Maclear's Magazine

The same old muckraker, armed with a wider rake

David Cobb October 17 1977

Maclear's Magazine

The same old muckraker, armed with a wider rake

David Cobb October 17 1977

Maclear's Magazine



The same old muckraker, armed with a wider rake

David Cobb

Michael Maclear is scratching away at a Caesar salad like a finicky hen. Finally it’s ignored altogether: his appetite is at best a sometime thing and now he has more pressing things on his mind. The extraordinary Maclear voice, monochrome but compelling, is explaining his vision of TV’S current duties and dilemmas. “The box,” he says, “is the inheritor of the old village storyteller—it answers the old instinct to entertain the villagers huddled round the campfire millennia ago.” The voice’s cadence and shading—the way it fades and drops at the end of phrases, a dying fall— suggest that Maclear is a perennial pessimist, and would have been no happier with the village storyteller than with the current state of Canadian TV reporting, which he regards as at best increasingly amateurish, at worst a fraud. “What’s wrong is the idea that if you have the film you have the story,” he continues, fastening on the kernel of the Maclear gospel. “I love film, but pictures are not what matters on TV. The storytelling must come first.”

Who is this man and why is he saying such terrible things about the national pacifier? First and foremost, of course, Maclear is a storyteller himself—sometimes to the derision of colleagues who would mock his tendency to write “wallto-wall sound” at the expense of film—and

for three seasons of CTV’S Maclear he scoured the world for new disasters. But that was for 57 half hours spread between 1974 and 1977, the Maclear views and ravaged appearance prominent in all of them.

Now he is in a much bigger pond, as executive producer of 90 minutes of currentaffairs prime-time programming every week for CTV: 30 primarily Canadian minutes on Thursdays (9.30 p.m.), 60 more international minutes on Sundays (at 10 p.m., replacing the venerable 1V5), under the umbrella title of CTV Reports.

This time Maclear will not have much chance to appear on the tube himself, but he has gathered around him a team of producers, journalists, story editors and on-air hosts that may be unsurpassed in Canadian current-affairs television. The cohosts: CTV’S Bruce Phillips, Jack McGaw, Maclean’s senior writer Barbara Amiel, André Payette from Quebec, and Peter Trueman, first among equals, who will anchor both shows (see box). Two other frequent contributors will beTom Gould,former CTV news director, and Bill Stevenson, former CBC correspondent and author of 90 Minutes A t Entebbe.

In the top seat Maclear is responsible for more weekly current-affairs air time than any North American network has entrusted to one man before. He therefore has a unique chance to blow some fresh and urgent air into TV reporting—which he finds has become static, predictable, dull and dated—or to end up wearing one of the more public dunce caps in TV history. He worries most whether he can jolt Canadians “out of their appalling apathy”: heaven knows that’s a gamble, but Maclear is nothing if not a gambler. “The man who has never gambled,” he once reported from Las Vegas, “is a man without a soul.” By that standard the Maclear soul should be big enough for most of China.

Above all, soul (or personal feeling) is what he intends CTV Reports most to convey; closely followed by relevance and immediacy (as much as possible of both shows will be live, not prepackaged weeks beforehand). At his first preseason meeting with about 25 of his team, he thanked them for some 60 story ideas, then added: “What 1 missed was what you felt about

your ideas—what angered you, what made you happy. These programs must reach conclusions.” He also explained that all the suggestions had ignored the obvious: “The number one story in the country today is not Quebec, it’s unemployment”—and indeed the first hour-long Report dealt with just that. “I suggest you put stories down under three headings,” Maclear continued, raising his voice slightly over the rustle of 25 obedient notebooks. “1) Gut issues; 2) Need-to-know, investigative stories; 3) Human interest—but it’s got to have bite. I’m not interested in fivelegged cows, or let’s-have-a-giggle-fortwo-minutes items. No."

No indeed. Maclear’s seminal credo, sardonically repeated, is that “there is no

human hope.” For three years the intro to Maclear induced a million to 1.5 million Canadians into the requisite Maclear mood every Thursday night, after a dissolve of the host’s Dickensian profile, with five brief filmed images: a beggar inching his way along the ground; flies crawling over a young boy’s agonized and screaming face; British paratroopers in Ireland; an Oriental girl flooring a male assailant with a brutal uppercut to the jaw; and a Mountie struggling with a demonstrator— the last of which faded into a shot of a jet taking off for paths unknown. The message was clear: aboard was Michael Maclear in search of fresh proof of the beast in the hu-

man breast, the folly of optimisim. Yet the man was unquenchable: if indeed there was no human hope, he seemed to be saying, he was going to be the first to prove it to us, and God knows he tried.

