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Television Revered TV journalist Michael Maclear achieved historic scoops

Michael Maclear, pictured on New Year's Day, Jan. 1, 1959.

Memory Films II

Michael Maclear, who died in Toronto on Christmas Day at the age of 89, was a pioneering foreign correspondent for CBC Television. His work took him to more than 80 countries, but his greatest achievement came in Vietnam. There he attained what no other TV news reporter dared to hope for: access to North Vietnam, which was then being bombed "back into the stone age,” in the words of General Curtis E. LeMay, the chief of staff of the United States Air Force.

“He was unique, in my experience, in being able to get ahead of historical news and being on the scene with cameras to report on news events as they unfolded,” said Bill Cunningham, a fellow CBC foreign correspondent. “He was covering Castro the night he took over Cuba. He arrived in Hanoi the day Ho Chi Minh died. He was in Hanoi when the U.S. bombed the French embassy.”

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In September, 1969, Mr. Maclear was the only Western reporter in Hanoi at the funeral of Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnam’s Communist revolution. He was then the CBC’s London correspondent and had managed to get into Vietnam on a flight from Laos, aboard a prop plane.

The North Vietnamese tried to stop him, saying there were floods, but there was no flooding. When Mr. Maclear and his Japanese camera crew filmed Ho Chi Minh’s funeral, it was a world scoop. There was no Internet, no videotape. Everything was shot on film that Mr. Maclear flew out of Vietnam on a private plane owned by Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk. CBS News chartered a flight to transport the film from Phnom Penh to Tokyo to be developed.

The processed film was then sent by satellite to Toronto and New York. It gave the West its first look at the North Vietnamese capital at the height of the Vietnam War. Not only was Mr. Maclear’s report the lead item on the CBC’s newscast, it also ran at the top of Walter Cronkite’s newscast on CBS, the most popular TV news program in the United States.

It was the start of Mr. Maclear’s lifelong fascination with Vietnam.

“He covered the widespread devastation of the U.S. bombing while the U.S. claimed it was not hitting civilian targets. He stood up to potential censorship when he was severely challenged by

his bosses after his exclusive interviews with U.S. prisoners of war in the Hanoi Hilton [a prison that was notorious for its terrible conditions],” Mr. Cunningham said.

He made three trips to Vietnam during the war, and when that war was over, the victorious Communist regime gave him 20,000 feet of film, raw footage showing the war from their side. That was more than nine hours of footage, the basis of documentaries Mr. Maclear produced, including his major work: Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, a 26-part series that aired on the CBC in 1980-81 and on Britain’s Channel 4 in 1985.

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Michael Patrick Maclear was born in London on Dec. 19, 1929. His father, Hugh Maclear, was not in his life until his late teens and his mother, Carlynne Gallagher, died young. He was brought up in a foster home in Beckenham, an outer suburb of London. He stayed close with his mother’s sister, and later in life his two half-brothers from his father’s second marriage.

Michael Maclear, August 1960.

CBC

“He was bombed out of his foster home during the Blitz,” said his daughter, Kyo Maclear. “All of this I think shaped his compassion for civilian victims of war.” He left school at the age of 14, though he had an enduring love of words. His Aunt Kenie gave him an Oxford English Dictionary as a boy and he read everything he could.

“He was self-taught,” said his daughter, who received an Oxford English Dictionary from her father when she was a child.

Mr. Maclear landed a job as a copy boy for the Daily Telegraph. He did some reporting there, then landed a job as a London-based reporter for the Chicago Tribune, where he worked for about three years covering the death of King George VI and the coronation of the Queen for his Midwestern American audience.

When Mr. Maclear immigrated to Canada in 1954 there was still post-war rationing in Britain and the gangly six-foot-four Englishman was amazed at this land of plenty.

“I wandered into a restaurant, and there were people eating steak and eggs for breakfast,” he told Kealy Wilkinson of the Canadian Broadcast Museum in a long 2006 interview. “I said to myself, ‘Where am I?’”

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It took a while to find his first newspaper job, at the Oakville Record-Star. That was short-lived. Then he moved to The Globe and Mail, where he lasted nine months. He and a colleague put a tiny Fiat car into a freight elevator and drove it into the newsroom. The Globe fired him.

