Peter Mansbridge is in the homestretch of a remarkable career as the face of CBC News.
Mansbridge will officially sign off from his role as chief correspondent of The National on Saturday as he presides over Canada Day coverage beginning at 10 a.m. ET on CBC-TV and CBC News Network to mark the country’s 150th birthday.
When a writer from CBCNews.ca came to speak with him, Mansbridge jokingly wondered if he had come to “write his obituary.” But Mansbridge soon settled into some honest talk about memorable stories he’s covered in nearly 50 years at the CBC.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
During your final time moderating At Issue, I seemed to detect a hint of nostalgia for the old political convention format, with its jockeying and kingmaking. What was the most memorable convention you covered?
Probably the one that was the most fun to watch unfold was the [1983 Conservative leadership convention]. [Joe] Clark’s out in the lead and [Brian] Mulroney had to move up and there was a lot of movement on the floor and it went up to four ballots. The beauty of those is as much as you think you know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what’s going to happen and surprises can happen.
For a lot of reasons, it was probably the most fun for me — it was the first one that I anchored. I’d worked the floor on other ones. It went 13 hours and we didn’t have commercials, so I never had a chance to get up for 13 hours. It was a really good program, we had terrific people on it and as a political moment it got a huge audience, it seemed that everyone watched it. It was an incredible day of learning about how politics works in this country, the good and the bad. I miss that stuff but I totally understand why they do things the way they do things now — delegate conventions are very much the elite of the party — but they were fun to watch.
Watch as Mansbridge looks at a 1983 convention report:
You were there when the 1979 non-confidence motion carried and you’ve covered various government crises. Did it ever feel like a government was especially imperilled or the country close to a constitutional crisis?
We use that term, and I’ve used it, too much. The whole Meech Lake process was one leading into it that had the country’s attention and we did hours and hours of programming on it and at times we called it a constitutional crisis if it fell apart. Well, it wasn’t, and history has proved it wasn’t; that we could continue on as nation with some of the divisions that exist and the regional differences, but the country was never at risk of breaking up through that.
Mansbridge interviews Clyde Wells during the Meech Lake talks:
The referendums, I covered both of them. The second one was extremely close and if it had fallen the other way, there may well have been a constitutional crisis.
You’ve covered a lot of scandals of various types and sizes — sponsorship, HRDC, Airbus, Senate expenses and many more. Does any one particularly stand out?
The whole Mulroney thing [Airbus], the whole image of a prime minister [receiving cash], was obviously not a good image and one that The Fifth Estate worked on for a very long time before they and others got the goods. But as so often happens in political scandals, even with Nixon, you can work your way back as a kind of elder statesman and Mulroney is and it’s kind of interesting to see, even after that 20 years on, he’s now become a linchpin for the Trudeau government, the Liberals, he’s a key part of their strategy to get along with the new American administration. So it’s interesting to watch how he’s made a comeback.
You joined the CBC and were later parliamentary reporter when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister and you step down as chief correspondent with Justin Trudeau as PM. Leaving politics aside, what are their similarities and differences, and do you have ever have surreal moments or flashbacks to the father when the son is speaking?
Not really. They’re two very different people. Part of that difference may have been the fact that when I covered the father I was very young, inexperienced and kind of new to the politics game and I interviewed him a half-dozen times and he was a very tough interview. [Justin] Trudeau is different — I get him at the end of my career and I’m used to interviewing. Where his father used to say a lot in an interview and was willing to engage on the big policy issues, his son, not so much. He’s still formulating his thought on some positions and I’m not sure how long he’ll be able to continue doing that as we now end up in the second half of his mandate, where he’s going to have to explain and defend his actions.
He tells me in the interviews I’ve done with him that he didn’t sit at his father’s knee soaking up how to do politics, and I believe him, because he doesn’t seem to approach the political game, if you will, in the same way his father did.
He loves crowds, he’s very personable with people; his father wasn’t like that at all — he’d engage during a campaign and he’d be very good at it, but boy, the rest of the time he was not interested in doing that.
You anchored the weddings of Prince William and Prince Andrew and were part of the coverage for Prince Charles and Diana, in addition to a number of royal visits to Canada. What are some of the more memorable moments in covering the royals?
