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Columnist – Television Interviewer « Douglas Fisher



Columnist – Television Interviewer
The format of “Question Period” was simple; one guest, usually a politician but occasionally a senior bureaucrat, with a panel of three journalists and a moderator. There was minimal preparation for the show that was produced on a shoestring. “Bain and I tried to work together. George and I would sketch a couple of ideas or what…I’ll follow you and you follow me.”[328]

Fisher appeared on hundreds of the programs. One that illustrated his style was an appearance by Prime Minister Trudeau on March 31, 1974. Trudeau had appeared on “Question Period” on May 25, 1969 but Fisher was not a panelist on that program. George Bain, who was on the program, explained what happened in a column a few months later.

    Doug Fisher is not one of Pierre Trudeau’s favorite people. On one occasion, when the Prime Minister had consented to appear on a television program to be questioned by four newsmen, Fisher, who had been a fairly regular member of the panel, was dropped. Inquiry produced the answer that the PM’s office had made it a condition.[329]

After that Fisher did appear on at least two editions of “Question Period” to question Trudeau. In a column about Trudeau, Bain reported on an exchange between Fisher and Trudeau that happened off camera. A few days before the taping Trudeau had spoken to students in Ottawa.

    He hoped the voters would judge the Government on its policies, not on whether he had ever done a day’s work in his life, or on the length of his hair.
    Two days later, in a studio at CJOH before the taping of the CTV program Question Period which ran on March 19, Douglas Fisher twitted the Prime Minister about reaching for so obvious a button – the students’ feelings about freedom in hair-styles – to trigger a favorable response among them.[330]

The edition of “Question Period” on March 31, 1974, however illustrated how Fisher “twitted” Trudeau on-air as well. The program aired the week after a federal – provincial meeting on Canadian oil prices. Here is the first exchange between Fisher and Trudeau.

    Fisher: When you distributed sheets of paper to the premiers the other day…
    Trudeau: (off camera) Who told you that? (short laugh)
    Fisher: (continues as if he hasn’t heard Trudeau) …and asked them to put a price on oil what did you really expect to get from them in terms of a range?
    Trudeau: (pauses and sighs audibly) Well, now, you are asking me to comment on something that went on at a private meeting. I’d ahh…
    Fisher: Well it intrigues me because it seem either terribly ingenious or terribly ingenuous that if you begin a meeting by asking the premiers to put down on a piece of paper what they think the price of oil should be it almost looks to me as though you didn’t really know what was coming.
    Trudeau: Remember your classical economics. Walras, the great economist, when he was trying to explain the market system. How is price arrived at in the first place?
    Fisher: (big smile on his face, laughs) I love that question.
    Trudeau: Someone yells out a price. And if there are takers someone else will yell out a lower price. Yelling prices around and finally they arrive at something. It just struck me that this might be a technique. Prices yelled out by chance to see if there was some kind of range in which we could negotiate.
    Fisher: Well, I understand the range was between 4 and 8. What did you put on your slip of paper? What was your price?
    Trudeau: Well…let me say your information on this is inexact. It wasn’t between 4 and 8 but don’t ask me what it was.
    Fisher: Well, I guess one of the premiers had it wrong.
    Trudeau: Well, perhaps he didn’t see the slip of paper.
    (Both Fisher and Trudeau laugh.)
    Charles Lynch: It sounds like a better conference than you had on television. Why didn’t you let us in to see this?
    Fisher: It sounds like a parlour game.[331]

Throughout the exchange Fisher spoke quietly. He gave no indication that he knew he had surprised Trudeau with his line of questioning. He forced Trudeau to concede that he had, in fact, used the ploy with the slips of paper. It also showed that Trudeau and Fisher were happy to discuss an obscure economist and economic theory on national television. Fisher was up to the challenge of taking on Trudeau and doing the homework required. The scoop, Fisher now says, did come from a premier, Duff Roblin of Manitoba.

The CTV program “Question Period” was just one, all be it an important one, of the television programs Fisher appeared on. Even before he entered politics Fisher understood that television was a powerful medium about to change politics. Using it was a key to his first election win in 1957 and, as a member of the broadcasting committee in parliament, Fisher heard the testimony, and got to know, all of the various personalities and factions in Canada’s broadcast industry. He actively sought to inform himself about television and looked for ways to get exposure on television. The CCF and NDP used Fisher as one of the presenters of their “free time political broadcasts” and a key reason Fisher opted to write for the Telegram was the side deal with John Bassett giving Fisher a weekly television show on Bassett’s new station, CFTO, in Toronto.

CFTO’s first broadcast was on December 31, 1960 and since archival copies of Fisher’s work at CFTO do not exist[332] a review of television listings is one way to piece together his work. One of Fisher’s first appearances was May 13, 1962. An advertisement in the Toronto Star read “CTV Network presents INTERVIEW with John Bassett (PC candidate Spadina) and Douglas Fisher at 7 pm on Channel 9.”[333] There was one additional line of copy to promote the one-hour program: “Douglas Fisher, M.P., the outspoken Member of Parliament interviews John Bassett.” Bassett had been nominated as the Conservative candidate for the Toronto riding of Spadina for upcoming 1962 federal election.

