Monday, April 30, 2007

Too much bitter and not enough sweet

The final On the Go broadcast from the CBC Radio building on Duckworth Street was something of a letdown. I expected to hear more of the history of the building, drawing upon the wealth of archived material in the vault as well as memories of people who have hosted or contributed to the program in some way.

There was at least one historical item (the show hasn’t been archived yet so I can’t confirm any others) and some coverage of contemporary issues. And host Ted Blades (right, CBC photo) did emphasize at one point that programming will continue and life will carry on at the new location. However, the program was dominated by ‘farewell’ material that had a melancholy, slightly bitter aftertaste.

The show opened with an indulgent, overdone segment in which Blades walked to work for the last time (as of Monday, he will have to drive to the CBC Building on Prince Philip Drive).

Blades’ point was that a walk down Duckworth Street – talking with people on the street, reading posters in shop windows and inhaling the rich harbour air – presents a bottomless well of story ideas that will be lost in the move to the parkway. Indeed, the downtown itself came across as a muse that percolates by osmosis through most of what is broadcast from the grand old building.

During the middle of the show, Blades spoke about the thousands of historically significant stories and interviews that originated at 342 Duckworth. The piece he played – a profile of a traveling butcher produced some years ago for Morningside – was good, but it was long; I would have preferred more of a montage that brought in different voices and issues.

The program concluded with Blades taking a meandering final walk through the building, his voice echoing in the empty hallways. It left the listener feeling sad and empty, which was no doubt Blades’ intent. But it didn’t work for me. There was too much bitter and not enough sweet.

The closure of the building reminds me of a person who has died at a ripe old age – we mourn their passing but ultimately celebrate their achievements.

That celebratory feel was missing from the show and I can understand why. Blades does not support the relocation across town and feels, as demonstrated by the opening piece, that something priceless will be lost in the move.

Blades' final walk to work was not great radio; I am sure it was edited down but it was nonetheless long and not terribly illuminating. I do respect what he was trying to accomplish. The item was seasoned with a dash of rebellion and a pinch of protest, something I applaud in all journalists. I share anyone’s apprehension about moving from an office to a cubicle environment, and wonder what management can do to address this. (With all the space in the TV building, do they really need to jam people into cubicles?) And I do agree that CBC Radio is part of the downtown character, and vice versa.

However, I think the contention that walking to work puts one ‘in touch’ with the heart of the city and generates new story ideas is exaggerated. A stroll downtown and a detour to Hava Java may net a story idea on occasion, but it should only account for a small percentage of program content, especially given On the Go’s province-wide audience.

There is absolutely no substitute for a well-established network of contacts within the various strata of society, including the arts, business, government and not-for-profit sectors.

In this respect, I feel that programming on all of the local radio shows will actually improve in the months ahead, as producers, hosts and reporters work the phones, email and Internet much more in the pursuit and development of new story ideas. They will also benefit from new perspectives gained through collaboration with their colleagues in television.

And downtown is not that far away. There is nothing stopping any of them from taking a dash downtown for lunch, coffee or even a walk up Duckworth Street.

I wish all the employees well in their new location, and will be checking back in the weeks ahead to see how they are feeling about the move.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A new beginning for Anne Budgell

I had a quick email exchange with Anne Budgell this morning, in which I asked her one question. Anne, as you must know by now, is retiring today after 34 years of service with the CBC in Newfoundland and Labrador. As this photo (taken during the last CBC strike, from John Gushue's website) would suggest, Anne has outlasted them all.

But first, a story. I prefaced the question to Anne by telling her about my own experience working in an old building. During the 1970’s, I served as a clerk at the Post Office in Toronto, at the main postal station on Front Street (in what is now the Air Canada Centre).

That grand old building was being phased out, with employees being moved to one of two new “super-buildings” further out in the suburbs. I was transferred to South Central, where they tried to train me on the postal coding machine; to key in the postal code on letters as they zoomed past, as fast as you could type. It was dehumanizing, as was the sterile environment with cameras everywhere. I told management to forget it; to send me back to the old building until it was phased out, at which point I would resign. (I did, and moved back home to Newfoundland, determined to ‘make it’ as a journalist, which is a story for another day.)

So my question to Anne was, did you time your retirement around the closing of the building on a matter of principle?

While her reply was diplomatic, Anne did confirm that the impending move had some influence on her decision about when to retire.

“I have been thinking of retiring for some time and it's been a tough decision since I do enjoy my work and have a lot of freedom to do what I want with this show,” Anne wrote. “Also, working with Paula Gale has been fabulous and there was no guarantee we'd be able to continue to work together. I went up to the other building to have a look at "my" cubicle and I was dreading having to work there. Paula and I have a small office with a door we can close and we close it numerous times a day. It's the only way we can hear ourselves think.”

“I am lucky because I have enough years of service so my pension will provide an adequate income,” Anne continued. “Being financially able to retire, in combination with other factors, like the building closing, it seemed like the time was right. I don't feel like I'm the only one leaving because everyone is packing their stuff and the place is emptying out. I'm going to take a few trips and I've got a book project to work on. Summer is coming and I've got a grin from ear to ear.”

If you read this on Friday morning, be sure to tune in to CBC Radio Noon to catch Anne’s last show. Also, visit the site to see all the neat stuff that has been going on with the show in recent weeks (and have a look at that movie poster, which has Anne’s head superimposed on Halle Berry’s body).

CBC Radio Building falls silent today

It’s been part of the heart of downtown St. John’s for 54 years. And today, it all comes to an end.

The people and facilities at the CBC Radio Building on Duckworth Street are all moving to the TV building, up on the Parkway. The building has a long and colourful history, as we learned in the excellent retrospective series by Juanita Bates. It once hosted the Total Abstinence Society, the Capitol Theatre and was the location of the first public performance of the Ode to Newfoundland. But its most important role was no doubt home to CBC Radio, which has had a tremendous impact on the character of downtown St. John’s.

I love old buildings; love their convoluted passageways, uneven floors, dusty alcoves and locked rooms packed with artifacts. I have been in the building several times to be interviewed, or to meet with people there, and know that it is a special place (and quite haunted, according to some of the staff who worked late at night).

We will no longer hear Jeff Gilhooly talking about the brilliant sunrise over the narrows, or run into the staff on the street or in the lineup at Hava Java. The shows, of course, will continue and – who knows – they may even get better as a result of the move… though I know it won’t be the same for the staff, who move from the lively artistic and intellectual ferment of Duckworth Street over to the barrens of the parkway (say what you like, it is not the same environment over there).

