Marichka Melnyk
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Watson Shrugged

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The burden CBC staff expected Patrick Watson to shoulder may have been too much for any mere mortal

LORNE SAXBERG TUNED IN HOPING TO FIND A WHITE KNIGHT. THE CBC Newsworld anchorman was on the evening shift in the national newsroom in Toronto. It was December 6, 1990, and all everybody had been talking about were the devastating “Black Wednesday” budget cuts announced the day before by management. The bloodletting was going to be massive. To save $108 million, a number of stations across the country were going to be scaled back or eliminated, effectively silencing local voices.

But there was still hope. Broadcaster Hilary Brown was about to interview Patrick Watson, chairman-designate of the CBC’s board of directors, on the local news. Saxberg felt heartened. Surely Patrick Watson, the legendary broadcaster and journalist who had been part of so many CBC triumphs, would have something forceful to say.

Instead, to Saxberg’s amazement, Watson defended the closing of the local stations and the creation, in their place, of regional programming. “This thing you call regional broadcasting,” bristled Watson, “is going to be a service that [will soon] exist and probably should have existed.”

At that moment, says Saxberg, “I was alarmed. I thought, Oh my god-he has swallowed the line, lock, stock, and barrel.” He could not believe he was hearing Watson-the crusader, the activist, the icon of journalistic integrity-selling the cutbacks to local service. And as he listened, a dark feeling he would come to know well stole over him. “This was not the Patrick Watson I had heard and read so much about,” he says. “It was a telltale sign.”

SINCE 1990, THE CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION HAS drastically redefined its mission, face, and future. The changes have come at a considerable cost. Some management decisions have provoked outrage, and have revealed many internal quarrels. A major party in these conflicts has been the CBC board of directors, headed by chairman Patrick Watson. Insiders point to three incidents in particular: the Black Wednesday cuts of 1990, The Valour and the Horror dispute of late 1992, and the “repositioning” controversy of 1992-93. In each case many CBC staffers felt pitted against an autocratic management bent on ruining the traditional vision of public broadcasting. Like Saxberg, they thought Watson would be an ally. Now many have decided they were wrong.

What happened to Patrick Watson, the onetime hero who is now so bitterly criticized? Did he sellout for a cushy job at the top? Or have the disillusioned failed to realize what he was up against? Watson is most revered for his work on the landmark current affairs television program This Hour Has Seven Days. The feisty show, famous for challenging public figures, only ran for two seasons, 1964 to 1966, before being quashed by management. Yet its provocative style and penchant for piquing authority were so innovative, so courageous, and so compelling that to this day many journalists preface their remarks about Watson with an awe-filled “I remember watching him on This Hour”

A reporter, producer, and documentary-maker since 1956, Watson has been involved with numerous films and television productions. They include the political program The Watson Report, the historical series Witness to Yesterday, and the business show Venture. Just before his appointment as CBC chairman, Watson had been on the media circuit promoting his acclaimed television documentary The Struggle for Democracy, in which he studied the development of democracy in society.

Veteran CBC journalist Knowlton Nash says Watson “had a burning desire to be CBC president for 30 years.” Watson denies this ambition, claiming he balked when he was first approached to be chairman. “I felt very negative about it,” he says. “I really wanted to just take a block of time off and reassess where I was going to go as a producer, writer, and host.” But colleagues persuaded him to reconsider. Their winning argument, he recalls, was that as a broadcaster on the inside he could bring a valuable perspective to the decisions being made and, Watson says, “at least temper the blows that are bound to fall.” He came to believe that if he rejected the government’s unprecedented offer, it might never again consider a broadcaster for a senior job. “I began to think it could be quite exciting. Maybe there’s a chance to move some things.”

So on September 27,1989, when it was announced that Watson had been given the newly created position of chairman of the CBC board, staffers were encouraged. Watson would be their champion where the new president clearly would not. For that job, the Mulroney government chose Gerard Veilleux, the former Treasury Board mandarin, who was exactly the kind of bureaucrat jaded staffers distrusted.

