Bill Cameron changed my life. He was the
broadcast personality who moved me through his print writing. He
was the authoritative anchor who admitted to having a dreadful
suspicion that as journalists, "we dip into the surface of
events, paddle with our feet, exploit tragedies for the good of
our careers and get the story wrong."
It happened in an
article only 500 words long, in a book called The
Newsmakers. Cameron wrote about covering the war in
Mozambique for The Journal and about the
thoughts that kept him awake at 3 a.m. in room 1427 of the Polana
That this man could be so moved by the events he
covered, that he cared about truth so much it kept him awake at
night, made me see a nobility in the profession I had never
before considered. I began watching the news because Cameron
managed to overcome the inflated style of most anchors. His
intelligence and wit made him stand out from other newsreaders.
He had personality, and it came out in his writing.
viewed that way, journalism to me suddenly seemed not only
interesting, but worthwhile. Until I read Cameron's words the
summer I was 16, I had planned to become a doctor. But as I
thought about that piece, I continued to watch Cameron on CBLT,
and my dreams of medicine took a backseat to my new dream of one
day finding myself on assignment in Mozambique, staying in the
Polana Hotel. Cameron was the spark that lit the fuse.
Last June, I was stunned to learn of Cameron's
resignation from the CBC. I read the official statement that
contract negotiations had fallen through and he had accepted a
fabulous new job as vice president of communications for Digital
Gem, but it didn't make sense. Seeing Cameron give up
broadcasting was like seeing Gretzky hang up his skates. It shook
my faith in the profession. So on Remembrance Day last fall, I
took the subway to Cameron's new Eglinton Avenue office at the
Internet e-commerce firm to find out what had so changed him
since that night in the Polana Hotel.
Cameron enters wearing off-white pants and a
multicoloured sweater over a blue-and-white-striped dress shirt.
Except for the outfit, everything in his new world is grey. The
walls, door and furniture of his small fifth-floor office all
feature grey as their primary colour. Even the carpet's dark blue
and brown patterns are on a grey background. The room itself is
void of personal touches. It contains nothing but some newspapers
and an autographed baseball on the windowsill. A visitor might
get the impression that Cameron has not long occupied the space.
But no, he explains, as he pulls his grey chair from behind his
desk to sit closer for our interview - he moved in last July.
The events that caused the 57 year old to resign as host
of CBC's Sunday Report had been set in motion
months earlier. Cameron had received a final contract offer that
cut his salary by 25 per cent and increased his workload. "I
don't know of anyone who could have accepted it with any
self-respect," Cameron says of the offer. He chose instead to
leave not just the Mother Corp., his professional home for the
previous 16 years, but the profession as well.
typical Cameron wit, which I had noticed surfacing on-air less
frequently in recent years, he downplays his decision as being of
minor consequence to the world of broadcast journalism. "I think
the country will survive," Cameron deadpans.
reality, his decision was a blow felt not just by CBC viewers
like me, but by those who worked with Cameron throughout his
career and saw the anchorman's departure as an unsettling example
of journalism that is more about style than content.
Peter Kent, anchor for Global, says Cameron was "an
intellectual. He thought about subtle complexities in any story
that the fast-food journalism generation doesn't always like to
consume. He was always a little smarter than most of us. He
always thought a little harder."
When people in the
business talk about Cameron, they invariably revert to the past
tense, as if describing a fallen comrade. The level of praise
they use is that normally reserved for eulogies.
"Cameron had all the right motives for being a
journalist," says Stephen Hurlbut, CityTV's vice president of
news programming and general manager. "He wasn't attracted to it
because it was show business. He was attracted to it because of
the craft involved and the importance of getting the information
Cameron decided to try his hand at journalism in
the late 1960s, while still a struggling actor and writer. His
first job as a freelance entertainment critic for CBC Radio led
to positions at The Star Weekly and
Maclean's, where his reputation as one of the
best young writers in the business prompted Global to lure him
into television writing in 1973.
He was soon on camera,
hosting a weekend news program. Anchoring was "something I knew I
could do because of my background in acting," Cameron remembers.
It was a heady, creative period in Global's history, and the
network's risk-taking, intellectual approach to journalism was
well-suited to Cameron's idealism.
But Cameron was
ambitious. CityTV offered him the anchor job on the nightly 10
o'clock newscast, and he jumped at the new challenge. But it was
not a good match. Hurlbut, who was producing the show at the
time, fondly remembers how Cameron's more formal style
immediately stood out. "I don't think it's completely
inappropriate to use the word stuffy. City is very much a
free-form, wide-open, personality-driven,
roll-up-our-shirt-sleeves approach to life, and Bill's tie was
always done up."