In an undated interview in the mid-1970s Fisher said, “I had a program for three years at CFTO in 1962, ’63, ’64. A half hour program every week where I chatted with politicians.”[334] He told me the same thing. But I have not found a television listing for the program. There is a listing for a Fisher program starting on March 22, 1964 for what appears to be his weekly series that was called “Doug Fisher and…”. Initially the program aired at various times on Sundays on CFTO but settled in at 11:40 p.m. It also aired in Ottawa on CJOH at 11:35. It was a half-hour interview program featuring an interview with a prominent politician. Murray Chercover was the head of the fledgling CTV network and he talked Fisher into that Sunday night slot. Fisher says,

    He said, “Look we are going to put you in a very quiet time.” and he said, “You are going to think you are not getting reaction at all but you will be. You’ll be surprised by the numbers.” In all those years from ’62 to ’92, at that time slot, after the late night news, we held by a big margin.[335]

Fisher also appeared as a news commentator on CJOH in Ottawa. Max Keeping joined CTV as a reporter in Ottawa in 1966. He says Lynch, Fisher and Montreal columnist Bill Wilson were hired as “a trio of great knowledge to be part of the CJOH empire.”[336] CJOH was a new private station in Ottawa and Fisher and the others gave its newscast instant credibility against CBOT, the CBC station in Ottawa, anchored by Patrick Watson and Laurier LaPierre.

The other television work that gave Fisher a profile across the country was CTV during live political specials. Fisher was a floor reporter during live coverage at the beginning of a Liberal Party policy conference in Ottawa in October 1966. Fisher worked with CTV reporter Ab Douglas. In one of the few excerpts of Fisher in the CTV archives he is seen interviewing Prime Minister Pearson about the conference suggesting it was “a bit daring.”[337] Pearson replied Fisher should ask him at the end of the conference if it was daring. Fisher also interviewed a provincial Liberal from British Columbia and asked him “Is the west down here loaded for bear Mr. McGreer?” Fisher’s relaxed style of questioning continued when he brought a Mrs. Underhill to the camera noting that “there are a lot of women here. I counted three mink stoles.” He then asked Mrs. Underhill, from London, Ontario, what issues women would be raising. Fisher and Douglas traded guests handing the interview duties back and forth. Fisher jumped in at the end of Douglas’ interview with the Minister of Defense, Paul Hellyer, and asked Hellyer if he was interested in running for leader of the Liberals. Another CTV archive excerpt has the anchor of an unidentified program introduce Fisher interviewing the Minister for External Affairs, Paul Martin, Sr., about Canada’s diplomatic role in Vietnam. The interview touches on Canadian diplomat, Chester Ronning’s assignment to Hanoi in 1966 to look for a diplomatic solution to the Vietnam war. Fisher pressed Martin about Canadians calling on the government to “take a moral position” on Vietnam. After Martin repeated that Canada was seeking a way to bring both sides to the peace table Fisher came back again to remind Martin that President Johnston had recently warned the Vietnam war would not end soon. Martin then conceded that Canada’s achievements “have to date been minimal but I remain an optimist.”

At the 1967 Conservative leadership convention and again at the 1968 Liberal leadership convention Fisher was a floor reporter and commentator. Henry Champ, who went on to a long career as a television correspondent for CTV, NBC and later at CBC, was a young reporter assigned by CTV to both conventions. He recalls that Fisher was placed on the floor along with Pierre Berton to give their take as the convention progressed. Champ and the other reporters were sent to Fisher or Berton and gave up their microphones for these segments. He says Fisher didn’t care much for television but he “was interested in telling people on television what he thought about things.”[338]

Fisher says the television work “gave me power” in Ottawa .[339] He says, “It was very useful, that television, as an entrée in Ottawa. There were always people to go on…again that opened up connections.”[340]

Mulroney appeared on Question Period with Fisher as one of the panelists and on Fisher’s program.

    He was never insolent or pretentious as some of them were. Trying to prove their virility by being impolite at all times. He was never like that. He developed strong opinions, pro and con, and would put them in this column. If you were his guest on a program he treated you very fairly.[341]

Max Keeping says the program was all Fisher. “He did it himself. He arranged the guests. Those were wonderful conversations in a political town.”[342] Keeping doesn’t give Fisher high marks for television presence. “Doug wasn’t ponderous but he certainly wasn’t coming through the television set…Doug isn’t great television but Doug was very good television because what he had to say, and he could say it succinctly.”[343]

Jeffrey Simpson appeared on Fisher’s program after he became the Globe’s Ottawa columnist in 1984.

    There were a couple of guests and there was Doug and you would discuss two or three events of the week. That was pretty much it. Doug would both ask questions and have opinions so he was more than simply an animator. And it was a very modest show. It was about as low budget as your could possibly be. He was in charge. He would ring up and say, “Can you be on my show on Friday?” It was taped on Fridays. It seemed to me to have a small but rather faithful audience of the kind of people that you would expect to be watching television about politics and public issues. He was a kind of unlikely television fixture because, you know, he doesn’t dress the part. He always looked a bit like a walking unmade bed.”[344]

In the mid-1970s the program was called “Confidential Canada” and Fisher described the program this way.

    It’s somewhere between an interview show and these kind of panel things that you have, but essentially it’s only as good as what (my guests) and I have to bring to it. It doesn’t depend on anybody else so if you don’t get an audience or playback, then you really bombed and you can’t put the blame on anyone else.[345]

Fisher worked on other programs as well. In 1977 he co-hosted a weekly program, “Hourlong,” that ran in prime time on Monday nights in Toronto, Kitchener and Ottawa. When it debuted on October 10, 1077 the Globe and Mail reported. “Tonight at 10:00 p.m. stations in Toronto and Ottawa will offer something that is so novel it’s almost startling: a weekly Ontario public affairs who that comes not from the CBC or even from CTV, but from two individual stations, CFTO and CJOH.”[346]
After that he produced a weekly program on politics for CJOH. Nancy Wilson, now a news anchor at CBC Newsworld, recalled one item on the first edition of that program called, “House on the Hill.”

    Doug said, “you know there is a Newfoundlander in the House of Commons and I’ve been reading Hansard and I’ve been watching him.” By then TV had arrived. “And I think we have to take notice of this fellow. His name is John Crosbie.” So we did a profile on John Crosbie.[347]

For Fisher television was both a way to supplement his income and increase his impact as a commentator. As Canadians, starting in the 1960s, began to put down their newspapers and turn on their televisions for news Fisher was there as a commentator, interviewer and host. It gave him a cachet with both politicians and his colleagues in the press gallery. Senator Mike Duffy was a young reporter in Ottawa and he watched how CJOH used the columnists.

    They would come in and one night it would be Fisher, one night it would be Bain and Charlie (Lynch) on things like elections. They were big stars in their day, especially in this town where the MPs would watch the local news, as giants…media giants.[348]

Fisher filed two-minute commentaries for CJOH until the late 1980s. Keeping explained how Fisher was used. “It was part of our reporting. Here’s the story of what happened on the Hill today. Here’s Doug Fisher to give us the context for it and what he thinks.” So, how did CJOH introduce Fisher?

    We quite often said “former member of parliament.” Did we say, “former NDP member of parliament?” On occasion. But there was no set rule to set this guy up. You set him up for what he is. He is a man with parliamentary experience. He is a former MP now a columnist. We didn’t say that all the time.[349]

In the 1980s Fisher had become the “dean of the press gallery” and a feature on the Ottawa press gallery in Saturday Night in 1985 by his old colleague George Bain was far more respectful than Jack Batten’s take 17 years earlier. Bain wrote, “Although the Toronto Sun is not on all the must-read lists in Cabinet offices, MP’s offices and government offices, Doug Fisher’s column is sought out by parliamentarians because he reads, asks questions, know the place – he’s a former M.P – and is all-round solid.”[350]

By 1990 Fisher had cut back to three columns a week running on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. His regular television work was winding down – and the weekly Sunday night Fisher program ended in 1992. That year was also the year that Canada’s decade of constitutional debate came to an end with the Charlottetown referendum.

328.Fisher interview, November 23, 2008.
329.Bain, George, Globe and Mail, January 22, 1970, pg. 6.
330.Bain, George, Globe and Mail, April 4, 1972, pg. 6.
331.CTV News, “Question Period,” March 31, 1974, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
332.Note: CFTO has kept none of Fisher’s television programs.
333.Toronto Star, May 12, 1962, pg. 31.
334.Bullis, Robert, Meet the Media, (circa 1976) Carleton University Library, pg. 146.
335.Fisher interview, November 9, 2008.
336.Keeping, Max, interview with the author, April 15, 2009.
337.CTV Archives, courtesy Robert Hurst, Vice President CTV News, Toronto.
338.Champ, Henry, (telephone interview) interview with the author, July 16, 2009.
339.Fisher interview, November 9, 2008.
340.Fisher interview, December 6, 2008.
341.Mulroney interview, March 27, 2009.
342.Keeping interview, April 15, 2009.
344.Simpson, Jeffrey, interview with the author, March 24, 2009.
345.Bullis, pg. 146.
346.Globe and Mail, October 10, 1977, pg. 14.
347.Wilson interview, April 27, 2009.
348.Duffy interview, March 12, 2009.
349.Keeping interview, April 15, 2009.
350.Bain, George, “Dateline Ottawa,” Saturday Night, July 1985, pg. 29.

©George Hoff