Knowlton Nash portrays a CBC management beset by sniping and tantrums

September 26 1994


Knowlton Nash portrays a CBC management beset by sniping and tantrums

September 26 1994




Knowlton Nash portrays a CBC management beset by sniping and tantrums

It is the consummate insider’s story: one of the CBC’s most respected journalists writing candidly about an Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of paranoia, blundering and sniping in the public network’s executive offices. In The Microphone Wars: A History of Triumph and Betrayal at the CBC, to be published next month by McClelland & Stewart, veteran newsman Knowlton Nash reviews the history of public broadcasting in Canada. In this edited excerpt from the final chapters, Nash turns his attention to the CBC’s more recent turmoil. The former CBC correspondent and anchor of The National news show takes his readers behind the scenes as president Gérard Veilleux and chairman Patrick Watson face a barrage of criticism starting in 1990 for their handling of much debated governmentimposed cuts in planned spending. (Government subsidies, in fact, remained in place, inching up from $911 million in 1989, the year Veilleux assumed office, to $1.1 billion when he left in 1993. The CBC’s operating budget went up slightly, too, from $1.28 billion to $1.31 billion.)

Veilleux and Watson also took a lot of heat for launching a controversial “repositioning” strategy that, among other things, moved CBC TV’s flagship news program to 9 p.m. in 1992 from its established 10 p.m. slot. Ratings quickly plummeted, and this month, with the

return of the news to 10 p.m., one of the most visible accomplishments of Veilleux’s tenure was unceremoniously discarded. The cohosts who sat side by side for the first two years of the so-called seamless Prime Time News are back at separate desks: Peter Mansbridge once again introduces a news segment off the top, followed by Pamela Wallin with a so-called magazine section to round out the hour—a format frankly reminiscent of the popular National and Journal that PTN replaced. The drama behind the making and unmaking of repositioning:

Veilleux was 46, a bureaucrat who had worked unseen in the back corridors of Ottawa, a managerial and financial wizard who knew nothing whatever about broadcasting. Watson was about to be 60, a white-haired battle-scarred, much-honored broadcaster who knew nothing about managing (Watson’s story, page 50). While Watson loved centre stage as a public personality, Veilleux was a fish out of water. But as CBC president he could no longer be an anonymous, grey civil servant. Reporters asked questions, even personal questions, all the time, cameras and microphones poked into what hitherto had been his privacy, and service clubs and universities wanted him to address meetings.

He had always been persuasive in closeddoor meetings with ministers and mandarins, but dealing with the sometimes rambunctious, uninhibited CBC employees and inquisitive reporters was very different. He tried to shy away from the spotlight. “I didn’t cope well,” Veilleux says. “It was very intrusive and a source of tremendous stress for me right to the end. I never really got used to it. I am a very private person, and I found it one of the most difficult dimensions of the job.”

For Watson, of course, all this was old hat, and he revelled in his high office. The differences between Watson and Veilleux shaped their professional relationship: Watson would be the diplomat and Veilleux would run the place as the chief executive officer. Veilleux’s entrenchment as undisputed boss was reinforced by the extraordinarily long time it took for the new broadcasting act to become law. He was named president under the old law, but Watson’s appointment couldn’t be formalized until the new law, with its provision for a chairman, was proclaimed. That would take more than a year and a half, and in the meantime Watson languished in a kind of corporate purgatory as “chairman-designate.” Provisions in the new law also tightened the government’s financial controls on the CBC and that, in turn, affected its ability to manage.

What was much worse for the CBC, however,

was [Prime Minister Brian] Mulroney’s financial crackdown on the corporation. It had begun as soon as the Conservatives took office in the fall of 1984 when their budget slashing was spurred by an anti-CBC zeal. Within days of settling into his office on the sixth floor of CBC headquarters, almost the first thing to hit Veilleux’s desk was a report on the implications of the government cutbacks, announced the previous spring, of $140 million by 1994.

In January, 1990, Veilleux announced a $35million chop in spending in the next year. Much of the cutback came out of what Veilleux deemed to be the fat CBC bureaucracy, and more than 300 employees were laid off. By spring, 1990, Veilleux’s finance people were telling him he might have to make another $15 million in cuts.

McQUEEN: 'Veilleux’s temper was at its worst when [the subject] was something that concerned his own accomplishments.’

VEILLEUX, on the CBC presidency’s high profile:

‘I didn’t cope well. I never really got used to it. I am a very private person.’

HARVEY, as the budget axe threatened CBC bureaus: You can’t close Toronto for God’s sake! There are three million people there!’

