Behind the scenes at CTV: the Dion interview

Susan Newhook

Susan NewhookHere’s the scenario: You are in charge of a television newsroom near the end of a tough, close election campaign. Your six o’clock host heads downtown for a late-afternoon, live-to-tape interview with one of the major party leaders. You’re a bit concerned about whether he’l be back in time for the 5 pm newsbreak, but otherwise it’s a straightforward shoot.

Tape rolls, and said leader — whose first language is not your program’s — finds the first question confusing and asks to start again. As the two cameras keep rolling the host agrees, but then it happens again. This time, the leader’s aide jumps in, trying to help. A third time, the guest starts to laugh. The fourth take is fine.

You hear about all this just before 5 pm, when the field producer phones from a cab en route to the station. You look at the tape and kick the question upstairs to the network, where the president of news pulls other national newsroom people into the discussion. As this process is going on (and the clock is ticking toward air), the field producer tells you that the aide asked him — after the host had left — if the outtakes would air, and he said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Oh, and there’s good reason to believe that if you don’t air it, someone else will.

What do you, and the others involved, do?
That’s the situation journalists at CTV faced on Thursday, October 9, after Steve Murphy’s interview in Halifax with Stéphane Dion. They decided to air the entire tape, with the ‘do-overs’ of the questions and the responses, and have been damned widely for it. The Liberals were furious. Gleeful Conservatives jumped on Dion’s confusion, which may have worked both for and against the Tories in the election four days later. The public, media colleagues and competitors and some bloggers have been criticizing and challenging CTV’s decision ever since.

I spoke with three of the people who were involved in the interview and the decision to air the false starts: CTV News president, Robert Hurst; CTV Atlantic news director Jay Witherbee; and, Steve Murphy, the host and interviewer. (A fourth, perhaps the pivotal player, senior producer Peter Mallette, was not available up to deadline.) Hurst, Witherbee and Murphy described a chain of events that were a function of several issues: tight deadlines; network policy; confusion over one ‘re-do’ that turned into several; and having to decide between breaking an arguably vague commitment (from Mallette, not Murphy), and seeming to cover up something others might have reported anyway. 

One day before the interview took place, the Liberals had offered CTV an interview with Dion during his visit to Halifax. Murphy says he heard “fairly late” — around 10 or 11 on Thursday morning — that the Liberals had confirmed the interview for 4:15 pm. There were no unusual rules or agreements around any of the election interviews.

As soon as Murphy finished his noon newscast, he started preparing for the interview. “As I would normally do, (I) ran the questions by Jay and Peter and talked about how it was going to go,” Murphy explained. He and Witherbee agreed that the lead topic should be the economy, the first question hooked to Dion’s speech on the subject that same day. Witherbee recalls discussing the question, and says he saw no problem with it.
It was late in the day for a supper hour host to go downtown for an interview. “Our preference is always live to air or live to tape [taped and going to air without any editing]. We prefer live to air, in studio,” says Witherbee. “The reality is that sometimes that can’t work. And then we try to accommodate.” CTV’s studios are at the other end of the Halifax peninsula and Murphy had a live newsbreak at five sharp. Murphy says he’d been told Dion was also heading for the airport by five. When Murphy and Mallette arrived for the 4:15 interview, they had to wait for Global National to finish with Dion. The two outlets shared CTV’s lighting setup to save time.

Murphy says his pre-interview chat with Dion was light — preparations for Thanksgiving and so on — but he thought Dion looked tired; that was why he agreed to restart the interview after it started. “I did feel bad for the guy,” he says. “I even said to him, when the tape was rolling, ‘I’m okay with that’ and I was going to say ‘because–‘ and the ‘because’ got cut off. What I was on the road to saying was, ‘I’m okay with that because it seems that you were in some distress’.”

But Dion stopped a second time, and this time, Liberal aide Sarah Bain chimed in off-camera, attempting to clarify the question. (Bain declined an interview.) A third take ended almost as soon as it began, when Dion, and then Murphy, started to laugh; the fourth went ahead without incident.

Both Murphy and Witherbee say one re-start in such a situation is a bit unusual; several highly so. “My personal sense is if we had to restart the interview once, you and I wouldn’t be talking about this today…. Somewhere between that and an aide jumping in to explain the question, and a few other do-overs, we got ourselves to the situation that we’re in,” says Witherbee. 

When the interview was over Murphy dashed off, back to the station to make his 5 pm newsbreak. Witherbee explains the conversation that occurred while Mallette was packing up: “One of the aides to Mr. Dion went up to (Mallette) and said, ‘Oh my goodness,  you’re not going to put all of that on the air, are you?’ And Peter said, ‘don’t worry’.” He then jumped into a cab with the tapes and called Witherbee en route to say he was on his way. 

