Chet Greason, Gazette staff
The Forum, a series of talks, discussions, and presentations offered by the Stratford Festival, is offering 150 different events this season. On Saturday morning, storied newsman and Stratford native Lloyd Robertson, accompanied by popular CTV personality Seamus O’Regan, spoke before a gathered audience in the Studio Theatre.
Robertson addressed a number of topics, beginning with the early days of the Stratford Festival, which was one of his earliest assignments when he worked for local radio station CJCS at the age of 18.
According to Robertson, there was a deep divide amongst local citizens regarding the theatrical initiative. He explained how there were two sides to the idea: “The Long-haired actor types, and those of us who carry our lunch pails.”
He had been one of the former, while his father and station manager were among the latter, he added, noting, for many, a Shakespearean theatre simply did not seem like a viable replacement for the loss of the CN Rail manufacturing sector.
As part of the Festival’s opening, Robertson interviewed actor Alec Guinness.
“That tape is long gone … taped over for a Boyd’s shoe commercial,” he said. “We didn’t keep anything back then.”
Robertson’s deep baritone and rich vocabulary make him an engaging subject to listen to. One story he shared included a run-in with a prostitute along Jarvis Street in Toronto while walking to an interview with the CBC. The woman offered Robertson an array of “sexual services on a graduated economic scale,” and he politely declined. By all accounts, a non-event; yet somehow, out of Robertson’s mouth, the story gained magnitude.
Robertson also talked about his decision to leave the CBC for CTV, and how it did not come easy.
“The CBC taught me everything I knew … But the opposition came at me really hard.”
According to Robertson, at the time CBC had strict rules, enforced by unions, dictating who could do what job. Announcers read, reporters wrote, and as a member of the announcers’ union, Robertson could never get truly involved in the telling of a story, as contemporaries in the US like Walter Cronkite were doing.
“I knew that had to be broken … CTV said to me, ‘Come here, you can do it all.’”
Robertson knew CTV was the way to go when he was approached by a union member who told him, “You’re the battering ram being used by the CBC to break us.”
“So I knew I had to go.”
O’Regan pointed out how frank Robertson has been in his recent book, “The Kind of Life Its Been,” about his mother’s mental illness. Robertson explained that there were no medications available at the time to help his mother function normally; she was given a lobotomy when he was 14.
“They were non-persons,” Robertson said of the mentally ill at the time. “They were hidden in attics, experimented on. No one was discriminated against as much as the mentally ill in those days.”
Robertson also turned the tables on O’Regan, noted he had overheard a rumour that the CTV correspondent had chosen to run for the Rosedale Liberal nomination for the empty seat left by Bob Rae.
“Can you believe him?” laughed O’Regan, before answering with an emphatic “No!”
“I just returned from two weeks in Newfoundland, which is what nominees for Toronto Centre typically do,” he added sarcastically.
Both Robertson and O’Regan fielded questions from the audience, the first dealing with the divide between advocacy and journalism.
Robertson said advocacy journalism existed, citing environmentalist David Suzuki as an example, and O’Regan brought up climate change as an issue where the line between advocacy and journalism was often muddied, noting on CTV news programs it is common practice to get a commentator from both sides on a given show.
“The problem was, almost all of the scientists were on the one side. The other side was just denial, denial, denial. And it ultimately came out that they were false groups put there by oil companies.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be used that way,” O’Regan said, adding that it’s a journalist’s job to pursue the facts.
Robertson was asked his best and worst moments as a journalist. After a moment’s thought, he said covering the moon landing was a definite highlight, noting he found himself looking up at the moon from a parking lot afterwards, asking how it was that he was so lucky to be covering such a momentous occasion.
As for a low point, Robertson claimed the massacre at École Polytechnique in 1989, when a gunman killed 14 women, mostly engineering students, had deeply affected him.
“I was angry. As a father of four daughters, I still get choked up. You can never be immune to what’s around you as a journalist,” he said.