Peter Mansbridge: Front Row To History
In his new book, Off the Record, broadcaster Peter Mansbridge shares his stories and experiences of a life well lived.
In the last 50 years, there have been innumerable national and international news events that have shaped history, from the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall to the shocking events of 9/11, as well as military conflicts, political assassinations and far too many celebrity crash and burns to mention. While most of us watched, listened or read about these, one notable Canadian reported and covered them all.
Peter Mansbridge had a front-row seat to the most notable events of the past half-century in a stellar journalistic career, which he is now sharing in a collection of personal stories in his new book, Off the Record, released in October 2021 by Simon & Schuster.
Off the Record is Mansbridge unscripted and speaking from the heart. A captivating read of his career and of history over the last 50 years in which his love of journalism, admiration of historical figures, knowledge of national and international events that have shaped our landscape, and his clever sense of humour practically leap off the page in relating a life well lived and experiences well documented.
The book is not Mansbridge’s first turn in the Author’s Lounge, as it follows Extraordinary Canadians: Stories from the Heart of Our Nation and Peter Mansbridge One on One: Favourite Conversations and the Stories Behind Them, both released to critical acclaim.
“Many people had been asking me to write my memoirs for many years, but this is not my memoir — only a series of anecdotes I’ve collected,” says Mansbridge in a recent interview with City Life. “Because of the pandemic, I could go out into my backyard in the summer of 2020 in Stratford, Ont., as the sun came up and begin to write stories I remembered. I wrote about 60 or 70 and then worked with the editors to narrow them down. These are dinner-table stories. I figure a story people would like to hear over dinner, they’d also like to read in a book.”
The stories in Off the Record cover the span of Mansbridge’s life and career, from being born in post-Second World War England, to moving with his family to live in Malaysia before settling in Canada. It also documents his unscripted start in broadcasting and covers some of the major stories of our times, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, where, to his amazement, years later he discovered that just across the wall from where he stood that fateful night also stood a young university student named Angela Merkel.
Broadcasting was not on Manbridge’s radar screen when he was working as a baggage handler and ticket agent at the airport in Churchill, Man., in 1968, when he was just 19. One day, he was asked to take over the microphone to make a simple flight announcement. In a Lana-Turner-discovered-at-a-Hollywood-drugstore-counter moment, at the departure gate that day was Gaston Charpentier, a station manager for the local CBC radio station, CHFC. “As everybody was running toward the gate, I was watching this one guy come straight toward me,” says Mansbridge. “It turns out he was the manager of the local radio station in Churchill. He said he needed somebody and told me I had a great voice and asked if I’d ever thought about being in radio. I started the next night.”
His journalism career took him to radio and then television in Winnipeg, and in 1975 he became a reporter in Saskatchewan for CBC-TV’s flagship evening news program, The National, where a year later he relocated to Ottawa to become a parliamentary correspondent. Mansbridge’s journalism chops grew covering Parliament Hill for 10 years, with acclaimed political coverage of breaking news, so much so that he eventually became the substitute anchor for Knowlton Nash. He was honing his skills, and his love for his craft deepened.
“You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s still about the story,” says Mansbridge. “Journalism is about storytelling, and if you have that ability to tell stories, you use whatever technologies you can use to make that more interesting, make it more informative or make it more entertaining, in some cases. So, you’re always looking for that advantage, but never forgetting that the primary goal is to provide information, to challenge assumptions made by politicians or academics or whoever, as we’re there to make them explain themselves. But it still comes down to the ability to storytell.”
Television is a business based upon viewership and ratings, and there began to be a lot of eyeballs on Mansbridge, and not only in Canada. In 1988, CBS Television offered him a job as a coanchor for a morning show. To keep Mansbridge in Canada, Nash retired from his anchoring job at the CBC, and Mansbridge debuted as the sole anchor of The National on May 1, 1988, just two decades removed from making that flight announcement at the airport in Churchill.
Off the Record tells of a young Peter growing up in a family that travelled the world, giving him a bigger sense of perspective of the places he would eventually report on as an adult. It speaks of family dinner-table discussions about everything from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Cold War scandals to the Beatles.
“These are dinner-table stories. I figure a story people would like to hear over dinner, they’d also like to read in a book”
“The stories in the book are all little moments of time that tell the reader a little bit about me and a little bit about journalism,” explains Mansbridge. “And what they encouraged me to do, which I was a little shy about, was to tell my story, my personal story, about how I grew up. I actually sat down with my older sister, and we went through the early years, of being born in England, moving to Southeast Asia and the different journeys we took. And that really opened my eyes to the impact certain things of my childhood had on the rest of my life.”
Whether it was interviewing Barack Obama in the White House, covering political mischief at home or abroad, the horrors of war or royal weddings and funerals, Mansbridge acknowledges the role emotion plays for any journalist covering any big, breaking story.
“We are human and we do have feelings as journalists,” he says. “You try not to bury them, but not make them so visual or obvious. But you are moved by things. It could be to laugh or it could be to be deeply emotional. As most journalists my age, I’ve seen a lot of things I wish I hadn’t, that I wish I could unsee, but they live with you forever, and in the moment they are happening, that can have a real impact on you.”
Such a moment was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, and the horror of the terrorist attacks. “I was on-air 44 hours over those first two days,” recalls Mansbridge. “And there was a moment when I finally got a chance to get out of the anchor chair in the middle of the first night. I went to my dressing room to shower and change, and on the private phone in the room the light was blinking with a message. I checked, and it was my daughter in Winnipeg saying she’d been watching for hours and just wanted to say she loved me. It hit me at that moment what was happening around the world was that people were connecting, because this horrible day had touched so many emotions, and one of the ways people were dealing with it was to reach out and connect.”
There is a saying that old reporters never die, and Mansbridge lives up to that credo by doing a daily podcast called The Bridge. And at the time of his interview with City Life, he had just returned from his favourite place, Canada’s High Arctic, where he had been gathering material for an upcoming documentary. The 14 Gemini and Canadian Screen Academy Award winner and Officer of the Order of Canada is, as always, observing and capturing history.
“Journalists are like history on the run in that we’re like the first page of history, the first draft, because we’re telling you what happened usually on the day it happened,” says Mansbridge. “And I’m proud of that, but I’m also 100 per cent aware that history is likely to change over time. As a journalist, you need to caution yourself that there will probably be more information coming along.”
Off the Record is a story of five decades of tumult, tragedies and triumphs, leaving us with a sense of perspective of what a journey it has been. It also offers the realization that, as Canadians, we were so fortunate to have had such a decent man and excellent journalist as Peter Mansbridge to guide us through it.
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENTIL