After It Happened
Elizabeth Gray's fight to prove the CBC was wrong
Broadcaster Elizabeth Gray is in the midst of a controlled panic. With three days to deadline she’s taken on a piece for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning that will analyze the decline of the National Energy Program-no small feat for the most seasoned of the current affairs show’s field producers. But Gray characteristically has taken on perhaps the most demanding task she could have come up with. She has no time to answer questions from a visiting reporter. In fact, she’s apprehensive about having the reporter trail her around the office at all. A 13-week contract has made her one of the newest additions to the program, and she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself. But she does want to cooperate. So we arrange for another time to talk. “I hadn’t realizedSunday Morning is actually produced in the same rooms that you worked in as host of As It Happens,” I venture, gathering my coat to leave. “What’s it like?”
“It’s weird,” comes the reply. Pulling her chair closer and lowering that famous throaty voice, Gray tells a story that underlines the ironies of her situation. She points out the staff mailboxes where a thoughtful new clerk has appointed her a new slot. “She was very well meaning, but she put me right under Dennis Trudeau,” Gray says. “I had to laugh.” Trudeau, another long-time CBC employee, began hosting As It Happens in September, 1985, three and a half months after Gray was dumped from the position.
Gray, 48, became host of As It Happens four years ago after 19 years of radio journalism experience, including previous guest host spots on As It Happens. Her resume reads like a current affairs program guide. In the early ’70s she hosted the first 4-to-6 p.m. talk show in Canada, a CBC Ottawa production calledNow…Just Listen! Besides As It Happens and Sunday Morning, she’s written for, reported, hosted or commented on Morningside, The House, Cross-Country Check-Up, This Country in the Morning, and in 1976 the weekly program Politically Speaking. She won an ACTRA award in 1976 for her hour-long documentaryThe Supreme Court of Canada and another in 1984 for “excellence in broadcast journalism, radio and television” for her work on As It Happens. Gray’s credentials outside of radio also shine, including magazine and newspaper writing and guest host spots on television.
There was a general cry of disbelief and anger when Gray was let go last summer. Allan Fotheringham, in his weekly column for Maclean’s, called it, “quite about the most stupid decision in years in an organization that has quite a record in stupidities…. Her abrupt dismissal after four distinguished and hardworking years on the job makes you wonder if the CBC budget cuts did not also include a few cuts in the intelligence of those responsible for the decision.” Richard Gwyn, a friend of Gray’s, commented in his column in The Toronto Star, “Gray’s fault, so one bureaucrat has allowed, was that she wasn’t ‘showbiz’ enough. This is to say she preferred to be excellent rather than to be a celebrity, a questioner of others rather than a projector of herself.”
Gwyn added that there is a problem at large concerning the future of CBC radio: “Certainly CBC Radio was overdue for polishing; As It Happens certainly needed brightening. Instead, the best are being thrown away.” And Sid Adilman, also for the Star, said, “It’s not because Gray lacks talent, but because she’s a scapegoat for problems with the show, which now has imitators around the world but still remains the best of them.” A faithful listener, Stan C. Roberts of Burnaby, B.C. was one of about 30 who wrote letters to The Globe and Mail. “She was just doing too well,” Roberts wrote. “Her interviews are too penetrating. She’s making the mistake of asking the tough questions. Worse, she refuses to accept wishy-washy or evasive answers. Or, perhaps the toes she occasionally steps on are located under a particularly influential desk in Ottawa.”
The CBC received about 200 letters in Toronto. Twenty-three senior parliamentary reporters in Ottawa petitioned against the change in hosts as did more than 100 CBC hosts and producers. They feared radio was losing a first-rate journalist. Many on the CBC petition had left radio themselves against their will and they wanted to stop the exodus. “It is difficult enough for those of us who love and are loyal to CBC to withstand the body blows dealt from the outside in the form of budget cuts and criticism; it is unbearable when those body blows come from within,” stated the letter dated June 10 and addressed to Pierre Juneau, president of CBC.
While the CBC petitioners accepted that it is management’s right to change on-air talent as it sees fit, they objected to the method by which the change was made. There was never any discussion with Gray about her shortcomings as a high-profile host, no evaluation, no constructive criticism, no opportunity for improvement. They couldn’t understand why Gray was not offered an “equally challenging alternative so that the corporation could continue to benefit from her abilities.” The letter concluded, “We give loyalty and we expect loyalty in return. We cannot remain silent while a colleague like Elizabeth Gray is so capriciously and wrongfully dismissed.” The letter was meant to provoke an honest probe into poor management/staff relations. Instead it provoked a rebuff from Margaret Lyons, vice-president of English radio networks, and little was accomplished. So Gray’s colleagues supported her in other ways, offering her work when they could. She co-hosted CBC-TV’s Midday for one week in August and did a series of commentaries for CBC Radio’s Saturday morning parliamentary review, The House, in September.
