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Watching the Watchdog: A Farewell to Bob Johnstone

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

Bob Johnstone, one of Canada's great storytellers, has died.

Bob was big in everything he did. Big man, big voice, big heart, big soul, big appetite. Years ago, I was lead trainer for CBC TV journalism training, tasked with teaching the splendid Iona Campagnolo (later Order of Canada winner and Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia) to host an interview program.

Now, Iona was a formidable woman -- hugely accomplished, former federal cabinet minister, tough-minded, proud, regal, brilliant, beautiful -- so I needed a formidable co-trainer to work with me. Who but Bob Johnstone who graced CBC Radio? One of the great interviewers in all Canada.

Picture this -- last day of our workshop, graduation day, when all Iona's hours and hours of training and taping and practice interviewing and playback and analyses were finally to be tested. Iona was to interview Bob for a full half-hour. This was the finals. The gold medal round.

Iona and Bob met in the Green Room for the pre-interview, role-playing as strangers. Following instructions, he was funny, cautious, guarded and not-too-helpful. His version of the typical interviewee.

Iona was courteous, generous and charming, the perfect pre-interviewer. First came the housekeeping -- what the interview was to be about, when it would be broadcast, a warning that it would be edited. That sort of thing. Then she focused down on the subject matter, but never got too specific because good interviewers hate to leave great stuff in the Green Room.

Doing fine so far. At my signal, Iona led Bob into the studio, chatting all the while, keeping him focused on her rather than on the camera operators or the set. Nobody talked to them. No countdown. No voice of god over the loudspeaker announcing: "Quiet in the studio. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, RELAX ..."

I asked for tape to roll, signaled Iona. She let Bob finish his sentence, warned him that we were taping, asked her first question. We knew by now that Iona could do a conventional interview very well. Very bright. Great memory. Lots of guts. Loads of charm.

What we still didn't know, even after all our hard work, was if she could forget all those years in the brutal, blood sport of politics where she'd learned to protect herself against outsiders. Could she expose herself, take off her armour, and interview not as a professional questioner, but as a real, caring human being?

Could she interview Bob, not as the interrogator, but as someone who was genuinely interested in his personal views?

Bob had agreed to respond to Iona's questions like a normal, slightly difficult, guarded interviewee. He was to be appropriately honest. If the question was bad he was to clam up or answer with clichés and bromides. If the question was good, he was supposed to search inside, respond with something relevant. If the question was excellent, he was to go deep inside, tell the truth, whatever the personal cost.

I don't remember the questions except that they ranged from his love for the CBC to his love for his family. I do remember that for most of the interview Iona was suitably professional, but in a conventional way. Bob mirrored her. Suitably professional, but in a conventional way.

Our training obviously hadn't failed her. But it clearly hadn't convinced her either. Maybe, after all the wounds and bruises in her life she was simply incapable of exposing herself to others. Then, when the interview was around the three quarter mark -- everything changed.

Iona leaned forward in her chair. She looked Bob straight in the eyes, gently touched his arm. Her husky voice softened its inquisitorial edge. She was suddenly an entirely different person.

She wrapped him in a cocoon, asked her final questions softly, with genuine caring, humanity and compassion. And by so doing, she gave something of herself to Bob. Something that touched him.

He stumbled through an answer. Stopped. A tear trickled down his cheek. She asked another question. He answered. Another tear. Another question. Another answer. Another tear. And another.

I glanced at Iona. There were tears in her eyes too. She and Bob were sharing magic. Like few people -- particularly interviewers and interviewees -- ever do.

I called "cut." We three hugged.

By reacting to her questions intelligently and honestly, never giving anything unless she deserved it, Bob had forced Iona to go deep. To break through her barriers and give him part of herself. As a reward he'd dropped his own barriers and generously gave her what she wanted -- part of himself.

Interviewers, you see, get what they give. What they deserve. Because of Bob, this was one of the best interviews I've ever seen.

Bob Johnstone was a great storyteller and a rare, fine and generous man. I shall miss him.