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Watching the Watchdog: CBC Got Its Mojo Back at NDP Convention

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Veteran TV newsman Tim Knight contributes a regular column to HuffPost, analyzing and rating broadcast and online journalistic programs.

Program: CBC News coverage of the NDP Leadership Convention, Toronto

Date: Saturday, March 24, 2012

Anchor: Peter Mansbridge

Saturday was incredibly important for the CBC. Next Thursday -- only five days from now -- the Conservative government brings down a budget expected to cut up to $160-million out of the Mother Corp's much-battered budget.

Covering the NDP's leadership convention well or badly won't influence the CBC-haters who want more than just budget cuts. They want to kill the public service broadcaster entirely, save the billion or so it costs, let the privates fatten off its advertising revenue. The unkindest cut of all is their claim that the corporation uses the people's money to produce programming that's no different and no better than the private networks.

If nothing else then, for CBC news there was a huge amount of pride at stake over the weekend. Professional pride. Could it show that when the chips are down, when there's a really big story to cover, it's still got its mojo?

Yes, CBC News still has its mojo.

Peter Mansbridge and his colleagues stayed on the air for an endless 14 hours on Saturday and did it with intelligence, humour, and insight.

Mansbridge himself was in total command for all those long hours. No longer the distant, superior announcer. Instead he had fun. He was likeable. Even charming. He asked short, simple questions for a change. His prodigious memory for past and present political minutiae was dazzling. Due diligence was done.

It was a delight to watch a master craftsman at work.

Brief impressions -- For broadcast journalists, covering an election or big party convention is the ultimate challenge. Adrenaline surges. Competition is fierce. Reputations are made and lost.

The CBC News team came through when it counted most. Mark Kelley, Rosemary Barton, Julie Van Dusen, Hanna Thibedeau, Chris Hall and Evan Solomon (who snuck away from CBC radio to track the software skullduggery) worked the floor through all the horse-trading, arm-twisting, and deal-making like hungry tigers after prey.

The At Issue folks, Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne (first to predict a Mulcair win) and Bruce Anderson supplied the necessary insight and sober second thought with wit and style.

The Insiders, Kathleen Monk, David Herle and Jaime Watt backed them up from the inside politics clubhouse.

Top of the guest interviewee list was Jack Layton's widow, Olivia Chow, who made by far the best speech Friday and was a paragon of dignity, elegance, and fairness today. With her on the panel was former NDP leader Stephen Lewis, who offered cheerfully modest wisdom and reminded us what a decent man he is.

As the day wore on and on, the influence of social media became ever more obvious. Not just because of suspicion that there was something rotten in the state of the computer voting software, but because Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, and cell phones were clearly influencing the voting. Candidates and their posses frantically used whatever medium they could to hit on any delegate they could find, pleading for votes, begging for support. It was a Tweet that first alerted us to the problems with the voting software.

The entire marathon was produced and directed with skill and professionalism. My only criticism is that cameras and microphones almost never cut away from talking heads to let us join the energy on the floor. Not even when the technical problems slowed everything to a crawl. So we had little more than a sense of the singing, chanting and drumming, all demoted to background noise.

I did check in on the private network's coverage occasionally. But since only CBC stayed the agonizing course, and because I saw this convention as a last chance for CBC to prove it's mettle before the budget next Thursday, I kept returning to the Mother Corp.

Verdict -- Saturday was a triumph for CBC News.

I've been harshly critical of it recently. I've sneered at its cynical concentration on crime, disasters and weather, all supposed to lure much-needed ratings.

I've called Mansbridge "a patronizing chief-anchor-for-life" and suggested he's only a good anchor when he's covering events that really interest him.

Like politics.

Well on Saturday, of course, Mansbridge covered politics. And relished it. And chewed it up and spat it out. And proved to be as good a big-event anchor as any I've worked with or watched in Canada or the U.S.

(Not incidentally, if Saturday's performance is any guide, he's also a far better speaker than Thomas Mulcair.)

Then why, for god's sake, can't we have the same Mansbridge on The National?