The knight of the fifth estate

Malling's worry dances between excellence that obsesses him and irrational fear that one day, any day, his luck will turn

Roy MacGregor April 13 1981

The knight of the fifth estate

Malling's worry dances between excellence that obsesses him and irrational fear that one day, any day, his luck will turn

Roy MacGregor April 13 1981

No one, but no one, reads people like a bum. This one looks through glasses held together with cracked Scotch tape, the day’s light rain left unwiped for an added touch of pathos, and he sees Eric Malling and the guilt of his success from the moment he steps away from his red ‘Porsche. Malling hurries down the sidewalk, head slanted into the weather in the awkward manner of the thin-haired. The bum steps out. “Excuse me, sir,” he says with deliberate weakness, hand cupped for the offering, “but could you please spare a quarter?” Malling prefers not to notice, but then runs into his Prairie conscience. He stops, fumbles for change, is unable to find any. The bum stares unforgivingly at Malling, and suddenly it is Malling who looks downtrodden. “I never know what to do,” he mumbles. “I’m always drawn both ways.”

Back in an upper bedroom of the proudly renovated Toronto home he shares with his wife, Pat, and their two young children, Leif and Paige, a mantle holds two statues. One is a Nellie, the ACTRA Award for excellence in television public affairs won two years ago by

Malling for his work on CBC’s the fifth estate. The other is a bum, a clay beggar Malling bought on a whim, and between these two poles Eric Malling’s worry dances like the blue line of an electrical charge: one side the excellence that drives him, obsesses him; the other an irrational fear that luck, which in truth has had little say in the matter, will one day take another turn.

“I don’t want personalities,” Edward L. Murrow, the late, legendary CBS news man once said. “If you’re a good reporter, you’ll become a personality. It will take care of itself.” And so it has for Malling, without the bubble bursting. This week, less than five years after he joined the program as a surprise replacement for Warner Troyer, the 34-year-old Malling will fly to Vancouver for the 1981 ACTRA Awards night, nominated for best television host and also for the prestigious Gordon Sinclair Award for outspoken broadcast journalism. Not bad for a face that has trouble stealing scenes from a backdrop and a delivery he describes as “the thin reedy voice from Saskatchewan.” Impressive for one dismissed as a “mousey wimp” by one critic and called the “most offensive TV personality” by the editor of The Toronto Sun. These days, when executive producer Glenn Sarty tells the makeup man to “Do what you can with him, he’s all we’ve got,” the laugh that follows is not hollow but packed with smug contentment.

In 1975, when the fifth estate was launched, it was known as “the fifth mistake.” The program survived bad chemistry (an acidic solution composed of Troyer and Adrienne Clarkson managed to oxidize Troyer’s contract after one year) and tragedy (host Peter Reilly’s death) to emerge as a slick, world-class publicaffairs program. With a domestic audience of roughly 1.5 million and impressive foreign sales, the program stretches its $50,000-a-show budget (approximately a fifth the cost of CBS’ 60 Minutes) over everything from joy to sorrow to outrage. And when the story involves outrage—political patronage, squandered development money, industrial pollution, Canadian involvement in arms shipments to South Africa or a potential Pakistani nuclear bomb—the face fronting the show is usually Eric Malling’s. He may look like the late Wally Cox, and it is true that Glenn Sarty at first tried, unsuccessfully, to take Malling shopping for new glasses—“Peter Fonda motorcycle style,” Malling recalls—but looks today have nothing to say in the matter. “To me,” says Adrienne Clarkson, one of his co-hosts (Ian Parker is the other), “it’s not whether you’re good on television, it’s whether people believe what you say—and people tend to believe Eric.”