If you want to learn more about the history of the building, go to the Total Abstinence Society site and this interesting tour of the old Capitol Theatre – with great photos – presented by the Newfoundland Urban Exploration Society.

Today, we mark the closure of an important chapter in our cultural and social history. You can expect to hear special programming all day long – the Morning Show had some great stuff, including interviews with former hosts of the show – so tune in if you can and, if you can’t, look it up in the archives later (go to the CBC site, click programs, then archives). Don’t forget Anne Budgell’s final show today on Radio Noon – it’s her retirement on top of everything else – and you can be sure On The Go will also bid a fond farewell to the building.

I tried to arrange an informal tour of the building, to talk to whoever I ran into and capture some quick memories (plus some photos), but my request was rejected by the public affairs people because there was too much going on with the move. I did pop in for a visit on Wednesday, to pick up something (a tape recording of an interview I did with Joey Smallwood that I lent On The Go, which aired last Christmas). During that visit, I snapped the photo at right of Ted Blades and Ingrid Fraser, host and producer of On The Go. I could easily have walked through the building and recorded a bunch of farewell interviews with whoever I encountered, but decided to behave myself. I already regret that decision.

Whilst standing on the sidewalk to take the photo above, the meter reader guy with the city walked by and said, “Downtown won’t be the same without it.”

I stopped, marvelling at how we all talk with the candor of neighbours calling over the fence, and said, "Yes, it’s gonna feel pretty empty around here.”

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nightmare in the Dominican Republic

The harrowing experience of a couple from Labrador in the Dominican Republic is quite an eye-opener. On their first day at the resort, a “guest” who was clearly a local thug accused Andrew and Dawn Sinnott of stealing his cell phone. The hotel manager sided with the thug and the couple was taken to a fake police station where they were shaken down for a $1000 ransom. After their ordeal, the couple was ordered to leave the hotel by the manager, who seemed to be in cahoots with the thugs.

Fortunately, the item (by reporter Peter Cowan) was picked up by CBC national news, so this story will have an impact across the country. The questions that I would like to see answered in future media coverage include, how widespread is this racket? Will charges be laid against the kidnappers? Will the hotel manager be fired? The way the government of the Dominican Republic handles this case will tell you much about whether or not it is a safe vacation spot. I am also curious about other people’s experiences in this country. Have you been robbed while on vacation there? If so, please leave a comment.

A quick google search for “Dominican Republic nightmare” turns up some results, such as these resort horror stories, but I can’t see any references to kidnapping and extortion. This post will help to correct that.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A veritable feast for the eyes

And now for something completely different. I offer for your consumption two links to photo sites that will make you look at fast food - and the refuse it produces - in a new way.

Let’s start with Fast Foods: Ads vs. Reality. Have you ever been served a take-out meal and thought, ‘Wow – that doesn’t look anything like what I saw in the TV ad!’ Click on the photo sequence at right to see what I mean. The Whopper in the promo pic (top) sits high and proud, with a dandy looking meat patty, light, fluffy bun and colourful lettuce and tomato. The actual burger (bottom) lacks colour, the bun is flat and lifeless and the stuff in the middle looks far less appetizing. There are several other great examples of fast food on this site that fail to deliver on the visual promise, a demonstration of the important role that food stylists play in the marketing of food. (Food stylists being those peculiar artisans who sculpt, spray, arrange and present food to its maximum visual effect, before the photographer starts shooting. Digital retouching does the rest.)

“Each item was purchased, taken home, and photographed immediately,” says the introductory blurb at the site. "Nothing was tampered with, run over by a car, or anything of the sort. It is an accurate representation in every case."

The quality of photography on the site is strictly amateur, but it adequately captures the reality of fast food. And I am not looking down my nose at fast food. I do indulge more than I should, and actually love the Whopper, pathetic as it may look here. Right now there are 10 fast food comparisons on the site. I hope they add more. (Caution: The fast food photos are the best thing here; don’t bother clicking around unless you are in the mood for low-brow, foul-mouthed humour.)

The other link is Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, featuring a series of photo-realistic graphic works by Chris Jordan. In a nutshell, Jordan takes statistics that are normally hard to comprehend and represents them graphically. The piece above, for example, has been created with 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the U.S. every 30 seconds. Check this detail, showing just 416 cans, to see how it’s put together.

“This new series looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics,” writes artist Chris Jordan. “Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 426,000 cell phones retired every day. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs.”

I urge you to follow this link and linger for a while. It offers some truly mind-numbing images that will force you to view mass consumerism, and other societal issues, in an entirely new light.

POSTSCRIPT: Ed Hollett has a funny take on today's post over at The Bond Papers. Check it out.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

NBC has an attack of good taste

This makes for interesting reading indeed. Brian Williams (right) is Anchor and Managing Editor with NBC News, the network that received the package of text, video and photos from the Virginia Tech killer. In his blog, Williams describes how he and his colleagues wrestled with how to present the shocking material in the package. As it turns out, they used precious little of it, and for all the right reasons.

"A critical piece of information in a huge national news story was dropped on our doorstep," Williams writes. "While I love my work, our task yesterday was extremely unpleasant. Yesterday was an awful day. There was no joy in this for any of us. To the contrary: opening each computer video snippet for the first time was a sickening and harrowing experience - and it's good to know that the worst of them - all now in the hands of investigators - will never see the light of day. As I said on the air last evening: we are aware that this puts words in the mouth of a murderer."

Yes, they did air some of the tape (I would prefer none at all). But Williams' comments are a very good start. Coming from a big American network, it is cause for optimism, in a country where the news business is so extremely competitive and, yes, sensational. One can't help but wonder what would have happened if CNN or Fox News had received the package...

Thanks to Darrell Smith for the link.

The CBC definitely gets it right

There is a new letter from Tony Burman (left), Editor In Chief of CBC News, posted at the CBC web site. I interviewed Burman two days ago about CBC coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, and you can read the entry two posts down. His column today offers a thoughtful reflection on how CBC has covered this tragedy. I urge you to read it.

For now, I draw your attention to the postscript that Burman attached to this column, after news of the manifesto package came to light. It's powerful stuff and I have copied it below:

Postscript: On Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after this column was written and posted, NBC News in New York announced it had received in the mail a package from the killer. It contained a compilation of 27 video clips, 43 still photos of him holding guns and a hammer and a largely incoherent 'manifesto' explaining why he had done it. On its evening newscast, NBC ran several minutes of excerpts, and this video has been rebroadcast by a multitude of other networks. At the CBC, we debated the issue throughout the evening and made the decision that we would not broadcast any video or audio of this bizarre collection. On CBC Television, Radio and, we would report the essence of what the killer was saying, but not do what he so clearly hoped all media would do. To decide otherwise - in our view -would be to risk copycat killings. Speaking personally, I have long admired NBC News and I am sure my admiration of their journalists will endure. But I think their handling of these tapes was a mistake. As I watched them last night, sickened as I'm sure most viewers were, I imagined what kind of impact this broadcast would have on similarly deranged people. In horrific but real ways, this is their 15 seconds of fame. I had this awful and sad feeling that there were parents watching these excerpts on NBC who were unaware they they will lose their children in some future copycat killing triggered by these broadcasts.

