When Pierre Sévigny walloped 'Seven Days'

Douglas Leiterman July 23 1966


When Pierre Sévigny walloped 'Seven Days'

Douglas Leiterman July 23 1966


When Pierre Sévigny walloped 'Seven Days'

Douglas Leiterman

The CBC’s management, its producers, the parliamentary committee on broadcasting, the prime minister, Stuart Keate and several hundred newspaper and radio commentators have all had their say on the great Seven Days controversy; but now that the shouting is almost over the question still remains: what on earth was it all about?

Basically, it was a debate about “objectivity”

— and whether this much misunderstood quality can survive in an era of electronic journalism. Alphonse Ouimet, the CBC’s embattled president, says that it must. The CBC’s news and public-affairs programs, he told the parliamentary committee, “must remain objective, providing all the relevant facts and leaving the public free to draw its own conclusions.”

But can a television camera ever be “objective” in the old-fashioned sense? A film of Pierre Sévigny whacking a TV reporter is palpably accurate, but can you call it “objective”? In the following article, the executive producer of Seven Days argues that this notion of objectivity — if it ever was applicable to print

— is almost meaningless in the context of electronic journalism.

MARCH 5. 1966. a Saturday. 3 p.m. — 31 hours from airtime of the 43rd edition of 'I his Hour Hus Seven Days. One of five “hotlines” in the Seven Days control room rang insistently. A script girl answered, turned: "It's urgent." Producer Robert Emmett Hoyt took the phone, listened, grunted a lew times and hung up.

“Get me Zolf." he said to the girl. “Get him on the next flight to Montreal and get a film crew. Ell give Zolf his instructions when he lands. Open the lab tonight for a late batch of film. Get me a research file on a man named Pierre Sévigny. with his address in Montreal.”

Within an hour Zolf was at Toronto International Airport. In less than three he was in March's early darkness, driving with the film crew to the comfortable Westmount residence of the Hon. Pierre Sévigny, former Associate Minister of National Defense.

The telephone call had been a tip from a government source that Mr. Sévigny was the minister who had been intimateU involved with Gerda Munsinger. Zoll was to ask Mr. Sévigny two questions: Did he know a woman by the name of Munsinger? If so. what was the extent of his association with her?

For this interview, Zolf was given standard instructions issued to camera crews in cases where there is reason to believe the interviewee may decline to answer once he knows the questions. His instructions were to knock on the door with camera rolling.

Zolf knew that several reporters, including one from lime magazine, already had called on Mr. Sévigny that day and asked similar questions. He was not surprised when Mrs. Sévigny answered the door and said her husband was not at home. He and the three-man crew walked toward the street. At that point the front door reopened and a hand beckoned them to come hack up the steps. Camera rolling, Zolf climbed the steps. Before he could say a word. Sévigny stepped out and whacked him with a heavy cane. Zolf ducked, took the first blow on his overcoat padded shoulder and hastily retreated. Sévigny gave chase. Continuing to swing at Zolf with the cane, he ended finally flailing at the station wagon as Zolf and crew scrambled in and drove off.

A week later Sévigny invited the CBC to send cameras to his home. With his wife and daughter at his side, he first issued a prepared statement. Later, he answered a reporter's questions concerning his relationship with Mrs. Munsinger. He said he had known her “casually." He “only had a social relationship with her."

Zolf had returned to Toronto with the graphic evidence of his beating. Meanwhile. Mr. Sévigny had enlisted the aid f the Westmount police to try to find the camera and recover the film. As the Sunday-night deadline approached, we pondered whether the film of the beating should be aired. The practice of journalism, the recording of events as they happen, required that it be shot. No director or cameraman who understands his job would shut off his camera at such a moment. But the decision whether or not to air it —whether or not it was a fair observation on Mr. Sévigny — that was a decision which had to be made in a cool and careful assessment of all the available material and its total impact. In this context w'e decided not to air the film that Sunday.

