The Deadly Sins of Seven Days
Maybe, just maybe, CBC management had a point when it cancelled the provocative current affairs show
On the May 8, 1966 episode of This Hour Has Seven Days, Robert Fulford interviewed Marshall McLuhan, who spoke about the recent North American penchant for all things safety. “They want safety air, safety cigarettes, safety cars and safety programming,” the media guru said. But no one could accuse the three million-plus Canadians (about one in six of the total population at the time) watching the episode from their living rooms of wanting “safety programming.” Seven Days was the most radical news magazine CBC had ever produced, and one of the most popular television shows in Canadian history. Everyone watched it – taxi drivers, waitresses, garbage men and business and political leaders. If on a Monday in 1966 you hadn’t seen last night’s episode, says Fulford, you didn’t want to be seen in public that morning or, for that matter, the rest of the week. The show was a fixture in all the major dailies, and not just in the television columns – editorials and letters often cited the program, and interviews with figures like then-Opposition leader John Diefenbaker were newsworthy enough to appear near the front pages. Sometimes those pages told of the government’s frustrations with the program – it was a recurring subject at Monday morning parliamentary question periods in Ottawa.
Laurier LaPierre (left) and Patrick Watson on the set of This Hour Has Seven Days
The audience watching McLuhan on CBC at 10 P.M. that Sunday night was almost as large as the previous evening’s Hockey Night in Canada. Canadians tuned into the program for their usual fix of emotionally charged investigations and interviews. What they got instead was a goodbye, of sorts, from hosts Patrick Watson and Laurier LaPierre. “It has been a year to remember for us and we hope it has been for you, too. Good night,” Watson said. “See you in seventeen weeks,” signed off LaPierre, adding, “well, maybe. Au revoir.” Seven Days didn’t return in seventeen weeks. Summer 2006 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the death – or suicide – of the program. The most innovative, most sensational and most watched current affairs program in CBC history was gone. A flurry of public demonstrations, thousands of letters and angry phone calls, a strike threat from the Toronto Producers’ Association and even a parliamentary inquiry couldn’t make it return.
There will never be another Seven Days – the program’s spirited two-year existence was the combination of talent, tension and a turbulent decade of rapid change. The 1960s were still the relatively early days of television. The public broadcaster was one of a very few channels, and any program had a shot at captivating the whole country. CBC audiences and budgets were bigger, interviewers wore their horn-rimmed glasses and chewed their pipes and cigarettes on camera, and a new crop of anti-establishment journalists were no longer interested in reporting respectful stories about the monarchy. Pioneering investigative journalistic techniques that we now take for granted, Seven Days shook the public broadcaster to the point where it was changed forever. The sins committed in pursuit of its dissident mandate freed the airwaves of CBC’s polite, stuffy attitude, and contributed to a new form of journalism. But, looking back at the show today, from our world of sensational Fox News specials and teary Barbara Walters interviews, it’s easier to understand why CBC management was so pissed off.
For the March 20, 1966 episode of Seven Days, interviewer Roy Faibish deliberately set out to bring tears to the eyes of Doris Truscott, mother of Steven Truscott. Faibish had only a limited amount of film with which to do this, and wasted no time. “Is it hard not to cry when you visit him?” he asked. “What moments are the most difficult? Birthdays? Christmas?” The resulting two minutes and six seconds of film caused someone else besides Doris Truscott to choke up. Host LaPierre, live on camera in front of millions of viewers, had just seen the segment for the first time. He shifted in his suit and tie as he read the conclusion in a hoarse voice, stopping to rub his eyes before he could finish pronouncing the phrase, “Steven Truscott was sentenced to hang by the neck until dead.” Faibish’s sensationalistic interview and LaPierre’s show of emotion were common Seven Days fare. They were also two in a long string of questionable journalistic decisions that made management nervous.
In 1964, executive producers Watson and Douglas Leiterman banded together to lead a team of cocky young broadcasters in bringing something different to CBC’s old public affairs department. Their idea was to produce an opinionated program that would be emotionally engaging as well as being informative, a show that would grab the widest audience possible with issues they cared about. It was something both men had experimented with earlier in their careers while working together on the CBC public affairs show, Close Up. Intent on leaving audiences transfixed, Watson and Leiterman would watch the eyes of whomever happened to be in the room during Seven Days editing sessions. “If we found a section of an interview or documentary that people could take their eyes off, we said, ‘Cut that,'” Watson says. Leiterman regularly stopped CBC cleaning ladies on the Seven Days set after Sunday night broadcasts to solicit opinions. Leiterman says, “They were pretty impatient with the heavy political stuff.”
