the story. It takes away from how hard-hitting the story is. It’s kind of left hanging.

“At the same time, they do have a point,” Cleary added, acknowledging that privacy is a right that must be addressed. However, he agreed that the legislation needs to be revisited and adjustments made to increase public accountability.

“If you have a person who comes out on the record, they agree to have their name publicized and have their picture taken… if they are willing to go that far, well then the department should meet you the other half of the way and comment on specific cases. Now if the person doesn’t want to use their name, wants to remain anonymous, then why should the department comment?”

Rod Etheridge, a producer / reporter with CBC Radio, also ran into this wall last week. He was reporting on the case of a five-year-old child who was bullied and sexually assaulted by another child at a school in St. John’s. Etheridge said he understood the child’s right to privacy, but was puzzled by the refusal of Darin King of the Eastern School District to discuss how the case was handled. For example, the mother claimed that only a handful of teachers had been informed of the situation, and she felt that every teacher in the school should be made aware of it.

“He said it’s a private, confidential issue and was very disappointed that CBC would talk about it on the public airwaves,” Etheridge said. “I said that this woman gave us permission to talk about it, and he still argued that it was not a public issue. I asked if he would inform the teachers or the parents (of what happened), and he said they had told the people who needed to know, and the agencies involved. His argument was this: If there are 10 or 15 kids involved in this incident, how would you feel if you were a parent and heard your son talked about on the radio? I said ‘let me challenge that’ and said ‘what if you were a parent of a kid in the school – wouldn’t you want to know that this was going on?’ But he maintained that it’s a private, confidential issue, even if the mother gives permission for it to be discussed.”

Etheridge said the director would not disclose whether or not other teachers had been informed or if Family Services had been called in. “I don’t understand why all the people who needed to know – including the parents of children in that school – wouldn’t be informed. How do you make the decision of who does and doesn’t get told? It was nothing – just no comment at all on that case.”

Kim Kielley of The Express has been reporting on – make that attempting to report on – the case of the person with schizophrenia who is living in the woods on the fringes of Mount Pearl. It’s a difficult case because the man is refusing assistance, and likely will continue to do so because he is not receiving medication.

“For privacy reasons the department refuses to speak about this case, yet this guy is out in the woods, unmedicated and the situation is not being resolved… He could be dead by now.”

Kielley said she is receiving no information on the case from provincial officials, who refuse to comment for privacy reasons. “The only reason I know he has schizophrenia and is paranoid is because I had to call Alberta and track his brother down. And that’s outside of the province. That’s unacceptable. The department has an obligation to look after this person and even when they’re confronted in the House they still say they can’t discuss the case.”

It’s complicated because the man in the woods is not willing to discuss his case. In order to save his life, he will need to be arrested against his will (which is a possibility, since the man allegedly threatened to injure a rabbit hunter). Meanwhile, the bureaucratic logjam continues and the situation is unresolved. Public debate on this issue would likely move government to action before the individual freezes to death in the woods. Which begs the question: will they refuse to comment on specific cases even after the individual has died? This is not a minor issue. Sometimes the question of privacy versus accountability is a matter of life and death.

“From my standpoint it’s frustrating as hell because I am trying to get information and I almost get the impression that different departments are hiding behind the legislation,” Kielley said. “They say we can’t discuss individual cases because of privacy, but if you don’t discuss it then really there’s nothing to talk about… Obviously the legislation has to change.”

Kielley says she doubts that accountable individuals have actually read the privacy legislation. “Really, I don’t think they know enough about it. I don’t know enough about it. And the people who are using it as an excuse, I don’t think are very well versed in it.”

One person who is familiar with the legislation is Russell Wangersky, Managing Editor of The Telegram. Wangersky’s opinion is that two different pieces of legislation – at the federal and provincial levels – work together to severely constrain the ability of those accountable to comment on specific issues. In other words, they are justified in not commenting.

“The federal privacy legislation is pretty darn strict and there’s the privacy component to the new ATIPA (provincial Access to Information and Privacy Act) as well,” he said, agreeing that there is no ‘wiggle room’ at all between the two pieces of legislation. “And it’s bad for the system, because… when someone feels hard-done-by, it’s really hard to get their concerns addressed in the media… I think it is certainly being used as a crutch.”