Today, I received the following internal memo, sent by Burman to all CBC journalists. It reflects nicely the messages contained in Burman's column, and shows that CBC really is walking the talk. I don't publish every internal memo that crosses my desk but have no hesitation in using this one, since it reflects so well on both Burman and his network.

To all CBC news and current affairs staff, and contributors-

As most of you probably know by now, CBC News has decided NOT to broadcast any of the pictures or sound from the collection the Virginia Tech killer sent to NBC News. Our reporting of this should be limited to saying, in words, the essence of his largely incoherent message. It can be accompanied, as it was on last night's National, with a straight head-on freeze frame of his picture, but not those showing him brandishing the guns, hammer, etc.

This applies to all CBC programs and services on Television, Newsworld, Radio and

Our interest here is to ensure that our coverage of this story does not have the unintended effect of encouraging copycat killings. There's a fuller discussion of this in the 'letter' I posted yesterday on this subject. I urge that you read it. It was written a fews hours before the NBC tapes became known, so I added a 'postscript' this morning at the bottom to deal with this part of the story.

I have attached it here (below). I also suggest you check out the link because the reader responses, which I am certain will grow during the day, are quite illuminating.


I am sure that you will note that CBC's handling of this issue is quite different from most of the other broadcast and print media, and I hope you're not uncomfortable with this. Canmadians expect a lot from the CBC, and we need to live up to those expectations. There is no place in heaven for journalists who merely follow the pack, and there's no patience anymore for the 'garbage-in/garbage-out' theory of 'news'. We don't simply transmit that which falls on our head: we make editorial
choices every moment of our day, and they need to be the correct ones.

I think that with this decision - as well as last week's handling of the Afghan hostage video, which I wrote about on Monday- - Canadians are telling us that we have made the right call.

Thank you and onward,


While CBC is taking some brave and principled steps in the right direction, I have come to the conclusion that we need a legislated solution in both Canada and the U.S. There should be an outright ban on the publication of the killer's name, photo or homemade video. We can discuss the contents of the manifesto, as long as we don't mention other killers' names. Just deny them their 15 seconds of fame. I know I am tilting at windmills here, and I don't expect either country to impose such "limits" on freedom of speech. But I feel strongly about this, enough to keep repeating the message. And I ask you: do we really need to know the killer's name and see his face?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Surprise, surprise: killer produced manifesto

Man, I hate being right all the time. My post of two days ago described all too accurately what arrived at NBC offices today. It was a package sent by the Virginia Tech killer, containing "a rambling and often-incoherent 1,800-word video manifesto, plus 43 photos, 11 of them showing him aiming handguns at the camera," according to this article in The Globe and Mail. There's not much I can add about this, except that the deranged young man knew his tape would make global headlines.

In his manifesto, the killer actually refers to "martyrs like Eric and Dylan", the teenagers behind the Columbine massacre. I know it's easier said than done, but we need to open a discussion about the idea of somehow not publishing these glorified suicide notes. By doing so, we fulfill the killer's ambition to live in infamy and quite likely inspire other nutbars to try a similar stunt of their own.

The killer actually shot two people at the dorm building before walking to the post office to calmly mail his package, apparently satisfied that his killing spree would proceed as planned. The effort he put into assembling the content of this manifesto, and the fact that he mailed it to media just before the slaughter began, demonstrates that the killings were a twisted public relations device; a way to ensure maximum coverage of his hate-filled and demented world view.

The top headline on page one in the April 18 Globe and Mail had a large picture of the killer and one of the victims. The headline reads: "Cho Seung-Hui was a dark and demented student. Liviu Librescu survived the Holocaust and tyranny. They will be remembered for their final moments."

Don't try this at home, kids. Please.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

CBC Editor In Chief weighs in on Virginia slayings

Yesterday’s observations on the mass murder at Virginia Tech included a postcript, in which I flagged an editorial by Tony Burman, Editor In Chief of CBC News, which includes news, current affairs and Newsworld. That item prompted an interview with Burman, who is in charge of editorial content on radio, television and the Internet.

In October of 2006, Burman wrote an editorial about the murder of five Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania. But the editorial could easily have been written yesterday about the tragic events in Blacksburg, Virginia. For the most part, Burton’s points were similar to those expressed by me in yesterday’s post.

In his editorial, Burman wrote that there were similarities between the Pennsylvania killings and other recent murderous deeds, enough to cause “considerable soul-searching in many newsrooms about what role the media are playing in these incidents.”

Burman quoted Prof. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and a specialist in personality theory, who believes that some people who commit these acts are seeking “post-crime notoriety.” Jordan told Burman that “idle speculation” by the media has no basis in fact and simply “glorifies” the act.

Peterson’s prescription is for “media to turn off the oxygen” by not naming the killers, or showing their photographs, and not reporting on their writings or motivations.

Interesting words indeed, coming from the most senior journalist in the CBC. After reading Burman’s column, I emailed him a note, asking for an interview. My key question: how have yesterday’s events affected his opinion – and CBC policy – on this issue? To my surprise, he called me the same afternoon.

“It’s such an awful event but one, as you pointed out in your piece, that is becoming so familiar in our culture,” Burman said “Like all news organizations, we’re trying to think through how we handle these things. In terms of your question, regarding what evolution there has been in that awful period since Dawson College and the Amish killings, there are certain things that are different for us at CBC now. Our focus is overwhelmingly on the victims… we’re trying to bring their stories to life in a way that I don’t think we have done in the past.”

So far, Burman said, CBC hasn’t included a picture of the killer on the web site and only “a couple of discrete mentions” have been made of his name.

“I think that was an issue. I know the argument, and you make it very compellingly as does Jordan Peterson and others. But I think that in the fullness of our coverage, we haven’t figured out a rationale for us to go throughout our comprehensive coverage without mentioning a name because I think a lot of people come to us to at least get a sense of who it might be. But I think we are incredibly conscious now of not doing anything inadvertently that tends to glorify him or his actions, or get into the realm of dime-store psychology about his motivation when all of us know so little about what actually went on.”

