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Bob Wakeham wades into the debate – and suggests one

August 29, 2012 - In the previous entry, former premier Roger Grimes bemoaned media coverage of the Muskrat Falls issue.

His comments set me to wondering what respected, retired journalist Bob Wakeham thinks of it all. A former executive director of news with CBC NL, the gruff and outspoken Wakeham writes a weekly column for The Telegram, and has been critical at times of his former employer.

“In terms of quantity, I can’t remember a story in relatively recent times that’s generated the amount of coverage that Muskrat Falls has,” Wakeham said, in an email exchange. “Hardly a few days go by without some mention in the media of the project, lots of news items, plenty of interviews (and no shortage of columns). But, as you suggest, it’s mostly ‘he said, she said’ journalism.  There hasn't been the in depth, definitive kind of journalism that Muskrat Falls begs for.  And I still think it’s not too late for the CBC, in particular, to air a journalistic pig-out on the subject, either through a prime time studio debate or a major documentary. If it’s the former, a tough moderator, a Cochrane type, would be imperative (I recall in my time we put the studio venue to good use during the debate over the privatization of Newfoundland Hydro, with Rex Murphy as the host).  The best approach, in my estimation, would be to have a loosey-goosey format, not the stilted leadership type debates that are invariably a cure for insomnia.  But, as I said, a moderator in absolute control would be crucial.  There should be no problem attracting guests from both sides of the debate, from Ed Martin to Cabot Martin.”

If the studio debate idea doesn’t interest the CBC, perhaps they should develop a documentary, Wakeham said.         

“If the studio idea is unappealing to the editorial powers that be at the corporation, perhaps the documentary suggestion might be their cup of tea. A reporter, producer, researcher and shooter should be more than capable of making the kind of documentary on Muskrat Falls that would not only be informative, but highly viewable, as well. And it doesn’t have to take an eternity to produce.”

Despite CBC’s extensive coverage of Muskrat Falls, Wakeham thinks more is needed in order for us to fully grasp the issue.

“I’m sure the CBC can rattle off all kinds of figures about the number of news items and interviews it’s done on Muskrat Falls (as can all news outlets in the province),” he said. “But that’s not good enough, in my estimation. It’s a big ticket item that needs big ticket coverage.”

In his column of January 28 2012, Wakeham suggested that CBC “take ownership” of the issue and present a debate on Muskrat Falls, not unlike the political debates we see during an election. Here’s an excerpt from that column:

“…there should be no limp excuse that the CBC doesn't have the resources to pull off such an event. The personnel are there, and it would amount to a relatively cheap production.

Here’s how I see it: convince the CBC brass in Toronto to provide an hour of prime time for television and radio (starting at 7 o'clock, right after “Here and Now”).

Lasso for the program a journalist or journalists not intimidated by either the medium or the issue or the debaters, someone who can take control (David Cochrane, John Furlong or The Telegram's Russell Wangersky would be at the top of my list).

There's no shortage of potential debaters, from Nalcor’s Ed Martin to people like Cabot Martin and Dave Vardy, and many others, from both sides.

And I’d give some flexibility to the rules and do whatever it takes to prevent the event from turning into one of those stifling election debates which handcuff interviewers and bore viewers. My advice to the producers: don't be afraid of confrontation. Encourage it. That doesn't mean that the participants should be allowed to out shout one another (thus the need for a strong moderator or moderators). But give the discussion some freedom to breathe.

Now I don't expect my suggestion to be front and centre at the next editorial meeting at Mother Corp’s offices. I'm not that naïve.

But if the CBC isn’t interested, perhaps NTV should give it a go.

One way or the other, journalists should be at the helm, and a debate would make for damn good television.”

I would welcome a debate, but I prefer Wakeham’s suggestion of a documentary. Debates often devolve into shouting matches, whereas good journalism can get at the truth of the matter quite swiftly.

In part 3, I highlight the views of a working journalist on Muskrat Falls.

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  • Geoff Meeker
    August 31, 2012 - 11:34

    Rob, that's a good point and I did listen to most of that debate on VOCM. I thought it was useful and well done. However, in this case I think Wakeham was talking about television - at least, that's how I understood it - which is why radio didn't occur to me. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • Rob
      August 31, 2012 - 14:14

      Fair point. If Bob was thinking CBC TV than I apologize for the "c'mon" :)

  • Rob
    August 31, 2012 - 08:55

    " either through a prime time studio debate" - You mean like VOCM did months ago? "But if the CBC isn’t interested, perhaps NTV should give it a go." - uh..... CBC and NTV can do what they like, and I think more critical coverage is key in this issue...but to pretend what Wakeham is asking for didn't actually happen already... c'mon.