Wangersky pointed out that there are two sides to every story, and that the individuals and institutions who are bound by privacy legislation are sometimes at a disadvantage because they cannot defend themselves or let outlandish accusations go unchallenged. “Not everybody who is making a complaint (is necessarily telling the truth)… We had a situation with someone who came back to us after the fact and said, ‘Look, we wish we had a mechanism where we could talk to you about this particular individual because what he said to you on the record is not true.’ In this instance the institution felt quite hard done by.”

Jerry Vink, the Director of the Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association, has some strong opinions on this issue which are diametrically opposed to the views you’ve read thus far. He is adamant about the need to protect the privacy of individuals, especially children, and agrees that specific details of any case should not be discussed in public.

However, this is a column, not a news story, so I was free to engage Jerry in a wide-ranging debate. I fired several scenarios at him, such as what happens when the person most affected by circumstances cannot engage in public discourse about those circumstances, due to his own so-called privacy. To his credit, Vink showed flexibility.

“Privacy issues, much like other human rights issues, are usually a case of balancing two sets of rights,” Vink said. “That’s what makes it challenging… between the right to privacy and the right to accountability, we haven’t found the balance yet. It’s going to be an interesting debate as time goes on.”

Vink did agree that there is room to take another look at the legislation. “I think it is quite correct to say that since we are in some ways redefining privacy at this time, and because we are dealing with balancing, it is always appropriate to think through the legislation and operating procedures that we use when dealing with privacy. We have to continuously change as time goes by… I have no problem with re-examining the legislation and the operating procedures that are used.”

And there you have it. When one of the most staunch defenders of human rights in the province allows that there is room for change, there is no choice but to throw the door open and push through. Journalists have to put objectivity aside and take a stand on this issue. It is fundamental to free speech and critical to the future of journalism itself.

I am not suggesting that this is some Machiavellian plot hatched by politicians to stifle the public’s right to know. I accept it is an unexpected outcome of the legislation. But that doesn’t make it right. The facts of the case are simple: if those accountable cannot comment on a specific case, then they can’t comment on any case, because every case is ‘specific’.

Both levels of government must revisit the legislation. They must fix this problem.

Our right to privacy must be balanced by our right to know.

Ad stunt was a beautiful failure (October 2004)

Depending on who you talk to, Vaughn Whelan has pulled either the bravest or most stupid stunt in the history of advertising.

A native Newfoundlander (born on Bell Island) who has worked around the world, Whelan now runs Vaughn Whelan & Partners, a 12-person advertising agency in Toronto. He likes to create provocative and challenging advertising, and has won numerous national and international awards for his work.

Recently, Whelan set a new standard for pushing the envelope.

He wanted to win the lucrative Molson ad account, but was not on the short list of agencies competing for the work. He wasn’t even on the radar screen.

So Whelan, who says he knows the beer category as well as anyone, launched Project Hijack.

He developed a concept for a TV ad, based on the true story of a bike courier in Toronto who took Revenue Canada to court when they refused to let him write off food expenses as “fuel”. He won the case.

Whelan wrote a light-hearted 60-second TV spot based on this story. But rather than show it to the prospective client, Whelan booked TV airtime, contacted the Molson people and told them when to tune in. And he aired the ad. (You can view the spot by visiting and following the links, but don’t waste any time – it likely won’t be up for much longer.) (2007 Update: the ad is down, of course, but who knows - you may find it on YouTube.)

It is unusual enough to produce a finished ad without discussing creative strategy with the client. But to broadcast the spot without the client’s permission is absolute heresy.

This may not be a bad thing, given the advertising world’s hunger for new and original ideas. And it was an expensive gamble: in all, it cost Whelan less than $10,000 to produce and air the ad (which is actually cheap compared to most big league ad productions.

The real question is, did the ad achieve its objective? No and yes. In a telephone interview, Whelan said he was ordered by Molson’s lawyers to remove the video from his web site. And there have been no calls from the senior executive at Molson.