After setting out their mandate, Watson and Leiterman began instilling the new program with theatrics never before aired on CBC. Their opposing personalities complemented each other – so much so that when the show irked management, the twosome became a force executives wanted to separate. The laid-back Watson had a penchant for social change and a fascination with how images onscreen could affect the senses. The private, reserved Leiterman was so passionate about investigative journalism that he was famous for commissioning sensational stories first and worrying about ethics later. According to colleagues, Leiterman’s desire to uncover plots fuelled many segments that sought out business and government corruption.
The two hired an assortment of young journalists, based less on credentials than pure instinct for talent: a 21-year-old civil rights activist joined as a researcher upon his release from a Mississippi prison, while a mathematics graduate fired from The Hamilton Spectator became head of research. Pierre Trudeau, Moses Znaimer and Fulford contributed on a freelance basis, and LaPierre was such an unpredictable host he had trouble keeping his opinion to himself during interviews.
The personalities of the Seven Days team, coupled with Watson and Leiterman’s techniques, gave the program a smartass attitude. Interviews went for the emotional and were edited down rather than conducted live, infuriating many subjects who felt they were unfairly portrayed. After the show’s first episode on October 4, 1964, justice minister Guy Favreau complained that his seventeen-minute interview had been cut by more than half. Seven Days film editor Ron Carlyle admits today that interviews were also often slightly reordered in the editing suite.
Segments scrutinized a revolutionary contraceptive device called “the Pill,” American anti-war activists, interracial adoption and Bond-girl Ursula Andress’s racy Playboy photos. Miles of film were shot for items – about ten hours for each story – from which Leiterman would choose the most interesting six minutes. Politicians were grilled on the “Hot Seat,” one of Watson’s ideas. The unfortunate subject would sit on a raised chair and be bombarded by two interviewers, glaring lights and a cameraman with a penchant for getting close-ups of nervous sweat glistening on a brow. During the 1965 election, prime minister Lester B. Pearson declined to appear despite a live on-air challenge; the next week, the camera focused on the empty seat where he would have been.
“Document,” a monthly, hour-long feature on the program, saw Watson and Leiterman air some of the most provocative documentaries ever made, such as Canadian filmmaker Beryl Fox’s Mills of the Gods. The film criticized the American presence in Vietnam with shots of a laughing fighter pilot and burning villages. Satirical sketches poked fun at the prime minister, the Pope and pro-Vietnam American senators at a time when following a serious piece with satire was considered a CBC sin.
Rules were broken not only through the show’s innovation, but also behind the scenes. When the Penny Baker camera was invented, improving the way sound and video were recorded, Seven Days became the first CBC program to use it – its portability helped cameramen film crowds and protests. Program staff were accused of stealing footage from CBC’s news department, and the blacklisted Ross McLean was hired to produce items anonymously.
Most controversial were the items that regularly made it to air – and onto the agendas of CBC’s political masters. An interview with American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell caused Diefenbaker to criticize CBC in the House of Commons. Management called a story about silicone-injected topless dancer Carol Doda “sleazy.” Yet Leiterman believed this was a superior way of exposing Rockwell’s racist rantings and demonstrating the emptiness of Doda’s life – by simply showing viewers.
One of Seven Days’s most notorious stunts was arranging a surprise meeting between Ku Klux Klan members and a black activist on October 25, 1965
Stories did, however, sway towards the sensational. During one interview with two Ku Klux Klan members, Leiterman and producer Robert Hoyt deliberately set out to stage a dramatic altercation in the studio, bringing in a black activist without warning any of the participants in advance. When the Klan members were able to keep their composure, Hoyt achieved the desired theatrical effect by trying to get the parties to shake hands. The Klan members refused. Viewers loved the item, but management called it gimmicky and lacking in integrity, demanding the technique be avoided in the future. Critics accused the program of rarely presenting both sides of a story, and though Seven Days staff believed their muckraking was valuable to viewers, at least one member has since revised his thinking. Story editor Brian Nolan went on to screen old Seven Days episodes with his broadcast students at Carleton University to give them a sense of the program’s outlandish techniques. “It wasn’t good journalism, it was terrific television,” he says today. “And the closest to journalism it came would be tabloid journalism.”