In 1983, Cameron was unceremoniously
fired while he was on vacation. Almost immediately he received a
phone call asking him to do a sample piece for the CBC's
The Journal, the country's most respected
current affairs show, and he was hired as a reporter right away.
He continued doing field reporting and eventually became one of
the program's substitute anchors.
Cameron joined the
show in its prime. Some of the finest documentaries in
international broadcast journalism were being created there.
Robin Christmas, former Journal producer, describes the program
as "the golden era" of Canadian television. "The
Journal had the best of everything," he explains. "It
had a good budget and there was a real commitment to quality.
Executive producer Mark Starowicz put together the best, the
smartest people in the country."
another former Journal producer, looks back on the era as a
bright spot in the CBC's history. The Journal,
he says, "was at the forefront of some of the most interesting
television happening in the world. And you knew it was the world
because you would be travelling the world and seeing that you
were often the first crew there."
"It was wonderful,"
says Cameron. Weighing his words, he continues: "It was a program
that had intelligence and wit, with the funding that gave the
reporters and producers the opportunity to do the kind of pieces
they were trained to do. It was TV that mattered."
I ask Cameron if he has a favourite piece he did for The
Journal, I smile when he says it was his coverage of
the war in Mozambique. Until that time, the conflict had received
little play in the Canadian media. "We did half an hour on
Mozambique; it was as good a job as I could do," Cameron says.
What he enjoyed most was the opportunity to shine a light on an
underreported but significant story.
I confess to
Cameron that while still in high school I read his piece on
Mozambique in The Newsmakers and was greatly moved by it.
"Really?" He smiles. I tell him I admired the fact that he
addressed the possibility that a reporter who just drops into a
conflict and remains a safe distance from the danger runs the
risk of getting the story wrong. Cameron nods, saying that this
possibility always exists for foreign correspondents, "But
The Journal at least gave you a legitimate
shot at getting it right," he says as he moves to answer the
phone on his desk, which is ringing for the third time in half an
Once Cameron transfers the caller to the company's
receptionist, I ask him about the death of The
Journal. He says the now-famous repositioning of The
National and The Journal into
PrimeTime News in 1992 came as "a stupendous
surprise. It was just incomprehensible." No one could understand
why one of the brightest lights in Canadian journalism was being
The consensus among Journal staffers was
that the decision had less to do with money and more to do with
the perennial conflict between the news and current affairs
departments. Christmas explains his take on the situation: "News
people tend to look at documentary people as pampered and
self-indulgent, and they seem to think of what they do as the
real job." Christmas believes "people within the other CBC
executive became a bit jealous of what Starowicz had created and
they destroyed the program." Such an interpretation was borne out
from the news side by Knowlton Nash in his book The
To Cameron, the demise of
The Journal was "an act of vandalism." As
direct as usual, he assesses the situation: "It showed a contempt
for the audience." Tired from years on the road, and still numb
from the death of his beloved Journal, he stepped down from the
national stage and took a position anchoring at the CBC's local
Toronto station, CBLT. He made the decision when the CBC
executive "told me I would be happier at the local news," Cameron
While I, like many others, truly enjoyed
Cameron's work at the affiliate, he was anxious to get back to
the national stage. Three years later that opportunity finally
came. He moved to Newsworld in Halifax, as the anchor of
CBC Morning, on the condition he would be
allowed to travel and report for the show. These opportunities
never materialized. When it became obvious Cameron didn't have a
personality well-suited to the soft journalism of morning
television, he moved back to Toronto with his wife and three
children in 1998.
Cameron took over the national
network's Sunday Report, and anchored the daily three o'clock
Newsworld International for the cable network.
"I felt comfortable at Sunday Report," Cameron
says. "It was a tightly produced, first-class show." He also
enjoyed Newsworld International, despite its
smaller budget. "We did the show entirely from the studio. It was
frustrating not to be able to travel yourself, but they were both
showing signs of becoming serious shows."
producer of Newsworld International, remembers
how Cameron managed to pull off moments of great television,
despite the show's chaotic atmosphere. "The day the Clinton tapes
were being aired, Bill was on live, solid without a break for
something like nine hours. It was unbelievable. And I mean he,
basically speaking, did not leave that seat. I had to bring him
coffee. We were just throwing people at him. We'd go in his ear,
'Okay Bill, now we've got a senator from Idaho. We're not sure,
but his name might be Mike. Here you go.' And he'd have to do it.