“Our regular commentator, Brian Kelleher, has been temporarily assigned to host As It Happens,” the introduction to The House began on Sept. 7. “So during his absence, we’ve invited broadcaster Elizabeth Gray to assess the government’s first year.” In the commentary that followed, Gray referred to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as a slippery character who slides under doors and compared his voice to that of an obscene phone caller-“that perfectly modulated voice that manages to sound like an anonymous, unwelcome phone call in the middle of the night.”
“That’s fairly gutsy commentary,” says Susan Murray, then acting producer of the program. “Some CBC producers would not allow that on air because it steps over the line of what the public sensibility will accept. Because we’re publicly funded, we don’t want to upset that sensibility.” Murray adds that The House generally gets very little feedback from its listeners, “but as soon as we put Elizabeth Gray on the air we did” and it was not all favorable. She had indeed stepped over the line for some listeners.
The man who told Gray her annual contract at As It Happens would not be renewed was Andrew Simon, head of CBC Radio current affairs. “It had nothing to do with her journalistic abilities,” Simon stressed in a telephone interview. He said that after much thought and discussion, management decided Gray was not attracting a wide enough audience, and that her tone and range of interests were too narrow. “One reason, but on a very secondary level, was the issue that in four years she should have accomplished a wider public profile,” he added. Months earlier he had banteringly told Gray over dinner that she should accept the fact that she was supposed to be a “star.” Barbara Frum’s personality had defined the initial tone of As It Happensand Simon wanted that star quality back. Simon underlined that Gray had not been blacklisted. “We just didn’t want her as host of that program.”
Simon wanted more listeners and As It Happens‘ audience share seemed to be dropping. Since the BBM Bureau of Measurement changed its method of compiling statistics between spring 1981 and spring 1982, it’s impossible to accurately assess As It Happens‘ audience over the span of Gray’s four years as host. But the number of people who tuned in at any time during a week in spring 1982 was 632,000 compared with 555,400 in 1985, just before Gray left the show. However this drop must be viewed in connection with the reduction in 1983 of the show’s length to one hour from 1½.
As It Happens‘ share of the English-speaking audience in CBC areas was nine per cent between fall 1984 and spring 1985 when Gray was host. It rose to 10 per cent in fall 1985 after she left. However, bothMorningside and Sunday Morning experienced similar one-percentage-point increases in audience share between spring and fall 1985. Morningside went to nine per cent from eight, while Sunday Morning rose to 13 per cent from 12. Increases for all three programs make it unreasonable to conclude that specific changes within one program drew more listeners.
Nevertheless, Doug Caldwell, As It Happens‘ executive producer, maintains that Gray was wrong for the job. He says there had been too heavy an emphasis on “political institutions and political process” during Gray’s time and he hopes to restore to the program an “entertainment value” that existed under Frum. Caldwell says new host Dennis Trudeau has the “lively, curious, informal approach to interviews” that’s needed. Caldwell recognized that changing the host was not enough to improve the show, but, “in order to do a complete re-examination, a new host was necessary.”
Gray agrees that the zing had gone out of As It Happens during her final year. But she feels it was because the show, whose strength lies in getting right to the heart of current events, was badly produced. The executive producer must be able to read the news, understand if it’s important, and then decide whether As It Happens should handle it and if so how. “More and more in that final year, we were missing things,” Gray says, citing an international hijacking and an Ontario mining accident as two examples of stories that were not covered as they unfolded. Gray’s vision of the program was to play up its immediacy and ability to go straight to the principal characters involved, capitalizing on direct phone lines and a team of first-rate researchers. Being in the middle of breaking news stories resulted in fascinating listening. On one occasion, for example, Gray tried to phone someone in Beirut and instead reached a 21-year-old woman. “You never know if you’re going to be alive tomorrow,” the woman told Gray as Israeli bombs exploded around her. Her words turned out to be prophetic; the As It Happens crew found out later that she had been killed the next day, and Gray wrote a poignant epitaph. On another show, Gray spoke directly to New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange during the controversy surrounding his decision to keep nuclear-equipped warships out of his country’s ports.
“You want to know why she was really fired?” asks a former As It Happens producer now at The Journal. “She wanted to take the show to new heights and the executive producers couldn’t meet her challenge.”
Gray worked with three executive producers during her time as host. The first was Bob Campbell. He left the show in 1983 after many years and Ian Wiseman replaced him. Wiseman had taken leave from a teaching position at King’s College School of Journalism, and was hired in part to incorporate a documentary style intoAs It Happens. He was fired several months later. Wiseman now says that he may have unwittingly added to management/ staff tensions by coming in from outside the corporation and trying to alter an established program. “CBC management know they want changes in the show but they have no idea what changes they want or how to impose them,” Wiseman said retrospectively in a telephone interview from Halifax, adding that a typical change means some experimental elements are thrown together and if they don’t work, they are dumped.
Wiseman believes Gray should have been made executive producer. “She had a vision of what the show should be, the strength of character to carry it through and the support of the producers.” Even though Gray had never been interested in Caldwell’s position, there was antagonism between the two because they had separate visions of what the show should be. Gray was convinced that As It Happens should be more reflexive and immediate, contrary to Wiseman’s documentary ideas.
