My dear mother wanted me to be a chartered accountant. I tried but found it was not for me. Instead I drifted into journalism, first as a copy boy on Fleet Street in London. They used to say journalism was for people who couldn’t knock a nail into a piece of wood. Maybe that was me. I was hired and mentored by a U.S. major network. A lot of it is luck, isn’t it?
When I started in television in Toronto in 1955 the medium was a one-channel CBC universe broadcasting sixty hours a week. The entire network signed off every evening at midnight with a dutifulah God Save the Queen. The novelty was striking and troubling – Canada had a million TV sets in a nation of 15 million people – and not just for the viewers. Managers who ran the network had come over from radio and neither understood television nor its possibilities.
The technology was primitive. Viewers today are accustomed to instantaneous reporting. In those early pre-satellite years of film our distant field reports took two days or so to reach home base. Items were so often overtaken by events you had a 1 in 4 chance of getting on the air.
Foreign reporting was prestigious in newspapering, but not then in TV. In my day you could be sent around the world as a roving correspondent, then they’d assign a staff announcer to voice your report. I filmed the Prague Spring in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, then boarded a flight in Vienna, wrote my script on the flight home, sped to the studio for editing and managed to get an 11-minute exclusive on the news. I felt pretty pleased. The next day management called me for discipline because I’d left my post. Stupidity!
Correspondents were not valued in those days of film. Today they appear to value reporters – to a fault. I am struck on watching the nightly news, where seemingly every story is capped with profuse gratitude for the reporter: “Thank you so much!” This baffles me. Thank you for what, for doing your job? If they eliminated all the “thank-you” they might have another three minutes for news.
Looking back, for all the clumsy technology and bureaucracy, there were glorious moments. Reporters spent so much time on assignments they really understood their story, their region, their country. Half-hour programs with in-depth coverage were commonplace. I miss those days.
Perhaps it was that depth and connection to the audience that forged strong loyalties between networks and their audience. I channel surf now. Nobody appears to have loyalty to any particular channel as we had then.
There has been a large increase among young people who want to go into journalism today, especially television. So many have training and university education it’s to the point there are many good journalists in media. Even if 70 percent of them fall out, you’d still have more newsroom talent than was the case in the early years.
I think these are the best of times for Canadian network journalists. They have such opportunity and platform for their talent; somebody has to get those stories to air instantly. Yet, who can see ten years from now what will become of the nightly news?
(Editor’s note: the author is an award-winning foreign correspondent, documentary filmmaker and author, and was among Canada’s earliest TV journalists)