“At first I thought it was a great team: management teamed with broadcasting and journalistic background,” says Trina McQueen, former head of CBC news and current affairs. Her staff agreed. A director was elated to have “someone from the inside who can reflect what the CBC is all about.” An anchor pointed out that staff “refer to him as Patrick-he seems more one of us.” A producer believed Watson “would carry the torch, reflect our opinions.” The overall feeling, says Nash, was “heaven had at last arrived on earth.” Watson’s resume and profile put him front and centre, and it was hard to turn the spotlight off.

Watson now speaks of the fanfare with a hint of resentment. “Something I should have anticipated and didn’t, at the beginning, was a lot of those people who urged me to go and take the job were dealing, at that point, not so much with their pal and colleague, but with a star in whom they were investing a lot of magic. And they assumed, as people tend to assume about celebrities and about people who have been publicly successful, that you have some kind of capacity to reverse a lot of gravity.”

THE DOWNWARD FORCES WATSON WAS EXPECTED TO TAKE ON first manifested themselves in the cuts to local programming. Originally, Watson had thought cuts would not necessarily mean amputating services; he believed the CBC’s future could be protected by being creative. His words and presence had certainly been soothing. “We’ll have the money to do it,” he had said optimistically in an interview the day he and Veilleux were appointed. “There are a lot of untapped resources in this corporation, and there are a lot of untapped resources in the country. It’s going to take a lot of goodwill on the part of people in the corporation and the country-and us-but we believe it’s there.”

But when the Black Wednesday cuts were announced-the closure of stations in Windsor, Calgary, and Saskatoon, the scaling-down of eight others, and the loss of 1,100 positions-howls of protest erupted from those who saw the local stations, with their ability to cater to the unique needs of each region, as the backbone of the network. Watson’s heroic sheen began to tarnish. The man who had once said that he “could not imagine a future in which the CBC does what Parliament has asked it to do without its local operations,” was now touring the country, trying to convince Canadians that, yes, losing stations hurt, but it was a better cost-saving measure than trying to nip a little bit from every department.

“A lot of our people have been saying, ‘We shouldn’t try to do everything badly; we should try to do the things we do well really well, and forget the other stuff.’ I believe that,” Watson said during a particularly heated exchange with then Midday cohost Ralph Benmergui in February 1991. Shifting agitatedly in his seat as his tone rose, Watson said the local stations had been too narrowly focussed, and didn’t reach out to the rest of the country. Given the need to trim the budget, Watson explained, the

CBC had to refocus its philosophy as “a national network rooted in the regions.”
Since the cuts, the pain of losing the stations has been absorbed, but employees still speak with rancour about Watson. “My complaint at that time,” says a producer in his cluttered Toronto office, “was that these jerks who did the firings developed this theology about it. It was all bullshit, and somebody like Patrick Watson would know it’s bullshit. But no, Patrick went across the country saying, ‘This is the new CBC.’ He was handmaiden to the high priests, so either he acquiesced or else he’s really stupid.”

Watson now admits his early hopefulness was naive. “I had thought-and indeed my colleague Gerard Veilleux thought-that it might be possible to swallow the Wilson budget of 1989 without service cuts. This was based on my knowledge of the corporation as a person who had been in and out of it over the years and seen a lot of redundancy and fat. But it wasn’t based on a rigorous analysis, and when the rigorous analysis all came together, we found out we were wrong-we couldn’t do it without the terrible slashing that took place, and that was very hard.”

A few still defend Watson’s decision. Among them is Knowlton Nash. “Patrick had a choice: he could have denounced the government, but he decided there was more value in explaining the budget cuts. Denouncing the government would just turn into a pissing match.” Watson, explains Nash, “was not brought up in the local mind-set; his mind-set is more the national service than the regional.”

THE NEXT MAJOR UPROAR WAS THE CONTROVERSY OVER THE V ALour and the Horror, the three-part documentary about Canada’s involvement in World War II the CBC aired in January 1992.

Some veterans believed the show contained inaccuracies and were insulted by its portrayal of Canadian soldiers. They lobbied the CR TC and the government, demanding changes and a disclaimer on the planned video version. The CBC initially supported the filmmakers, but by summer, it had assigned ombudsman William Morgan to investigate the grievances. A Senate subcommittee looked into them as well.