Caldwell also found Gray difficult to produce. However, he never gave her any formal evaluation or feedback. He had difficulties, as well, in holding on to a senior producer. The program went for seven months in 1985 with no one in this vital right-hand role until Ian Porter, a current affairs producer from CBC-Halifax, joined the show last November.
“It’s a fact that Elizabeth is difficult to produce,” says The House‘s Susan Murray. Gray is “talented and opinionated and she drives herself and those around her,” Murray says, adding that she’s also a lot of fun. “She’s the type of person who fills a room with her energy.” She’s also the type of journalist who will “fight for every word.”
Gray, meanwhile, admits that she didn’t want to leave As It Happens. “I will not be on As It Happens after today and I’m very sad about that,” she announced to her listeners last June 14. “I have had, for the past four years, the best job anyone could ever possibly have and I cannot think of any other time in my life when I have learned so much-every day-when I’ve been more excited by what I have learned and felt as privileged because I was in a position to pass it on.”
“Maybe at heart I’m a bit of a firechaser,” she admits today. “I don’t know how I’ll look back on it. I don’t know what it’s done for me in the long run. I mean, I’m getting all sorts of bloody speaking engagements that I never got before.” She spoke on “Journalism in South Africa” at the 1985 Lethbridge Herald Lecture series last November. “The hardest part of the whole thing was not the summer, because I was going to take the summer off anyway. It was getting back in the fall and realizing that I was suddenly totally peripheral. It was as if I just didn’t belong anywhere.”
Radio was not something Gray had originally aimed for, or been brought up to consider. Her father worked in insurance; her mother sometimes wrote short stories. Gray too was going to be a writer (“That was the plan”) and after growing up in Toronto and graduating from Havergal College with top grades, she studied for a B.A. in English language and literature at the University of Toronto. It was there, working for the Varsitynewspaper with John Gray, her husband-to-be, under the “wonderful” editorial guidance of Peter Gzowski, that her interest in journalism grew.
She did her first radio story while she and John were living in England, where they had moved after working for Toronto newspapers for a year-she at the old Toronto Telegram and he at The Toronto Star. She did a series of stories for a CBC show called Countdown, and continued to freelance until her children were teenagers. Then she went after the As It Happens position.
Probably more than anything else, strong family support has helped her weather the events of the past months and given her the courage to walk back into the CBC. Gray shares a sprawling three-storey house with her husband, now foreign editor at The Globe and Mail. Their three children are 18, 20 and 24. Last summer was hard on them, she says, and on her dad, 82, who just can’t understand why his only child was sacked from a job in which she had excelled. Losing the job, she says, was much harder on her family than the years she spent commuting from Ottawa when she first accepted the As It Happens position in Toronto. The family moved to Toronto last year.
When she’s not working, Gray is often reading. Relaxing over coffee in her kitchen, she says that she is currently very interested in South Africa-she recently reported for Sunday Morning on South Africa’s ambassador to Canada, Glen Babb. Though it’s 6:30 p.m., the radio is not tuned in to As It Happens. Instead we listen to a tape by Tony Bird, a South African musician. Gray finds time for such special interests despite a heavy weekly ration of newspapers and magazines; a favorite is The New Yorker‘s “Talk of the Town” column. The high calibre of it “makes you feel how inadequate you are as a journalist,” she says.
There is nothing inadequate about Gray’s work in the Sunday Morning studios as the show nears its weekend deadline. To say the pace is picking up is an understatement. Gray is trying to clear up the technical details needed to record an interview with leftist author James Laxer for the National Energy Program story. He’s waiting to talk from a pay phone in a Texas restaurant. And between coordinating soundmen, technicians and Laxer’s public relations people, she’s madly trying to collect a coherent set of questions for an interview she hadn’t expected to get for another three hours. “I hate to go in unprepared,” she says later. She rushes down the sleek grey corridors to the studio where one of Sunday Morning‘s hosts, Barbara Smith, interrupts her own work to free up the equipment. Headphones clamped on, nervously rolling a pen in one hand and chewing on a finger, Gray launches in. Her questions are well-framed and to the point. She sounds totally collected. You can tell she’s got something good when she starts nodding along with his answer. You’d never know that she was mapping things out as she went.
“I hired her because she’s a good journalist,” says Norm Bolen, executive producer of Sunday Morning, who renewed Gray’s 13-week contract in early January. But whether or not she’ll still have a job at the end of this second stint depends on other things, such as budgets and shuffles. “If I have budget problems she would be the most vulnerable,” Bolen states frankly. Gray knows this. And she accepts it. But she’s not giving up. “I love the CBC,” she says. “I have major differences with a few people there, but I figure the radio service is bigger than all of them. To their credit they’re not stopping me.”
She doesn’t blame the institution. Gray believes in public broadcasting. “I think they made a mistake,” she says of CBC management’s decision to drop her from As It Happens. “And I’m not really prepared to let them get away with it, that’s all. So I will haunt the place and see what happens.”