N.L. native broke news from around the world
St. John’s native Don McNeill made his name covering Watergate for the CBC.
McNeill died this past summer at the age of 80.
But back in those days, twice a day for the inhouse syndication service that fed the evening newscasts and then for “The National,” he would file stories on the growing scandal and the Senate hearings into the possible impeachment of United States President Richard Nixon.
What started as a break-in at a Washington hotel, the Watergate, morphed into a scandal that consumed and then ruined Nixon’s presidency. The tone of McNeill’s reports was always serious and never sympathetic to the beleaguered president. Nixon had few supporters in the media or in the U.S. Congress.
Along with daily news reports McNeill would write and help produce news specials as the Watergate crisis unfolded.
“I would pull clips from the special for Don’s ‘National’ report and write much of the linking script — which he would usually not see until just before he had to read it live,” said Cliff Lonsdale, who was a CBC news editor during the Watergate period.
“It was a process that depended on getting as far as possible inside Don’s mind. And what an astonishing place that was. The deft way he isolated and analyzed key facts on air was awe-inspiring.”
McNeill was born in 1934. His father worked in a department store in St. John’s, while his mother was from St. Jacques. She worked with her father on the family schooner, taking cod over to Europe and bringing liquor and furniture back.
McNeill entered Memorial University at a young age and after earning a degree there, went on to study mining engineering the Technical University of Nova Scotia, now part of Dalhousie University. He graduated in 1957 and the next year was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship
The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first satellite into space, in October 1957 and McNeill felt there was a demand for engineers and scientists instead of the liberal arts types usually picked as Rhodes Scholars. He spent two years at Oxford earning a masters in political science and never practised as an engineer.
While at Oxford, he and group of Americans started the Oxford Basketball Team, without permission from the university, and toured the Soviet Union where they were trounced by semi-professional Soviet teams. Oxford forgave the elaborate prank.
After university, McNeill was eventually hired by the Daily Mail. In 1963, he returned to Canada and, after a number of jobs, joined the CBC as a newswriter and producer in 1967.
In December 1969, he was sent to Washington and stayed on as the CBC correspondent for six years.
Following his Washington tour he moved to Ottawa and then Toronto, where he was a roving correspondent, often doing long pieces for “Newsmagazine,” a half-hour documentary program. He covered the Vietnam War in a way no American reporter could: he travelled to Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam.
He covered the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It wasn’t easy to get into the country at the time, so he and the film crew flew to Turkey then bribed their way into Tehran.
McNeill didn’t get along with everyone he worked for. He was a lone wolf and had a good reporter’s disdain for authority.
“Don was one of the most intelligent people I ever met and one of the most difficult,” said Cliff Lonsdale.
After studying on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 198081, McNeill left the CBC and joined CBS News in the U.S. as a foreign correspondent.
When he was in Moscow in the early 1980s, he was constantly angering his Soviet minders in the press office of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, though under the Helsinki Accords, signed in 1975, there was theoretically no censorship of the foreign press.
McNeill would seek out dissidents who were critical of the Soviet system and do stories on the black market, which showed the weakness of the economy and foreshadowed the collapse of Communism and the Soviet state. For his work in Moscow, he won a George Polk Award, which his wife Sandra Allik described as “A bigger deal than an Emmy. CBS News flew us home for the presentation.”
McNeill may have been brilliant at reporting on politics, but the art of office politics eluded him.
“Don’s career followed the same path at the CBC and CBS. He would cover himself in glory and then crash after a fight with his bosses. He was never a corporate yes man,” said Mark Phillips, another Canadian and CBC alumnus who followed McNeill to the CBS bureau in Moscow.
“He was off to Israel and I said you will skyrocket to glory. He responded ‘Yes, like a Roman candle.’” He knew his own weaknesses. He did have trouble in Israel, according to his wife, a journalist and television producer.
“He did a story about unhappy officers in the Israeli army that displeased (Benjamin) Netanyahu, who was then the Israeli ambassador to the UN. He did not like Don, and then stopped his camera crews from going into Lebanon from Israel. He made life difficult for him,” Allik said.
McNeill left CBS in 1987 and worked for several years for Christian Science Monitor Television.
He was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 for his work in Israel for Monitor Television and won an Emmy in 1990 for reporting from the Soviet Union. In 1988, he started teaching journalism at Boston University and stayed there for around 15 years.
He and his wife rented a house on the Spanish Island of Ibiza and spent several months a year there.
McNeill published a book of short stories, “Submariner’s Moon,” that dealt mostly with Newfoundland, and wrote several novels, most of them dealing with his work as a foreign correspondent.
McNeill died in Boston, Mass., on June 27. He is survived by his wife, Sandra Allik.
Sandra Allik and Don McNeill in Prague, then Czechoslovakia.