N.L. na­tive broke news from around the world

The Telegram (St. John's) - - OBITUARIES - BY FRED LAN­GAN

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.


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