Many of his shows were first-rate, tautly edited, scripted into elegant elegiacs. One, about the United States as victim of its own war, centred around a young former marine, psychologically warped by his Vietnam experience and now in a U.S. jail for fulfilling a $150 murder contract; the second concerned the loss of freedom in Greece after the generals took over. The mood, the subject, the writing of both meshed with Maclear’s personal style and cadaverous physique—“nobody,” a friend once told him, “could be that ugly and

lie”—to provide memorable and moving programs. Only when he turned to lighter subjects did his style seem out of synch, too ominous for a sunny day; so that earlier this year the last Maclear we saw—a supposedly upbeat look at “the ultimate anthill” of downtown Tokyo “where the streets wind where they can, stop where they must” and where the people looked infectiously happy with their lot—the style sounded off-key. There was human hope all around him, and try as he might Maclear did not sound as if he believed it.

To meet Maclear is more fun than he sounds. In a medium that encourages egos that could inflate a fleet of Goodyear blimps, Maclear’s ego seems almost nonexistent. Once, singled out by a TV columnist for particular praise, he called each member of his crew “Michael Maclear” for days afterward. Many attest to his charm, notably with women: “He plays on the sexual tension,” says one. “With men, he uses wit.” She adds that he’s at his best with women “during the initial tribal dance, before you’re on a fully professional basis. I mean, he’s not obviously attractive, is he?—gangly, six-four, weighing about 100 pounds less than he should, beak nose, jug ears... But no woman who meets him for the first time will remember any of it.” In earlier, salad days something about that look of wrecked devastation brought the cook out in women. “It was hell,” remembers one of them. “No matter what I

made for him, his face would contort with agony.” Somehow, possessed of chronic insomnia, a large daily intake of pills, a degenerative disc, a pinched spinal nerve and God knows what other roiling internal rebellions, he has managed to reach 47, and will probably live to 106.

Born in England, he was four when his parents divorced, and he was brought up by guardians. For a time he went to boarding school in London, from which he says he remembers only two things: “The first was the announcement that Paris had

fallen—total silence. The second was the announcement that the school was adjourned for the duration of the war—loud cheers. I hated it all.”

At 15 he went to work as a copy boy for the London bureau of the Chicago Tribune and some 10 years later, then a Tribune reporter, he decided to emigrate to Canada. After a brief spell on an Oakville, Ontario, weekly—terminated by the owner when he found that his new employee’s editorials were inflaming that placid little town— Maclear lasted three months with The Globe and Mail. He never got to write editorials there but he was given a pink slip anyway, for reasons still not clear to him. Possibly for drinking beer on the premises; possibly for driving a Fiat up the service elevator, then honking the horn in the newsroom, which the Globe brass, observing their higher loyalties to the Chief Magistrate, could not have been expected to find ingratiating.

So he wandered over to the CBC, whose young TV arm hired him as an editor for the national news. “A new medium, a new country, and I was away,” Maclear remembers. “Nobody wanted to write for film items, it was a chore, and I loved it.” In 1956 he joined Newsmagazine as executive producer; Morley Safer, currently one of the troika hosting CBS’S high-rated Sixty Minutes, was his deputy. “In rather a pallid way, we were young Turks,” says Safer, “trying to make television an instrument of

journalism, not for it.” Maclear: “Before Newsmagazine, CBC-TV looked on its job as relaying the news, not covering it. If the news didn’t come over the wires, it didn’t exist.”

It certainly existed for him, and by 1960 he was back to active reporting as a foreign correspondent. In his time Maclear has won impressive news beats: he was in India when China invaded and in Cuba when Castro made his triumphant entry into Havana during the revolution; later, he was the only Western journalist in Hanoi at the time of Ho Chi Minh’s death and funeral, the first to film the devastation of North Vietnam by U.S. bombing, the first to gain filmed interviews with U.S. prisoners of war.

