It sounds more like a scenario from Stalinist Russia than one from the halls of Canada's publicly funded broadcaster. Not far from the Barbara Frum atrium, a shrine to the late CBC journalist that is the centrepiece of the network's glitzy new downtown Toronto headquarters, are the elevators leading up to the offices of Prime Time News. There, in a section of the building off-limits to the public, hang photographs of the CBC's current pantheon of on-air stars. Peter Mansbridge is there. Brian Stewart is there. And until early last week, Pamela Wallin was there, too. But within hours of the official announcement that Wallin, hard-edged co-host of the network's flagship Prime Time News, had been dumped from her high-profile job on the program's Magazine segment, the revision of history began. Somebody had discreetly pried her picture off the CBC wall of fame.
But the Kremlin-like intrigue extended well beyond portraits. Viewer feedback, previously available to some newsroom employees via computer, dried up early last week for what a CBC spokesman called "legal reasons." A nervous hush descended on the people's network, as staffers gossiped among themselves about what exactly had happened - and how it was playing. Had Wallin, wooed to the CBC from CTV only 2½ years earlier, fallen victim to a Machiavellian conspiracy by network "Old Boys" who viewed her as a suspicious outsider, an associate of purged CBC executives blamed for the short-lived "repositioning" of the news to 9 p.m.? Had the outspoken newswoman, said by many CBC insiders to be extremely abrasive and "difficult" to work with, sown the seeds of her own demise? Or was it simply a matter of "philosophical differences" between Wallin and CBC management over the direction of Prime Time News, as network brass went out of their way to insist?
The answers are by no means simple. Many CBC staffers, fearing retribution in the face of deep budget cuts and newsroom turmoil, declined to speak to reporters. Those who did would do so strictly on a "not for attribution" basis. And Wallin, who told Maclean's shortly after her dismissal from Prime Time that she had been instructed by her lawyer, Terry O'Sullivan, "to mind her p's and q's," said that she was unable to discuss her version of events. The truth - as pieced together from interviews with well-placed CBC insiders as well as conversations with longtime Wallin friends and associates - appears to lie somewhere in a netherworld of political intrigue and mutual distrust and hostility. In the words of one of Wallin's former Prime Time colleagues, it is really "the story of a dysfunctional family."
Informed sources say that although tensions had been brewing at Prime Time News for months, the current melodrama at the "Mother Corp" began to unfold on Thursday, March 30, when chief news editor David Bazay entered the newsroom and asked staffers: "Where's Pamela?" Informed that Wallin was on the set, Bazay headed off to find her. As those close to Wallin say, Bazay told her simply: "There's a meeting at 3 o'clock tomorrow. Be there." But when Wallin asked, "What's this all about?" the answer was succinct, "you and the CBC."
Friends say that Wallin had suspected for some time that trouble was afoot. Originally hired to co-anchor the news with Mansbridge, she had been moved to the documentary and interview half of the program when it returned to its 10 p.m. spot last September. Both before and after that shuffle, Wallin openly expressed frustration with the CBC newsroom, which, for various reasons, had become a pressure cooker. On Friday, March 31, she met at the appointed hour with Bazay and Prime Time News executive producer Tony Burman. Burman, referring to notes, told Wallin that PTN was no longer a vehicle that emphasized her journalistic talents, especially her strong interest in interviewing. After delivering that message, he got up and walked out of the room, leaving Bazay with the stunned Wallin.
In walked Slawko Klymkiw, the new head of CBC Newsworld. Klymkiw suggested to Wallin that she could become host of Newsworld's daily morning news program broadcast from Halifax, a position about to be vacated by anchor Henry Champ, who lives in Washington and will be starting a new show there for Newsworld. Wallin, advised before the meeting by friends to hold her tongue and simply take notes, listened carefully. Bazay said he thought that she would be an excellent morning show host. But Wallin, who had hosted CTV's Canada A.M. for a total of eight years before joining Prime Time News, was less than thrilled with the notion of returning to the lower-profile, early-morning slot.