While I applauded Burman for the wisdom in CBC’s approach, I noted that the big networks in the United States are not about to change their policies anytime soon. It’s a highly competitive business and you can bet that hundreds of reporters are scrambling at this moment to come up with every shred of information they can about the killer.

“It’s interesting because in our daily meeting today I actually made that point,” Burman said. “I said we can’t be like the American networks because they are going to go to town on it, because that is… the competitive edge among all these fighting news channels. There is a lot of rumour out there, and so much stuff that gets circulated, but I think the so-called ‘established media’ has to separate the real from the unreal. I think history will judge us far from perfect on this one, but I think our coverage of this will be far more restrained and hopefully illuminating than perhaps it would have been a year ago.”

I asked Burman to speculate on the chances that his view and that of the CBC might someday gain traction south of the border. However, he is not optimistic on this point.

“I was having this discussion with somebody about gun control. The British coverage of this story has focused on the prevalence of guns, particularly in the Virginia area, and I think that’s a Canadian observation as well. But I am told that the so-called gun issue on a lot of the American networks is not that there should be more gun control, but why weren’t all the students and teachers armed to protect themselves? So I think there is no reason to expect that things are going to change there necessarily… I think this discussion is so incredibly valuable because it’s not the thing that everybody is going to focus on, but in some ways is one of the most important aspects of it.”

One final note: yesterday’s post drew a wave of interest from surfers the world over. It started when someone posted a link to this blog at, a user driven site wherein visitors browse links and click those that interest them. Links are ranked by visitors and listed in descending order of popularity. For much of the day, the link to this blog held in the top 40, which is something of an achievement given that links are added to the site continuously. At last count, I had received more than 1,000 unique visitors, all originating from

It's safe to say, therefore, that Americans are very interested in this discussion.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Mass killers inspire others to similar acts

Thirty three people dead, at last count. The largest mass murder in American history.

In the deluge of media coverage that will engulf us, following this terrible shooting spree in Virginia, there is one piece of information I don’t want to know.

Please spare me the name of the killer.

You see, I have a theory that the warped minds who commit these crimes do so, in many cases, with one primary motivation: notoriety. They want to be remembered as the bad-ass who went out in a blaze of glory.

It is my firmly held opinion that we shouldn’t give it to them. In mass murder situations like this, the news media should not report the killer’s identity. We should not see pictures of the killer posing in camouflage gear, wearing an AK-47. We don’t need to read the manifesto of murder posted at his web site. By doing so, we fulfill the killer’s wish to live in infamy, while inspiring other like-minded individuals to do the same thing.

As it turns out, I am not alone in this thinking.

“I reached that same conclusion some time ago,” said Elliott Leyton (right), a retired professor of anthropology at Memorial University whose research into mass murder is now applied by law enforcement agencies around the world.

“I think it has been a great mistake but it’s kind of hard to get the press to come on board with that idea. I agree with you that their names and details should be very cautiously handled. The victims should be getting the attention, not the killer. American culture is so saturated with intoxication about violence.”

Leyton’s voice already sounded a little tired when I called him at 7:30 pm. He had been taking calls from media outlets across North America. Before moving on to his next call, Leyton added one more observation, which he will be talking about on The National tonight.

“One of the greatest works of 20th century criminology was Archer and Gartner’s ‘Violence and Crime: A National Perspective’,” Leyton said. “In that book, they showed clearly that, every time there was a major war, there was an effect on the larger culture. People were bombarded with brutalizing images and it kind of validated violence more. Archer and Gartner studied every major war over the last hundred years and noted that, near the end of every war, there was a real surge in excessive violence. You know that the American murder rate dropped in the 90’s, where they weren’t invading anyone at the moment… So when I gave my last lecture at the university last year I said, ‘You watch, if Archer and Gartner are right – and I think they are – we should expect a big increase in homicides as the war grinds on. And it looks like that’s what’s happening. The homicide rates in all the major cities are going away up.”

I can see Leyton’s point. In order to build public support for their foreign conflicts, governments will attempt to glorify the war effort. Certain American networks are keen to play along, playing the ‘shock and awe’ video to its maximum, desensitizing effect. Is it any wonder Americans are killing each other?

Going back to the first point, persuading media to stop reporting names – and every mundane detail of the mass murderer’s life – is easier said than done. The competition to ‘get the story’ is too intense and any attempt at enforcement through legislation would be challenged – probably successfully – as an infringement upon freedom of speech.

In the meantime, one can’t help but wonder how many sick minds are watching this story unfold, fantasizing about stealing dad’s semi-automatic and making some history of their own…

UPDATE: I came up with this theory on my own and was buoyed to learn that Elliott Leyton had similar views, but I am not the first to state this point of view. Check this link for a good editorial summary about the issue, written in 2006 by Tony Burman, Editor In Chief at CBC News.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Westcott speech continues to make ripples

Craig Westcott’s March 29 speech to NOIA, the full text of which was posted on this blog back in March, continues to have an impact. Between five and 10 percent of the hits here continue to originate from a Google search for ‘craig westcott speech’ and they’ve been coming from all over North America.

The hits have actually seen an uptick over the last few days, and I have pinpointed the cause. Macleans’s has posted an article at its web site about an ‘Alternative narrative to the Danny Williams success story’, which appears in the April 16 edition. I have copied the full text of the article below, and you can link to it here.

Questioning the Williams juggernaut:

An alternate narrative to the Danny Williams Success Story began circulating in Newfoundland last week

By CHARLIE GILLIS, Maclean’s, April 16, 2007
It's taken some time to gain traction, but an alternate narrative to the Danny Williams Success Story began circulating in Newfoundland last week, finding a receptive audience both inside and outside the province. In a manifesto-style speech to a gathering of oil industry types in St. John's, Craig Westcott, publisher of the upstart newspaper the Business Post, painted the province's tough-talking premier as a power-mad demagogue whose hardline tactics against offshore oil developers will soon beggar his people. "Danny Williams loves power," said the veteran journalist, who is known as a tough talker in his own right. "He lives for it. He revels in it. He likes to show everyone he's the boss." The result, said Westcott, is a population afraid to speak out against actions that are damaging the economy. "You've got to watch your Ps and Qs, stroke his ego," he said in his address.

To put it mildly, Westcott is swimming upstream. The premier's approval rating stands at a stunning 74 per cent; even members of Westcott's audience seem uneasy with his stridency. "As at the end of any speech, he was given customary applause by the audience," says Ted Howell, president and CEO of the Newfoundland Ocean Industries Association, who was careful not to endorse any of Westcott's depictions of the premier. As for Williams himself, a spokeswoman dismissed Westcott as a serial exaggerator who has been "incredibly, incredibly critical" of the premier in the past.