Three weeks later we decided to air the film, hut we were not permitted to do so.

What happened on the front steps of Sévigny's home could not have been filmed 10 years awi. It is an illustration of the process called cinema vérité, or actuality filming, wdiich sprang up simultaneously in Europe and N rih America with the development of portable cameras which can record events precisely as they happen. You see examples of their werk every night on the CBC National News: a soldier on a stretcher in Vietnam, gasping out his story between cries of pain as his leg is amputated; a sheet-metal worker blubbering his good fortune at winning the Irish sweepstakes; a mother trying to hide her anguish at the sudden death of her son. For most of us, these arc private experiences we would not choose to share with every viewer in the nation. But increasingly, for better or for worse, these are public experiences which omnipresent cameras record and transmission towers relay across the country. What is aired, and what is left on the cutting-room floor, are matters for the taste and judgment of experienced and, hopefully, sensitive and honest producers.

The vérité cameras often perform a unique and immense public service — such as when they recorded Jack Ruby firing his revolver in the chest of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas;

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“Sometimes the vision was frightening...but it was accurate”

or when they report the Vietnam war, the first war in history to be seen uncersored on the home screen. Citizens can make their own judgments, based on what their eyes see.

What’s happening is reporting-onfilm, as you watch. It is unrehearsed. It has impact and credibility. It provides a much more accurate picture of the world than we have had before. It is irrefutable, and it strikes very close to home for those who have something to hide.

To say that the camera should not be rolled, or that it should be shut off when something happens, is like telling a print reporter he should close his eyes when the action begins. No edutor would give such an order, no reporter would accept it. But in television, where the process is not yet understood by some, instructions are still! being given: “Don’t let the camera look.’’

Of course the cameras are looking, because they are operated by men with the instincts of reporters, who would be stunned if they were told by their bosses to lay down their pencils and note pads lest they record something unprintable.

Not just Seven Days, but the CBC News Department under Bill Cunningham and TV journalists working for Document, CBS Reports, NBC White Paper, BBC Panorama, French network Aujourd’hui and Le Sel de la Semaine, all operate in this way. Newspaper publishers have always understood that the reporter-on-thespot must not precensor his material or be precensored by the front office. Final judgments are made when the story is printed. So it is in television.

This was one of the principles in our minds, back in the spring of 1964, when Patrick Watson and I proposed to the CBC “a new kind of journalism, which will bring the whole range of human experience to Canadians with the impact of live-picture television; which will bring public affairs to ordinary citizens whose normal viewing is Ed Sullivan and Bonanza; and which will, if successful, become mandatory Sunday-night viewing for a large segment of the nation.”

The idea was to make public affairs vital, compelling, impactful; to avoid the pedantic dullness that so afflicted most public-affairs programs that only 10 percent of the viewing audience cared to watch; to educate a vast number of Canadians — not in depth, perhaps, but to begin to make them aware of the world they live in as only television can.

The CBC had already led the world in development of such programming. Close-Up under Ross McLean, Inquiry under Watson and Document under me were breaking new ground. The process was roughly similar to what had occurred in newspapers and news magazines 10 years before: the awareness that straight, objective reporting was often inadequate and sometimes misleading, and that think-pieces, interpretives and signed columns were necessary adjuncts if the people were to be kept informed.

There were holdouts, in both the press and television, against the new

journalistic forms. The New' York Times held out for a decade against columnists. When the Times publisher finally capitulated, the chief column was written by James B. Reston, the paper's most distinguished reporter. (It's interesting to note that Reston had for some time before that been doing TV “columns” for the CBC, at

my request, for the Close-Up series.)

Wherever such TV journalism was attempted, it was controversial. It had to be. It was bringing into the living room the full flesh and girth of world figures. It was stripping away sham and pretension. It was revealing people and events as only the camera eye could see them.

