For legions of Canadian television viewers, Peter Mansbridge was the voice and the face of broadcast news in Canada for more than 50 years. Throughout his tenure as anchor of CBC News’s flagship nightly newscast, The National, from 1988 to 2017, Mansbridge’s famous baritone was a voice of clarity, trust, and authority to his viewers during some bewildering events. He reported on the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. He has covered papal and royal visits (royal funerals and marriages too) and 13 Olympic Games.
During his career, Mansbridge conducted 15,000 interviews — among them, U.S. President Barack Obama, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and every Canadian prime minister since Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2008, and in 2017, he signed-off from CBC News for the final time, concluding a career that had made him, in the eyes of many of his viewers, a national treasure.
Here, he discusses whether there’s catharsis in writing a memoir, the future of news, and how he once, briefly, left Stephen Harper at a loss for words.
How did it feel to retrace the steps of your long career for Off The Record?
I had resisted it. I didn’t want to do a kind of conventional memoir. I [wanted to] do a sort of a collection of anecdotes. And [my publisher] ended up saying yes, as long as I would do a little bit of the conventional memoir stuff — tell people a little bit about my upbringing, and something more substantive about journalism, and about the country as I’ve been lucky enough to witness it on so many levels over my career.
You were born in the U.K., and you arrived in Canada from Malaysia in 1956. And your education in Canadian politics began, in a fairly surprising way, shortly afterwards?
The National Film Board wanted to use my sister in a film on the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. And I was much younger, about 10 years old. And I walked home at lunchtime, and there were these guys in the house and they wanted to cast a boy in the film, too. And I said, “Well, hey, I could play the boy.” I don’t know where that came from — I wasn’t that kind of outgoing kid. But that’s the way it turned out. It was a one-off thing and it was great to tour the Parliament Buildings. It’s an incredible structure and very dominant on the Ottawa skyline. I got to meet the prime minister of the day, John Diefenbaker. And I never thought of it then, but it’s funny when I look back because he was the first prime minister that I met face-to-face and from then on, I’ve met them all.
Is there a story that you covered early in your career that had a lasting impact on you?
In my early days in Churchill, Manitoba, in the late 1960s, I’d started this news operation on my own. I was kind of a one-man-band little radio station there. Part of my daily routine was talking to the local RCMP to find out what was happening. A fire had happened in one of the Indigenous communities near the village, in a Chippewa community. A number of people had died. I’d seen it — the fire — and the attempts to save people. And I saw them bring out an infant who had died of smoke inhalation. We all, in this business, see awful things that you can’t unsee, and you certainly can’t unsee your first situation like that. I’ve never forgotten that moment. Because that kid’s opportunity in life was not great to begin with, before that fire started. And sadly, here we are, 50 or 60 years later, and it’s still an issue. It’s unforgivable. We all have to accept some part of that blame.
“I used to say to some of the junior reporters, ‘You know, the odds are that you’re going to be around a lot longer than they are. So don’t get too consumed by the office.’ It’s important and you should respect it, but a prime minister is not going to be there forever.”
How much pressure is there on you, the interviewer, when talking to a prime minister?
I used to say to some of the junior reporters, “You know, the odds are that you’re going to be around a lot longer than they are. So don’t get too consumed by the office.” It’s important and you should respect it, but a prime minister is not going to be there forever. In the early days of covering Pierre Trudeau, somebody had to take me aside and tell me the same thing because I was perhaps a little too in awe of his presence. I have a lot of respect for politicians, because of their dedication to some form of public service. Their initial instincts as to why they entered public life were good and honourable. I know that the office can change these people — and not always for the better. Our job is to hold them accountable for the decisions that they take. Those of us in the media are always looking for the edge or the angle — which is important — but we should hold them in more respect than we tend to. They’re all special people in the sense that they put themselves forward for the highest office in the land. I don’t think we should ever lose sight of what brought them there.
How difficult is it to hold a prime minister to account during an interview?
They’re so prepared; they’ve been prepped by their staff to anticipate almost any question and they have a message track running in their head of what it is they want to say. You can break them from that. And you know you’ve done that when there’s a pause after the question, if the question makes them think as opposed to just making them go to their memory bank. That doesn’t happen often. But when it does, you really feel that you’ve struck gold — that you’re suddenly dealing with the real person. I interviewed Justin Trudeau a few months before the election was called. At that time, it was late spring and he was still saying that this isn’t the time for an election. So I took the opposite approach. I said, “Why wouldn’t you call an election right now? You have one of the biggest crises the country has ever faced; the country is spending more money than anybody’s ever thought of spending before. Don’t you think it’s time that you stood before the people of Canada and asked for their thumbs up or thumbs down on what you’ve done?” And he said, “No, no, this is not the time.” And a few months later, he’s using my argument to make the case why there should be an election! There were many people using that argument. But he’d bought some time, and it was clear, once we got into June, that there was going to be an election.
Were any prime ministers more difficult to interview than others?
I probably did half a dozen interviews with Pierre Trudeau and I don’t remember any time leaving him blubbering on the floor, unable to answer some terrific question I had asked him! Stephen Harper was a tough interview in the sense that he was so academic and so focused on economics. He’d been a professor at the University of Calgary. But he had this habit of saying, “You know, Peter, to be honest…” He would do this every once in a while, and it bugged me that a prime minister would say that, even though I know it’s just one of those phrases that people use without even realizing it. But I stopped him and said, “Prime Minister, surely you’re always honest when you’re talking to me?” And it just froze him. I don’t think he’d even realized he’d used the phrase. But he paused and he regrouped. And when the interview was all over, he looked at me and said, “You really got me on that ‘to be honest’ thing.” And I said, “Well, I know it was just a phrase, but it sounds like you’re lying all the other times you don’t say it.” And he said, “I won’t do that again.” And he never did. Not with me.
Of the international stories you have covered, is there one that stays with you?
Well, that changes, depending on what’s going on in the world. The situation in Afghanistan has taken me back to the time I spent there in the early 2000s. I wasn’t a foreign correspondent there; I was an anchor. So, I got dropped in out of the sky for a week and claimed to know everything that was going on. And I did that a couple of times. The first time I was there, shortly after the coalition forces took over, everybody loved us; they loved the Canadians. The kids would line up along the road when you were out on a patrol and they’d be smiling and laughing. I went back three years later, in 2006, and it was very different. They had tired of us. They’d had enough. I can remember spending some time with an ex–Taliban commander who was helping the coalition forces. After the interview, I asked him what was going to happen, and he said: “It’s too late. You had your chance. People are tired. They’re sick of war. They want it over.” This is 2006. I have thought a lot about that conversation in the last month or so, because it was so predictable what was going to happen once the Americans pulled out, once we were long gone. The Taliban were going to be back.
Do you think that the disruption to traditional news formats has changed how people view the role of the TV news anchor?
When I started in this business, we were still doing black and white television, and there were only two networks in the country. Is there still room for the traditional kind of one-anchor nightly newscast? Well, the heyday of that was even before my time. Things have changed considerably since then, be- cause there are just so many different opportunities; you have to pick a journalistic source of your choice. So, will there ever be a day like the old days? No. Some describe that as a golden age of television. First of all, it wasn’t that golden to begin with. And second, it’s not coming back. Younger journalists today can define the future role of their profession by keeping in mind things like public trust and the importance of journalism — and the best way to accomplish it through the new technology of today, which is spectacular. We have more information at our fingertips today than I did when I started out. The problem is a lot of it is garbage. And it’s making sure that you can weed that garbage out and see what’s actually there that you can trust and believe in. So, trying to find our role within all that is what becomes critical as we move forward.
Compared to when you began your career, do people trust traditional media outlets as much now as they did then?
A lot of professions, especially those tied to some form of national institution, are having the same kind of issue around trust. But for journalists, that’s our bread and butter; if we don’t have trust, we don’t have credibility, and we’re in serious trouble in terms of the future. The media is not a monolith. Different organizations and different journalists operate differently and have different values in mind when they’re asking questions or describing a story. It’s challenging right now. Our business is under the gun, to some degree. I think we have to face up to the fact that we’re being challenged by the people who depend on us to be more transparent about the way we do our job and to be more understanding of the need for accountability — not just on those who we cover, but on us.