On November 10, 1992-the eve of Remembrance Day-the CBC issued Morgan’s report. The ombudsman concluded that the dramatizations of actual events were not properly identified, and might confuse viewers. While he did not believe the filmmakers had deliberately tried to distort history, he found their film was “flawed” and did not adhere to the CBC’s policies and standards. His report was issued simultaneously with an apology from Veilleux and the board. It said that although Valour had merit as a film, it would not be shown again unless appropriate changes, such as clearly identifying dramatizations, were made. In response, the film’s producers spoke up-loudly. “We had been advised to take our medicine and shut up, and we would work again,” says Valour director Brian McKenna, who co-wrote it with his brother Terence. “But when we saw the report, we said there was no bloody way we were going to take this medicine.”

As the debate raged, broadcasters lined up behind the filmmakers, but Watson wasn’t among them. The parallels to This Hour’s battle with management were impossible to ignore. Watson knew firsthand the struggle of the independent producer against management-surely he would make some fiery public statement or gesture. Some staff expected he would resign. But as time passed and no statement came, morale plummeted and resentment grew. Staffers began joking that “this never would have happened if Patrick Watson were still alive.” “What would have been encouraging for people would have been for Watson to say, ‘I will not let this happen, I will not stay,'” says media critic Rick Salutin. “By leaving, you do accomplish something because you give people heart; you show them that somebody was willing to take a stand.”

Watson says that he did fight, but before the ombudsman’s report came out. He attended the Senate hearings with the McKennas and argued that the government had no business interfering with CBC programming. But the hardest struggle came just before the report was issued. The McKennas had heard that a press release condemning Valour was being prepared, and they passed the news along to Watson. Watson immediately tracked down

Veilleux and persuaded him not to issue the statement. Veilleux put the decision in the hands of the board. The meeting that followed in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was, Brian McKenna says, ”as fierce as any Atlantic storm. A ferocious debate ensued with Patrick in the minority.”

The board, says Watson, was a formidable opponent on this occasion. “I was dealing with a number of people who would cheerfully have murdered the McKennas, and I said to those board members, ‘We have a contractual relationship with them, and we are responsible for our side of that contract. Now what are we going to do about it?’ There were people who would cheerfully have said the McKennas will never work for CBC again.”

Perhaps in remembrance of the eight years he was denied work at the CBC after This Hour, Watson successfully argued against blacklisting the McKennas. “What I tried to do was make sure that the decisions that were made at the senior management level were consistent with the best humane and creative traditions of the CBC, and I think I made some headway there. I won’t say the solution I came up with was perfect, but I think it was the best solution under the circumstances. I know if I hadn’t been there, it would have been a very different position.”

During that conflict, Watson confesses, he did consider resigning. “It was that close,” he says, leaning forward with his thumb and forefinger a few millimetres apart. “It was that close on November 9,1992, when I was saying to myself, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be the chairman tomorrow.’ I mean, I have no trouble with the notion of resigning if it’s going to be useful, but you should never waste your resignation. You don’t get to consensus without having a tremendous amount of very tough and vigorous arguments. Had we not gotten to that consensus, I was perfectly prepared to walk out of the office and say, ‘Thank you very much.'”

Watson says his critics did not appreciate the struggle he felt between his instinct to side with the filmmakers and his duty as chairman. After the report was released, he publicly defended the board, saying it was not “cutting our producing partners adrift,” and insisting the board had not caved in to political pressure. Brian McKenna is “grateful” for Watson’s support. “Watson stopped the train. At first it was our clear impression that he couldn’t decide which side to choose, but when he did choose, there was no doubt he sided with us,” he says.

Watson notes the McKennas were not always so kind. “They have not been very nifty about this, in what they have said publicly about me,” he says, a faint rebuke in his voice. “It made a lot of people behave in a very unseemly fashion. The Senate behaved badly, I don’t think we handled it very brilliantly on our side, the program was full of problems, the CBC management’s acceptance of it. “It sure was a learning experience.” When he speaks of Valour, Watson’s tone slows and intensifies. “I have to tell you that I have seldom lived through such an extended period of violent, rancorous screaming matches among colleagues who are usually quite nice to each other, and at every level. And I don’t think the ripples from that one will die down for a long time.

Once again, the hero had fallen short of the expectations. “This is a man who understands irony,” says Brian McKenna. “I guess we expected more. At the time we were disappointed with Patrick, as were many looking in from the outside.”

