This Hour Had Seven Days — and One Driving Force: Doug Leiterman

DouglasLeitermanHistorians of the sixties are unlikely to do justice to the soft-spoken dynamo who died last week and who was at the centre of the most important conflict (other than conflicts caused by language) in the cultural history of Canada since Confederation. It was the conflict between Doug Leiterman, one of the two leaders of the rebellious producers of the CBC public affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days (1964–1966), and the CBC’s president Alphonse Ouimet, the brave, tragic, heroic father figure who was unable to grasp, and contain, the immense force of the uprising. Leiterman’s partner was Patrick Watson, the more outgoing and more flexible of the two, who later became chairman of the CBC board and, unlike Leiterman, has played a significant role as public intellectual since they were both in the limelight.

When the end of Seven Days came, the stage was littered with corpses, like the last scene of Hamlet. Ouimet nominally survived for another year as president, but his authority had effectively ended with Seven Days. The others, like Watson, managed to rise again fairly quickly.

Doug Leiterman did not – not, at any rate, in the public arena. He became a successful businessman – he built up an international completion bond company. But his immense idealism, his enormous inner strength and grim, relentless determination had been compressed into his one-time role as giant-killer. After that, new achievements were not possible. The sixties came and went, and his victories were intimately linked to the very considerable victories won by the Revolution. When the Restoration came in the seventies, there was no room any more for Doug Leiterman.

Any number of victories can be cited. CBC journalism was never the same again. When his people impersonated relatives and smuggled a camera in a picnic basket to interview Fred Fawcett whom (with good reason) they considered wrongly incarcerated in the Penetanguishine Hospital for the Criminally Insane – and by doing so ultimately achieved his release – CBC brass was appalled at the impropriety. Later, Stuart Keate, the publisher of the Vancouver Sun, whom Prime Minister Lester Pearson had appointed as arbitrator, said that if any of his reporters had pulled this off he would have given him a raise.

In other situations when Leiterman provocatively tested the boundaries, he clearly went too far. After the plane crash in Ste Thérèse on November 29, 1965, when the husband of a colleague was killed, he tried to film the moment when she was told of his death. This was fortunately prevented.

The war between Leiterman and Ouimet was fought on the battlefield of journalistic policy. The government had nothing to do with the program’s demise. Leiterman tried to change policy and Ouimet tried to uphold it. Each had excellent, honorable reasons for fighting the war. It was a time when all authority in the world at large was being questioned; no wonder it was such a bitter fight while the nation held its breath.

In the end, it was the power relation between the rebels and Management, and not the merit of their respective cases, that determined the outcome.

Source: Inside Seven Days, by Eric Koch

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5 responses to “This Hour Had Seven Days — and One Driving Force: Doug Leiterman

  1. Thanks for this. I have remained fascinated to this day with this episode in the life of the CBC. I was a young man, just starting a career (in accounting in a Northern Ontario Paper Mill) when Seven Days came on. It used to be the subject of discussion at coffee break EVERY Monday. How many other CBC programs have could ever make that claim???
    Gerry Janneteau

  2. Richard Nielsen

    Like you, I believe that Doug Leiterman’s passing is an event that should not go unnoticed, but I differ somewhat in my assessment of his talent. I think he was to television what William Randolph Hearst was to newspapers. His genius was in knowing what would resonate, so consequently I don’t think he was as moral as you paint him. Not only did he yield to temptation, he led us all into its embrace.

  3. Brilliant Eric.

  4. Thanks, Eric, for this sensitive and insightful commentary. As a very junior production assistant and sometime researcher in the Ottawa 7 Days unit, I looked on Leiterman, Watson, LaPierre and others with something approaching (and often exceeding) awe. As things evolved, I learned there were a few toes of clay in the mix but to have been a part, however small, of that groundbreaking enterprise, in the company of people who believed passionately in the role of public broadcasting as a servant of the citizenry, is something I will always cherish.

    (And we must also note the passing, within days of Doug Leiterman’s, of Laurier LaPierre. He, too, will be sorely missed.)

  5. Laurier Lapierre was the subject of December 19, 2012, blog.