Even more questionable were the ways some stories were obtained. In management’s view, it amounted to “yellow journalism” and often involved illegal, unethical behavior. Leiterman believed what appeared on the screen mattered more than how the material was gathered, and let loose his staff on unsuspecting subjects. A reporter called the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers to track down the baseball player ex-husband of prostitute and alleged East German spy Gerda Munsinger, saying it was an urgent police matter. Reporters secretly taped Quebec justice minister Claude Wagner, and did the same to Diefenbaker as he watched the results of the 1966 election, yelling and swearing at the TV. (It never aired, not only because of poor sound quality – Leiterman deemed it inappropriate.) Cameramen tried to hide bulky cameras behind the curtains at the Royal York Hotel’s restaurant to secretly capture a meeting, and were caught by the waiters. Infamously, political journalist Larry Zolf knocked on former defence minister Pierre Sévigny’s door unannounced, camera in tow, to inquire about his affair with Munsinger. Sévigny hit Zolf with a cane.
While working on a story about Fred Fawcett, a cattle farmer in the Penetanguishene Hospital for the Criminally Insane (imprisoned for firing a pistol at a tax assessor’s car tire during a dispute), Seven Days had been refused permission to enter and interview the patient. Working with Fawcett’s sister Rita – who, feeling her brother had been wrongfully committed, had contacted the show – Seven Days came up with a plan. Carrying a camera and a tape recorder concealed in a picnic basket with checkered cloths on top, three Seven Days crew members entered the hospital with Rita Fawcett, who described them as “friends.” One dressed as a lawyer in a pinstriped suit; another wore a lumberjack jacket and talked with a rural accent. Once inside, they assembled the cameras, shot an interview with Fawcett, who had rehearsed the answers beforehand, and put the cameras away, all in the five-odd minutes it took for the guard to return.
There was never any question that Seven Days would smuggle in a camera. The original plan had involved hiding the camera in interviewer Warner Troyer’s pant leg (Troyer was an amputee). Leiterman later neglected to tell his supervisors that permission had never been granted for the interview, and when this was discovered, CBC news and public affairs director Bill Hogg irritably lectured Leiterman about respectable journalism. Fawcett was later freed, largely because he had appeared to be quite sane on Seven Days.
The Fawcett interview was one of the program’s proudest moments in its quest to uncover corruption but critics still called its tactics sensational. Dick Nielsen, who produced CBC’s The Public Eye in 1965, was influenced by Seven Days enough to imitate it, but held back when it came to using dramatic devices. Controversial material was already being produced across the entire CBC public affairs department at the time, Nielsen says, but no program ever went as far as Seven Days. “We did a similar sort of thing but with less panache, less style and perhaps more integrity, because in some cases that sort of thing can get very out of line.”
It’s no wonder CBC executives thought Seven Days was way out of line. In their mid-fifties, the top two men symbolized the type of grey establishment figures that became foils for rebellion in the ’60s. President J. Alphonse Ouimet came from a strict Quebec upbringing and was “prissy about women and swearing.” Vice-president Captain W.E.S. Briggs – nicknamed “the old man” – was a former Second World War naval captain. Briggs decorated his CBC office like a ship, and was famous for his radio reports of the Queen’s visits. He fumed at the mention of gays on Seven Days because, he said, gay issues were irrelevant to Canadians – after all, there weren’t any homosexuals in Saskatchewan. The two, along with the vice-president and general manager of English network broadcasting, H.G. Walker, came from the golden age of radio and knew little about television programming.
In contrast, Watson and Leiterman, in their mid-thirties, were the oldest of the Seven Days crew. The rest, in their twenties and early thirties, were taking advantage of life in the sixties. Although “square” and “straight-laced” by the decade’s counterculture standards – they wore jackets and ties to work, put in sixty-hour weeks, and had little time to socialize other than for the weekly wrap party – they were close to the crowd that revelled in the political change as much as they enjoyed the new social freedoms. According to story editor Peter Pearson, who was “like, a 26-year-old kid” at the time, the values of the younger generation producing the show were what made senior managers “hate” Seven Days. They sheltered themselves from the rebellion within their stuffy old headquarters, the former Havergal College building on Jarvis Street nicknamed “The Kremlin.” “Yonge Street was one rocking joint, all those bars,” says Pearson. “There was dope all over those places. Two blocks away, the CBC was in mortal dismay at what the hell was going on. It saw itself as a civilizing force, and over there was Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Robertson and all of these great musicians.” Senior personnel sought refuge from the counterculture at headquarters, but, half a block away, the sex, the drugs, the rock ‘n’ roll and the politics moved seamlessly from the streets to the editing suites to the television screens of the nation.