Witherbee says Mallette later told him “something very unusual happened at the beginning [of the interview] that I should have a look at.” By the time Mallette got to the station it was almost five o’clock and the two-camera interview still had to be mixed for air. Witherbee “grabbed one of the tapes and rewound it to the beginning and just started watching.” He says he wasn’t really sure if Dion didn’t understand Murphy’s question or if he just didn’t have an answer — “so I decided that I needed an opinion from the network level.”

Hurst was busy with election night preparations and didn’t see the urgent e-mail from Witherbee in Halifax until about 5:20 Halifax time, he says. After a first phone call with Witherbee, in which they talked about “the issues…the misunderstanding of what the question was, the interjection by Dion’s staffer,” Hurst told Witherbee to post the material on the network’s internal Gateway video system for him and others to view.

It took more than 20 minutes for Hurst to see the tape and discuss it with senior staff, including Wendy Freeman, head of national news operations. “I called Jay [Witherbee] back and we made the decision that we thought this was newsworthy,” Hurst says. “We talked about, ‘how do we handle this’, and went through the pros and cons about that, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Hurst says he had charged all his journalists to pursue stories aggressively throughout the campaign, and that this was no different. “I told them it is not our job to make any leader look good or bad and we are going to report very aggressively and get it all out there. The conversations between Toronto and Halifax covered a number of questions: “Are we being fair? Was there a clear misunderstanding?… We talked about how it might play in our bilingual country, in Quebec… We talked about our relationship with the political party…

“My first question (to Witherbee) was: ‘Was there any undertaking by any member of our crew to burn the tape?’ The answer was clearly no. There was no undertaking whatsoever.” Meanwhile, Murphy says his agreement for one ‘do-over’, recorded on the tape, didn’t extend to the other three. Everyone agreed that the story was worth covering, they say. The only question was how.

Another element also landed in the mix. Witherbee says it wasn’t until partway through the discussions with Toronto that he learned “we left the Liberals with the impression that the restarts wouldn’t run…. At one point in the review when we were sort of leaning toward running the restarts, Peter (Mallette) told me, ‘y’know I think… I gave them the impression that they wouldn’t run’.”

With that information, he added, “I guess we believed there was an implication there, that gave the impression that we were not going to air those restarts.” However, he and Hurst “decided that those types of decisions are best made by senior editors in the newsroom, and not in the field.” The piece would go to air, Witherbee says, without letting the Liberals know. In an ideal world, he now reflects, “If time allowed, it would’ve been nice to give the Liberals a heads-up.”

A couple days after the Oct 14 election, CTV Atlantic aired a response to the controversy on CTV News at Six. In that story, Hurst cited “a policy and a guideline manual” as part of the decision-making process. It’s called, the “CTV News Policy Handbook” and regarding interviews, it states: “Interviews must be spontaneous and unrehearsed… permission of the President, CTV News or delegate is required before entering into any agreement limiting spontaneity of the interview. The audience must be informed of the conditions of any such agreement when interview (sic) is broadcast, except in cases where restrictions agreed are irrelevant to the content of the interview.”

It’s not clear what if any influence that particular section — which might have worked for or against airing — had on the final decision.

By the time Witherbee et al. had agreed to put the outtakes to air, CTV News at Six was on the air across the Maritimes. As the show progressed, Murphy says he got updates on the discussion, but played no part in the final decision to use the outtakes as a lead-in to the interview: “Some decisions are outside one’s pay grade,” he says. It was all so close to the wire that Witherbee, Mallette and Murphy worked during commercial breaks on the on-camera script that set up the story. It all went to air about 6:40 p.m. 

In the two weeks since the interview, Witherbee says CTV has been considering “how, if at all, we need to adjust newsroom protocols in dealing with political leaders in live-to-tape situations during election campaigns. Certainly we will have to explain that if we are not doing the interview live it’s going to be as if it were live.”

As the face of CTV News Atlantic, Murphy has taken much of the flak in the ensuing fallout, but he says he did nothing wrong then and does nothing differently now. His final word on the exercise: “I think it is perfectly fair and ethical to debate the decision that was made. And I also think that it is completely fair and ethical to consider the alternative — which would have seen a broadcaster accede to requests not to air something that had occurred. And in that sense, might we equally have been accused of acquiescing to partisan interests in not airing something and sort of withholding something from the public? I think it can be debated from both sides.”

Susan Newhook is an Assistant Professor at King’s College School of Journalism. For almost 20 years, she was a researcher, reporter and producer at CBC News and Current affairs, and now also produces independent TV productions.