He was smooth as glass."
This professionalism earned
Cameron the status of role model for many of the CBC's younger
staffers. Reporter Simon Dingley says it was the prospect of
working with Cameron that enticed him to leave Global for CBLT in
1994. Cameron appealed to Dingley because "Bill is a real
journalist; he has integrity. And he's been around the world as a
reporter. He wasn't just one of these guys who never left the
bright lights of the studio." He describes Cameron as "the finest
anchor I've ever worked with."
Many of Cameron's former
producers have a similar admiration for his journalism. Henderson
says, "He's a very good reporter and has a good sense of getting
to the nub of the story, of figuring out what matters."
Henderson recalls one piece he and Cameron did together
at The Journal, dealing with handguns in the
U.S. "We cut together a really nice little bit, but it just
wasn't working," Henderson explains. "It was visually good but we
couldn't figure out what to say under it." Cameron solved the
problem by writing just a couple of words to complete the scene.
"A lot of reporters would have looked at it and said,
'Oh no, my words are more important than the pictures,'" says
Henderson. "But Bill recognized the value of the scene and worked
to make sure that he could come up with the words to make it
sing. And he did."
Cameron has a gift for conveying a
powerful message with an economy of words. "What he's very good
at is the haiku of television writing, being able to write a
clear sound block which gets right to the point," Henderson adds.
"That's where he shines. I don't know anybody better."
But despite earning the respectof such producers,
Cameron's style and personality sometimes rankled those he worked
for. Vince Carlin, a former head of Newsworld, says many
producers refused to take on Cameron because he was perceived to
be too arrogant. "Bill is smart, but some people felt he had a
tendency to show people how smart he was. And there were those
who privately criticized him as overly stylized." Still, Carlin
was surprised at the way Cameron left the corporation. "I thought
CBC and Newsworld were big enough to keep Bill properly
However, the CBC of today is not the one
Cameron joined in 1983. Between 1995 and 1998, cutbacks to the
federal appropriations that primarily fund the network resulted
in the elimination of 3,000 jobs, or one-quarter of the
corporation's previous workforce. Those who were able to hang on
to their jobs experienced a salary freeze. By 1998, the network's
budget had also been reduced by about 25 per cent.
when the period of budget slashing at last seemed over, internal
conflict made the corporation a difficult place at which to work.
A six-week technicians' strike in the spring of 1999 preceded the
cancellation of Newsworld International, just as Cameron was
beginning the contentious process of negotiating a contract.
"Since the demise of The Journal,"
says Cameron, "I had slowly been coming to the realization that
journalism just wasn't fun anymore." For seven years, Cameron had
moved from job to job, hoping to find a program as worthwhile and
fulfilling as The Journal. By 1999, he
realized he wasn't going to find satisfaction at the CBC.
When the network approached him with a 25-per-cent
salary reduction and a contract renewal offer that would see him
doing field reporting for The National
Magazine and anchoring Saturday
Report in addition to his duties at Sunday
Report, Cameron said he wasn't thrilled. Not only was
the salary an insult, but he would be spending a significant
amount of time away from his family. But he maintains that if he
had received a salary offer similar to what he was making at the
time, he would have stayed at the CBC. It was the prospect of
working harder for less money that Cameron found unpalatable.
Kent, a onetime CBC anchor himself, believes it was
"quite obvious that someone wanted to get rid of him and someone
was able to get rid of him. There are still those who try to get
even for perceived victories by rivals. All it takes is one enemy
"They said, 'You're a sweet guy, we love
you dearly,'" Cameron remembers, but his first reaction was that
the network had made him an offer that was just too easy to
refuse. Yet Tony Burman, head of Newsworld, maintains that wasn't
the network's intention. "From the CBC's point of view, we
regarded the offer made to Bill, both in terms of the assignment
and in terms of the salary, quite generous. And it would have
meant that he would be among the top-paid anchors in the CBC."
Burman says the offer was tailor made for Cameron, to combine his
love of anchoring and field reporting.
began to question whether his employers were "saying I'm 25 per
cent less valuable to the CBC now than I was five years ago? And
I thought to myself, well, yes. My kind of reporting is." Burman
says the lower salary offer reflected the changes in Cameron's
duties since his last contract was negotiated three years
earlier. "When you move from position A to position B, the
negotiations for position B are something that start afresh. You
don't carry your premiums from one job to another." As far as
Burman was concerned, "the salary was both generous and
When Cameron rejected the CBC's offer,
Burman says he was surprised and mystified. "There was
disappointment that he chose to leave journalism, but that was
his decision and we wish him well." As for the network, Burman
says Cameron's departure does make room for new blood. "I think
Bill is a fine journalist, but we happen to be a network that is
blessed with many fine journalists, including many that have
joined us in recent years. So I think we've got to be somewhat
philosophical about the fact that, if we're able to continue to
attract first-rate journalists, that it's inevitable that some
people will leave."