Management had trouble penetrating this separate universe. When Briggs decided he wanted to keep a close eye on Seven Days, he was frustrated to learn he couldn’t find out what stories would be airing in advance of each episode. Leiterman, wanting to keep the show as current as possible, finalized the show’s lineup right before airtime on Sundays, making a slew of scribbled changes that rendered the hosts’ teleprompters almost illegible. Rather than give in, Leiterman’s staff developed an “us-versus-them” camaraderie in response to management’s attempted restraints. They thought they could get away with anything, which added to the anti-establishment spirit of the show, and continued their blatant rule-breaking, hiding cameras and grilling politicians while management tried harder to curb what they saw as rabid sensationalism.
At the start of the second season, the controversial LaPierre was deemed too provocative to interview party leaders on the hot seat during the 1965 election. After a battle, LaPierre remained part of the election coverage, but Leiterman eventually conceded to the removal of the hot seat, switching to a “round table” format. It was a move that he and Watson would always regret having to make. “Some felt that we should have just resigned then, killed the show,” Leiterman says, “that that was too much interference and that we were betraying our own principles.” Rumours of a possible cancellation abounded as the season progressed.
In spring 1966, viewers protest the cancellation of This Hour Has Seven Days
Management didn’t want to kill the program – it wanted a quieter show. On April 6, 1966, with one month left in the program’s second season, Watson (by then the program’s second host) was informed that his contract, along with co-host LaPierre’s, would not be renewed for the following season. This interference from senior management angered Seven Days personnel. It was the executive producer’s job to hire and fire hosts, not the president’s. The programmers hatched a plan to fight back. In mid- April, Seven Days leaked news about the dismissals to the media, and sparked a battle involving the “Save Seven Days” committee, led by a young researcher – an operation run directly across the street from CBC headquarters in the Four Seasons Motel. The committee spent twenty hours a day running up long-distance phone bills, soliciting support for a petition and organizing demonstrations across the country where fans picketed outside CBC offices. Thousands of viewers wrote letters, and newspaper editorials criticized management’s treatment of the program’s hosts. The Toronto Producers’ Association threatened to strike in support.
The season’s final few episodes went to air amidst the chaos. After Ouimet held a hostile press conference attacking the program, Diefenbaker cried for an emergency parliamentary debate. “I do not think there has ever been a matter which in so short a time has brought about so much antagonism in all parts of Canada,” he said. The prime minister arranged for a parliamentary committee to launch its own investigation and began calling in the players as witnesses, while the CBC board of directors did the same. Ouimet appealed for support, listing the “sins” of Seven Days – LaPierre’s tear, in particular – and Seven Days staff argued in their defence. After the show’s final episode in mid-May, the conflict carried on through a separate inquiry commissioned by the prime minister and led by Stuart Keate, a Vancouver publisher. Keate criticized some techniques used on the show, but was more critical of management. The parliamentary committee report, issued in June, also sided with the program.
The tensions were too great to resolve. Leiterman, refusing to sign a pledge to “accept CBC policies, procedures and direction,” was fired. Watson, LaPierre and other core Seven Days players resigned.
Like the program’s existence, its death was an amalgamation of different forces. If management didn’t kill the show outright, maybe, as former CBC manager Eric Koch puts it, the decade’s clash of generations did. Management certainly clamped down on provocative programming in the aftermath of Seven Days’ demise. The newsmagazine Sunday, which took over its vacated time slot, featured discussions on sexual pleasure and an appearance by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. It provoked older viewers even more than Seven Days, and was cancelled after only one season. And management refused to air Warrendale – a contentious documentary about emotionally disturbed children by Allan King, “Document” contributor for Seven Days and one of the most notorious cinema verit? directors of the sixties – deeming it too emotional and full of foul language.
The government, tired of arguing about the latest Seven Days episode during Monday morning question periods and fearing on-air criticism, may have also had a motive for killing the show. Pearson appointed a new CBC president to succeed Ouimet in 1968. “Whatever you do, George, please make sure I never hear about the CBC again,” Pearson reportedly told George Davidson upon his appointment. And Davidson did keep things quiet for a while. The programs that took over the Seven Days time slot stayed quiet.
