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A nose for news

Winnipeg-born Don Newman may have been the Don Cherry of politics (minus the suits)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/10/2013 (1392 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Journalists who cover politics anywhere on this planet will generally agree with the old maxim that one week is a long time in politics. By that measure, Winnipeg's Don Newman must be very old indeed.

In fact, he will celebrate his 73rd birthday on Oct. 28, just days after he launches his lively and entertaining memoir, Welcome to the Broadcast. Until his retirement from the CBC a couple of years ago, Newman began his daily look at politics with that phrase.

Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS archives


Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS archives

It seems that once they retire, old TV news guys are expected to write down their life stories. This past year has seen memoirs by Lloyd Robertson and Craig Oliver. Peter Mansbridge is a few years younger, but he's probably already keeping notes.

Newman's memoir suggests that during the almost half-century that he covered politics and events related to it, he was as completely into the game as Don Cherry is into hockey.

Indeed, despite spending a few years in England during his early childhood, Newman was as much into hockey as most Canadian boys in the 1950s. He played the game on outdoor rinks at the old Sir John Franklin Community Club in River Heights, just before starting high school at Kelvin in 1956.

But for a bad case of measles in the spring of 1960, his life might have followed a different path. The illness kept Newman from getting a good outdoor summer job that year.

At the urging of his older brother Roger, who was already a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, Don dropped by the rival Winnipeg Tribune and caught on as a copy boy.

Like many a journalistic career, Newman's then became the product of a series of fortunate choices, leading him to work in the newsroom at CJAY-TV in Winnipeg in its early days, as well as radio stations CKRC in Winnipeg and CKCK in Regina. Then came the Globe and Mail, which was then on its way to becoming Canada's first national newspaper.

Through all of these formative years, Newman nurtured and developed his political connections, which would serve him well in the years to come.

He was also blessed with that innate ability to be in the right place at the right time. A prime example was on Sept. 22, 1975, in San Francisco. Newman was the CTV correspondent in Washington, and he was the only Canadian reporter covering U.S. president Gerald Ford when a woman named Sara Jane Moore failed in her effort to assassinate him.

It was during his Washington years in the late 1970s that Newman made the move to the CBC, where he spent the rest of his career. By the time Joe Clark enjoyed his brief turn as Canada's 16th prime minister, Newman had become established as a trusted observer of the Canadian political scene.

Especially from this point on, Welcome to the Broadcast is a true page-turner for anyone with a strong interest in politics in this country over the past 40 years. The flavour is reminiscent of what Peter C. Newman achieved with his landmark books about the Diefenbaker and Pearson years, Renegade in Power and The Distemper of Our Times.

After a relatively brief posting in Alberta during the peak years of Peter Lougheed's regime, Newman became a fixture in Ottawa. He was CBC's point man on all of the major constitutional battles, from Pierre Trudeau's patriation following his comeback in 1980, through Brian Mulroney's unsuccessful Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, to the near victory by the separatists in the Quebec referendum in 1995.

There are some revelations along the way. According to Newman, Manitoba's Lloyd Axworthy wanted very much to run for the leadership of the Liberals when Trudeau stepped down in 1984. He did not run because broadcast mogul Izzy Asper, the powerhouse of Liberal politics in this province, was committed to supporting John Turner, who won the leadership and was decimated by Mulroney's Conservatives in the general election a few months later.

Also surprising is Newman's admission that he never voted in elections that he was covering as a reporter. He said it would be comparable to "a referee betting on the outcome of game that he was officiating."

Over the years, Newman never seriously considered running for office himself, and thankfully he never longed for a seat in the Senate, where his former colleagues Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin are now in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Newman's life has not been without its share of personal tragedy. His first marriage was to Audrey-Ann Taylor, whom he met at CKCK TV in Regina in 1961. Their only child was a son named Lincoln, born in June 1971.

In February 1992, 20-year-old Linc died in a bizarre way, going into cardiac arrest while under general anesthetic in a dentist's chair. He was left brain dead and was taken off life support. Two years later Audrey-Ann died after a brief battle with ovarian cancer.

In 1998, Newman married a second time. His wife is Shannon Day, and she partners with him in a consulting business that they started after Newman's retirement from the CBC.

Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster who is heard on CJNU, 93.7 FM. Currie's brother, David, was a classmate of Newman's at Kelvin High School.


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