As Veilleux dug into the many-layered CBC with its 11,000 employees, billion-dollar budget, regions, networks, divisions, turf wars and fiercely independent creative programmers, he was surprised at the complexity and what to him seemed almost the anarchy of the corporation. Most of all, he was shocked by what he felt was a reluctance to make tough decisions. “There would be a great to-do to try to avoid making a decision, so they would sweep it under the carpet and bob and weave, and that was not my style,” he says.

Veilleux grew increasingly discomforted by the managerial looseness, arguments and resistance he felt he was encountering among many of his senior executives, especially in Toronto. Some of his executives, in turn, began to feel he equated debate over some of his proposals with disobedience and even betrayal. “At first, he would have us at meetings and listen to us,” says Denis Harvey, then the vice-president in charge of English television. “But it soon became very apparent that he wanted yes-men around him and that he didn’t really want a debate on anything.”

In the fall of 1990, Veilleux came back from a two-week trip to Cyprus to be told that he had a $ 100-million problem, not just a $50-million one. “What happened?” he asked Tony Manera, his senior vice-president. “The commercial revenue just nosedived,” Manera told him.

“I just about died,” Veilleux says. He despised management surprises. Over the next few months, his executives were obsessed with finding ways to chop back their spending by at least $100 million and find almost that much again to pay the costs of getting rid of more than a thousand employees. “Everybody was trying to protect their ass and cut the other guy’s budget,” one senior executive says. It was a nightmare, but Veilleux felt that as a good public servant he would do “the job I am given to do.” Most of his senior managers told him: “Go to the government and tell them that you are drawing the line in the sand and that this is war.” That kind of talk made him nervous. It was a winless fight, he felt. Besides, he felt that since the entire Canadian business sector was undergoing a massive readjustment and the size of government was being reduced, the CBC could not be exempted.

Patrick Watson picked up the same theme, explaining to The Globe and Mail: “If we had gone to war the way [Veilleux’s predecessor, Pierre] Juneau did, we would have won a series of stiff arms and would have corrupted the relationship with the senior public servants.”

[Senior managers soon complained about being left out of the process.] Harvey had heard that final decisions on what cuts were to be made would take place in Ottawa on a late November weekend, and he called Veilleux’s executive vice-president, Michael McEwen, a CBC veteran who came out of the Calgary radio station. “Michael, what’s going on? Are you people meeting on Sunday?” “Well, yes,” said McEwen. ‘We’re meeting to make the final decisions.” Harvey blew his top. “You stupid buggers are going to make the biggest mistake you ever made in your life if you don’t have the four vicepresidents of the media there to at least guide you in your decision-making!” McEwen called back an hour later after talking with Veilleux to say: “All right, get on a plane and come down here.”

At the Sunday meeting, Veilleux seemed to Harvey to be impatient, cold and angry at having so many present. There were about a dozen around the sixth-floor boardroom table. “OK, we’ll start with the West Coast,” Veilleux began in a fast, tension-laced voice. He wanted symmetry in the cuts such as having only one CBC TV station per province. The first problem came over Alberta, where it was proposed that the Edmonton station be shut down and Calgary be kept open.

“Just a moment,” said Harvey. “I really think that’s a problem. You’ve got to have a common thread that you’re staying in the provincial capitals.” Harvey argued that the Calgary local CBC station should be closed instead of Edmonton. Veilleux quickly said: “Are we agreed? All right, Edmonton stays there.”

The discussions got sharper when they got to Ontario, where Veilleux thought of closing the CBC Ottawa station. A number of those around the table disagreed sharply, including McEwen and Harvey. “You can’t do that,” Harvey snapped. “You just cannot close Ottawa.

This is the capital of the country!” After more wrangling,

Harvey remembers Veilleux saying: ‘Well, all right, but if you want Ottawa open, you’re going to have to close Toronto.” “You can’t close Toronto for God’s sake!”

Harvey fumed. “There are three million people there!”

The cuts were announced on Dec. 5,1990: $108 million;

1,100 jobs; closing or sharply reducing the operations of TV stations in Calgary, Windsor, Saskatoon, Sydney, Comer Brook, Goose Bay, Matane, Rimouski, Sept-Isles and the CBC French-language station in Toronto. Local programming at the stations kept alive would be slashed, killing all local and regional programming except news. Radio would be chopped by $20 million.

