Arnold Amber was CBC TV’s behind-the-scenes mastermind

Most audiences never knew his name, but Arnold Amber, who died in Toronto on Labour Day at age 77, was the brains behind TV programs that millions of Canadians watched. For a decade and a half, he had been the guy in charge of news broadcasts in the CBC, covering elections, leadership conventions, the first Quebec referendum and the Meech Lake crisis. He was also a fervent union leader, representing fellow journalists in the CBC.

“Arnold’s great ability was planning a news special. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Canadian politics,” stated Peter Mansbridge, who functioned as the anchor on lots of the news specials Mr. Amber produced.

The 1980s and early 90s were the heyday of news specials on CBC Television. Mr. Amber’s job in this time was to plan coverage of the important events, then co-ordinate the broadcasts. It was a high-pressure job, specifically for a guy who had been a Type 1 diabetic all of his life.

Mr. Amber was also in charge of news specials on several international crises, including the Vietnamese boat people and the civil war in Lebanon. Along with specials which were planned beforehand, he mimicked breaking news stories.

“News specials could break into regular programming very often, which does not happen now,” said Tony Burman, the former head of CBC News, who worked with Mr. Amber for 20 years. “Arnold had a 360-degree comprehension of what was happening. He was a committed journalist and never wavered from his high principles{}”

There were four national elections on Mr. Amber’s watch, counting one in June, 1979, along with seven national leadership conventions. Among those events he covered was the hugely popular inaugural papal visit of John Paul II, in September, 1984.

“I remember we had been on the air for 14 hours straight through the papal tour,” said Mr. Mansbridge, who worked with Mr. Amber as a reporter. Both men produced a documentary on Hong Kong for the app Newsmagazine from the mid-1970s.

Mr. Amber won three Gemini Awards, including one in 1992 for the CBC’s special coverage of the Oka Crisis. He was also a pitcher on the CBC News baseball team. Always watching for recruits, he asked a candidate in a job interview if she played baseball.

Arnold Amber was born in Montreal on Oct. 29, 1939, to Joseph and Bella (née Goldberg) Amber. His father operated the National Poultry and Egg company, a wholesale company. His mother worked as a bookkeeper. Young Arnold went into a Jewish parochial school and when he was a young teenager the family moved to California due to his father’s health issues.

Mr. Amber went to North Hollywood high school and then returned to Canada to earn a degree in political science at the University of Ottawa. He worked for the CBC in Ottawa for a short time, then went to Queen’s University for a master’s degree in International Relations.

At Queen’s he fell in love with a student from Jamaica, Phyllis Mullings. After completing at Queen’s he left to get a job at Reuters in London in 1962. He insisted on bringing his fiancée.

“My mom brought her wedding dress and she says that the only person she knew at her wedding was my dad,” their daughter Jeannine said.

Going to Europe to work for Reuters was a rite of passage for many young Canadian journalists in the 1950s and 60s, and most of them ended up on the news desk at London. Arnold Amber wanted to see the world, and worked as a correspondent in Europe and Africa.

At one stage when he had been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reporters weren’t permitted to approach a dignitary who had been landing in the airport.

“My dad told my mom she could go up and ask a few questions. But of course she was Jamaican, not Congolese, and they arrested her,” said Jeannine Amber, who was born in the Congo; her sister, Gillian, was born in Ghana. “My dad shouted at [my mom] to not worry, he would come and get her out when he registered his story.”

After spending close to a decade in Europe and Africa, Mr. Amber and his family returned to Canada. He worked in the Toronto Star, then joined the CBC National News as a writer, then lineup editor, whoever determines what leads the newscast and in so the stories will operate. He ran the regional CBC TV news in Toronto and then moved back to The National, eventually becoming executive producer of news specials for 14 years, from 1979 to 1993.

He produced other applications for the CBC, such as Interior Media, and acted as executive producer of Newsworld International, which broadcast only to the United States and the Caribbean.

Mr. Amber had an active life away from the studio also. For several years, he had been head of the CBC branch of Canadian Media Guild.

“He became the first president of the portion of the Canadian Media Guild that represented 5,000 CBC workers,” wrote Carmel Smyth, the former head of the union in an internet obituary. “He had been chief strategist, bargainer, and architect of some of the most innovative union agreements for media workers in Canada.”

He had been critical of CBC management throughout the eight-week lockout in the summer of 2005. In an article published in The Globe and Mail, Mr. Amber blasted Robert Rabinovitch, president of the CBC, for throwing the company’s unionized employees on the roads. He also recognized the key sticking point as the corporation’s practice of relying excessively on contact workers as opposed to granting permanent status to new hires.

“People have been around the CBC for five and six years with no staff positions and are denied the opportunity for job security and career advancement,” he wrote. ” … If CBC has its way, there’ll be less expectation for actual careers in public broadcasting.”

Though he was a fervent union guy, when Mr. Amber tried his hands at capitalism he was quite good at it. He had been chairman of the board of the Canadian Media Guild’s labour-sponsored fund, which invested in oil and gas resources. The fund was profitable before the authorities ended national labour-sponsored funds in the 2013 budget.

Mr. Amber also belonged to several organizations promoting the rights of journalists, including the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and IFEX, the acronym for the International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

“Away from work, he had been an outspoken advocate for the rights of journalists, boosting the need for political access, access to data, encouraging legislation, and other resources necessary to perform the job correctly,” Ms. Smyth said. “Most working journalists do not speak out publicly for many different reasons, but Arnold felt so strongly about it he could not stay quiet.”

Mr. Amber went to South Africa in 1994 to train journalists to cover the country’s first democratic election after apartheid, the election which led to Nelson Mandela’s presidency.

“My dad walked into the newsroom and they believed here is another white man like them. They were wrong,” Jeannine Amber said. “When the white South Africans indicated that the black voters weren’t capable of making decisions and were directed by community leaders, my dad lost it. He told them that is what everyone does, seek guidance from people they trust.”

A dedicated family man, Mr. Amber had a close relationship with his three children and four grandchildren.

“He was as amusing as he was committed. There was no one I’d rather spend time with than my father,” said his son David Amber, a TV sportscaster. “Even in the past few decades, walking with a cane, he left it to every hockey game or recital his grandchildren were involved {}”

He’s survived by his wife, Phyllis; his kids, Jeannine, Gillian and David; and four grandchildren.

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Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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