However, the tactic has been a public relations bonanza for Whelan’s company. Their “rogue ad” story was picked up and followed closely by the National Post, Globe & Mail, New York Post and ROB TV.

Whelan also received close to 150 calls and emails from all over the world. “And only two of those have been negative,” Whelan said in an interview. “They were very flattering actually, and I wasn’t looking for flattery. Secondly, the object of the approach hates it. So it can be seen as a failure, a beautiful failure.”

He says this with tongue firmly in cheek, because Whelan has had calls from other agencies, large corporations and even some breweries. “Labatt loves it and Sleeman loves it and Proctor & Gamble loves it and people in other agencies love it. It’s very intense, and it’s all positive… I’ve had calls from numerous potential clients and have three new business leads as a result of this, who I am going to meet next week.”

However, Whelan emphasized that he is not in a “David and Goliath” battle with Molson. “Molson has not been very positive about my tactics. They haven’t told me what they think about my idea, though they’ve been very negative in how I approached them. But the truth is, being a shareholder in Molson’s, I happen to think they’re a fabulous company so I am always positive about them. All that’s happening here is that I’ve undertaken an extremely unusual way to get a client’s attention, with only positive intentions.”

Note: Vaughn Whelan passed away on March 3 2005, just a few months after this column was written, at age 44.

When journalists go undercover (Sept 2004)

You wouldn’t expect an article about the convention business to spark a frenzy in local media.

Yet that is what happened when the August issue of Atlantic Business went into circulation. It contained an article about the convention trade in Atlantic Canada, with some findings about which cities were better equipped to pursue and host convention business.

Of the nine cities surveyed, Corner Brook ranked the lowest in a number of criteria, which generated some controversy.

But what really stirred things up was the way in which Atlantic Business generated its information. Through an email message, editor Dawn Chafe posed as a convention planner for Animal Aid, a fictitious group, and asked the various cities to make their pitch. The staff at these offices had no idea that this was a journalistic enterprise.

Some cities handled it very well, while a few – most notably Corner Brook – let their guard down and did not follow up on the request for information. No doubt the result would have been different if the city had known they were dealing with a journalist.

And that, said Dawn Chafe in an interview, is precisely the point of the exercise. “If I had said ‘Hi, I’m a reporter doing an article on the conventions market’ I would have come back with something less than the truth and more a packaged, public relations-approved response, as opposed to finding out exactly what they do,” she said.


The Atlantic Business article received coverage in The Western Star and The Telegram as well as on CBC radio and television. Interestingly, CBC’s policy is that all reporters must clearly identify themselves before any interview.

“We have a policy that’s pretty strict on this,” said Paul Hambleton, Managing Editor for News and Current Affairs with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. “When we’re doing our job we have to be up front with what we’re doing, and that’s a public right. Deception must not be used to get information. That’s our guiding principle.”

There are exceptions to this rule, Hambleton explained, but these would be pretty exceptional circumstances, usually involving a serious legal matter. “The guiding principle is, is there is an overriding public interest at stake that we feel, as a journalistic operation, we should find out more about this? This has happened in investigative circumstances. Certainly ‘the fifth estate’ has used hidden cameras to investigate (certain stories). And you need the highest level of approval to go forward on these things.”

However, Dawn Chafe sees nothing unethical about going under cover for her research. “I don't believe my story or methods were unethical, but I can also appreciate the other point of view,” she said.

“I wasn’t trying to trap them into doing something. I was only asking then to do what they normally would do – what they’re supposed to do – and then analyze (the results). So I didn’t think it was unethical and I’m kind of surprised to hear that because certainly no one hinted at that to me, and it’s something I’ve seen done many times.”

In this case, Chafe says that an “objective, documented, gathering of facts” offers greater insight and truth. “It's also interesting that another media organization which might balk at such methods itself has no problem with reporting on the results.”

Chafe said her review was based on responses given in the context of what is, for the subjects, their “public persona”.

“As public representatives of their respective organizations, they are regularly asked to respond to the types of questions I posed in my email. In that sense, they should always be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that knock on their doors.”

