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Television John Doyle: CBC's Secrets of the fifth estate is no mere sizzle reel

In television time, 40 years is probably about half a millennium.

Over four decades, a great deal has changed in TV. There's a lot more TV in existence, for a start. But one show that has, remarkably, continued to exist in our local landscape is the fifth estate.

Secrets of the fifth estate (CBC, 9 p.m.) is about those decades and it is to the credit of the program that it is not exactly a self-congratulatory celebration of great stories and investigations that made headlines. Nor is it sentimental about the past.

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It is an oddly organized hour. It doesn't start at the beginning and lead us up to today. It deals with a series of issues that are part of the package that is TV journalism. At the start, Bob McKeown says: "We turn the cameras on ourselves, share our deepest secrets." The first part is true, but it is implausible that all of the secrets of four decades of journalism are actually revealed here.

The first portion is about coverage that clearly had a profound personal impact on those involved – a time when the program was embedded in a military base hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan. They watched and filmed and reported as Canadian soldiers and others, terribly wounded, were brought in for treatment. No one mentions the brutal horror of war and we don't see a great deal of grisly footage. We just know what it means.

More blunt is a segment about stories that have the fifth's reporters and producers in real danger. And not just the danger of lawsuits. Linden MacIntyre talks about doing a piece in Haiti in 1993 when the country was in total chaos. While he was preparing to film, a group of armed men arrived. A gun was pointed at MacIntyre's head by a young man, "So stoned he was frothing." MacIntyre says, "I thought: 'I'm dead.'"

Later, MacIntyre talks about what are called "jumps" or ambush interviews of people who have refused to be interviewed for a story. Often, of course, these incidents make very dramatic TV. "I hate jumps," MacIntyre says. "More in sorrow than in anger I am jumping you, and ruining your day."

There is a fascinating segment about the late Eric Malling. He was "a guy who loved to misbehave" we are told. But it is also made crystal clear that Malling was not just a tough interviewer and contrarian whose tenacity often made excellent TV. "He wasn't easy to get along with," it is said, and that seems an understatement.

We see a portion of Malling's famous interview with Don Cherry in which he told Cherry that the platitudes he was spouting were, "just a bunch of crap." We see the famous moment when he asked Rita MacNeil about her weight. But then we see part of a never-aired interview Malling did with David Milgaard who was then in jail, wrongfully convicted for rape and murder. Malling, we are informed, never believed that Milgaard was innocent and accepted the police version of the conviction. It was a very bitter dispute inside the program. There's a too-brief summary of the fifth estate's investigation into payments made to Brian Mulroney by Karlheinz Schreiber. We are informed that Mulroney's lawyer wrote to every member of the CBC's board of directors, threatening legal action.

But for all the sizzle of the "gotcha" moments and the drama of powerful politicians and business people exposed, it's clear that the true value of the fifth estate is in the time it has devoted to extremely complex issues that say something profound about our society. It is those stories that took months or even years of investigation that truly matter.

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There is justifiable pride in The Trouble With Evan, the 1994 story of the 11-year-old boy in Hamilton who was known as a trouble maker. What viewers saw was stunning – extremely raw revelations about family tensions in one home, but also insights into human nature.

And there is the matter of telling the story of Ashley Smith's death and how the fifth estate fought for and eventually gained access to shocking prison video. That was a long, long battle. The story ended eventually with 104 recommendations by a coroner's inquest jury.

What we can take away from Secrets of the fifth estate is not so many secrets but a hope that the CBC is as devoted to long, complex investigations as it once was. Because there's not a lot of that around these days.

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