Megan Griffith-Greene
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Master and Commander

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He's obsessive, feared, optimistic and controversial-and he's got a bold plan to radically transform news at the CBC. Tony Burman's journey to the far side of the media world

Tony Burman can’t sit still. He shifts and fidgets, changes position, taps his foot, leans back in his chair, never losing balance. He gestures wildly as he talks, touching his hair, then his face, snapping his fingers to emphasize epiphanies. He doesn’t seem bored or distracted. Instead the movements seem like a physical manifestation of the wheels turning, as though talk and action are irrepressibly fused.

That motion happens against a suitable backdrop: Burman’s office is framed by a bank of monitors, mutely broadcasting American news underneath a thick stack of newspapers. A rack displays a smattering of magazines: Maclean’s, Newsweek, Time. His office is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for the news junkie.

The title news junkie doesn’t quite cover it. Burman is, according to his business card, “Editor-in-Chief, CBC News and Current Affairs, CBC Radio and Television and Executive Director, CBC TV News, Current Affairs and Newsworld.” He has a chief of staff, a team he calls “the cabinet,” and unprecedented editorial power.

He needs it. Burman’s job, all 22 words of it, just might be the toughest in Canadian journalism. In addition to answering for all information programming that goes to air, he is at the helm of a massive, multi-stage integration at the CBC. He is streamlining radio news, television news and current affairs along with into a sleek, singular body. Editorial integration may revitalize the CBC, or it may become the biggest disaster in public broadcasting history. It’s been tried before and it failed. But Burman – controversial, feared, respected, driven – may, very possibly, pull it off.

o o o

Burman is an elusive figure. He is always busy, out of town, in a hurry. He does things on his schedule and doesn’t waste time. Few people say they know him well. And there is a certain carefulness that descends around the subject of Tony Burman. People measure their responses, conscious of his power.

It’s a power that appears, at times, mythic. People say he never sleeps. (The suggestion amuses him.) “He sees everything we do and he seems to be able to either watch everything on tape or live,” says senior executive producer of CBC News and Newsworld Mark Bulgutch. “He watches everything on Newsworld and he watches every news and current affairs program on the main channel, and he hears everything on CBC radio. Nothing seems to get by him.”

Journalists, producers, vice presidents and anchors all report e-mails from him at bizarre times. Foreign correspondents notice him online at all hours. His feedback is direct, transmitted in e-mails that generally run under one of two subject lines: “Great show” or “About last night.” The latter zing with criticism, often including the phrase:”My dog wouldn’t even watch that.”

His temper is reportedly fierce, though not long-lasting – the product of passion, not grudge. He is affable and engaging in person, funny, but not without a certain intensity. A prolific memo writer, he carves out mission statements in long eloquent prose. “Onward…” they often end. He’s described variously as a workaholic, obsessive, and on occasion as someone who should get a life. Asked what other occupation he might have wished to try, he is without an answer.

Which befits a life that has centred on journalism for four decades. Over the years, he has had nearly every job title available: assignment editor, lineup editor, senior writer, senior producer, executive producer. He was European bureau producer in the early half of the 1980s, senior documentary producer for the later part. Chief news editor for a stint, then executive producer again in the 1990s. Head of Newsworld. Executive director. Elections, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Soviet Union, Mandela, Oka -Burman was there in the background, busy working.

Rewind to fall 1984, to northern Ethiopia. Burman’s team is the first North American news crew in the dust-covered famine camps, hitching rides on relief planes, sleeping when they can in dirt-floored rooms. Aid groups estimate seven million people will die that winter in the civil war-scarred north.

In the cold November dawn, Burman’s team shoots the first report. Brian Stewart’s elegant copy. distills months of research and three weeks on the ground. But to get the story out, they have to get the tape to Nairobi, Kenya, the nearest satellite link, 1,800 kilometres away. They edit through the morning, until almost departure time, arriving at the airport just before the flight. Burman knows that Ethiopia’s Marxist regime has been confiscating and erasing journalists’ tapes, suppressing reports of the famine. So when he sees airport authorities rifling through journalists’ bags, he ducks into the bathroom, takes the four videotapes from his luggage, and tapes them to his back.

The tapes concealed beneath Burman’s baggy sweatshirt made the famine an international cause and made then Canadian ambassador Stephen Lewis get up the next day in front of the United Nations and say he’d never been so shaken. And it was a report brought to the world because of risks Burman took.