Chafe said she placed follow-up calls to those subjects who did not respond immediately, giving them a second chance to deliver the goods. “And in publishing the article, I didn’t hide anything. I published copies of the letter and thoroughly explained the process I used.”

Chafe said this is the first time she has gone under cover for an article in her magazine. “Is this something I would do all the time? Probably not. I just thought that this type of article was the best way to get what I consider to be the truth. My reaction is that it worked.”


I worked at The Sunday Express from 1988 to 1991, and though the paper was perceived by some as a muck-raking scandal sheet, it’s policy was similar to that of the CBC. We always had to identify ourselves clearly as journalists, and were never allowed to pose as someone else.

There was some internal debate about this, since we knew we could get some really juicy stuff by going under cover. But the underpinning rationale was fairly simple. If journalists are going to lie for the sake of a story, why should we expect our interview subjects to tell us the truth?

There was one exception to this policy. In order to be treated like any other diner and avoid getting preferential treatment, our restaurant critic was expected to make reservations under a companion’s name or a pseudonym.

If the restaurant owner knew a reviewer was on the premises, that person would get perfectly prepared food, gargantuan portions and the finest service… and readers would not get an objective review.

Clearly, there are no easy answers to this ethical dilemma.

Karl Wells of CBC Canada Now has recently started writing a freelance dining out column for The Telegram. This presents a dilemma for Wells, who has one of the most recognizable faces in the province. How can he expect to receive non-preferential treatment? I put this question to Wells via email.

“Anonymity is ideal, in my view,” he replied. “However, because of my profile, I knew this was not something I could do anything about. I do the best I can to make sure a restaurant is not prepared for me. If I need a reservation I get someone to make it for me in another name. Quite often I will just walk in without a reservation, and I usually order straight from the regular menu… I also try to be as low-key and inconspicuous as possible.”

Wells said he has never been convinced that his celebrity results in special treatment at restaurants, and has seen his share of bad food and service. That may be the case. However, I caution him that this will change as word of his new column spreads. Some restaurant owners will tape Wells’ photo to the wall inside the kitchen door, hoping that staff will recognize him in time to avoid a bad review and even kindle a good one.

Long-time viewers of CBC TV will recall that Karl Wells is a master of disguise, a skill he demonstrated every Halloween. I asked (only half-jokingly) if he has considered using this technique.

“I briefly considered disguises, but quickly abandoned the idea after recalling numerous occasions when people would recognize me while wearing all manner of caps, hats, scarves, and glasses. I remember being shocked when, despite my different appearance, people would shout, ‘Hey Karl! How's it going?’”

Wells stressed that he pays for his own meals and is not subsidized in any way by a meal allowance.

“It is very important to me that I maintain credibility with the people who follow the column. I want to avoid the slippery slope of taking favours from restaurateurs. When people read the column to find a nice place to eat, I want them to know they can trust what I'm saying.”

Bob Wakeham's influence is immense (April 2004)

As a young journalist, Bob Wakeham had his hands on the scoop of a lifetime – the Mount Cashel scandal – but it slipped through his fingers when his editor killed the story. He was an unknowing pawn in a cover-up that extended into senior levels of the departments of Justice and Social Services, as well as the police department.

Wakeham made it up for it years later when, as a CBC TV news producer, he insisted on unblinking coverage of the Hughes Inquiry into Mount Cashel.

I have followed Wakeham's career closely over the years, and always saw him as something of a paradox. This gruff, pit bull of a journalist didn’t reconcile with the younger Wakeham, who seemed compliant when Telegram publisher Steve Herder killed his Mount Cashel story.

I developed a theory that this was a defining moment for Wakeham, instilling a “never again” attitude that would influence the way he handled all future stories.

But why sit about theorizing? I called Wakeham and arranged an interview, which was conducted at his home in Flatrock. We talked about Mount Cashel and more, hitting many of the highlights from Wakeham's fascinating career – including his recent diagnosis of cancer.