GIVEN WATSON’S DEMONSTRATED COMMITMENT TO BOARD consensus, few were surprised when he supported the CBC’s “repositioning” plan in 1992. The initiative, aimed at changing the CBC’s planning, organization, and relationship with the public, was to help the network assert a place in the impending 500channel universe. Changes included developing accountability structures, planning a French version of Newsworld, and streamlining management.

The most dramatic and visible impact was on the English television network. In November, The National, the 22-minute evening newscast, was moved to Newsworld, the current-affairs program, The Journal, was axed, and both were replaced by a fullhour program at 9 p.m. called Prime Time News. On one end of the central newscast were two hours of “family” programming; two hours of adult-oriented fare followed it in late night. The changes were touted by management as breakthroughs that would win audiences. Instead, in the weeks following the frantic November 2 launch of Prime Time, viewers stampeded to the 11 p.m. competition at CTV. Few, if any, staffers believed what Canadians needed or wanted was a 9 p.m. newscast, particularly one that was thrown together with only a few months’ notice. Morale slid even further.

“Well, it’s not what some wanted,” Watson says. “There’s great division within the news unit itself, which is unfortunate, and certainly that’s under review now.” However, he says he and the board supported the changes despite staffers’ misgivings. “There was very strong consensus at the board level,” he says, “that the proposal to divide the evening up was a pretty nifty idea. High risk, but it didn’t contain as much prediction of high risk as was contained in the proposal to move The National from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. in 1980, when everybody was predicting disaster, total disaster. My instinct is 9 o’clock is an appropriate time to have a news program; that’s in line with my concern that our service be different from everybody else’s service. I was very pleased to find that we were bringing in a lot more viewers from outside the Toronto area, younger viewers, more women.”
But to insiders who resent the shake-up, Watson’s views are evidence of how distanced he has become from hands-on broadcasting. “We’ve lost our primacy as the leading news network in Canada,” laments a producer, shaking his head. “We’re having a hard time getting that back.”

SOME CBCERS SAY THEY WILL NEVER forgive Patrick Watson for what he did-and didn’t do-as chairman. They feel he could have done more to boost morale, defend the budget, and protect journalists. “You can influence the public with outside acts,” says one director. “If the public gets on your side you can influence the board. No board wants to go against the public.” An anchor suggests that Watson’s presence was lacking. “He’s the voice that roars-or was. What is that now? A squeak.” But as time goes by, others have grown philosophical. “I’m not angry with him,” says Alison Smith, anchor of The National. “My feeling is more disappointment than anger. But there’s a time to be angry, a time to deny, a time to accept, and now that people are starting to accept, some of the anger is dissipating.”

Those who prefer to believe Watson-described even by his critics as a gentle, good-humoured, generous man-was not co-opted by the board, see him as a victim of circumstance. They sympathize with his political position-he was a Tory appointee on a Tory-appointed board. In fact, he originally thought he could handle the government’s obvious dislike of the CBC, and hoped to be able to use the clout that came with being the only broadcaster appointed to such a high-powered position. During his early interviews, he emphasized that “we have a personal commitment, spoken precisely, person-to-person to us by the prime minister and by the minister of communications to support us by revitalizing the CBC.”

Now he admits he was trying to keep the Tories from evading their public promise of support. With politicians, he says, “you have to take the best-case scenarios, run with them, and see if you can make them come true by repeating them, and part of what you’re doing there is reminding a government what it has said and hoping that will help it live up to its promises. That didn’t work.”

In fact, he continues, “One of the things that was characteristic of the Mulroney government was an almost pathological concern about media in general, which spelled out for the CBC a fury-I was going to say resentment, but it was much more than that-that the CBC, which we’re paying for, is always saying these nasty things about us.”

That Tory fury hindered Watson in a number of ways. Trina McQueen points out that under the circumstances anyone would have had a hard time with the board. “Mulroney didn’t confirm Watson’s position for a year. That was no coincidence; that was a very deliberate political delay. The government was very concerned about Watson’s influence at the CBC. First he was punished by not being approved; then there was the board appointment of [vocal right-wing CBC critic] John Crispo.” McQueen, like others, came to see Watson’s appointment as a public-relations ploy to make it appear the Conservatives supported the CBC.