The resulting storm of criticism concentrated on the slender frame of Veilleux, who was astonished, appalled and then angered by the vilification that drenched him. He was particularly incensed that CBC News broke the story of the cuts the night before they were to be announced, getting its information from various sources, including verification from a CBC board member. “He felt The National had been wrong, probably maliciously wrong, in breaking the story,” says Trina McQueen, then-director of news and current affairs. He thought it badly damaged his strategy for announcing the cuts and that “they” were out to get him. “It was just brutal, brutal,” Veilleux remembers with a grimace. ‘We had no chance to get plans in place to do it properly. It conveyed a feeling of total insensitivity just because of a leak. You can’t fault the journalists. What I was concerned about was who leaked it and why.”

He sought the help of his chairman-designate, and Watson went off speech-making across the country, saying the budget cuts, while momentarily painful, would mean a better, more focused CBC that would concentrate on its priorities. The cuts “were not the end of the world,” Watson said, telling the CBC staff, “we just have to tighten our belts and pull together.” The hosannahs that had greeted the respected broadcaster Watson’s arrival at the top of the CBC fell silent, and he suddenly found himself reviled by producers as “one of them, not us.” [In March, 1991, Veilleux, Watson and several vice-presidents appeared before the CRTC to put a positive face on the budget cuts and promote their new ideas for the corporation. But a celebratory party that night turned sour when The National made no mention of their appearance.] The next morning, McEwen phoned Harvey in Toronto. “Tlie president is absolutely livid,” he warned. ‘You’re going to hear

from him. He is so angry he can’t stop talking about it. He’s been at it all morning long.” Veilleux, however, did not call Harvey, and a few days later, McEwen called again. “It is still going on,” he said. “He can’t talk of anything else. Journalism is out of control because it didn’t carry his statement.” McQueen says: “Veilleux’s temper was at its worst when it was something that concerned his own accomplishments. That drove him crazier than anything else.”

[By 1991, two years into his term, Veilleux was focusing on several major challenges: budget problems, the continuing loss of viewers, the proliferation of channels, the need to specialize.] A revolutionary idea began to hatch in his mind. Repositioning was the answer! “The first thing we have to do is to reposition ourselves in the minds of Canadians,” Veilleux thought. It was like any marketing problem, he felt. If your market share is shrinking,

change the product—or at least the packaging and branding—and reposition the company.

Veilleux set loose a whirlwind of task forces, executive conferences and board meetings to hammer out the details of repositioning. Veilleux’s ideas were presented to the board of directors in late January, 1992. In a public announcement in May, in a Richter-scale jolt designed to change Canadian viewer habits, Veilleux “niched” the English TV network evening schedule into four distinctive sections: regional information from 5:30 to 7 p.m.; popular family shows from 7 to 9 p.m.; The National and The Journal from 9 to 10 p.m.; adult programming after 10. Local news at 11 p.m. would disappear from CBC, leaving the late-night news field wide open to CTV.

But the news department again made Veilleux’s life miserable. To avoid having his staff first read about the changes in the newspapers, Tony Burman, CBC TV chief news editor, issued a memo to his staff a few hours before the president’s statement outlining the new schedule. Several regional executives, shocked especially by the killing of their late-night local newscasts, phoned Ottawa to find out what was going on. Veilleux purpled with rage. He grabbed the phone and hauled McQueen, Burman’s boss, out of a meeting. She heard him shouting: “Why is it always your department that messes up my strategy? You’ve ruined the whole strategy, the whole thing we set out to do!” Then, he got Burman on the phone. Burman, who had rarely spoken to the CBC Veilleux. “I very much wanted him to know there was no damage in our relationship.”

president, was taken aback to hear him say: “rd like to kick Your fucking balls!” As soon as he slammed down the phone, Veilleux realized he’d gone too far and wanted to apologize to Burman. “I was very angry [but] it was uncalled for,” says

[In June, 1992, Veilleux moved McQueen aside. As her replacement in charge of preparing news and current affairs for the fall launch, he brought in Tim Kotcheff, the vice-president of news at CTV and a former CBC executive.] The first change Kotcheff made was to kill The Journal and blend the prime-time journalism hour. Shock waves rolled through the CBC for it meant a death blow to what had been the CBC’s greatest journalistic success story. The National and The Journal had been innovative only 10 years earlier, but Kotcheff believed they were beginning to show signs of age and falling audiences, and besides, sensitive to Veilleux’s concerns about money, he felt they cost too much.

While CBC executives were lashing themselves through 15-hour workdays to be ready for the launch of the new CBC TV schedule, they and Veilleux were sideswiped by the documentary series The Valour and the Horror. Produced by the McKenna brothers, Brian and Terence, and supervised by McQueen and her current affairs executives, the three-part, $3.5-million CBC-NFB co-production combined drama and documentary in a controversial examination of Canadian participation in Second World War campaigns in Normandy and Hong Kong and the bombing of Germany. In a revisionist approach, the McKennas showed the Canadian wartime leadership as far less than the heroes portrayed by much traditional military history. Two and a half years in preparation, the series aired in January, 1992, and was hailed by critics, but met a barrage of denunciation from veterans’ groups and their supporters.