Wakeham was born and raised in Gander but was uprooted at age 13 when his father, who worked in the aviation industry, was transferred to Falls Church, Virginia. “That was a real culture shock – I had never been west of Grand Falls in my life... I was a very unhappy, shy Newfoundlander who just wanted to get home.”

He vacationed in Newfoundland, which kept the connection alive, and moved back as a young adult, immediately after graduating from the University of North Dakota with a degree in journalism. He was hired as a reporter with The Evening Telegram in 1972, at age 22, where he covered the whole gamut, including politics.

“I was fairly young when they started throwing me into some big political stories. And I enjoyed that. I came on around the time of Frank Moores. I covered Smallwood when he was out of power and came back with his Liberal Reform Party, and did a fair number of interviews with him… As a fairly old man, he was still able to get up and captivate everybody in the legislature and press gallery. You can say what you like about Smallwood… he was an incredible speaker.”

“It was a rare story back in the 70s that I didn’t cover,” Wakeham added. “The thing about the Telegram was you were able to cover a real nice cross-section of stories. You were in the legislature one day, and the next you were covering… a big blazing fire on Water Street. It would really get your adrenalin going.”

The biggest story that Wakeham never told was, of course, Mount Cashel. However, as was revealed at the Hughes Inquiry in 1989, Wakeham had no idea that he had a tiger by the tail.

“We had at least gotten a scent… that something untoward or improper was going on inside Mount Cashel between the Brothers and the boys,” Wakeham recalled. “We just had tidbits of information that Brothers had been sent away and something definitely sexual improper was going on… and The Telegram killed the story because they didn't want to undo 100 years of good work at Mount Cashel with one news story. I was pissed off and voiced my disagreement with the decision.”

Wakeham says he has been asked why he didn't resign in outrage. “The story was in the embryonic stages when we were working on it… I didn't realize until many years later what we were sitting on… that the story was huge. If I had known then what actually had been going on, obviously… I would have pursued it further.”

In the 1980s, Wakeham moved to CBC Radio as a broadcast journalist, doing everything from spot news to political commentary. He made the switch to CBC TV in the late 1980s, and it was here that he made the transition from the “daily grind” of news reporting to the more measured pace of documentary production. “It’s a process that allows you a certain amount of time to think about the kind of product you want. But it’s a different kind of pressure. If you work for three or four months on a documentary about the Ocean Ranger, well it had better be good.”

Wakeham climbed the corporate ladder quickly at CBC TV in spite of – or perhaps because of –¬ his stubborn, hard-nosed style. He served as executive producer – akin to being managing editor of a newspaper – with “Here & Now”, “On Camera” and “Soundings” before moving up to Area Executive Producer, in charge of the whole shooting match.

“My job was to be innovative; to try to come up with ideas that would make “Here & Now” more interesting,” he said. “At the time, I was big on satire, commentary and comedy, which had never been a part of any supper-hour show across the country, as far as I know.”

Wakeham brought Ray Guy, Pete Soucy (Snook), Noreen Golfman and other new faces to the airwaves. There was some flak about that, from the public and the brass at CBC, but Wakeham persevered. The comedy helped leaven a news mix that, by its nature, was often bad. For example, there was Mount Cashel.

Wakeham became executive producer during the Hughes Inquiry, when the Mount Cashel scandal was at its peak. “I had to deal with how far you go in what you put on the air every night. People weren't used to hearing about oral sex and anal sex on a supper hour show. I got a serious amount of flak… but I was determined. I was going out of my way NOT to sanitize coverage… I wanted to make sure people knew exactly what had happened to these boys and the only way to do that was to be fairly explicit. To this day I'm still fairly proud of how we handled it.”

This was a rare opportunity to take a second crack at a story that had been yanked away from him as a young journalist. However, Wakeham insists that his coverage of Mount Cashel was unbiased. “I don't think there was any extra motivation for me based on what had happened at The Telegram. I didn't need any motivation to determine how much coverage to give it – everybody knew that it was (a major story). On the other hand, there was a certain amount of satisfaction (in covering that story).”