Perhaps. But Westcott's methodical attack seems to have struck a chord, drawing record readership when transcripts surfaced on political blogs in Newfoundland, generating rich fodder for open-line radio shows. By Monday, his words were filling the inboxes of government and media types in Ottawa. Not quite a groundswell, Westcott cautions, but the buzz just might cause some Newfoundlanders to start thinking critically about their leader. "I've never seen a guy enjoy so much popular support," he says. "Personally, I think it's kind of dangerous."

- end -

For his part, Westcott says his speech has generated a flood of attention that is almost overwhelming. In the April 11 edition of The Business Post, Westcott writes:

“All week, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing and the email hasn’t stopped filling up with messages about the speech (as of this writing there are 105 emails that I haven’t had a chance to open yet)… Since the speech was delivered I’ve been approached by VOCM Radio (twice), CBC Television, Canadian Business Magazine, Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post, CBC Newsworld, numerous bloggers and everyone from fellow business people, PC Party insiders and even municipal leaders wanting to interview me or express thanks for having pointed to the Emporer’s state of undress.”

I know what Craig is talking about. I saw the traffic firsthand when I posted his speech on this blog. On the first day the speech appeared, hits rocketed from an average of 250 per day to more than 1,100, thanks to numerous links from other blogs (it’s amazing how quickly a hot story spreads on the web). On the second day, the hits peaked at more than 2,000 before tapering off slowly.

You can read the full text of the Craig Westcott speech here. And if you are interested in this subject, you should also check out the David Cochrane speech here.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sledworthy needs to ramp up on safety

It was a bizarre coincidence. While browsing the headlines yesterday, I stumbled upon a CBC story about the high number of snowmobile deaths in the province. With four snowmobile drownings already since January, we are positioned to break the record of six, set in 1997.

Then I glanced through my ‘to read’ pile and picked up a copy of Sledworthy, a locally produced tabloid about snowmobiling, and concluded that they are part of the problem.

Sledworthy is a professionally-designed publication (their banner looks great) brought to us by Focused Publications, the same people who produce Thrive (formerly Business Dynamics) magazine. There is clearly a demand for this type of publication, given the healthy amount of advertising that packs its 16 pages.

However, in the February/March issue, there are no articles about safety, on the ice or on the trail. Quite the opposite. There is, instead, a focus on machismo, speed and risk-taking that is quite out of step with the current reality. The stat above, don’t forget, is for drownings. It doesn’t include the two people who died on a trail near Gallants, or the man killed by the avalanche on the Northern Peninsula, both during March.

I browsed all back issues, which are available online at the Sledworthy web site, and found a lot of daredevil stuff but not a lot about safety. There was one very good article in the February ‘06 edition, wherein Gary Reardon describes a near-death experience for a group of sledders, stranded in a blizzard on a high plateau in -30 temperatures. It is written in a respectful tone and ends with some good, clear safety pointers. Early issues also ran a series on effective use of GPS systems, and an occasional column about safety.

However, I have not seen any articles about safe snowmobiling on frozen fresh or salt water, nor any expose on that bizarre practice of running at high speeds across open water. I’ve seen nothing about escaping from the water once you fall in. And there is nothing about recognizing potential avalanche situations, or what to do if one strikes. To the contrary, there are repeated references like the following, which you can read in full at the Sledworthy site:

“We spent all day driving into bowl after bowl of fresh, untouched snow, then tearing them up one by one, climbing, jumping and dropping until the once pristine hillside was transformed into a ragged tapestry of snowmobile tracks, waving, weaving, and encircling each other so you couldn't distinguish where one track ended and another began.”

The machismo is evident in this story, which turns a trip across the tundra into an Operation Desert Storm situation:

“Little did I know that this planning would put me in a battle that I was determined to win… This land reminds me of the desert, reaching my destination became a battle, much of what I picture of the soldiers in the Middle East driving through barren, sandy country trying to secure victory… The planning began and at this time I started a battle that I was unaware I had declared… Disheartened I returned, but coming from an athletic background and being a little competitive I was even more determined to win against this country. Seeing what I saw, I believed it was doable, but required a different plan of attack. The enemy had showed some weakness and I planned to exploit it.”

There is the incredible account in the first edition of a snowmobiler who doesn’t attend the safety briefings (“I had to GO – you all know what I mean!”) and then rides up one side of Mount Peyton at full speed, explodes onto the peak to discover an insufficient plateau, and shoots straight over the other side. He jumps off, skids for a while but comes to a stop, as his machine plunges over the cliff and is destroyed.

There is quite a harrowing tale of a wilderness trip in Western Newfoundland that descended into a near-death situation. This lead paragraph sums it up nicely:

“Darkness is falling; we’re in remote and unfamiliar territory; there are no trails, fuel is critically low; the cargo sled is split wide open. There’s only time to pick one route off the topo map and go for it. If it doesn’t work we’re bunking out in the middle of the Long Range Mountains in February! Was I nervous? Yes. Would I do it again? Maybe. Did I regret doing it? No, because you ‘Only Lives Once’!”

Deep into the trip, the snowmobilers encounter major problems. “… steep, tree lined river valleys were cut deep into the mountains and proving very hard to navigate. The sheer size of the group and the challenging conditions made it almost impossible to keep everyone together, or to make up any time… I still remember the concerned look on Geoff and Chris's faces as we poured over the maps trying to pick likely routes through the maze of rocky peaks and river valleys as the sun started to set. I'm sure my face looked the same. Nobody blamed us for the situation, but having organized the trip we did feel responsible.”

I do not dispute that these trips were exciting. But if there is a safety message that I can take away from the above article, I am not sure what it is. Except perhaps, to not plan a trip based on this cursory assessment: “A quick look at the maps showed we could shoot along the edge of Buchans Plateau, swing around the southeast corner of Little Grand Lake, pick our way northward through the Long Range Mountains, then onto woods roads to Gallants where we would take a groomed trail to Camp OLO in the Lewis Hills. It all sounded simple enough!”

When you hear about snowmobilers perishing after becoming lost or disoriented in the woods, look no further than the above for enlightenment. A common theme seems to be lack of preparedness.

Perhaps certain stories should be rejected outright, because there is nothing to be gained from them. In the latest issue, for example, Scott Crosbie talks about a stunt in which he drives hard up a sharp incline to leave a “high mark” around a tree, then struggles to keep his machine from tumbling head over heels as he careens back down the cliffside.

