Michael Maclear’s risks and rewards

Broadcast news icon and documentarian Michael Maclear will be honored tomorrow (June 13) with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Journalism Foundation. Here, he shares with realscreen his thoughts on those achievements, and on the state of indie filmmaking and news television.
June 12, 2013

(Photo: Michael Maclear in Cuba, courtesy Elizabeth Klinck)

It’s hard, in these days of cable news networks staffed with reporters ready to jet to the latest global hotspot at an email’s notice, to remember a time when the foreign correspondent was not a staple of TV news. In that era, seeing a reporter filing from such far-flung regions as Asia or the Caribbean carried a whiff of the exotic, the dangerous, the unknown. And for those behind the scenes, each of those adjectives also applied to the risks inherent in foreign correspondence – the uncertainty of being smack-dab in the middle of unrest and intrigue, and the thrill of staking unknown territory with each report.

Michael Maclear knows much about those risks, and for a sizeable chunk of his career as a journalist and documentarian, he exemplified the qualities needed to be not only a great news hound but also the archetypal foreign correspondent – an insatiable curiosity, coupled with a thirst for being first.

Those qualities, among many others, have made him a legend in journalistic circles, and as a result, his contribution to the field (while in “the field”) is being recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Journalism Foundation tomorrow, June 13. A veritable who’s who of current affairs journalism lined up to pay him praise via letters of nomination – ranging from former colleagues such as 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer and former CNN reporter Peter Arnett to documentarians including Kevin McMahon, John Kastner and Jennifer Baichwal, to such leading lights of Canadian broadcasting as Peter Mansbridge, Lloyd Robertson and Joe Schlesinger.

The praise comes for good reason. Not only did Maclear considerably advance the state of current affairs programming in Canada; his contributions as a foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker have resonated and had lasting effects on television and point-of-view documentary internationally. Joining the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a news writer in 1955, he was part of the team that originated its groundbreaking live news-documentary program Newsmagazine. He was then appointed as the network’s first Far East correspondent, and then its London correspondent, from 1964-1971. In that time frame, he reported from some 80 countries, including North Vietnam.

It was his unflinching coverage of the Vietnam war, coupled with such coups as his interview with Fidel Castro shortly after he and his guerilla troops marched into Havana to take power in 1959, that cemented his reputation and set him on a path that would see him emerge as both a broadcast icon and as an influential doc-maker whose work, highlighted by such productions as the independently-financed and internationally syndicated Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War (1980), would eventually be fêted with a retrospective at Hot Docs in 2004.

Still, when news broke of the Canadian Journalism Federation honor, Maclear was genuinely shocked, issuing a statement proclaiming, “In our fast-moving media, I didn’t expect to be remembered anymore.”

He tells realscreen that he wasn’t being falsely modest. “I was surprised and greatly pleased, as I’ve been absent from television production for quite a while,” he recalls from his home in Toronto. As for the nomination letters, which he’s had the chance to see, “I was just floored. On the one hand it’s so good to hear from a great many old colleagues from when I was an independent filmmaker, which was for 30 of my 60 years in Canadian television, and the others are people that I’ve met or that I know and admire, and they are eminently more deserving than me.”

In those letters, his former Newsmagazine colleague Morley Safer refers to Maclear as “a television pioneer who has influenced public affairs broadcasting around the world,” while longtime CBC News anchor Peter Mansbridge heralds Maclear as “a symbol of journalistic integrity… He confronts authority, never taking no for an answer until convinced it is the right answer.”

That quality also resonated with author Naomi Klein (No Logo), who, in her nomination letter for Maclear, offered: “Michael Maclear’s revolutionary brand of ‘concerned journalism’ freed reporters to be engaged – even, sometimes, enraged. This often-overlooked contribution paved the way for today’s point-of-view filmmaking.”

But carving that path was certainly not easy. Even in the days before media consolidation and “embedded” journalists, Maclear and his colleagues – such as Safer, Ten Thousand Day War series producer Ian McLeod, and Don McQueen, his producer on the CTV series Maclear – faced challenges in getting to the heart of the story. Thus, when he looks back at his achievements, he’s quick to give credit to those colleagues and others, and in considering the concept of ‘achievement,’ he isolates the projects that greatly impacted television programming, and his approach to creating.