Sometimes the vision was frightening. Sometimes it was distorted, because the mechanical iris sees only two dimensions. But mostly it was real, it was astonishingly accurate, and it was distinctly television.

Many reporters could, and did. write in 1965 that Fred Fawcett was not insane. But the fact became undeniable only when Seven Days cameras zeroed in on his face, inside the maximum security asylum at Penetanguishene, and heard him say.

How can the public be protected?

“The doctors said I was insane ... was satisfied for the court to make that decision.”

We first asked for permission film an interview with Fawcett, and this was refused. No reason was given.

We learned that his sister visited him regularly and was sometimes accompanied hy a lawyer or psychiatrist. So a three-man Seven Days crew packed their camera and tape recorder picnic baskets and accompanied Miss Fawcett to the barred gate.

“Good day. Miss Fawcett,” said the guard through the peephole. “Wait and I’ll see if your brother is available.” A few minutes later he returned and opened the gate. Miss Fawcett and her “friends” passed through the gate, then through another guarded gate, into a room reserved for visitors. Fred Fawcett was brought in, the cameras were unlimbered and the interview began. After two minutes filming the door opened and a guard looked in. The filming continued. Two minutes later the door opened and another guard walked in, observed what was going on, cleaned off the blackboard and went out again. The interview was completed, the cameras packed away in the baskets, and the party left. The CBC crew had done their job without being asked a single question. The interview was “unauthorized.” It could not have been accomplished by the regular channels.

But it helped get Fred Fawcett free.

We were criticized for invasion of public institution, for using extra-legal means to get the interview. The item came within an ace of being pulled off the air, six hours before broadcast. Yet Stuart Keate said of the Fawcett story in his report: “It is my belief that most metropolitan dailies in Canada would have awarded their staff a bonus for such a successful exercise in social justice.”

Postal clerk George Victor Spencer was an enigma, until he bared his soul to Jack Webster’s relentless questioning in a Seven Days studio. We had been in contact with Spencer for weeks, and he finally agreed to meet Webster in a lawyer's office to discuss a Seven Days interview. He trusted Webster, and his lawyer ‘^e'ieved that Seven Days would give him the best possible national forum to make his case. Webster phoned me from the lawyer's office, and Spencer agreed that there would be “no holds barred” and we would edit the 90-minute interview according to our best judgment. Webster’s production company handled the payment, which I understood was $500 plus expenses. The intervieww-as gripping. Webster was at his pugnacious best — tough, relentless, gentle, humane. The final question only Webster could have asked: “Were you. George Victor Spencer, the prize sucker of the Soviet Embassy?”

Spencer bowed his head and replied.

"I guess I am. Jack. I’ve been sucker all my life.” No one could have written a more eloquent epitaph.

Television journalism of this calibre cannot be aired without undermining the old myths of objectivity and “studious neutrality.” These notions have never been more than myths.

The very process of editing, even the CBC National News, has always involved the subjective judgment of an editor, a director, or even a standup reporter with his own evaluation for an on-camera report.

But the conventional wisdom in high places has always hidden behind comfortable myths. Not understanding the processing of hard news, some people in television understand even less the processes of vivid first-person TV journalism.

As long ago as 1954, when Edward R. Murrow effectively destroyed Senator Joe McCarthy by a skillful edit of his speeches, the cognoscenti have been aware that TV journalism is a powerful tool. It can be used well, or badly. It can be used by honest and dedicated men, or by fools and knaves. The protection of the public lies not in trying to prevent the tool from being used; that would be as useless as pretending gunpowder had never been invented. The protection of the public lies in the choice of the men who use the tools, and in the public’s shrewd and certain awareness when it is being hoaxed.

Their business: to question

Only the bureaucratic mind can know the frustration of confronting a problem that cannot be covered by policy statements. To try to lay down rules to cover the new-old journalism makes no sense at all.

There is only one way to do it, and every honest journalist of whatever medium has known it: you must be as honest and as fair as you know how.