If Adrienne Clarkson is the face of the program, then Malling is surely its tongue. It is, slightly less professionally than privately, sharp enough to deserve sterilization after use. And though charm usually saves him from his audacity, the tongue sometimes leads to trouble, as it did recently when Malling referred to the American-educated son of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza as someone whom “you can easily see going for a Big Mac after a hard day of dropping peasants out of helicopters.” At first, worried he was getting off on the wrong foot with Clarkson, Malling tried to soften her up with, “Gee, Adrienne, that’s a really great dress you’re wearing—can I wear it next week?”

What fuels Malling is reaction. He first saw it in the dazzled eyes of his mother’s junior Sunday school class for four-year-olds. Eric was 7 and had a magic kit. More important, he had an advantage: he knew where the coins had gone and they didn’t, he had power and they didn’t. Knowledge and power: young Eric liked that. And again in university, when as a summer student, he wrote a column in the Swift Current Sun accusing the town’s main focal point, the federal experimental farm, of nepotism in its student hiring practices. The town was outraged. Ottawa became curious, and the hiring practices mysteriously changed. More power. There was huge pleasure to be found in being, as one old Malling friend puts it, “the eye of the storm rather than the storm itself.”

Swift Current, Sask., has the type of small-town ethos where a number like 150 is considered more valuable in penalty minutes than IQ. The only son of a butcher who had come over from Denmark, a brainy kid who wasn’t good at sports which would have given him entrée into the audience he needed. But he was witty, sarcastic and gifted with his hands. He made the car crowd laugh and could break down a carburetor. It didn’t matter that he drove around town in an old Prefect and wore galoshes even in high summer to protect his shoes from the dirt that poured up through the floorboards: soon he was wearing the jacket of the Karb Kings.

At university in Saskatoon “he was a ‘respectable’ student activist,” a contemporary remembers. “No Dow Chemical or Vietnam stuff. The safe issues.” He was superb on his feet, with what one former colleague recalls as a “professional” bravery. “He probably would have made an excellent lawyer,” says Global Television News’s Ottawa bureau chief Doug Small, who was also at Saskatoon. “But he would have been bored. Malling needs an audience and I don’t think a courtroom audience would have been large enough for him.”

Lacking direction, Malling accidentally became an audience himself. After first working for the provincial government in information, he landed a job with the Regina Leader-Post and would often spend long evenings sitting silent in the panelled office of Ross Thatcher as the Saskatchewan premier reminisced into the night about Prairie politics. Often, hitching a ride home after those long sessions, he would be picked up by a heater-less Volkswagen driven by Allen Blakeney, then the ambitious deputy leader of the NDP opposition, and Malling would find himself stranded on his elbows over cold Chinese food, nodding and listening as Blakeney described life on the other side of the Thatcher mirror. It was a marvelous political education, and if Malling learned one thing, it was that between the huge gaps in rhetoric lay a simple, narrow difference; the keeping of power and the seeking of power. Between them there was elbow room, and Malling wasn’t above taking advantage of it. He would become a journalist. And by God, the politicians had better learn to keep their heads up.

Coming east to the Carleton School of Journalism, an impatient Malling soon found himself in a professor’s office being called “the most odious student” in the school’s memory and being welladvised to get out fast: there would certainly be no future in journalism for someone—perhaps Carleton’s all-time star graduate—who showed nothing but open contempt for journalism school. Even now, the former director of the school, Joseph Scanlon, refuses to even discuss Eric Malling. But the impatience of those years seems somehow justified today. In quick succession Malling rose from the Regina Leader Post to the Toronto Star, from CBC radio to the CTV network as a news reporter and commentator, from there to the fifth estate. At 29 years of age.

If people did not take note of the face, they soon came to recognize the style. A week on the job in Toronto and Ian Deans, an NDP member of the provincial legislature, had to be restrained from throttling Malling for some loud, tongue-in-cheek remarks about some “wretched” rubber plant workers. A week in Ottawa and a member of Parliament was flailing at Malling for casting doubts on his sobriety. The radio commentary was a case, he now admits, of saying the most outrageous things he could think of: baby bonus cheques, for example, would be linked to hairdressers and gin sales. Objective he was not.