The Queen especially can still draw a crowd and Will and Kate are rock stars. Charles, not so much, but that may change if and when he becomes king. The Charles and Diana tour of 1983, which was I think the first overseas trip they took after the wedding, people went crazy, the crowds were nuts for them. The one thing I’ll always remember, they went to Halifax, the park they were going to had had some damage to it, so they spray painted it green. On camera it looked great,
I was right outside the palace [for the 1981 royal wedding of Charles and Diana]. I saw her come up around the Victoria monument in front of Buckingham Palace with the Queen Mother and then to St. Paul’s Cathedral so I saw her on her way to the church and of course on the way back.
For her funeral, I was standing in nearly exactly the same spot to anchor as I’d been when I covered the wedding and that was an eerie feeling, standing there and watching her body brought past.
Any dangerous moments on the job that stand out?
I had moments but they are so inconsequential compared to what our correspondents go through. I can remember covering the [second] intifada, Neil Macdonald was our correspondent there. He took me to a hospital in Bethlehem, which was right in the middle of all the killing that was going on. I was interviewing a Palestinian doctor who was trying to explain how bad the situation was and there was no electricity in the place so we had to do it near a window to get some natural light. Halfway through the interview, I could hear some shooting outside but we just kept on with the interview, but then I felt Neil’s hand. He grabs me and says, “Jesus, Mansbridge, they’re firing.” Neil likes to say he saved my life and maybe he did.
When I first started consuming news, there were a lot of assassinations and assassination attempts and there was violence in Northern Ireland and the U.K. I learned later that there were certainly violent acts back then in various countries. Nearly your entire time in Toronto, CBC has been reporting on the Air India bombing. But in this century and after 9/11, does the threat feel different?
Yeah, it does, the technology we have is different and the coverage is different simply because of the landscape and cable news channels. The first year I started doing news specials was 1981 and so we had three assassination attempts that year — [Ronald] Reagan, the Pope [John Paul II] and [Anwar] Sadat. The Reagan thing was a total disaster, coveragewise. We weren’t ready technically and we certainly weren’t ready editorially. But you learn to understand on days like that the information you’re going to get, a lot of it is going to be wrong, even from eyewitnesses standing beside each other. So you got to be really careful what you accept as fact in times like that.
We went from the lone, crazy gunman gradually into terror-inspired acts of violence, with the biggest one being 9/11 with some others before that, and here they are continuing to this day. And getting overwhelming coverage and arguably, too much coverage in some cases for what’s happened, because we all know this is the kind of coverage that inspires others to do the same kind of thing. So it’s a challenge for our business how we handle these things.
I leave at a time where we are still trying to come to grips with the impact of social media on our business and the impact that we have on the way stories are seen and felt by the audience. Sometimes I worry that we don’t do enough sitting down — because these attacks seem to come so frequently now — debating and discussing, “Are we handling this stuff the right way? Is there a better way to deal with it?” I think we could benefit from that kind of discussion.
You served in the military, your father served, and while the personal resonance comes through you manage to avoid what we sometimes see south of the border in the U.S. coverage, where it can stray into hero worship. What is your approach to covering our military and war history?
When we talk about “Lest we forget,” it’s not lest we forget these guys and women, it’s lest we forget what war means and does to civilization, to humanity. And that’s part of the reason we can’t overglorify some of these events because they didn’t inspire glory on the part of those who were doing the fighting. When you ask most veterans about war, most don’t want to talk about it, and the ones who do want you to know it should never happen again. If our coverage is only of the great victories without any context or sense of what these guys went through, then we’re failing. But it’s important that we do cover these stories and there’s a big one coming up, the 75th anniversary of Dieppe, which was a slaughter of Canadians and it should get the same kind of coverage as some of the victories.
Finishing on a lighter note, since the Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup in your time leading The National, what do you consider the biggest sports story? In your first year in the chief role there were two massive ones — the Wayne Gretzky trade and the Ben Johnson scandal. In the years since we’ve seen Canada become a winter Olympic power and we’ve been more respectable in the Summer Olympics.
It’s going to happen [the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup]. The biggest one emotionally was Gretzky, the reaction was unbelievable. But the biggest one to have a long-term impact on Canadian sport was Johnson. I was in South Korea for the opening ceremony so by the time I got back, it was in time to see the race. I had followed Johnson closely and was very excited for the possibilities but there was already questions about how he got so big and so fast. The whole influence of drugs in sport and especially in world-class running and in many ways that story’s still alive. Not in Canada, because I think we did clean up our act, but boy, it’s still out there in a lot of other areas.
Mansbridge also took questions earlier this week from CBC viewers and readers. Here is the Facebook Live replay: