Shin­ing mo­ments from my days cov­er­ing pol­i­tics

The Beacon (Gander) - - News - Bob Wake­ham Bob Wake­ham has spent more than 40 years as a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwake­ham@nl.rogers.com

With all this talk south of us con­cern­ing Don­ald Trump’s ha­tred of the me­dia (as he heads in­ex­orably, and hope­fully, to­wards a pre­ma­ture end to his scary time in of­fice), and of his de­ci­sion to limit the num­ber of press brief­ings presided over by poor old Sean Spicer, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s punch­ing bag, I started to think of re­la­tion­ships and set­tos I’ve had with New­found­land politi­cians, or of those I’ve ob­served.

An­other edi­tion of sto­ry­telling time, in other words, with an old jour­nal­is­tic fart.

•••

Joey Small­wood was ob­vi­ously an in­ti­mat­ing char­ac­ter, had a Trump-like dis­dain for the press, and would only tol­er­ate those re­porters willing to act like glo­ri­fied stenog­ra­phers.

At the height of his power, for in­stance, Small­wood would pull up in his car in front of the VOCM of­fices on Ken­mount Road, where an oblig­ing re­porter would run out to the ve­hi­cle, stand some­times in pour­ing rain, sat­u­rated, turn on his tape recorder, stick his mi­cro­phone through Joey’s open car win­dow, and al­low New­found­land’s an­swer to Cas­tro to ram­ble on about ev­ery­thing and noth­ing, what­ever the pre­mier con­sid­ered to be im­por­tant. There would be no ques­tions.

•••

But Small­wood could be a bul­ly­ing fig­ure even af­ter he was forced, kick­ing and scream­ing, into re­tire­ment.

Dur­ing the 1977 lead­er­ship con­ven­tion, Small­wood was then out of pol­i­tics, but showed up to vote and was im­me­di­ately sought out for a live in­ter­view by a main­land re­porter with the CBC. It was an ex­change I watched (and en­joyed) from a few feet away. The in­ter­viewer never knew what hit him:

Re­porter: “Mr. Small­wood, who are you sup­port­ing here at the con­ven­tion?”

Small­wood: “I’m sup­port­ing no one. I’m here as a del­e­gate. Not as a former pre­mier, not as a former leader. I have one vote, just one vote, like ev­ery­one else here. Just a sin­gle, soli­tary vote. And I will be telling no one who I shall be vot­ing for.”

Re­porter: “They say here on the con­ven­tion floor that you’re sup­port­ing Bill Rowe.”

Small­wood: “Who are ‘they,’ sir? Who are ‘they’? If you can tell me who ‘they’ are, then per­haps I can an­swer your ques­tion. But with­out know­ing who ‘they’ are, I can’t pos­si­bly re­spond.”

Re­porter: “Thank you for your time Mr. Small­wood.”

•••

Brian Peck­ford was, for a while, up­set with CBC TV for its cov­er­age of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, and de­clared he would boy­cott Mother Corp. No more on-on-one in­ter­views with any CBC re­porters. But the freeze­out ended in a rather ridicu­lous and some­what hu­mor­ous style (at least we thought so at the time): Peck­ford did an in­ter­view with a CBC re­porter he thought was from NTV. The pre­mier’s ab­sti­nence from all things CBC was bro­ken.

•••

One morn­ing in the early ’70s, I was as­signed to get Lib­eral Leader Ed Roberts’ re­ac­tion to a state­ment be­ing is­sued later that day from Pre­mier Frank Moores (we had been given an ad­vance copy, as had Roberts). Roberts asked whether his re­marks would form the ba­sis of what we usu­ally called a “sep­a­rate” story, or if it would be in­cluded in the over­all main story. When told he would be part of a front-page story with Moores, Roberts con­cluded his re­ac­tion would be buried; he would there­fore pre­fer to wait un­til the next day to re­act in or­der to guar­an­tee bet­ter cov­er­age. I put him on hold and told our news edi­tor, Bill Kelly, what Roberts had said. Bill picked up my phone, and the con­ver­sa­tion went some­thing like this:

“Tell you what, Ed, if you talk to Bob now, you’ll be on page one, in­cluded in the over­all story with Frank. Don’t talk to Bob, and we’ll have him in­ter­view you for to­mor­row’s pa­per, and l guar­an­tee you’ll end up on page 42, just be­neath the so­cial notes col­umn.”

Bill then handed the phone back to me.

The first words from Roberts: “Your Mr. Kelly is a very per­sua­sive man.”

•••

I was at a rally for John Cros­bie in St. John’s West when one of his sup­port­ers, a tiny but big­mouthed woman, de­manded to know my iden­tity. When I told her I was with The Evening Tele­gram, she grabbed my beard and hauled me sev­eral feet across the floor, warn­ing loudly: “If you write one bad word about Mr. Cros­bie, I’m gonna haul your beard out, one hair at a time.” Cros­bie loved the dis­play of un­am­bigu­ous sup­port.

•••

Brian Peck­ford was mock­ing me af­ter a leg­isla­tive scrum, dur­ing which I had asked some touchy ques­tions about one of his cabi­net min­is­ters. As other re­porters watched, Peck­ford’s sar­casm erupted: “Oh, my, my, big tough Bob Wake­ham.”

I re­sponded in kind: “What the f--k is your prob­lem, Peck­ford?”

It wasn’t one of my finer mo­ments. I re­al­ized that too much fa­mil­iar­ity with politi­cians can of­ten breed an un­healthy level of cheer­lead­ing com­fort, but it can also breed overt con­tempt and rude­ness. I fig­ured I should prob­a­bly get out of the po­lit­i­cal re­port­ing beat, and go be­hind the scenes as a pro­ducer (and in­dulge in covert con­tempt).

It was a good move. It was time.

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