“When speaking of personal achievement, if I had to name one that I think really mattered because of the repercussions it would have, it would be Newsmagazine when it went live,” he offers. “There was a version that was all filmed with very soft material before that. But it went live in 1956 and I was the guy who had been handling the news clips – they named me as editor, using that phrase rather than ‘reporter,’ and Morley Safer was the co-editor. We both shared this marveling at the power that a few frames of film could have on the public at large.”

He also regards 2004′s Vietnam: Ghosts of War, a follow-up of sorts to the 26-part Ten Thousand Day War, as a project that “satisfied me as much as anything.” In that feature-length doc, Maclear returned to Vietnam to give voice to his own personal thoughts on the conflict – a perspective that he says was absent in the more objective predecessor.

“With The Ten Thousand Day War, the objective was to have no point of view whatsoever, and Ian McLeod was very tough on me to make sure that happened, as he knew what my real feelings were about the war,” he recalls. “So that series was a success and anyone revisiting it today can hear the point of view and the mindset of the leaders and generals and GIs from all the countries involved and make up their own minds what they felt about the war, and that can’t be duplicated because those people have now passed on.

“But having said that, I came to feel a few years later that what was missing were my personal feelings about the war and the futility of it, and the ignorance about what the North Vietnamese were as a nation – what they were like, what their motivation was.”

He would also revisit Cuba following his early coverage of Castro and the revolution with After Fidel (2007), which, like Ghosts of War, first aired on Canada’s History Television. And while that project also satisfied the need to offer a personal perspective on a topic Maclear found himself deeply immersed in via his work, it wasn’t necessarily as frantic as the initial events that brought him to Havana.

“When I first caught up with Fidel Castro at a town about halfway into Havana, it was pandemonium,” says Maclear. “We were in a small crowded room waiting for him to turn up, with a lot of young troops – one of them so young that he dropped his rifle on the floor and a bullet went off and plowed into the ceiling. We all thought, ‘My God, Castro’s been assassinated!’ He came in and he really did look bewildered.

“I’ve never told this story before, incidentally.”

It’s tantalizing for history and news buffs to ponder over how many stories from Maclear’s travels, triumphs and travails have remained untold up to this point, but as luck would have it, he’s finishing up work on a new book, Guerilla Nation: My Wars in and Out of Vietnam (Dundurn Publishing), slated for release in September. “There is a lot in the book that will surprise people,” he promises.

But first, he has yet another award to receive, one that many feel was a long time in coming. In wrapping the conversation, the veteran newsman and documentarian makes sure to give thanks to colleagues Bob Culbert and Elizabeth Klinck, who led the charge to have Maclear nominated, and then offers up his take on both the independent production climate and the state of journalism today.

“Thirty years as an independent was a tough thing. But there are so many people still determined to make it in that field that I have had the good fortune of working with,” he says of the former. “The talent in Canada for filmmaking, and particularly journalistic filmmaking, isn’t necessarily always at the networks. Half of it out there is from the independents struggling to get a hearing and it gets tougher with each year that passes.”

And as for the latter: “The world of journalism is always juggling things, but I do think there comes a point for most journalists when they have to ask themselves how committed they’re going to remain to what they believe are the facts as opposed to what is the common viewpoint.”


“He is a treasure.” – Sydney Suissa, executive VP, content,  National Geographic Channels International

“Exemplary leadership in the documentary form which distinguished Canadian filmmaking internationally for many decades.” – Linden MacIntyre, co-host CBC’s the fifth estate

“His field reporting, studio work and documentary films… are a major legacy and inspiration for seasoned and aspiring journalists alike.” – Jennifer Baichwal, filmmaker

“Worth recounting here: the humanity, kindness and inspiring generosity he offers all of us who follow in his journalistic footsteps.” – Kevin McMahon, filmmaker

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