“I expected a big round of back slaps,” the author writes at the end, “but what I got was a whole bunch of ‘Are you nuts? That was the stupidest thing I’ve seen. You were nearly killed!’ They were right of course. I put a sorry look on my face and expressed my embarrassment along with multiple apologies for stressing them out, but deep down, now that it was over, I felt like I had won something. I’m much more careful now of course and wouldn’t do the same thing again, but on that day I had set the bar beyond where anyone else would go.”

Yes, a real inspiration to hot dogs everywhere.

I don’t mean to be too critical about Sledworthy. They can turn this problem around, and quickly, by insisting that writers build clear safety messages – the ‘moral of the story’ or what not to do – into all such adventure articles, and play these messages high. They should either stop celebrating the near misses and death-defying stunts, or at least balance them with an equal measure of sobering information. (You see plenty of glib rationalizations for acts that might easily have been suicidal.) Above all, they should look at the statistics for snowmobile deaths, assess the causes and ask themselves: What can we do to prevent future incidents? By doing this, they will quickly become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

NOTE: The photo above is from Corey Ford’s blog, which is certainly worth a visit. Corey lives in Gander and his interests – besides photography – include snowmobiling. He had his camera with him on the day that this mishap occurred, the result of a snowmobiler stopping in the middle of the trail. There were a couple of broken bones (Corey’s) and several severely damaged machines but, as Corey notes, it could have been much worse. You can read his full entry here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Muse takes satirical aim at The Independent

Okay, so April 1st has already faded into last week. But it took the folks at the Muse a little while to make their annual April Fool's media spoof available online, so I bring it to your attention now. You can download the entire production as a pdf file by clicking right here. This year, they parody The Independent, which has been dubbed the Self-Reliant. My favorite line is the teaser on top of page one: "NL gets raw deal, See story every page". My favorite promotional blurb: "To read the online copy of the Self-Reliant’s 162 point series The Cost Benefit Analysis of Newfoundland’s Terms of The Union With Those Soul Crushing Tyrannical Autocratic Dictators Known As Canadians please visit us on the web at, that is of course if you can afford a computer after those blood sucking Canucks have ripped your livelihood right out from your VERY SOUL. Advertising rates also available online." The humour is a little juvenile at times, but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments here as well. Caution: Some material is not suitable for work, children or the easily offended. These are students after all, and it's clear they are having a bitchin' good time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The farewells and tributes begin for Anne Budgell

I remarked recently on her enthralling, at times shocking edition of Crosstalk with David Bagby (April 2). That was followed by a Crosstalk about literacy (April 4), in which caller after caller exposed a number of gaps, shall we say, in federal funding support for literacy.

I am talking about Anne Budgell (above, CBC photo), host and producer of Radio Noon on CBC Radio. Budgell always does a strong show and is an exceptional interviewer, but lately she’s really been on a roll.

Unfortunately, it’s all going to end pretty soon. Anne Budgell is retiring from the CBC later this month. Her last day will be April 27.

It will conclude a distinguished 34-year career in which Anne has performed in almost every on-air job there is. According to her CBC bio, Budgell has been “a news reporter, the first female host/reporter on the legendary radio program ‘The Fisheries Broadcast’, co-anchor of the supper hour TV show ‘Here and Now’ and host of the weekly television show ‘On Camera.’ She was executive producer of radio news and current affairs for a while and pleaded to be allowed to go back on the air.”

As the host of the call-in program Crosstalk, Budgell figures that “by now she's probably spoken to you on the air and if not you, then someone in your family.”

Although she is well known for her aggressive interview style (when it is called for), Budgell also has a soft side which is apparent whenever she deals with sensitive or light-hearted subjects. The recent Crosstalk about ‘What Makes You Happy’ (March 26) was pretty off-the-wall and had the potential to fall on its face, but Anne pulled it off in style, delivering one of her most entertaining programs ever.

The good news is, you can listen to the Crosstalks noted above whenever you like, and all other Radio Noon programs going all the way back to May of 2005, by visiting the Radio Noon archive .

In the meantime, try to tune in to Radio Noon as much as you can over the next 17 days and listen live to Anne Budgell, a host who is leaving at the top of her game. It’s hard to imagine CBC Radio without her.

Monday, April 9, 2007

When rumours shouldn't make headlines

Some people have asked why I haven’t written about ongoing rumours concerning the marital issues of one of our elected officials; or, more to the point, why other media haven’t reported it.

There’s a simple reason for that. It really isn’t news. We might want to know about it, in a gossipy kind of way, but is the public interest served by revealing the personal affairs of our public figures? I submit there is, but only when such entanglements affect that person’s ability to function effectively in their position.

A hypothetical example: one of your neighbours has an affair with a co-worker, the spouse finds out and the marriage subsequently fails. It makes for interesting chatter at backyard barbecues, but the criminal code has not been broken and life goes on. It isn’t news. Generally speaking, the same standard should apply to public figures.

Otherwise, we are on a slippery slope into tabloid journalism, in which good reputations get damaged for the wrong reasons and media become obsessed with sensationalism over substance.

My colleagues and I at The Sunday Express dealt with a roughly similar situation, while covering the federal election of 1988. The Sunday Express was widely viewed as a muck-raking investigative newspaper (we wore the badge proudly). But when news reached us that one of the election candidates was gay, we took a time out and discussed the issue.

The Sunday Express was not a democracy – Michael Harris always made the final call on stories – but he encouraged lively debate and listened to all arguments before making a decision. On this occasion, cases were made for and against running the piece, though most of us were against it. Then Michael decreed that we would not do the story. There was no law against homosexuality at the time. Furthermore, the candidate was a brilliant person with great ideas and experience, so why should we care if that person is gay?

I listened in shock a few days later when CBC reporter Maudie Whelan put a microphone in the candidate’s face and asked, “Is it true you are gay?” The candidate replied that the question was not relevant to the campaign, but the reporter persisted, demanding confirmation or denial. The question was not dignified with an answer, but I felt sorry for the candidate.

We’ve come a long way since then. We now have federal politicians, such as Scott Brison, who are popular with their electorate despite being openly gay. In the United States, the American public and news media ridiculed Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, but seemed to learn from it as well, gradually coming to the realization that Clinton was a brilliant man despite his sexual peccadillos.

It would seem that a similar sense of maturity is evolving among the media in this province as well.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

A cute little ditty from Al Clouston

Back in the 1980's, while working with The Newfoundland Herald, I wrote an in-depth profile of Al Clouston, who died in 2004. In fact, I played a role in taking Al in a new career direction around that time. Al had a couple of books and albums on the market and was doing some gigs as an after-dinner entertainer. I was looking for a new humour columnist and suggested the idea to Al.