His next job was at the CBC, where the news department was in its infancy. Announcers would rip wire copy from a printer and read it on the air. Fascinated with the possibilities of using film, Mr. Maclear was soon producing a half-hour weekly program called Newsmagazine. His colleague Morley Safer would go on to work at 60 Minutes for 46 years.

Soon the two men were sent with film crews to global hot spots to record programs for Newsmagazine.

“It’s fair to say that Morley and I were probably the first TV correspondents for CBC,” Mr. Maclear said in 2006. “It was a whole new medium and had a whole new impact, and very quickly everyone realized they wanted to be in.”

They started their travels in 1956, a tremendous year for world news. There was the Suez crisis, when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt after the Suez Canal was nationalized. Mr. Maclear interviewed Lester Pearson, then secretary of state for external affairs, who won a Nobel Peace Prize the following year for proposing a UN peacekeeping force that effectively resolved the crisis.

“Canada really entered the world in terms of foreign policy with Lester Pearson’s peacekeeping format. Wherever I travelled in subsequent years, to say you were a Canadian correspondent with the CBC network really opened doors,” Mr. Maclear said.

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The Hungarian Revolution later in 1956 was an event made for television, including high drama when the Soviet Union invaded and put down the revolt. The fledgling foreign correspondents couldn’t make it behind the Iron Curtain, but the story received a great deal of play on Newsmagazine.

By 1961, the CBC sent Mr. Maclear to cover the world from a new bureau in London. He met his wife-to-be, Yoko Koide, in Japan and the newlyweds lived in London. One of their friends there was Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon.

“She would call me up at the CBC – she was always arranging what she called happenings. One of them she was going to pump detergent into the fountains at Trafalgar Square. Would I come and film it?” Mr. Maclear remembered.

He turned that one down.

During the Swinging Sixties he did items on the Beatles phenomenon and one long piece called The Permissive Society. David Halton, who was the Paris correspondent for the CBC worked with Mr. Maclear at the time.

“When I started as a reporter, Maclear was already an awesome figure. He was the hard-driving, hard-drinking quintessential foreign correspondent with a talent for being first into many of the world’s hot spots,” Mr. Halton recalled. “As a television journalist, his scripts were often brilliant examples of sharp, evocative writing. His company was a pleasure too. Mike would frequently hold court in after-hours drinking clubs in London, where he would delight his colleagues with his dry wit and scathing comments about our CBC bosses.”

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In 1971, Mr. Maclear left the CBC – not on the best of terms – and moved to CTV, where he produced long documentaries for W5 and then a program called Maclear. Ian McLeod was a researcher on those early programs, who worked with Mr. Maclear for 10 years.

“I marvelled at the way he worked. He would shoot his stories, and then he would send a full edit script with the visuals on one side and the copy on the other side, and it was remarkable how well it turned out. He knew where the clips [interview segments] were, and he knew where the pictures were, and he was able to put it all together in his head,” Mr. McLeod said.

He worked with Mr. Maclear on The Ten Thousand, Day War, a 26-part documentary series that played around the world. Mr. Maclear had quit his network job to produce the series, which was a gutsy move, but he liked to gamble – at work and play.

Mr. McLeod said he lost a lot of money playing poker with Mr. Maclear.

“Poker, darts, cribbage, almost any activity that could support a wager, Michael Maclear was in the thick of it,” said the late Morley Safer in a roast-like comment on Mr. Maclear’s 75th birthday. He then complimented him. “Whatever small success I’ve had I owe to that skeletal Englishman. He is a great teacher, a great risk-taker, an unconventional thinker.”

After growing up in foster care, Mr. Maclear was a warm family man who had a loving relationship with his daughter, Kyo. She inherited his love for words. Her book Birds Art Life won the Trillium Literary Award last year.

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“I grew up with all these great journalists, Bill Cunningham and Tom Gould, sitting around the dinner table discussing world politics,” Ms. Maclear said.

“From writing cablese for newspaper stories and then writing for film, he was very economical with words. When I was in school, he would correct my essays, crossing out unnecessary words. But he was a real softie. As my uncle said, he was a super resilient man, made of iron, love and compassion."

Mr. Maclear leaves his wife, Yoko; daughter, Kyo; son-in-law, David Wall; two grandchildren; and two half-brothers, Andrew and Robin.

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