The tape episode is a dramatic, though not uncharacteristic, example of Burman’s dedication to news. His resumé speaks to the progressive successes you’d expect from someone who has risen steadily in Canadian journalism over roughly 40 years, and if it were a novel, his story would lack the requisite tension of possible failure. Growing up with a journalist father (George Burman, a news editor for the Montreal Star), he demonstrated the itch early, writing for his high school newspaper and then progressing to Loyola College. Like others whose names have endured – Brian Stewart, Don Murray, Neil Macdonald – Burman worked as a young reporter in Montreal. At the intersection of the 1960s and 1970s they witnessed the drama of the FLQ crisis, the rising tenor of the separatist movement, the debate over a nation’s future. The city was charged with stories, enjoying international attention after the success of Expo 67, and at the centre of issues that continue to resonate, even now.
It was a prodigious place to start. “To be a young reporter in Montreal then was the greatest time to be a young reporter anywhere on earth, except maybe in Paris in the ’20s or New York in the ’40s,” recalls Stewart now. “It was spectacular, and we all knew it.”

In 1972, Burman joined the CBC and, except for those first years as education reporter for the Montreal Star, has worked there his entire professional career. In those early days, when Burman joined the CBC, money was never an issue. Ideas came first, and the money always somehow followed. News, current affairs, radio and television occupied distinct realms. Each had different shows, different staffs and different formats – different cultures of news telling.

Dividing the territory were fault lines that stretch far back into CBC history, rivalries that ranged from friendly competition to nasty backroom battles. In 1965 the news department locked the staff of the current affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days out of the news library, citing distaste for its approach to investigative, satirical journalism. The staff broke in anyway. In the 1980s, tension between The National and The Journal was, at points, palpable. “The Journal. Keep out,” read the sign on the studio door. “The National. Welcome,” was the snide reply.
Burman worked on both sides of that divide before being put in charge of knocking the walls down. And the deconstruction didn’t start with his current job title. He led the redesign that merged The National and The Journal in 1982. These early steps toward the integration of news and current affairs were performed under extensive scrutiny, largely internal: when Burman and his staff moved into The Journal offices, they were quietly known as “the occupying forces.”

After that successful – though not entirely bloodless – coup, Burman continued moving steadily upward. He took over London as European bureau chief in 1982, covering stories in 30 countries – Lebanon, Ethiopia, the Soviet Block – then returned as a senior documentary producer for The Journal in the late 1980s. The program was at its height, a time still celebrated with pride and emotion by those who worked there. “That was a fabulous decade. To be part of that team was just a gift,” says former Journal senior producer Beth Haddon. “I remember somebody said, ‘The Journal is not a program, it’s a cause,’ and that summed it up.” While there, Burman produced some ambitious and important work, notably the first North American documentary about Nelson Mandela, who still sat in Robben Island prison, with no hope of release.

In 1990, Burman became chief news editor, and while certainly still firmly embedded in journalism, he was increasingly called in to take decisive, managerial action. In 1992, Prime Time News a 9:00 p.m. version of The National, emerged as both a critical and ratings disaster. Once again, Burman was called in, to save the CBC from itself.

The new National that Burman launched was a more closely integrated model, combining news and current affairs in a single hour. Burman remained The National’s executive producer for the next five years. And while he hasn’t always been popular internally, he’s avoided major controversy and public dishonour. “Eventually, senior managers at the CBC either tend to fall on their own swords or have their heads lopped off by somebody,” says senior correspondent Neil Macdonald. “A number of managers have either been removed, or have just left because it’s a pretty thankless job. But Burman has endured.”

He has done more than simply endure. Since 2000, Burman has been editor-in-chief of an ever-widening array of news services. He has been aggressively pursuing integration, and if he doesn’t pull it off, he may finally fall on that sword he’s been sharpening for over 30 years

o o o

Parallels are the philosophical architecture of the CBC. French and English. Radio and television. Regional and national. Autonomous but equal. This Pythagorean purity underlies the CBC – ideals of harmony, balance, truth, unity – separate but connected. The chunky cube CBC building in Toronto, with its exhaustive motif of squares within squares, parallel lines that intersect in perfect balance, seems to transform that metaphor to a literal representation. But one characteristic of cubes is that they don’t roll easily. The size and scope of the CBC make it difficult to manoeuvre, change direction, and, if necessary, brake.

Editorial integration is an old idea that has moved in waves through public broadcasting around the world. With monstrous convergence in the private media and the ever-expanding channel universe, public broadcasters face the threat of renewal or redundancy. While an individual broadcaster with multiple newsrooms and programs could be seen as a school of fish – moving in the same direction but fundamentally individual – integration transforms it into an octopus, using all of its tentacles to grab news stories: a much more powerful beast. But integration has met varied success. At the BBC, which aggressively jumped headfirst into radio-television integration in 1996, programs were merged and bi-medial reportage (reporters filing for both radio and television) became the norm. But change came too quickly, with even high-ranking staff left out of the consultation loop (the acting managing director of BBC Radio learned about the changes via a press leak). Internal discontent and public irritation forced the BBC to retreat, with integration efforts now frozen. Meanwhile, South African and Australian public broadcasters have integrated structures and streamlined services to remain competitive and fit news in the digital age.

