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Monday January 14, 2013

He took on the Canadian establishment

The silencing of his groundbreaking journalism by the CBC caused a public outcry and a parliamentary inquiry

Special to The Globe and Mail

He once lodged a camera in a baptismal font to get shots of John Diefenbaker reciting scripture - with the Chief's permission - but wasn't above hiding a microphone in costume jewellery or a picnic basket, and abandoned concealing a camera in a reporter's wooden leg only because it wouldn't fit.

To Douglas Leiterman, these were not acts of subterfuge, but means to an end. Which was: getting the story. Journalistic "objectivity" and the sensitivities of his bosses were dim, distant guides.

The co-creator of the fabled CBC television news program This Hour Has Seven Days, Leiterman died Dec. 19 at his winter home in Vero Beach, Fla., just three days after the death of the show's esteemed co-host, Laurier LaPierre. He was 85.

The plentiful obituaries for LaPierre couldn't say it enough; it bears repeating: This Hour shook the ground beneath Canadian journalism. "It was just breathtakingly bold, outrageous, in the best sense of the word, pugnacious," Mark Starowicz, executive director of documentary programming at CBC-TV, told Canadian Press following Leiterman's death. "It just rocked the country; it was just unbelievable. No one had seen anything like it.

"With no exaggeration, to this day, we use approaches and techniques that were incubated under Douglas Leiterman."

Together with This Hour's co-founder and co-host, Patrick Watson, Leiterman was responsible for what the Canadian Film Encyclopedia describes as "some of the most insightful documentaries made in Canada during the turbulent 1960s."

As co-producer, co-director and later executive producer of This Hour, the encyclopedia states, Leiterman "assigned, oversaw and, in many cases, nurtured the work of a talented stable of filmmakers who would all make significant contributions to English-Canadian documentary and fiction filmmaking."

Every Sunday night from 10 to 11, more than three million Canadians sat transfixed before their televisions to see things they had not seen before: exposés, "hot-seat" interviews (with cameras always ready to show sweat on the brows of unfortunate subjects) and some irreverent wit thrown in. Edgy, defiant and fresh, it launched a new era in public affairs television, "actively taking on the role of the nation's ombudsman and interrogator," observes the CBC's archives.

Leiterman routinely railed against the broadcaster's stodgy, hidebound journalistic ideology of "studious neutrality" and eventually ran afoul of management, which viewed This Hour as rule-breaking sensationalism. "No program must consistently advocate social change," CBC president Alphonse Ouimet intoned. "The corporation's job was to reflect public opinion, not to change it." H.G. Walker, vice-president for English broadcasting, was more direct. "Yellow journalism!" he harrumphed.

Despite its huge popularity, the program was axed after just two seasons, 1964 to 1966, and 50 episodes. The cancellation and the firings of Watson and LaPierre (Leiterman was effectively forced out) were met with a massive public outcry that resulted in a parliamentary inquiry - "which, for a time, made Leiterman, Watson and LaPierre public heroes," according to the film encyclopedia.

"The willingness to let Leiterman and that show go set the tone for Ottawa mandarins ever after," filmmaker Peter Pearson, a This Hour story editor, says bitterly.

CBC brass "dreaded [Leiterman's] cyclonic energy," Pearson recalls in his memoirs (yet to be published). "Until Seven Days came along, the WASP governing trinity - Methodism, monarchy, mercantilism - had been CBC's presiding presence. Leiterman, passionate and intense, was both dangerous and awe-inspiring."

Douglas Stone Leiterman was born Jan. 11, 1927, in the Ontario mining town of South Porcupine, the third of six children of Moynette and Douglas Sr., a manager in the mines. Young Doug was raised in nearby Timmins, and contracted polio as a boy. All conventional treatments failed, and his mother turned to Christian Science, which advocates prayer over medical intervention. Douglas slowly regained the use of his limbs, though he walked with a limp for the rest of his life, and become a devoted, lifelong Christian Scientist.

At the end of the Second World War, he lied about his age to join the Canadian Merchant Navy and sailed submarine-infested waters as a second mate before taking part in a mini-mutiny over working conditions. After that, no captain would hire him.

In Vancouver at war's end, he studied economics at the University of British Columbia and worked nights as a photojournalist for the Vancouver Province. He was awarded a prestigious Nieman Fellowship in journalism at Harvard University, then settled with his first wife, Mary Cassie, in Whytecliffe, B.C., and started a family.

But the cut and thrust of politics lured him to Ottawa as parliamentary correspondent for Southam News Service and as an occasional guest on a television show on which press gallery types grilled pols of the day. In Toronto, Watson and Ross McLean, producer of Close-Up, an interview-style news magazine on CBC television, took notice.

"Television interviewing by journalists in those days tended to be polite and deferential - except for Leiterman," Watson recounted. "He was the one guy who would sit there, a politician would say something, and he'd say, 'But you said exactly the opposite last week. Don't you remember?' And he had it right. The other journalists would look embarrassed. He'd just plug ahead.

"Ross and I were absolutely enchanted with [him]. We had perceived early on [that] television journalism was really all about theatre. And here was a guy who was turning the television interview into an absorbing piece of on-screen theatre that would hold audiences and send them away saying, 'Holy smoke, what do you think of that?' "

Leiterman joined Watson for four years on Close-Up and later on a show called Document. Both men then envisioned a program that respected viewers' intelligence and maturity, and would be a provocative "all-seeing eye." Leiterman's vision was even grander: He wanted to create no less than a modern equivalent of the Greek city-state, where an excited, informed public could act on major issues.

Among This Hour's memorable moments: Lee Harvey Oswald's mother casting aspersions on the conclusions of the Warren Commission; hooded grand dragons of the Ku Klux Klan squirming as a black pastor sat across from them, and federal justice minister Guy Favreau stammering after claiming his government had done everything possible to find Hal Banks only to be told that a Toronto Star reporter had easily tracked down the wanted union leader in New York. Beads of sweat on his brow were shown in close-up.

And famously, co-host LaPierre shedding tears in tandem with the mother of Steven Truscott, a 14-year-old accused of the rape-murder of a classmate.

Leiterman called his cameras and mikes a "ten-ton pencil," and he embroidered it all with music and lighting, zooms and close-ups. As he explained in When Television Was Young, TV's "new" technology was like fresh air: "For the first time in history it is possible for picture and sound to be recorded anywhere - well, almost. We don't have to re-enact scenes any more.

"We can now film, much of the time, just as it happens. At a political convention, our reporter can wander around the floor, as [co-host] Warner Troyer did, with a mike wrapped in a newspaper and a small transmitter in his breast pocket.

"We can record sound, as Beryl Fox did, with a microphone disguised as a broach."

All of that rendered outmoded old strictures about objectivity, he believed. After all, pointing a camera anywhere betrays bias. He felt objectivity was a myth anyway.

Following the show's cancellation, Leiterman went to work for CBS, where executives picked his brain and came up with 60 Minutes, which made its debut in September, 1968. That year he founded a production company and returned to Toronto to produce numerous documentaries and series for television worldwide, "though none," flatly avers the film encyclopedia, "had the impact of his earlier work." He retired in 1998.

Leiterman is survived by his second wife, Beryl Fox; and daughters Lachlan, Catherine, Julia and Barbara. A celebration of his life is planned for May.

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