Patrick Watson, Doug Leiterman and Alphonse Ouimet
The Ghomeshi affair has reminded a few nostalgic old-timers of the exciting battle CBC management conducted with the rebellious producers of This Hour Has Seven Days (1964–1966). The situations were of course very different but they had one thing in common – both Jian Ghomeshi’s Q and Seven Days were immensely popular.
The Seven Days producers’ offences were not moral turpitude and possibly criminal behaviour but – merely? – insubordination and breaches of policy. In both cases management did not know how to proceed without being regarded as an anti-human obstacle to success.
Seven Days was a magazine program, originating in the department of Public Affairs – the CBC’s traditional guardian of fairness and balance. When the President was faced with a sensitive problem of journalistic ethics, he often turned to the head of the department for guidance. The ’sixties was a time of inter-generational conflict when young people challenged the established order. Doug Leiterman and Patrick Watson were the leading spirits of the program. Both were non-radical idealists and experienced producers in their thirties – by no means a couple of long-haired kids. Both were respectably married. They believed that the objective of balance and fairness, basic to traditional CBC journalism, was inimical to the purpose of their program, which was to tell the truth about social iniquities as they saw them. Things would not improve, they thought, if they stuck to the rules.
When they sold their concept to management, they were not yet aware of the inherent conflict, nor was management. They promised to deal with the burning questions of the day, as many other public affairs programs did, but declared their intention to do something entirely new, to create a program for a mass audience to be produced like a variety show, with live music, satire and a singing cover girl. It would become mandatory viewing for all Canadians and appeal to the educated and the uneducated, to the high-brows and the low-brows.
CBC television had gone on the air in 1952. In the early ’sixties, its monopoly was broken. Private television challenged it. Therefore, management greeted the proposal with enthusiasm. It gave Leiterman and Watson a big budget and lots of publicity.
As soon as the program hit the air, it exceeded all expectations. Ratings soared.
The first show was broadcast on Sunday, October 4, 1964. The Queen was in Canada, including Quebec. As always, the CBC went all out to cover the royal tour. Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was not so quiet any more. A few days before the first show, Captain Briggs, the CBC’s Executive VP, happened to meet Larry Zolf on a plane. Zolf was a witty, provocative, irreverent interviewer, on his way to Quebec City to ask people-in-the-street what they thought of the Queen’s visit. It was not hard to imagine what the producers were hoping for when they dispatched Zolf. Captain Briggs, a super-royalist, saw red and issued an executive order: all programs other than News were not to refer in any show to any dissenting voices related to the Queen’s visit.
In its second program, on October 11, Seven Days showed cinéma vérité shots of the aging Governor General, Vincent Massey, and Prime Minister Lester Pearson as they emerged from their limousines, clearly unaware of the camera, to greet Her Majesty. There was a sound track of politely mocking music. The item was followed by solemn clips of the Ladies Orange Benevolent Association in Niagara Falls as they adopted a resolution, with deep concern, to have silent prayer said every morning for the safety of Her Majesty “while she visits our land.”
And, so, the cat-and-mouse game began. The defiance was polite at first, but became more uninhibited as the plaudits came in and as progress reports of the internal battle leaked to the press. The rebellious freedom-fighters developed considerable virtuosity in outwitting management. They created a state within a state. When they heard of Fred Fawcett, a cattle farmer in Owen Sound who was incarcerated in the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Penetanguishene, and was rumoured to be there as a result of a denunciation, they launched a cloak-and-dagger operation. They smuggled a camera into the hospital in a picnic basket, told the authorities they were relatives, and interviewed him. They put the result on the air defying management’s specific instructions not to air a story that was produced under false pretences. That was something private television did, but not the CBC. The following week Fred Fawcett was released.
Politicians were put on the “hot-seat” and grilled, the interviewers deliberately contravening the CBC’s demand for good manners. For the general election in 1965, they invited party leaders, ignoring the carefully worked-out policies governing the CBC overage of elections. Knowing the public was on their side, Leiterman and Watson, with middle management partly complicit, outmanoeuvred management week after week.
The conflict assumed unprecedented dimensions. Committees “To Save Seven Days and the Integrity of the CBC” were formed all over the country. Prime Minister Pearson was involved. He couldn’t save Seven Days. In the end it was President Alphonse Ouimet who decided enough was enough and that the program with Leiterman and Watson in charge could not continue. With other producers it could, but that was good in theory and inconceivable in practice. It was not the government that killed it but the President of the CBC.
There was no other way to re-establish law and order.
For better or worse.
Source: Inside Seven Days, by Eric Koch, published by Prentice Hall/Newcastle, 1986. More about the program can be found in videos by E.K. on YouTube.