The uproar startled Veilleux, whose original reaction had been to support the program. That support began to soften, however, as criticism mounted and the CBC board became increasingly apprehensive about the rising furor. Board member John Crispo said the series “represented one of the most flagrant forms of revisionist history I [am] ever likely to view.” Crispo felt that, by airing the series, the CBC was helping to diminish rather than celebrate national achievement (Crispo’s story, page 52). When he read Crispo’s comments, Watson immediately issued a statement saying that Crispo’s criticisms “do not represent the view of the board of directors of the CBC nor of management.”

But while it rejected the tone and extremity of Crispo’s words, the CBC board agreed with much of what he said, and Veilleux’s own posi-

tion was inevitably affected by the board’s hardening attitude. No matter what he might have said privately, in public Watson sided totally with Veilleux and the board.

[A CBC ombudsman’s report concluded that the programs were “flawed” and that they had failed to live up to the CBC’s own demanding standards.] If Veilleux had simply accepted the report and passed it on to Kotcheff and his current affairs department executives to deal with, he might have avoided much of the abuse that subsequently cascaded over him. But with the board pushing him, he felt he had to make a public comment. He sincerely regretted, he said, “any distress the programs may have caused members of the audience.” What sent a shiver through the creative community was his added comment that “the Corporation will learn from this and as part of our emphasis on media accountability, our scrutiny of programming of this kind will be improved substantially.” To programmers, that meant Big Brother would be watching, and cries of “censorship!” could be heard from across the country, g. The president of the Writers Guild of Canada, Jack 2 Gray, demanded Veilleux’s resignation for “spineless ï toadying to authority and popular prejudice.” In a col2 umn entitled “Cowardly Broadcasting Corporation,” Montreal Gazette editor Norman Webster called Veilleux’s statement “a craven disavowal.” The Alliance of Canadian Television Radio Artists, the Association of Television Producers and Directors, the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Canadian Independent Film Caucus and the Quebec Federation of Journalists all denounced Veilleux and the ombudsman’s report. “The CBC’s journalistic reputation lies in pieces today, slit wide and deboned like a fresh caught trout,” said The Globe and Mail.

Veilleux was beside himself with rage, with pain and with confusion; never before had he experienced such public vilification. “He was just about ruined by it,” Watson says. “He lost a lot of sleep. He felt personally betrayed.”

In spring, 1993, Finance Minister Don Mazankowski announced more cuts to the CBC beyond those the corporation was already facing in the next two years. He wanted another $100 million in the two subsequent years. “It was a very cheap shot on the part of a departing government that said that, before they slam the door, they would give another kick at you and then escape,” says Veilleux. “That’s cheap and that’s gutless.”

It was too much, and after 30 years of public service, Gérard Veilleux wanted out. He was exhausted, eaten up by frustration, anguished by the government’s unfairness to the CBC and, he felt, misunderstood by much of the CBC staff. “He was spiritually exhausted,” says Watson, whose own twinkly eyes had dulled under the intensity of all the budget cuts, conflicts and turmoil. “I’ve seen him on a Friday afternoon just pale, shaken, totally emptied of all resources, trying to hold on.”

In late July, 1993, Veilleux wrote Prime Minister Kim Campbell that he was quitting as CBC president in November, a year early in his five-year appointment. Within nine months of leaving the CBC, Veilleux found a less stressful and more rewarding role as president of Power Communications Inc., a subsidiary of Power Corp. of Canada. [On Feb. 3, senior vice-president Tony Manera, another career bureaucrat unaccustomed to the limelight, assumed the position of president. Most of the senior executives involved in the repositioning have left, willingly or otherwise. The newsrooms in Windsor, Ont., and Calgary are operating again, the 11 p.m. local newscasts are back and, of course, Prime Time News has returned to 10 p.m., where it nearly caught up with CTV’s audience numbers within a week.] Still, Veilleux proudly notes, among other things, that Canadian content under his presidency rose from 82 per cent to more than 88 per cent in prime time.

Patrick Watson resigned in June, 1994, four months before his term as chairman was up. Burdened by impossibly high expectations, he acidly noted: “Some of my colleagues expected me to reverse the law of gravity, and when I proved incapable of that, there were sometimes very bitter expressions of disappointment.” □