Saturday, February 10, 2007

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.

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