Fortunately for the corporation, not all the Tory appointees w~re hostile to the CBC. Watson says some of them were sincerely interested in developing and protecting the network. He feels the board members worked well together, and says the conflicts led to constructive discussion. As a result, Watson is satisfied with having been part of what McQueen calls “one of the most activist boards in CBC history, involved in every major decision and too involved in programming decisions.”

Some suggest Watson’s problem was that staffers expected high-profile activity from the high-profile chairman. “We’ll never know how much he’s done,” says Pamela Wallin, co-anchor of Prime Time. “One sometimes fights battles more effectively behind the scenes and we don’t know about it; we’ll never know how much worse it could have been. I can’t believe he would do less. He’s given his life to public broadcasting.”

“If he hadn’t been there, then nobody would have been there to effectively reflect the concerns of producers,” says Knowlton Nash, who adds that Watson “could have done more-you can always do more,” but that his choice was to work from within. “He chose not to confront the government,” concludes Nash. “He made that choice based on the belief that he could gain more with compromise than with confrontation.”

Nash now wonders if the creative Watson was suited for such a restricted managerial and political post. “People make assumptions that he’s going to be as lustrous in this job as he was a broadcaster, because his career as a broadcaster was so valuable. But it’s a totally different type of job, it requires an art of politicking that Patrick just couldn’t do.”

Ultimately, assessments of Watson’s tenure are defined by the myths he was expected to live up to. Few deny they had expected a miracle. “We thought if anyone could keep the wolves at bay, it would be Patrick,” reflects Brian McKenna. “He had this reputation as a broadcaster, as a fighter, as understanding how bureaucracies worked.”

“Like a lot of people, I expected he would become a real advocate for the things that we as journalists believe in at the CBC,” says Alison Smith. “A lot of us were disappointed, but we had very high expectations. When you assume a role like chairman you buy into a certain amount of compromise,” she adds. “It’s obvious a lot of us were naive.” Such presumptions still frustrate Watson. He tried to warn people he would just be a manager. On his appointment, Watson said, “For both of us [himself and Veilleux], it involves a very radical change in what we do with our lives. It means for me, effectively, the end of being a broadcaster.”

Even after four years of criticism, he is not completely inured to the bitterness. It’s clear the harsh judgments have taken a toll. “The expectations that were loaded on my appointment were romantic and exaggerated. When it became clear that we were living in the real world, and that I was a real person and not a magical person, there was a lot of recrimination that came back from people who were saying effectively, ‘Why didn’t you wave your magic wand?’ And that was a bit tough emotionally. I mean, I think I’m a very robust person and I knew that we were into a period of a lot of very tough, practical decision-making, and there wasn’t magic to be wrought, but to get the continuous kind of recrimination that came back-from people I thought ought to know better-was rough. And continues to be rough.”

Watson defends himself by saying he was doing his job. “The real issue is, what does the CBC chairman do? Is he there to increase the division in an institution, wrestle with every tough thing, or to try and make it work out?” he asks. “I think if he’s there to increase the divisions, then his only honourable solution is to step outside, take a side. If he’s going to stay in, I think he has to act on behalf of the corporation, publicly and privately, and try to bring about a resolution that works. That’s what happens when you agree to become part of a political unit. Had I been a private individual, undoubtedly I would have behaved differently.”

ON THE DAY AFTER THE SEARCH FOR A NEW CBC PRESIDENT ended, Watson is in his sunlit home office, wearing blue jeans and a sweater and leaning back in his chair. He has aged visibly during his tenure as chairman, but now he appears relaxed, perhaps even relieved that his term is ending soon. This Halloween he will close the door of the chairman’s office for the last time. When he considers his future options-writing, producing, learning Italian-he smiles, his eyes light up in anticipation. But the thought of the CBC’s future makes him frown. He takes heart that “it’s still there now,” but is unsure of where the corporation will be in five years.

Asked what he will tell new CBC president Tony Manera about the job, Watson grins mischievously, “I think I’ll tell him that in private.” Questioned about his own replacement, he pauses. “When the time comes for me to make my recommendations,” he says thoughtfully, “I don’t know if I’ll suggest a broadcaster.” He falls silent again, perhaps considering how to spare someone like himself the burden of great expectations.

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