The CBC has been moving toward integration of news and current affairs since at least the late 1960s. Knowlton Nash pursued elements of the idea throughout his tenure as director of news and current affairs, but attempts to merge radio and television were rapidly dissolved. At the time – 1969 – radio was concerned it would suffocate in a television world.

There are reasons integration hasn’t been seriously revisited at the CBC until now. The dramatic budget cutbacks and subsequent layoffs in the early 1990s left not only a institution starved of personnel (including most of the younger journalists who lacked critical seniority when layoffs came), but also burdened by withered morale. In 1994, budgets dropped 40 per cent, board chair Patrick Watson left after having to defend stripped budgets, and president Tony Manera resigned in protest against what he saw as betrayal by the federal government.

Ten years, two presidents, a few cash infusions and dozens of policy initiatives later, the CBC is in a position of relative, and rare, managerial stability. The corporation is hiring a new generation of employees. And, says Burman, the combination of psychological recovery and youthful energy fuels the current integration push – as does the growth of private mega-media monoliths like CanWest Global and Bell GlobeMedia. Integration in the CBC context, Burman insists, is not about spending less. His vision is one of optimism, not fiscal persecution. “Ten or 20 years from now the strength of the CBC will have a lot to do with what we have been able to pull off now.”

In practical terms, Burman’s plan is for a single CBC force, communicating across those traditional divisions, using resources to do excellent journalism that resonates through every corner of the country. Trusted. Connected. Canadian. Structurally, this means merging idea meetings and assignment desks, sharing reports, breaking stories when and in whatever medium will garner the greatest impact.

Integration has inspired an entire vocabulary at the CBC. ‘Breaking down the silos’ is the choice code for shattering the barriers between radio, television and the Internet. They are no longer called services, but ‘platforms’. This will “maximize the impact of the CBC News Brand,” as one integration briefing document reads. Decisions are made by ‘working groups’ and presented at ‘news summits.’ Assignment desks and planning units will become more ‘bi-medial,’ journalistically ambidextrous, simultaneously collaborating radio and TV resources, or ‘tri-medial,’ extending to the CBC Web presence.

It won’t – and can’t – happen overnight. The CBC learned from the BBC’s failure, when radical changes alienated listeners and staff. More practically, the technology just isn’t ready yet. Philosophical divisions aside, radio and television use different editing systems, preventing material edited for one medium to be re-edited for another. Digitizing the CBC will take years to complete. Montreal has completed the process, and Quebec City, Edmonton, Halifax and Ottawa are next. Like any major technological shift, this doesn’t come without a degree of chaos. Why, one CBC insider marvelled, integration would be pushed before digitization is complete, is beyond logic.

Shift from virtual space to physical space. Another reason radio and television don’t talk more is not ideological distance, but geography. In Toronto, radio and television news and current affairs are only one floor apart, but in Ottawa and St. John’s the distance is measured in kilometres. Ottawa will move into its new, single building next year, and Edmonton’s new digs are state-of-the-art, but some of the walls that need shattering at the CBC are literally the big brick kind.

Thicker still are the cultural walls. Just as integration has its own vocabulary, so too does dissent. Some journalists fear their reports will be recycled on television and the Internet, used again on Newsworld, and cut up for re broadcast on radio. They complain the CBC has become a ‘sausage factory of news,’ ‘Feeding the goat,’ they call it. And while Burman argues such hesitancy is based in misunderstanding, the passionate guarding of programs’ character, content and autonomy remains very real.

Burman’s approach to conquering these fears is to move slowly and carry a big working committee. They are his modus operandi, designed to get the opinions and ideas of a range of employees based on their experience and concerns, and involving them in the process. There have been meetings, memos, working groups and job-swap programs, all designed to allay pernicious resistance.

Outside the corporate offices, though, integration is looked at with the skeptical eye notorious to journalists. “This is what’s in right now,” says senior television producer Arnold Amber, comparing integration to the corporate craze for open-concept offices. “As long as it gets written up by someone who went to Harvard, it becomes a theology.”