Wakeham recalls one incident from those days that is funny in retrospect. During the Hughes Inquiry, ‘The Sunday Express’ (where I worked at the time) revealed that a CBC producer was under police investigation for sexual misconduct involving one of the Mount Cashel boys (though no charges were laid). The producer was removed from his position and replaced by Wakeham, who promptly had his own run-in with the law. He was charged with having a loaded gun in his vehicle while moose hunting – not a really serious crime, but awkward given the circumstances at CBC.

“It was a real awkward time,” Wakeham said. “The CBC was in an uproar and we were trying to cover this sexual abuse scandal… So I had to go in and talk to (his superior) Jim Byrd first thing on a Monday morning… and all he could do was shake his head. But then I said, ‘That's not the worst of it – ‘The Sunday Express’ knows about it.’ It could have been embarrassing for the CBC… but as it turned out, ‘The Express’ didn't go with the story… On that particular day it seemed really important, but now it’s a story I tell with a fair amount of humour.”

Wakeham presided over ‘Here & Now’ when it was king of the airwaves, pulling in an astounding 220,000 viewers every night. “Everybody and their dog was watching,” he said. “But I’m not taking credit for that. I inherited a big audience.”

However, fellow CBC producer John Furlong gives Wakeham a lot of credit, noting the changes that Wakeham brought to ‘Here & Now’, from the comedy to the sex abuse coverage to court reporting. “He brought court coverage to television, which was previously unknown on Newfoundland TV, even though it was a mainstay in print. He was visionary in what he wanted for the show when he took over ‘Here & Now’. He is arguably one of the most influential journalists this province has ever seen.”

Wakeham and his team of reporters won numerous awards over the years. On a personal level, he is especially proud of the work he produced for ‘Soundings’, tackling issues like child abuse, alcoholism, suicide – “all very delightful subjects,” he jokes.

But the story that moved Wakeham the most was a documentary he co-produced about Newfoundland's loss at Beaumont Hamel. Wakeham's grandfather was injured and several people close to him lost relatives there.

“It was without a doubt the most moving experience of my entire career,” Wakeham recalled. “I know that my grandfather survived while wounded because he crawled into a shellhole… and I would get down in a shellhole and wonder if this was the one that pop had crawled into… It's an amazingly small battlefield. You could feel and sense the tragedy there… you could almost sense the spirits of all these guys who had endured 30 minutes of hell.”

Wakeham’s advice to any producer or editor is to encourage journalists to generate their own stories and give them room to be creative.

“As a reporter, I wanted to have a lot of say in what I did on a given day… a lot of say. So I tried to treat reporters in the same way that I insisted on being treated. I gave them a fair amount of autonomy in coming up with ideas, and how to treat those ideas.”

And through it all, Wakeham never softened in his pit bull style. “I always did what I though I was right – though I wasn't always right – and didn't give a shit who got pissed off… And I said what I thought. If I was at a meeting in Toronto and I thought that regional television was really getting screwed by CBC management in Toronto, I would say it to whoever was in the room. That was just my nature. Back then, we were still flying high but you could see them nibbling and you could see what was coming down the road… You didn't have to be a prophet to see what was coming and it was, and still is, a shame.”

Wakeham stepped down from active duty with CBC in September of last year, when he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He had two rounds of major surgery, is now taking chemotherapy, and there is a possibility of more surgery.

“I could put a real nice spin on it for you but I’m not much into spinning. I know it’s the roughest thing that I’ve been through in my lifetime. All the cliches are true – it turns your life upside down. It also gives your life an added intensity, which is in many ways a good thing… I am starting to live with it more comfortably than I did seven months ago.

“But I feel pretty good and the prognosis seems pretty good. You never know about cancer but… I’m feeling pretty good lately. I’m handling the chemo as well as can be expected… and it seems to be working.”

At age 54 and currently on long term disability, Wakeham says he is contemplating retirement. “I’ve had 31 years in journalism… and most of what I wanted to do in my career I’ve done.”

When asked what he would do next, Wakeham, an avid outdoorsman who loves to hunt and fish, gestured to the woods beyond his backyard.

“There is no shortage of things to do,” he said with a smile.