But nothing in Maclear’s life seems to run smoothly for long, and his career at the CBC was pockmarked by various detonations that in some circles gave him the label of troublemaker. “Mike is a helluva worrier,” says a former boss, “and if you’re the one who’s putting out the show he can be an incredible pain in the ass.”

Once, outraged that some film he had shot in Cyprus had been severely edited by Donald Cameron and Bill Cunningham for Newsmagazine, he cabled furiously: CAMERON AND CUNNINGHAM, VIEW YOUR EDITORSHIP WITH UTTER CONTEMPT STOP WILL NEVER WORK FOR NEWSMAGAZINE AGAIN. . . Cameron, now CTV’S vice-president in charge of news features, and Cunningham, now head of news for GlobalTV’S Ontario network, called themselves “the utter contemptibles” for some time thereafter, and remain friends of Maclear’s to this day (though in Cunningham’s case somewhat tenuously: see box).

Less friendly were the CBC’S grey men, who noted Maclear’s general prickliness, his refusal of one assignment, his personal complaint to the head of the CBC about the planned closing of two CBC foreign bureaus (a plan later overruled), and finally urged him to take a Moscow posting—essentially a radio job. “The knives were out for me,” says Maclear. “I was told I was a liability to the news service, and the Commie-symp rumors started—the definite suggestion that I’d been to Vietnam once too often.” By 1971 he’d had enough: he jumped to CTV, prompting one member of the CBC brass to murmur privately: “It’ll do a guy like that a lot of good to spend some time in the private sector.” (Much the same attitude inspired an earlier CBC judgment on Morley Safer, Maclear’s former colleague. “Safer,” explained a dweller in the corporation’s Toronto executive offices, “will never amount to anything.”)

In the trade Maclear is variously admired as “a helluva reporter” possessing “courage and integrity,” a man who has a great way with a script—certainly a major reason why the accent in CTV Reports will be on the writing. He is also admired for his drive and rigorously ordered mind when on the job—and, as a correspondent,

for his meticulously detailed instructions, ignored at one’s peril, for editing his film. “I don’t think anyone enjoys working with Mike,” says Phillip Pendry, a round and laughing cameraman who presumably does since he has worked with him for 20 years, “but what I like is that he knows exactly what he’s doing. He doesn’t waffle. Mike’s the only correspondent I know who’ll do two interviews on a 10-minute film magazine: others’ll go through three or four magazines for one. Some cameramen don’t like it because he’ll sacrifice the picture for the words, but with film at $50 a 10-minute roll and $50 more for processing I admire that meanness.” Maclear urges a similar stringency on his current team: “Don’t shoot more than eight feet for every one you use,” he urges them—a figure Pendry considers at least twice too generous. This dictum has not so far met with total success: 400 minutes of film were shot for one eight-minute segment already shown on CTV Reports, or a ratio of 50 to one.

That’s not the sort of gamble, or odds, that Maclear appreciates. He prefers the horses, or chemin de fer, ox poker; he has bet on who can throw quarters closest to a wall. Once, in swinging-London days, his luck was in at Crockford’s, the tony London gambling joint: in a back room reserved for chemmy, where the high rollers included Cubby Broccoli, producer of the Bond movies, and Brian Epstein, creator of the Beatles, and where the minimum chip was £400 ($1,000 at mid-Sixties rates), Maclear managed to walk away with £4,000 in less than 15 minutes. But there’s no human hope, after all: other times, other places, he stayed too long or not long enough (“Mike has never been as good a gambler as he thinks he is,” Safer sniffs), and on a few occasions landed in serious trouble. Once he and his wife, Mariko, whom he met in Japan, were reduced to having fried eggs for Christmas dinner in London.

But he says that’s behind him. “I gave up serious gambling because I lost more than I won”—and adds defensively: “/ don’t understand why people want to climb mountains.” People climb different mountains, that’s all. To have any success gambling or climbing, “you can’t be afraid of failure—and I can’t understand people who are.” Nevertheless, as the countdown for the first CTV Reports neared at the end of last month, the team’s tension was palpable and so was Maclear’s. One staffer called the mood “tentative gung ho.” Another, crisply: “Maclear’s driving everyone absolutely nuts!” A cake, inspiringly inscribed “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!”, was presented to Maclear and his senior producers; Maclear allowed that he was much moved. Human hope sprang fitfully ...

But all that was at base camp. The rest of us this season can see how far Michael Maclear can drive himself and his team up the mountain wall.1^?