Bazay told Wallin that 20 senior CBC managers had been informed of the decision to remove her from Prime Time News. And he handed her the list of those who had been told. Wallin went home in a state of shock. "Pamela told me after the meeting that she felt like a battered wife," says one of her oldest friends.
She immediately telephoned her parents, Bill and Leone Wallin, in her home town of Wadena, Sask., 180 km northeast of Regina. She called a few intimates to ask for their advice as well. They suggested that with two years to go on her contract with the CBC, she should seek legal counsel. Friends say that Wallin insists she did not call any reporters about the network's decision. But two days after her meeting with Bazay and Burman, they say, she was contacted by journalists who had been tipped off. She responded briefly to their questions, saying simply that she had been "fired."
After the story broke late Sunday night, Burman was livid. "The view around the office," says one Prime Time staffer, "was that rather than quietly walk the plank, Pamela squawked." In a 2½-page memo that went out to all TV news staff, Burman called reports that Wallin had been fired "untrue" and added that he had hoped the "ongoing discussion" about her future with the CBC would have continued "on a confidential and discreet basis." Burman went on in the memo to underline "philosophical differences" between Wallin and PTN management over the direction the program was taking. "Although topical and incisive interviewing will always play an important role on PTN," he wrote, "our emphasis this season on tough, hard-edged reports and documentaries has obviously struck a chord with viewers." (CBC executives say their research shows that nine of the top 10 highest-rated Magazine segments this season were documentaries, as were two-thirds of the top 25. The others were predominantly or entirely interviews - Wallin's specialty.)
The evolving mix of interviews and documentaries on the program, Burman's memo maintained, was not one "which Pam has been comfortable with - and that's understandable - but her frustration with not having enough opportunity to interview did neither her nor the program any good." The network, he explained, had no choice "but to give the viewer's interest precedence." Pamela Wallin was no longer with Prime Time News.
When Wallin reported for work on Monday, one source says, Bazay accused her of going to the media. She denied the accusations, claiming that she had merely responded to media questions - and that the story must have been leaked by one of the 20 managers whose names appeared on the CBC list. Bazay then ordered her to go home: she was terminated from the program. Wallin then put on her coat, grabbed her purse and walked through the newsroom and out the main door.
Wallin's dismissal was not universally applauded within the corporation, but, according to network insiders, it had many supporters. "You could almost hear champagne corks popping around the building," says one of her former Prime Time colleagues. "She had been very hard on the people around her." In fact, several former co-workers confirmed that during her time at Prime Time, Wallin had done little to ingratiate herself with staffers. "The CBC didn't screw Pamela," says one. "Pamela screwed Pamela. Everybody carries around their own set of baggage, and I don't know what demons she carries in hers. But the result was that in the very unhappy and confused environment that PTN was - especially at the beginning - she was the unhappiest of all, and she spread that unhappiness." Claims another: "I don't think that Pamela ever felt that she was part of the place. She never actually seemed to trust anybody. She would constantly be changing the work that people did, re-editing interviews, questioning research, just doubting everybody. There was no feeling of collegiality."
Wallin, insiders say, had a confrontational style and often questioned the news judgment of members of the Prime Time team. She would even go so far as to dictate what camera angles she should be shot at and how she should be lit. Behind her back, some crew members quipped that she was "Canada's highest-paid lighting director" or jokingly referred to her as "the Pamatollah."
At the same time, some Wallin associates, while conceding that she may not always be the easiest person to work with, describe her as a dedicated professional often more concerned with getting out the news than worrying about bruised egos. "Pam is not a shrinking flower," notes one former colleague. "She is aggressive - she is a real journalist." Says former CBC chairman Patrick Watson: "I've been a fan of Pam for a long time. She's crusty, she's difficult, she doesn't suffer fools gladly, but I tend to find that attractive."
Others explain her "difficult" behavior in yet another way: Wallin herself, they say, found the Prime Time News environment frustrating. She felt that her ideas were rarely taken seriously. She bristled at the CBC's labyrinthine bureaucracy, its endless meetings and what she considered its flagrant waste of manpower. "She simply had different standards," says longtime friend and senior Globe and Mail correspondent John Gray, who has known Wallin for more than 20 years. "She is a real pro. Her constant complaint was that [many CBC staffers] didn't know what they were doing."
