Eric Malling: Recalling the reporter’s most compelling stories

Montreal-October-Crisis-min

If you watched television news in Canada between the 1970s and late-1990s, without a doubt you got a lot of your information from Eric Malling. The Saskatchewan-born broadcaster was a fixture on TV who broke a number of major stories during his career as a journalist. He is remembered today for a number of his high-profile pieces that not only informed his fellow Canadians but also often went deeper than the typical news of the day and uncovered facts and even, in some cases, exposed scandals.

Eric Malling

Over Eric Malling’s nearly 30-year career in the media — which began in print, continued for a time in radio then flourished on Canadian television, he filed numerous stories, many if not most of which showcased his thoroughness as a researcher, knack for uncovering well-hidden details and asking tough questions of those who were accountable.

Covering the October Crisis of 1970:

Eric Malling’s career began as a newspaper reporter at the Regina Leader-Post, then The Toronto Star. During his time at the Star he also reported on regional Canadian stories for The Washington Post.

In October 1970, while working at the Star, the young investigative reporter wrote about one of the biggest events of the day, one that would become known as the October Crisis. On October 5, in the Montreal metropolitan area, two members of the Liberation Cell of the terrorist group Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped British diplomat James Cross. Five days later, they kidnapped Quebec Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte.

In the days that followed, several public figures in Quebec called for negotiating the exchange of the two hostages for the political prisoners, while FLQ lawyer Robert Lemieux pushed students at the University of Montreal to boycott classes in support of FLQ.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau responded by invoking the only use of the War Measures Act used during peacetime. The Act limited civil liberties while giving police increased powers. Quebec’s government also requested military assistance and Canadian Forces were sent to the city to support civil authorities. During this time, police arrested 497 individuals and held them without bail. Later, 435 of them were released without charges.

On October 17, police learned that Laporte had been killed by the terrorists. On December 4, following 62 days in captivity, negotiations led to Cross’ release.

Malling greatly enjoyed the challenge and excitement of reporting on such a dramatic and history-making series of events and continued developing his skills as an investigative journalist and reporter.

In 1976, Malling made a career-defining switch to current affairs journalism. When fellow journalist Ron Haggart was preparing to launch the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s flagship newsmagazine show The Fifth Estate, he asked Malling to serve as the program’s co-host.

Eric Malling agreed and joined the program, quickly establishing himself to television viewers as a no-nonsense newsman who delivered the important stories of the day with authority and gravitas.

Arms smugglers and artillery shells:

In 1978, Malling and producer Bill Cran were developing a documentary for The Fifth Estate that would tell the story of the role played by Canadian engineer Gerald Bull in the illegal exportation of artillery shells from Canada to South Africa during apartheid.

Eleven years earlier, Bull had established the Space Research Corporation and became known as an international artillery consultant who performed contract work for both the Canadian and US military. Although Bull had become successful, American policy on arms sales changed dramatically after Jimmy Carter was elected president of the US in 1977, at a time when apartheid was in place in South Africa.

While putting the documentary together, Malling met a representative of Gerald Bull, a Canadian engineer and arms smuggler who was developing long-range artillery, who had shipping documents that all but implicated Bull.

As a result of the nation’s renewed emphasis on enforcing long standing laws regarding exports to South Africa, Bull would later be arrested for illegal arms dealing and spent six months in the US Federal Correctional Complex, Allenwood, Pennsylvania in 1980. After he returned to Quebec he was sued and fined $55,000 for arms dealing.

Exposing propaganda:

On January 14, 1986, Eric Malling opened a segment of The Fifth Estate with the following introduction:

We all know you can’t believe everything you read, but at the same time most journalists do try their level best to get the facts straight. It requires checking and, whenever possible, a firsthand account of what happened.

He goes on to talk about how, in lieu of a firsthand account, a journalist must depend on sources — who may or may not be honest and reliable.  Malling shows ground-level footage of the Angolan Civil War then presents a taped, on-camera interview with John Stockwell, a former US Marine colonel who claims on-camera that he led a staff of CIA propagandists who manufactured and planted fake news stories to help bring about the 1975 Angolan Civil War.

This segment, which can be viewed on YouTube, shows not only the alleged behind-the-scenes machinations that created a major international incident, but also takes the viewer up-close and personal into the heat of the battle. It also presents the story of a man whose seven tours of duty over 14 years, which included serving as chief of the Angola Task Force during its covert operations in 1975, would resign a year later, express concern about CIA paramilitary operations in Third World countries, testify before Congress, and even author a book about his experiences.