Call it evolutionary integration – coming in not with a bang, though certainly not without the occasional whimper. And while most integration efforts will seep in unannounced, an imaginary ad campaign might well read:
Editorial integration. What will it mean for the CBC?
A) Memos and meetings.
B) A revolt in radio.
C) Superior journalism on every platform in every corner of Canada.
Watch. Then decide.

o o o

It’s March 2003, a week before the bombing starts in Baghdad. Burman is in Iraq checking on reporters, planning exit routes and delivering funds. The Baghdad airport shut, he flies instead to Jordan and drives 10 hours into Iraq, with a bag full of American money.

It’s not where you’d imagine the top man in CBC news would be, smuggling cash across the Iraq border. “I was kind of looking as they went through the various parts of my bag,” Burman recalls, “wondering, what in God’s name am I going to say if they stumble upon $65,000 in hundred-dollar bills?”

When the first bombs fall, Burman is back in Toronto. The news machine has been planning the war coverage for months, and when it begins, everybody knows what to do. Months of planning become action, with experts, video feed and reporters all in place. The CBC – like any news organization – lives on this adrenaline high: elections, wars, disasters become a focal point, where vision comes to life. A spark animates the whole machine.

“He’s tense on those days. He’s waiting,” says National anchor Peter Mansbridge “He’s on edge, second guessing everything until he sees those ratings numbers 24-hours later. And when we win, he’s like a puppy dog, big smile, laughing, kidding everybody. In that 24 hour cycle, you see the real Tony Burman: the tension, the determination, the ambition and the dedication to being number one.”

Competitiveness carries a price. The CBC’s performance in Iraq, and elsewhere, has drawn considerable ire from its critics, particularly of the Asper persuasion. Owners of the CanWest Global universe – 16 television stations in Canada, 11 major metropolitan dailies, and a smattering of weeklies, plus media in four other countries – the Aspers have used the National Post to wage a bloodthirsty campaign against the CBC, known by some at the Post offices as ‘The Corpse’ (the same moniker Frank magazine employs). Last December, the Post delighted in the front-page headline, “In-house study calls CBC ‘stuffy, uptight,'” and included the sub-head, “Many viewers of The National are turned off by ‘endless pontificating experts.'”

But the Post’s editorial page is more often the aggressor. Its “CBC Watch” has, since last June, dedicated space to letters and editorials on CBC coverage. What is evident from the letters is that some people love to hate the CBC. But until the Post stepped up, they didn’t have a focused campaign with such prominent placement in a national daily. It’s a campaign that aims not just at specific journalistic quarrels, but at public broadcasting in theory and practice. The Aspers have clearly stated their displeasure that the CBC uses public money – roughly $1 billion annually – to compete with private broadcasters.

The CBC’s efforts to revitalize happen against this wider landscape and any failures will get smug front-page treatment. But beyond cheap shots, integration is the counter offensive against convergence by both the Aspers and the Bell GlobeMedia machine, an effort to prove that that the CBC is bigger, better and branded.

And Burman, who has managed, for the most part, to stay on the other side of the camera throughout his career, is now, more and more, in front of the lens. “Recent criticisms by Jonathan Kay and the National Post of CBC Radio fundamentally misrepresent the mandate of its programs, and cannot go unanswered,” his response on the letters page began. The letter only fueled the Post’s charges, and subsequent missives criticized and ridiculed him more in the following weeks than in the months before. “A tad defensive, aren’t we?” one letter asked. “Mr. Burman has clearly closed his mind,” another read.

That Burman has managed to maintain a relatively low public profile until now is surprising. “He should be someone who is, maybe not a household name, but pretty close by the nature of his position,” says David Studer, executive producer of the fifth estate. “The ‘Tony Burman’ of Great Britain is a famous public figure who is being talked about in the media all the time.”

The anticipated federal election will be a major test of Burman’s vision, if not of a fully integrated CBC, then of the first steps of the new CBC Frankenstein creation. How the villagers react will determine if the experiment is a success.

The unexpected part is this: Burman is actually winning many over, internally at least. The meetings and memos are beginning to puncture CBC cynicism and territoriality. And critics who questioned Burman’s vision in whispers and groans are beginning to believe that change will happen slowly, organically.

Throughout, Burman has stayed steady, unflinching in his defence of CBC reporters, policy and relevance, never bending. “He’s a creature of the CBC,” explains Macdonald, “and he’s very, very intense in his defence of CBC and his belief in public broadcasting, his belief in the principles of public broadcasting – more so than a lot of us.”

If you talk to proponents of the CBC, they are talking about much more than a broadcaster. They are talking about something personal, something almost religious. And Burman, the believer at the centre of it all, continues to preach, to argue, to shape. As editorial integration continues to take shape in the coming months and years, all we can do is this: Watch him. Then decide.

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