An early Sunday evening in Toronto. The rain
that fell throughout the day is starting to let up, and Eric
Malling has the house to himself. His son, Leif, is away at
university, his wife, Pat Werner, is out of town and his
daughter, Paige, is at her job at a local drugstore. It's late
September 1998 and Malling has grudgingly faded from public view.
Two years earlier, CTV fired him as host of W5
- the same show he once helped to save. Malling still hasn't
recovered from the shock. He aches to be back in the limelight,
to once again have a regular platform for his acerbic
perspectives on current events. He does, however, have a few
documentary projects in the works, which go some way toward
soothing the pain and giving him an answer for the often-asked
question "What are you doing now?" Indeed, he would have spent
part of this day preparing for a Monday meeting with Dick
Nielsen, an independent producer, if the session hadn't been
rescheduled for Tuesday. Now, with some unexpected free time, he
pads around the house and decides to head to the basement, to its
spare bedroom and makeshift office, the place where Malling, an
alcoholic, does most of his drinking. As he begins his descent,
steps he's taken countless times before, he trips. If there'd
been a railing on the open side of the staircase, he might have
been able to grab it and break his fall. Instead, he crashes down
and is knocked unconscious.
Later that evening, an
acquaintance passing by notices that the front door to Malling's
house is open. Concerned, the acquaintance walks up to the house,
calls out, goes inside and discovers Malling at the bottom of the
basement stairs. Within minutes, an ambulance takes him to
Sunnybrook Hospital, where a day later, on September 28, Eric
John Malling, age 52, dies of a brain hemorrhage.
weeks that follow, there's much public praise for Canada's most
famous journalist-contrarian. "I was at his funeral and the who's
who of journalists showed up. Why? Because they respected that
kind of audacity," says reporter Susan Ormiston, who worked with
Malling at W5 and saw him at his worst and
best. Among his career accomplishments: one Gemini and six ACTRA
awards, three Gordon Sinclair awards for excellence in broadcast
journalism, and the infamous tainted-tuna story for the
fifth estate in 1985, which led to the resignation of
Federal Fisheries Minister John Fraser. But the qualities that
fuelled Malling's rise also became his undoing. Opinionated,
controlling and stubborn, often called an asshole, he refused to
believe he was ever wrong about a story - or that he had a
problem with alcohol.
When Eric Malling first headed east from his home
province of Saskatchewan and the Regina
Leader-Post for The Toronto Star,
his main goal was to grab front-page bylines. Over five years,
1969 to 1974, there were many, but the one that indirectly led to
TV Stardom was on the invocation of the War Measures Act during
the FLQ crisis in 1970. The piece caught the attention of a man
who'd already become a journalistic legend, Ron Haggart. Haggart
would go on to help fashion the fifth estate,
but at the time was working on a book called Rumours of
War. "I thought Malling had a hold on the situation and
the events that went beyond the drama and the rhetoric of the
time," says Haggart, now the co-executive producer of
Counterspin on CBC Newsworld.
1974, after three years at the Star's Ottawa
bureau, Malling moved to CTV's Canada AM,
where he did live interviews with Parliament Hill politicians and
sharpened his aggressive style. With a ferret-like face, thinning
hair and big owl glasses, Malling didn't have standard-issue TV
looks, but Haggart didn't mind and saw enough promise to bring
him aboard the fifth estate for its second
season in 1976. The transition was sometimes difficult. "Too many
words," says Bill Cran, then a producer at the fifth
estate, of Malling's first efforts. He had to learn how
to talk more conversationally to the camera instead of barking at
it, and to get rid of his habit of leaning into his interviewees,
then wagging his finger and demanding answers.
Adrienne Clarkson privately called him Eric Mauling. He was a
"very aggressive interviewer," says Phil Mathias, then a
fifth estate associate producer and now a
senior correspondent for the National Post.
"She had the impression that it was overdone."
otherwise, his flair for interviewing "was the thing that
distinguished him and moved him ahead," says Mike Lavoie, who
became friends with Malling at the Star and
worked with him as a producer at the fifth
estate and W5. "He knew what to ask
and when to depart from his prepared questions and when to
listen, and he made his interviews into conversations."
He also knew when to ambush. In 1978, Malling and Cran
teamed up for a one-hour documentary on the illegal export of
artillery shells from Canada to South Africa during apartheid. At
one point, Malling confronted an unsuspecting representative of
Gerald Bull, an arms smuggler, with shipping documents that all
but proved Bull's guilt. The story displayed Malling's talent for
confrontation and his knack for developing a clear narrative. "He
was a very direct person," says Haggart, "and he was skillful at
making sure that stories like South African arms - that were
really complicated - made sense."
To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
It can be purchased online here.