He was quite hesitant and refused, in fact. "I couldn't do a column every week," he said. "There's no way."

So I suggested that he take material from his book, re-write it into a column format, then give it to me for further editing. He agreed, rather reluctantly, but it worked exceptionally well. Al quickly developed a wider fan base, and soon came into his own as a writer, providing fresh columns written from scratch. It was inspiring watching this man, who was in his seventies at the time, take his career in a fun new direction.

During that interview for the Herald profile, Al told me a great little story that originated through his previous career experience selling insurance. He insisted it was true.

I do not know the date, but it happened when wire messages were the standard mode of communication.

On this day, a message was received at an insurance office in downtown St. John's. It was from a merchant around the bay, and it said:

"Urgent. Fish plant is on fire. Need insurance immediately. Stop."

The insurance people scratched their heads, then prepared to reply with the unfortunate news that insurance didn't work that way. But before they had an opportunity to send it, another wire message arrived:

"Further to previous. Fire is now out. Please cancel insurance. Stop."

Friday, April 6, 2007

Nelson Hart confession tape to air on CBC TV

On March 25, I told you why TV viewers didn’t get to see the crucial confession tape at the Nelson Hart trial. There’s been a major development in that story, and the videotape is being released exclusively to CBC Here & Now. It will air Tuesday, April 10.

“We had to go to court to get it,” said CBC national reporter Peter Gullage, who did a superb job in covering this story. “There was a point where we thought it was going to be released, and then it wasn’t going to be released… so we had to appear before the judge in Gander on Monday, and then it took all week to get it. The RCMP had to digitize the undercover officers and alter their voices before it could be released.”

The agreement to release the tape was negotiated between the CBC lawyer and the judge, so Here & Now has the exclusive.

There are more than two hours of tape relevant to the confession – the incriminating scene on the wharf at Gander Lake is 15 minutes alone – so TV viewers will not see all of it. They will, however, see the most relevant and damning clips. Gullage says the tape is “quite something” to watch.

“People will find it creepy,” he said. “I mean, you watch movies and TV shows and they are catching bad guys all the time. And that’s entertainment. But this is the real stuff.”

Gullage is not certain, however, if it will influence public opinion about Hart’s guilt.

“Some people have decided (that Hart is guilty) and it will confirm everything they believe. Everybody else who is on the fence about the case, people on the other side, who believe his defence – that it was a false confession – will they be swayed by it? I don’t know… What he says and the way he says it is so convincing that it might change some people’s minds.”

Gullage also conducted a lengthy interview with Hart last week, at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, in which Hart continued to profess his innocence. “What I find amazing about the whole thing is the guy doesn’t feel he was responsible for any of it. He doesn’t see it as his responsibility. When he said that to me, I could not believe it.”

I expect there will be a lot of viewers tuning in next Tuesday. If you are one of the many visitors to this blog from outside the province, you can watch that (or any) edition of Here & Now soon after it airs by going to the CBC web site and clicking on Latest Newscast. It will remain online until it is replaced by the next day’s newscast, 24 hours later.

I was going to post a photo of Nelson Hart to accompany this item, but decided to use an image of young Karen and Krista instead. They, more than their father, deserve to be remembered as the central characters in this terrible story.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A failing grade for math program changes

As a parent of two children in the school system, I listened with great interest yesterday to Education Minister Joan Burke's plan to improve the provincial math curriculum. The province is going to spend $11 million in a pointless attempt to fix the curriculum, rather than scrap it altogether. This is a major mistake, and I can say this based on personal experience with my own children, and from talking to teachers and parents at school. The program puts too much emphasis on problem solving while giving short shrift to learning basic fundamentals.

Education Minister Joan Burke (above, CBC photo) admits there are problems and flaws with the curriculum, but says it can be fixed by hiring 25 specialists to help teachers better understand it.

In this CBC story, university professor Sherry Mantyka - who has closely studied math performance - said the government is making the wrong decision.

"This curriculum, in its design, is fundamentally flawed," she told CBC News. "There's no amount of teacher professional development that's going to correct that."

As one who has pulled his hair out, trying to help his child figure out complex problems before that child has even learned his mathematical tables (as one example), I agree wholeheartedly with Mantyka. Even teachers have quietly confided, over the last several years, that the curriculum is fatally flawed.

Burke, of course, has a phalanx of education experts advising her that the parents are wrong, the teachers aren't properly trained and the solution is to dig the hole deeper. It makes you wonder who is actually running the department...

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Greg Locke follows human tide to Alberta

Talented and renowned photo-journalist Greg Locke is leaving the province, according to an email he sent out this morning. Locke has accepted a job offer in Alberta, and will start a personal documentary project about the people and events he encounters on his journey. Here's the text of Greg's note:

"The economy, employment and business environment in Newfoundland is so bad that it is foolish to try and carry on a business here... but you all knew that.

"With the end of offshore exploration and Hebron not proceeding many of my major clients have left town and there is simply not enough local work to make a living. So, I'll be joining them and the rest of the economic refugees from Newfoundland and heading west.

"I've been offered a job in Alberta and always being one to exploit any opportunity to the last drop I have piggybacked a personal documentary project on this adventure. One that started last year in Fort McMurray.

"The blog portion of my website will cease to be News from Newfoundland and will become an ongoing documentary carrying the stories and pictures of the expat Newfoundlanders I meet along the way as I cross Canada and travel the west with my new job.

"See you on the road.

"Greg Locke

"...somewhere along the TCH West."

You can read a more thorough farewell from Greg by clicking here.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Recognizing quality journalism

Did anyone hear CBC Radio Noon today? Much of it was themed around the Zachary Turner murder case, opening with a riveting interview with Elliot Leyton, who was on the committee appointed by the Child and Youth Advocate to investigate how the murder of little Zachary was permitted to happen. Leyton laid it on the line and was not shy about apportioning blame. That was followed by the Crosstalk call-in show, with David Bagby as special guest. Bagby spoke about his new book, "Dance With the Devil" (the devil being Dr. Shirley Turner). You can truly hear Bagby's anger when he talks about this case - anger that simmers close to the surface even now. It was difficut to listen to this program without having your emotions yanked from anger to grief to compassion to outright shock... such as when Bagby said that his only regret is not killing Shirley Turner while he had the chance. You don't hear radio like this every day, and I congratulate Anne Budgell and the crew on putting together such an unforgettable show. (You can hear it by going to the CBC Radio Noon archive.)

