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CBC senior correspondent Terry Milewski. (DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail/DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail)
CBC senior correspondent Terry Milewski. (DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail/DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail)

The Tell

Terry Milewski: an equal-opportunity offender Add to ...

Canada suffers from an outrage shortage, CBC's senior political correspondent reports.

But don't blame Terry Milewski: If anyone can turn that shortage into a surplus, it's the cultivated 61-year-old with the bushy mustache, the unplaceable accent and the gift for antagonizing people who wish he would shut up.

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Both as an instigator of outrage and its target, the attack dog of Ottawa's media pack is an equal-opportunity offender.

The Conservative faithful loathe him for his "answer-the-question" berating of Stephen Harper during the election campaign.

But Jean Chrétien's operatives also accused him of bias for his coverage of protests at the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation conference in Vancouver and got him suspended from the CBC - where his own co-workers, fearing a vindictive government, told him in a memo to pipe down.

"I have no friends," Mr. Milewski says proudly. Of course, he has friends, or, at the very least, admirers: Colleagues affectionately dubbed him Old Yeller for his eagerness to hound Mr. Harper, the new civility be damned.

"I happen to think that Canadians can be a little too complacent and pacific," says Mr. Milewski, the lone-wolf outsider slotted in among the power-lunchers at Hy's Steakhouse. "Our job as reporters is not to meekly accept whatever answer we're given, but to challenge and provoke and press.

"If you're on TV every day for 30 years, as I have been, you're not scared easily. This job isn't an easy one to do, not if you've got 200 partisans watching you while you do your stand-up, heckling you while you're trying to do your 'Hello, Peter …' If you've got the gumption to plow on and do it until they shut up, then you're not the kind of person who's going to be shy about asking questions."

We know Mr. Milewski has gumption, especially for asking pointed questions of public figures. One 300-word poser at a Tory election rally touched on a Conservative candidate linked to Tamil terrorists, the Prime Minister's failure to create a national-security commissioner and a candidate's decision to meet a member of the Babbar Khalsa terrorist group who paid $100,000 to the Air India bomb-maker. For 1½ minutes, Mr. Harper maintained an icy stare as his tormentor plowed ahead with inquisitorial comments ("you broke your promise … completely preposterous statement … slap in the face to the Air India victims' families") that managed to incite rather than shut up the Tory crowd.

Does Mr. Milewski play into the hands of the Harperites with his provocations? Conservative strategist Marjory LeBreton says Mr. Milewski's shouts of "You didn't answer the question" fired up the party's base. "I told him, 'Keep that up, you're doing a great job confirming what we have to put up with every day in Ottawa.' "

Mr. Milewski disagrees: "If that was a brilliant strategy to make their man look good, I'm not sure it succeeded."

Yet he's comfortable with his part in the theatrics. "It's my job to try and stop people tuning out," he says. "People imagine that the CBC is this grand public service funded entirely by taxpayer dollars, but my job is to sell ads. You won't catch me saying, certainly not on tape, that we at CBC have some grand mission to speak truth to power."

Is crafty Terry Milewski trying to throw his right-wing critics off the scent?

The married father of two teenagers likes to position himself as a no-nonsense conservative, if only to blunt Tory complaints. "There are these numberless yahoos of the right who are convinced that this greying, 61-year-old, mortgage-paying, tax-fearing, white establishment reporter must be a leftie because he asked a Conservative Prime Minister a difficult question."

And yet he's definitely subversive, deploying his outspokenness against people and agencies that benefit from a polite, less aggressive approach to the news - in the Air India case and the Robert Dziekanski affair in particular.

"Terry does rub people the wrong way," says Carleton University's Chris Waddell, a former CBC manager. "But that's because he's not prepared to take the drivel most politicians spit out."

So who is this outsider at the centre of power? As Terry Milewski well appreciates, nothing is quite as it seems.

Is he English? Yes and no. "Confusion is the family trait," he says. "We were a family of mongrels in postwar Britain."

Which doesn't make him politics' junkyard dog. Mr. Milewski attended Shrewsbury, an illustrious English school with alumni as varied as Charles Darwin, the poet Sir Philip Sidney, Monty Python's Michael Palin and the founders of the satirical weekly Private Eye.

"There's this problem: Where am I from?" Mr. Milewski says. "Well that's where I went to school, so that's where I'm from."

He is often assumed to be Jewish, a tribute, in his view, to his outsider status - though one of the first confrontations with his CBC bosses was when they sided with complainants who denied his report that the Israeli Defence Forces used phosphorus bombs in the 1982 Lebanon invasion. He had seen the burnt bodies and the shell canister with the Hebrew lettering, but Toronto knew better: He was trouble.

And so now, damned as a Harper-hater, he summons up his school days and describes himself as "a charter member of the establishment" who asks tough-on-crime questions - even though, remembers his brother Peter, "Terry was no stickler for the rules. It wasn't that he was rebellious, he simply disregarded rules."

He may have been trained to be "a proper English gentleman," but his parents were immigrants at a time when a schoolboy with a funny name stood out. His father was a Polish medical student who fled Warsaw to serve with the Desert Rats in North Africa and completed his training in Edinburgh. There he met Mr. Milewski's mother, the daughter of an Egyptian doctor and a Scottish mother, who had commuted between upper-class Alexandria and her Scottish boarding school as a child. She was disowned for marrying a non-Muslim, which created a hostility toward patriarchal religion and authority.

At Shrewsbury, Mr. Milewski acted and, appropriately, won the school's upriver swim. His deviation from the straight and narrow led him to India in 1967 - he met Indira Gandhi, who snootily asked about his Oxford college.

"I'd come all this way, three months slogging across the Afghan desert, camping out in the Khyber Pass, getting eaten by scorpions, and I thought, 'I can get this at home.' "

Or maybe not. He dropped out of Oxford after a six-month illness and later left Keele University after he was caught sunbathing in the nude - a promising start for a troublemaker. He was a lifeguard and a disc jockey, played in a blues band, then pursued upward mobility in Canada, where he worked first in a sawmill and then at radio stations in Williams Lake and Nanaimo, B.C.

Soon, he was the Terry Milewski of legend, covering the legislature for Edmonton's fledgling ITV and terrifying Alberta politicians. "He's always been a very aggressive reporter," says former Conservative cabinet minister Barbara McDougall, who also worked at ITV. "These cabinet ministers would be talking in a long-winded way and finally Terry would interrupt them and say, 'That is not a fact. Here are the facts.' He wanted real answers."

One of the polite fictions of public broadcasting is its objectivity, which made the undiplomatic Mr. Milewski an irritant to his more cautious bosses. But there are signs that CBC management now values his activist style.

"The policy is that you're not supposed to express opinions," he says. "But more and more we're doing our work live, and invariably the first question you're asked is, 'What do you think?' And the trick is to say, 'Well, there are those who say,' or 'Some critics believe that' or 'On the one hand there are those who think …' " So when Mr. Milewski wanted to challenge the Prime Minister for avoiding a debate with Michael Ignatieff, he provoked Tory partisans with the phrase, "How do you answer those who say you've chickened out?"

Brave words. But Mr. Harper didn't answer Mr. Milewski and still won his majority. "It's not a thrill a minute," says the senior correspondent, contemplating a dulled-down Ottawa over his espresso.

He has worked the Hill for two years, and still doesn't feel like a good fit with his fellow parliamentary correspondents. "They are very polite," he says. He makes it sound like a rude word.

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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