It’s a compelling story and segment, one that Eric Malling used to show viewers how people can be influenced and their opinions manipulated without realizing it.

The legendary Don Cherry confrontation:

Thirty years later, many Canadians are still pointing to Malling’s 1990 on-camera interview for The Fifth Estate with hockey announcer, then-ubiquitous businessman and almost always colorful personality Don Cherry, after the former player and coach made distinctly offensive comments about what he termed foreigners.

On camera, a steely, calm Malling looked Cherry in the eye and grilled him about his comments and his feelings toward people from outside Canada. Cherry continued to passionately expound upon his nationalist philosophy as Malling, seemingly enjoying the exchange, at one point comments about Cherry’s custom-tailored dress shirts by saying, I think you wear those collars to hide your bright scarlet neck. Cherry replies, You got it. I’m a redneck all the way.

It’s a revealing interview in other ways as well. During the segment, as the two stroll through one of the bars Cherry owned at the time in southern Ontario, Malling reveals in voiceover that Cherry franchises his name for $50,000 upfront and six percent of the gross, and that Cherry’s wife is his business manager. What’s most interesting is that the segment shows two sides of Malling — both the tenacious journalist and the fellow Canadian who’s clearly getting a kick out of creating the program.

Unmasking a double-agent:

Then there was the time Malling covered the story of James Morrison, a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman who worked as a Soviet double-agent during the 1950s and was later charged with selling secrets to the Soviet Union. At the time, he had disclosed the identity of a Canadian double agent, whose code name was Gideon, to the Soviet Union.

The Fifth Estate’s producers somehow talked Morrison into appearing on the show and discussing his exploits in detail. On November 9, 1982, wearing a wig and fake mustache to disguise himself on camera, he took a seat on The Fifth Estate set opposite Eric Malling, who would interview him. The agent likely didn’t realize that Malling’s superb skill as a formidable interviewer would place Morrison in a precarious position.

During the interview, Malling told the audience that the program had agreed not to publicly identify the double-agent, figuring that the guy’s cover would eventually be blown anyway, as sometimes happens in these cases. At one point during the on-camera questioning, Malling challenged Morrison to drop the disguise and just state his position. Morrison refused.

Malling came back harder, asking him how significant the information was that he provided to the Soviets about Gideon. Morrison said he didn’t know. Malling asked if Morrison had any doubt that Gideon had been killed. Morrison replied that it would appear to have been standard policy, also disclosing that the Soviets had paid him about $3,500. Finally, Malling asked him if he considered himself a traitor. Morrison said he wouldn’t have used that word.

Not long after the interview was broadcast, Morrison was arrested and later convicted.

Investigating Airbus after a historic crash:

In 1990, Malling would leave The Fifth Estate to host W5, which became known as W5 with Eric Malling. In 1991, for his new show, he reported on the safety of the Airbus A320, a highly computerized, narrow-body airliner that was introduced by Air France in 1988 and crashed during the Habsheim Air Show in June of that year, an incident during which three passengers were killed and 34 were injured.

Malling interviewed the pilot, Michel Asseline, and established him as a credible witness to the event. He also interviewed two company spokesmen, one of whom commented that Asseline owed his life to the plane and another who seemed to avoid answering questions. Following an investigation, Asseline and four others were convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Covering the New Zealand fiscal crisis:

Another of Malling’s noted CTV projects explored fiscal crises in New Zealand and Saskatchewan that led to a national debate about government debt. But that’s not the entire story. For this one, Malling surprised many of his hardcore viewers by telling a sad taleabout a baby hippopotamus that was shot by authorities at a zoo in New Zealand. His point was that the country was experiencing such huge deficits that it couldn’t afford to expand the hippo pen, so they killed the animal.

Malling could often be controversial, and this incident didn’t escape notice. His report was not only alluded to in a national bestseller by Linda McQuaig, but his topic was co-opted for the book’s title: Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths. In the book, McQuaig accused Malling of distorting the situation. Some Canadians would never be convinced about the country’s fiscal dilemma because of ideology, but history proved Malling right.

Eric Malling’s legacy continues to live on. His work has been written about in books and mentioned in university classes, and former colleagues continue to recall their time spent with him. Although people haven’t tuned in to watch his reports for more than two decades, much of his work is accessible via the Internet, where YouTube videos of some of his work have received tens of thousands of views.

There will always be investigative journalists. Although times have changed, the business of newsgathering, reporting on injustices, defending the common man, and informing the audience has not. Like Malling during his career, many of today’s journalists dig deep, uncover facts, ask questions that challenge their subjects to provide honest responses, and relate their stories in a compelling way to their audiences.

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