Fine journalists did leave. In early
June, it was Bill Cameron.
Even before negotiations with
the CBC had failed, Vic Alboini, president of Digital Gem
(formerly known as American Gem Corp.), expressed an interest in
hiring Cameron. Less than three weeks later, Cameron was vice
president of communications. From Digital Gem's perspective at
least, that decision has paid off.
When Cameron speaks
of his new life at Digital Gem, he sounds as idealistic about
Internet brokerage as he once did about journalism. "The company
really intends to improve life for Canadians by taking on the big
financial corporations." Digital Gem, which began its life as a
sapphire marketer, will serve as an online brokerage firm for
small companies in Canada, providing online services - including
securities trading, private capital, initial public offerings and
mergers and acquisitions - that are often available only to
Getting Digital Gem up and running
"is like the early days at Global," Cameron says. "We sit around
and talk about what this company is for, who we're doing it for -
we did that at The Journal. Just last night a
group of us were sitting around and we had a conversation about
the company's values - who do we serve, what societal purpose are
we fulfilling - it was refreshing," Cameron says. These days,
"they don't have that conversation very much at the CBC."
Cameron bristles when it is suggested that by taking
this job, he has left journalism behind. He defends his most
recent career choice by pointing out that he is still performing
many of the tasks of a journalist. He spends his days answering
questions from investors, making speeches and doing internal
writing for the company. "I'm still trying to understand
something arcane, break it down and make it understandable. It's
just a different context."
Despite the fact that the
last 20-odd years of his life were lived on camera, he says he
doesn't miss the medium. "I never got a particularly huge bang
out of being on television."
But he still is. He
continues to write, and last fall he narrated an episode of CBC's
Life and Times. "I still do a fair amount of the type of
broadcasting I like the best. I just don't have to put on makeup
in the middle of the day to do it."
And he has never
relinquished his first love: writing. Currently in the works are
"screenplays, novels and," he says with typical self-deprecating
humour, "shopping lists." He hopes someday to devote himself to
writing full-time. But when asked if he'll ever return to
broadcast journalism, he says he just doesn't know. Cameron's not
even sure if his future will include Digital Gem, but promises
he'll stay with the company "until it stops being fun."
Yet I, like many of his friends and former colleagues,
wonder how much fun Cameron is having. Seeing the tall,
broad-shouldered man dressed in a sweater and cotton trousers
fielding calls from investors, it does seem like a waste of
talent. If ever there was an intelligence and a wit suited to
journalism, surely both are the property of Bill Cameron.
From the distance of his Digital Gem office, Cameron
says he still considers journalism a noble profession. Yet his
face is so impassive that I am not quite convinced by his words.
Looking for some glimmer of the man who once occupied room 1427
of the Polana Hotel, I ask what he would tell someone just
starting out in the profession. Cameron thinks for a moment,
before saying his only advice is to "have the courage to walk
away from compromise." He doesn't mean to imply that he has done
that in leaving the CBC. "The CBC made the decision."
Although Cameron says that since he left, he rarely
watches the network's newscasts, he has the utmost respect for
those former colleagues still in the trenches. "For all the CBC's
compromises, it's still far and away the best journalistic
institution in broadcasting. It's sad it's not even better.
Canadians deserve the CBC as good as it can be - as good as it
was - and that's not what they're getting."
I ask if
perhaps this is just bitterness about the way his story ended.
"Bitterness?" he ponders for a moment. "No. I'm sad. I'm sad at
the way I left the CBC. It hurt my feelings. But I'm more sad at
the way the CBC has left itself." The interview over, Cameron
walks me back out to the lobby, and I can't help but feel guilty
for projecting so many of my ideals about journalism onto one
man. His job was to inform, not to inspire. Yet maybe that's the
part that bothers me the most, because Cameron did inspire many
young and future journalists, without even trying. His reporting
always seemed effortless, his talent so profound, that many of
us, perhaps unfairly, saw Cameron as a constant reminder of just
what it is that makes this profession worthwhile. And as one of
those who was inspired, I feel a personal sense of loss as I
watch the former occupant of room 1427 of Mozambique's Polana
Hotel disappear behind the grey walls of Digital