Our national treasure
After two decades of hosting CBC’s The National, Wendy Mesley is still pushing the issues that matter
As frequent anchor on CBC’s flagship news program The National, Wendy Mesley is a regular visitor to Canada’s living rooms. Feisty, poised and above all professional, Mesley is every bit the veteran journalist as she takes the nation through the day’s key events at home and abroad.
The National aims to be an authoritative voice in Canadian news — and on Friday and Sunday nights, that voice is Mesley’s.
“I feel a lot of pressure, but that’s a good thing,” says Mesley.
The National’s staff spends the entire day sifting through events, sending reporters to cover stories and lining up guests to be interviewed. Officially, the show’s lineup of stories should be finalized an hour or so before it hits the air, but news doesn’t happen on a schedule, so sometimes plans get changed at the last second, says Mesley.
Mesley found that out the hard way on her very first shift hosting The National some two decades ago. “I was a nervous wreck,” says Mesley. “Back then they didn’t send people to anchor school; you just got up and did it.”
Thankful that she is blessed with a voice that remains steady even when her hands may be shaking with nerves, Mesley got through her first broadcast almost incident-free. Then, as she was feeling relieved and on her way home, she got a phone call from the producers. In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev had been ousted, and the Soviet Union was on the brink of chaos.
“I had to race back to the studio,” says Mesley. “They said they’d have a script for me to read, but at 10:55 or 11:55 or whatever it was, I still didn’t have anything. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to ad lib this,’ but about four seconds before we went on air, the script arrived.”
Mesley says hosting has never been quite so nerve-racking since. Still, it has its moments, like on the day Osama bin Laden was killed. Despite the global significance of the event, hours after his death was first reported, none of the networks had any pictures from bin Laden’s compound. Mesley was left to interview guests and try to piece together what had happened live on air for four or five hours.
In such instances, Mesley says, she gives thanks for the years she spent honing her craft as a reporter in the field.
Mesley began her broadcast career back in the late 1970s. Though she was brought up in Toronto, she was born in Montreal, and it was in that city that she landed her first TV role in 1979, reporting for CTV’s CFCF station. Later she would move to CBC and start reporting for The National from Quebec City, where she covered Quebec’s sovereignty referendum before moving to Ottawa to become parliamentary correspondent in the mid-1980s. Gigs on investigative shows such as Undercurrents and Marketplace followed.
Considering the upward trajectory of her career, it’s easy to think that Mesley was born to be a journalist. But, she says, that’s not true at all. As a Grade 13 student at Lawrence Park Collegiate, Mesley had no idea what she wanted to do for a living. “I was interested in all sorts of things: in art, politics, the law,” she says.
It was a part-time job that set her down the path that ultimately became her career. She landed herself a gig answering phones at CHUM, where she met another local newscasting legend, Mark Dailey, and started to do music interviews. She studied journalism at Ryerson and has been in the business since.
Although Mesley generally likes to keep her public and private lives separate, the two collided in the mid-2000s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing treatment, she returned to work in 2006 and aired a controversial episode of her Marketplace show called “Chasing the Cancer Answer.”
In it, Mesley accused the government of allowing the public to be exposed to potential carcinogens in everyday products. The show was criticized by doctors, who said it failed to recognize the role played by tobacco and an aging population in rising cancer rates.
Six years later, Mesley is still sticking to her guns and says that the public is now more aware of cancer-causing agents in their products, but she is still calling for better labelling and regulation. “Getting products off the shelf is a lot harder than getting them on there,” she says.
When not reporting on world events, Mesley enjoys spending her time with her family in their Kensington Market home. Her husband loves to cook, so Mesley and her family often check out the exotic ingredients available in the market’s many grocery stores. Mesley also has a passion for travelling, having recently returned from a trip to Japan.
But the hobby she loves above all is windsurfing. A passionate windsurfer since her time living in Quebec, Mesley tries to get out on Lake Ontario whenever she can. “Windsurfing requires full concentration, so it takes your mind off things,” she says. “Sometimes I will be out on Lake Ontario, and the sun will be setting over the city, and I’ll be going at 20 or 30 kilometres an hour, and it’s just wonderful.”
With the rise of bloggers, cable rolling news and citizen journalists, the news business is in a tumultuous phase. Mesley, though, says the big, nightly newscast is still of huge importance to hundreds of thousands of Canadians. She believes the TV networks and newspapers are experiencing something of a resurgence after a difficult period adjusting to the last decade’s upheavals in the media landscape.
Today’s newscasts look very different in tone and content from those of the past. In the mid-’80s Mesley would have spent weeks reporting on important-but-dull stories, like free trade negotiations, that today rate only a brief mention. In addition, staff at the CBC fret about the impact of budget cuts at the corporation. While admitting that The National is still well staffed, Mesley says that there are fewer resources at the CBC.
“It means there is more pressure to go after the easy stuff and less time for investigative journalism that really changes the world,” she says.
As for the future of newscasting, Mesley says it’s important to keep innovating and finding new ways to connect with audiences, but a balance must always be struck.
“I don’t mind making the news more rock ’n’ roll,” she says, “as long as we can still discuss the issues that matter.”