While on the the tragic story of Zachary Turner, congratulations are also in order for Chris O'Neill Yates of CBC Here & Now, who is nominated for an Atlantic Journalism Award for her continuing coverage of the Turner case. Chris's coverage of this story was indeed probing and relentless (in a good kind of way) and I congratulate her on the nomination. Incidentally, Chris is also nominated for an award in the Enterprise category for her stories on the Dr. Chandra case.

There are numerous other nominations for local journalists, including Dennis Mulloy, VOCM (spot news); CBC Radio newsroom (spot news); Glenn Payette, Here & Now (spot news); Pam Pardy-Ghent, The Independent (feature writing); Susan Rendell, The Independent (feature writing); Chris Brookes and the rest of Battery Radio (feature writing, radio); David Cochrane, Here & Now (feature writing, television); Rob Antle, Saltscapes (profile writing); Deanne Fleet, Here & Now (sports reporting); Angela Antle, CBC Radio (arts reporting); and Ryan Cleary, The Independent (commentary).

Congratulations to all, and good luck at the awards ceremony, which takes place May 12 in Halifax. To read the full release, click here.

Ken Meeker and his adventures at the front

I was but a youngster when the anti-seal hunt movement got its start, but my Dad, Ken Meeker, was in full career flight and covering the story as a reporter with CBC Here & Now. He is and will always be Dad, but for now I will call him Ken. Knowing that he is always good for a story – and having already heard some good ones over the supper table – I interviewed Ken about the seal hunt.

He went to the front twice, in 1977 and ’78, when St. Anthony was alive with crowds of protesters, fishermen, DFO types, police, media and a few movie stars as well. He was there when Brigit Bardot showed up, propelling the seal hunt to international headlines, but didn’t see a lot of the French bombshell.

“I saw her when she arrived in St. Anthony, but never got too close to her. They snuck her up to the ice on their own helicopters and had her picture taken with a seal, then brought her back to Blanc Sablon on the Quebec side. The camera crew went over there to cover her news conference but I didn’t bother going – I was busy trying to get my film out of there and back to St. John’s.”

Ken had a closer encounter with actress Pamela Sue Martin, star of the Nancy Drew Mysteries and another famous protester to visit the front. He interviewed the starlet one particularly cold day.

“We were interviewing Pamela Sue down by the waterfront and it was a bright clear day but very cold. I was shooting my own movies of her, and got my footage of sound man Kevin Hanlon blushing as he reached up underneath her sweater to put the microphone on! I always carried these two little airline bottles of rum in my parka pocket. It got me out of jams and came in useful many times. Pamela Sue was obviously very cold so, after the interview was over, I pulled out the little bottle and asked if she would like a drink. She said ‘Oh yes, would I!’ and I got a shot of her sipping down the little airline bottle of rum. She drank it straight.”

These days, such footage would have been a big part of the story. But tabloid TV didn’t exist back then, and Ken was too courteous to use the footage on the air.

But Ken’s most interesting celebrity encounter happened that same year, with two American congressmen – Leo Ryan and James Jeffords – who were in St. Anthony to observe the hunt.

“They arrived in the late afternoon,” Ken said. “I had sent the camera man out to get their arrival on film, and when he came back he said they were beat out. They had been on four different flights just to get there from where they started. When they got to the motel, whatever room they had booked wasn’t ready and I just happened to be walking through the lobby, so I said ‘Hey guys, my room is right there and I’m going down to get supper now, so go in and get yourselves settled down, get sorted out and there’s a bottle of Bacardi on the table, and when your room is ready, fine.’ They said thanks very much and went in. They were still there when I got back after supper. Their room still wasn’t ready for them because the place was really blocked off. So I went in and spent some time talking with them, and they knocked off three quarters of the bottle of Bacardi. Jackie Spiers was there, his Executive Assistant, and she promised to replace the bottle – but they never did.”

Just a few months later, congressman Leo Ryan was in Jonestown, Guyana to investigate Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple religious cult. Ryan’s visit was likely the spark that caused Jones to explode and order the mass suicide and murder of 913 people. Leo Ryan was shot and killed while trying to board his airplane. Jackie Spiers was also shot, but survived by ‘playing dead’.

The protesters were well known for their propaganda, Ken said, but the folks at Fisheries and Oceans were also capable of stretching the truth a little.

“The DFO people told us that as soon as you approach these seals, the mothers would abandon their pups and go down through a hole in the ice. They let us go out on the ice a day before the hunt opened, and I had my camera with me. There was a little seal pup and we were shooting film of this great big mother harp seal. But on the way out there in the helicopter, it was so damn cold and my hands so numb that I dropped the camera on the floor and screwed up my vewfinder. So I could just see shapes but no detail. I was down on my knees shooting this mother harp seal and all of a sudden the guys started yelling ‘Meeker look out’ and here she was coming straight at me. And I got it on film, for a few seconds, before I got the hell out of there. She was huge and she was coming after me. Discretion was the better part of being a good cameraman, believe me!”

One of the most memorable encounters between sealers and protesters happened at the Loon Motel, where protest leader Brian Davies was stationed with a small squadron of helicopters.

“On this day, about 50 or 60 fishermen tried to block Brian Davies from getting to his helicopters. In fact, a couple of them threw snowballs at Davies on the way out. The Mounties were there, and so were two of the American networks, as well as the French, German and other networks. Two Mounties would grab one fishermen and carry him off. The Mounties were mostly from local detachments and knew each other, so when they carried them away they were talking to each other in a friendly way. And the Americans were shaking their heads. Later on, the Americans were telling me that they were waiting for the blood to be spilled. In the States, they said, the truncheons would have been out.”

This blog gives me a great excuse to call my dad at random and get him reminiscing about major stories he has covered, and the people he has interviewed. Stay tuned for more. And if you’d like to watch some fascinating footage from that same Pamela Sue Martin and Leo Ryan trip, visit the CBC archive.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Scott Feschuk on Williams' equalization battle

God, I love this. Have you seen Macleans columnist Scott Feschuk’s take (in his blog) on Premier Williams and the equalization controversy? It is so funny. Even diehard Williams supporters are going to laugh out loud. Heck, Danny himself will grin at this. Get into an April 1st frame of mind and go check it out. But be warned that Feschuk is a humourist first, and everything else second. It also helps if you appreciate the truly wacky stuff like Monty Python, Codco and Stephen Harper’s pyjamas. Before following the link, read this generic sample to see if you can tolerate Feschuk’s brand of inspired lunacy:

‘Burger King, the world’s second-largest hamburger chain, says it will begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that do not confine their animals in cages and crates. Animal-welfare advocates are describing it as an “historic advance” and “important trigger for reform,” while animals are describing it as “oink” and “cluck”.’