If the men who have their hands on the levers do not believe in those principles and observe them to the best of their ability, they should be removed, and swiftly, for the damage they can do is immense.

What upsets some viewers, including members of CBC management, is that Webster, Zolf, Faibish, LaPierre. Watson, (and indeed all the Seven Days interviewers) do not always adhere to “studious neutrality.” These critics have perhaps never read C. L. Sulzberger’s dictum for reporters of the New York Times'. “There are no indiscreet questions — only indiscreet answers." Good reporters have always asked tough questions. That is the business of journalism. But since the advent of TV it has been possible for them to show the raw process of journalism before your very eyes.

They often pry into obscure corners of our society. They may make us uncomfortable, as they reveal what we would prefer not to see. But the cameras must not he censored in advance. No producer should send directors or cameramen on stories and tell them not to film what they see — any more than an editor would send a reporter and tell him to close his eyes to certain aspects of a story. The reporter’s story must be judged by what gets into the paper, and the director’s film by what goes on the air.

Like print reporters, cameramen must sometimes work where they are not welcome. If they go too far in the


Prod, expose, examine and never leave the public in peace

invasion of personal privacy or trespass, they will he enjoined by law. But a good reporter knows, as does a good cameraman, that he may have to w'alk uninvited onto a company’s premises to report a strike, or into a politician's office to ask an embarrassing question, or into a wddow'’s home to report on the deceased. These are unpleasant duties for reporters and for cameramen. But they are necessary obligations of reporting. If a law is breached, the offended party has recourse to the courts.

Some of the most insightful and \alliable reporting is done without the permission of authorities who, having personal interests to serve, would rever permit it. The legitimate newspaper exposes that win the highest awards often are based on information obtained by unauthorized means. The same is true of TV journalism:

• The CBS film. Biography Of A Bookie Joint: Neither bookies nor police consented. The hidden camera recorded the payoffs.

• Beryl Fox's Mills Of The Gods: The United States Air Force certainly would not have approved. The pilot, after firing his napalm, told Erik Durschmied's camera, “I really like to do this.” and. “Look at it burn!” The pilot knew' the camera was on him. The USAF did not. It would have censored the footage if it could have laid hands on it. A “patch cord” was plugged into the fighter-bomber’s intercom. Erik shot from the copilot's seat. The scene w'as almost unbelievable. Critics who should know better thought it was faked.

What is a public-affairs magazine like Seven Days?

To some, including the TV columnist of one newspaper, it is an "intellectual Beverly Hillbillies, a Goldfinger world, crazy as it can be. dedicated to pure sensation, pure delight, pure hokum.” Perhaps a better definition is the one Marc Thibault, the wise public-affairs supervisor of the French network, gave the Committee on Broadcasting this May.

The successful magazine, he said, "will never be quiet, will almost never leave its public in peace, will always be dealing with ‘problems,’ will operate olten with explosive material, in search of its human reality and its social dimension. It often presents controversial figures, it presses confrontations, raises doubts, forces evaluation. It upsets fixed ideas and rooted habits. It appears sometimes destructive and negative. It shocks

forcibly if not deliberately. It disconcerts startlingly at one moment or another. It leaves none of us in an easy situation — not the audience, not the producer, not middle management, not Head Office."

Two years ago a talented staff ot 30 people launched such a program, called This Hour Has Seven Days.

Now. 50 hours of television later, it has achieved some of its objectives.

Those who do not understand the program, or the nature of television, have said that Seven Days can do "an even better job" if you take away the parts of the program they don’t approve of. and dismiss the people who host and produce it.

They may succeed. If they do. it will make an interesting footnote to the statement of CBC President Alphonse Ouimet to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Conference, in Nigeria. He said, “We must never fear to show our present-day society as it is. even if the picture may sometimes be disturbing or unpleasant. We must never fear to make room for new' ideas, artistic innovations, new ways of thinking. notwithstanding the protests ot certain elements in our audience.” it