Watson believes Seven Days fuelled management’s anxiety about programming in the years that followed. Rival producer Nielsen believes it actually sparked the death of the old “public affairs” spirit at CBC. The department was renamed “current affairs” and merged with news after Knowlton Nash became director of news and public affairs in late 1968. Nash and other news staff had spent two years lobbying for more prominence for their department, wanting to counter the popularity and controversy of Seven Days and avoid duplication. With the separate public affairs department and its freedoms obliterated, Nielsen says, the new current affairs shows became too reliant on being topical and less concerned with viewers’ concerns, which don’t necessarily revolve around the latest issue or study.
The days following its demise may have been grim, but oddly, the influence of Seven Days didn’t wane. In fact, some of its methods became staples in a market that dwarfed Canada’s. Leiterman went to New York and helped create a new program for CBS called 60 Minutes that would employ the Seven Days spirit of entertainment and uncovering corruption. CBS head Bill Leonard had first noticed the program while visiting relatives in Winnipeg, and he believed the show could be copied “responsibly.” The use of satire and gimmicks like the hot seat were dropped, but even so, viewers couldn’t get enough of segments recorded with hidden cameras – used, unlike at Seven Days, only when criminality was involved.
And though CBC current affairs programs suffered in the immediate aftermath, programs like the fifth estate and The Journal went on to be opinionated, investigative and courageous – although fairer and more cautious. Twenty years ago, when a tough Barbara Frum grilled interviewees like British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, she was paying homage. And Eric Malling’s impulsive hug of a Holocaust survivor on camera would never have been aired on fifth without LaPierre’s pioneering tear. Last year, when current fifth host Bob McKeown ambushed an elusive David Frost to confront him about his questionable relationship with his former client – National Hockey League player Mike Danton, who was convicted of trying to hire someone to kill Frost – he borrowed from Seven Days. Just this February, McKeown instinctively squeezed the hand of a man supposedly wrongfully imprisoned in India for murdering his wife.
Seven Days also made the marriage of news and satire more acceptable at CBC. The corporation’s current satirical newsmagazine, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, borrows from Seven Days in more than just name – whether it realizes it or not. The program builds on sketches of Pearson and Diefenbaker from Seven Days, taking political satire to a level unimaginable in the ’60s. The most recent federal election saw Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper willingly interviewed by a 22 Minutes actor playing an awkward teenage boy. And in November 2005, Belinda Stronach participated in an innuendo-filled sketch with “Mrs. Enid,” a prim but foul-mouthed old woman.
Fewer and fewer current staff have heard of Seven Days, but, as with other legends that line CBC museum walls, like Frum and Peter Gzowski, the show’s influence is inescapable. Jim Williamson, executive producer of the recent spin-off, fifth estate Specials, thinks it is embedded in the broadcast company’s DNA. As each new episode of each new current affairs program is born, personnel that know little of Seven Days get a taste of its mandate to inform and entertain.
Sunday, CBC’s current newsmagazine, contains more than a hint of this DNA. Before the program’s February 2002 debut, Leiterman entered CBC’s new headquarters on Front Street. It was his first time offering advice to CBC programmers since Seven Days folded. Stuart Coxe, who led the team that created Sunday, was so struck by old Seven Days episodes he approached the famed producer for guidance. Impressed by Leiterman’s still-innovative story ideas – eerily, one consisted of obtaining illegal materials and building a nuclear bomb, minus the trigger, then filming an attempt at smuggling it into the pre-9/11 World Trade Center to show how vulnerable it was – Coxe invited Leiterman to talk to his staff.
Not all were enchanted by Leiterman’s methods. One told him she liked his old material, but also held Seven Days responsible for a lot of exploitive television. “The Ku Klux Klan segment, that’s like Jerry Springer today,” she said. “I don’t think it was effective at the time, either.”
“I don’t make television for people who read The New York Review of Books,” an unrepentant Leiterman replied. “I make television for people who work all day and come home and want to be entertained as well as informed.”
Sunday would go on to broadcast a live gay marriage, and an interview where a reporter rode around the desert with Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, discussing bin Laden’s driving skills. Recently, the fifth estate aired a documentary set in the future – the first of its kind at CBC, according to Williamson – showing what an H5N1 avian influenza pandemic would be like. The factors that combined to give Canadians a cultural phenomenon like Seven Days would be difficult to reproduce, but when current producers Coxe and Williamson talk about engaging viewers and making them care about issues today, they sound exactly like Watson and Leiterman.