CTV Ottawa bureau chief Craig Oliver, who worked at the CBC for 17 years, points out that there are striking differences between the two networks. And he suggests that Wallin, whom he has known for 15 years, may have faced culture shock after going to the public broadcaster. "Pam argues the issues," says Oliver. "At CTV, people will deal with a lot of back and forth. Pam likes to argue with producers. The CBC is in many ways a management-run operation, a producer-run operation. At the CBC, producers don't like to be argued with, they like to dictate, 'Here's what we are doing, don't argue with me, you're the talent.' But Pam is smart and she has strong ideas and sometimes, yes, she is a fighter."
Friends also claim that Wallin felt she was viewed with suspicion by many CBC employees, who saw her as a minion of Tim Kotcheff, who arrived in June, 1992, from CTV - Wallin followed a few months later - to head news and current affairs at the CBC. Some veterans regarded Wallin and Kotcheff as outsiders from the private sector who did not share the values of CBC news. And she felt unfairly associated with the fateful decision by then-CBC president Gérard Veilleux to "reposition" the nightly news to 9 p.m. in November, 1992 - a move that proved disastrous to the ratings. She believed as well that her colleagues linked her with the failed revamping of the program by both Kotcheff and former head of English TV Ivan Fecan. All three men have since left the CBC; Kotcheff, the last to go, was squeezed out after an internal power struggle in June, 1994, and is now a consultant for a new media division of BCE. "The prevailing view," says one CBC insider, "was that when Kotcheff left, Pamela lost her one and only protector."
Further complicating matters was the fact that Wallin arrived at the CBC at a time when the newsroom was mired in chaos. News and current affairs had been amalgamated, and the place was still grieving Frum's death from leukemia only seven months earlier. "Mother Teresa could have replaced Barbara Frum and she would have been crucified," says one CBC insider. But other staffers are less inclined to play up the Frum factor. "When Prime Time News began, I don't think there was a group of people more ready to accept Pam," says one CBC employee who worked with both women. "It was a confused and unhappy place, and we were looking for somebody we could rally around. And we hoped that that person was Pam. It became very clear, very early, that she was not going to let us rally around her."
Some in the journalistic community speculate that the seeds of Wallin's downfall lay in the co-host format. "To tell you the truth, I think she is a warmer, more effective television personality than Mansbridge is," says Oliver. "I wonder if that might be one of the reasons why they wanted to get her off that show." A number of CBC insiders confirm that Mansbridge wields a tremendous amount of influence at the network. Some even say off the record that there was deep tension between the two anchors. Mansbridge told friends last week that he had nothing to do with Wallin's departure - that, in fact, he was visiting Cape Cod when it happened - and that he had called her to express his shock.
Whatever the reasons, the event left many Canadians angry. On the first day after Wallin left Prime Time News, says a network spokesman, the public broadcaster received more than 1,000 telephone calls, 90 per cent of them opposing her dismissal. Wallin herself told friends that she received more than 200 calls at home in the first three days alone.
And in Wadena, which renamed a section of one of its streets Pamela Wallin Drive last October, the whole town of 1,600 rallied to the defence of its best-known and most respected former resident. "I'll tell you one thing, the CBC is not winning any marks," said Jim Headington, editor of the weekly Wadena News. "People know how the CBC operates, but they're still astounded and shocked this could happen." Mayor Perry Banadyga has been giving out CBC president Perrin Beatty's fax number and address - and urging angry citizens to protest. As for Wallin's parents, they think their daughter has been treated unfairly, and for no good reason. "I'm hurt by the stupidity of the CBC," says Bill Wallin, a retired X-ray and laboratory technician. "As her father, I have great faith in my daughter's ability, and I don't think I'm alone in that view."
At week's end, Wallin's lawyer O'Sullivan said that he was in "private negotiations" with the CBC concerning a settlement with his client. "At this point, we are looking at all of our options." It was unlikely Canadians had heard the last of Pamela Wallin - or of the CBC's endless internal woes.
Maclean's April 17, 1995