That Malling ever broke into television at all was a surprise to nearly all who knew him. Not that they doubted his ability; just his presence, and his voice. But, says CTV Ottawa bureau chief Bruce Phillips, the man who hired Malling: “I knew Eric was just such a hell of a good solid journalist that it would come through. And that’s just what happened.” Malling’s Canada AM commentary showed the hard edge of a cynic and enough wit to make the sword thrusts periodically tickle.

Meanwhile, over at CBC, they were beginning to look for a replacement for Warner Troyer. Glenn Sarty hadn’t a clue who Eric Malling was. He wanted Finlay MacDonald, the silver-haired, golden-throated backroom Tory organizer. MacDonald wasn’t interested and tried to sell Sarty on his son, Finlay Junior, who also wasn’t interested but who lobbied hard for Malling. Sarty checked him out and was impressed, as was the senior producer Ron Haggart, himself a former print journalist and a believer in substance over style. Malling, who only a few years earlier had dared to say to friends his idea of total success was a byline on the front page of the Toronto Star, was suddenly being offered glory far beyond his dreams. Expressing the surprise of many, his friend Michael Lavoie, now a producer with the fifth estate, instantly wired: “Good luck. Don’t walk for the first few shows. Stay seated. Check zipper and practice, practice, practice.”

It was advice Malling naturally followed. And the hard work paid off. “Complicated information is one of the things we—and Eric in particularhandle well,” says Haggart. And there’s the style. “The only other guy I know who can lead somebody so well into the tough question is Mike Wallace,” says Jacques Grenier, a Malling friend now with ABC Television News in Paris. The 60 Minutes' Wallace, like Malling, is known as the hardest-working host on the show. They have the same flair for third-degree journalism and dramatic confrontation—Malling often refers to himself as “El Hosto” in private—and the same propensity for trouble. Wallace, however, is 30 years older.

Again like Wallace, Malling can be a tyrant, so eager to get the story as he perceives it that the technique sometimes strikes others as Machiavellian. “If you don’t agree, then you’re an asshole,” says one non-fan on the show’s technical side. Impatient, thorough and tough-minded, the qualities one admires in edited video form are often the very qualities one dislikes in a shared airplane seat. Malling differs greatly from Wallace, however, in that where Wallace has at times been accused of shilling for big business, Malling is seldom for anything. And where his friends enjoy this iconoclastic quality, it is not popular with everyone. “The constant haranguing of everything can get on your nerves,” says one who has worked with him. “There’s always something wrong with everything.”

“I care about the stories I do and I’m not easy to work with,” says Malling. “I have a sharp tongue. I have set ideas. But people still ask to work with me.” Glenn Sarty knows it: “If Canada ever produces an Edward R. Murrow type, that person could be Malling. I say to him: ‘Your day is 20 years away. When you get a little fat on the bone. When your face gets a little craggy.’ Christ— what I’d give to be his agent then.”

Such prophecy terrifies Malling. His usual inclination is to deflect recognition, as when he tells friends that the first full phrase of Leif, his and Pat’s older child, will undoubtedly be: “Daddy, what’s Adrienne really like?” Behind the sharp tongue and the newfound recognition Eric Malling remains the funny-looking, skinny kid in the Karb Kings jacket, off on yet another fishing trip to northern Saskatchewan, forcing his friends mile after boring mile to play his favorite car game, Front Page Challenge. Last fall, when he found himself appearing on the program as a guest panelist, he had to think about those miles and how quickly they’d been covered. Swift Current was so fresh he still possessed his very first hard-cover book, Pierre Berton’s The Golden Trail, which Malling had received as a present at the end of grade three. When he showed it to Berton last year during an interview, Berton took a pen and wrote on the inside leaf: “To little Eric, I hope that one day you will grow up to be a famous television interviewer.”

A touch of revisionist history, perhaps, but for the first time Eric Malling felt that just maybe it might really have happened.