Interviewing Canada's Top General: Behind the Scenes
Published Friday, October 4, 2013 5:21PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 4, 2013 5:27PM EDT
Tom Lawson is the most powerful man in the Canadian military. He has granted few interviews since he became Chief of the Defence Staff.
It wasn’t always this way. In two previous jobs General Lawson was never media shy. He was the spokesman for Canada’s military mission to depose former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, as well as the point man on the highly controversial F-35 program. He had also served as the Commandant at Royal Military College (Canada’s answer to West Point) and was Deputy Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs, commanding both US and Canadian troops defending North America.
A lot has happened in Canada’s military since General Lawson took over a year ago. Major cuts to fighting force have kicked in; a litany of military procurement projects seem to have gone off the rails; and a series of international and domestic crisis have called for a rapid military response -- like the floods in Alberta this summer.
That’s why we wanted an interview. Here's a bit of a behind the scenes look at what goes into getting an interview with the top brass.
Nearly a Year in the Making
I first started asking for an interview with the Chief of the Defence Staff in November of 2012, nearly a year ago. I kept asking and asking... I asked in November, in February, in May, in July, in August and in September, picking up the tempo as we approached Lawson’s one year anniversary as CDS.
The protocol for this kind of an interview is to track down the person who handles Public Affairs for the CDS. He’s an in-demand guy, so there is a full time person appointed to this position.
When I started this process, Lieutenant-Commander Kris Phillips was running the shop, by the time we scheduled an interview, the job had changed hands to Lieutenant-Commander Jordan Holder.
The process went like this: each time I would email a request for an interview and his Public Affairs Officer would have a look at his schedule. Most of the time I heard back that his schedule was absolutely packed, and the request was turned down. His staff was always polite and professional, but the answer was that he was not available at this time, or sometimes for the next month, or for the next couple of months.
On September 13th I heard back from the CDS' office that they were interested in discussing the potential for an interview, when did we want to conduct it, what would the format be and so forth. After nearly a year of trying, I was surprised and happy to get something other than a no.
By September 16th we had a possible date for the interview. We ended up having to delay by about a week due to a scheduling conflict, but all ducks were in a row.
The CDS' staff asked if they could come and see the studio the day before the interview. This is to prepare both the logistics of transporting the CDS and to be able to brief their boss on what to expect. Will we be sitting face to face in a studio (as we were) or is communicating with an anchor on the other end? How long will it take to get him from National Defence HQ to the CTV bureau. There are also always security considerations where the CDS is involved so his staff likes to have an idea of the location he will be at.
The next day I wondered if the CDS might cancel his interview -- this week has been a rough one on the Veterans Affairs file, and the night before we broke a major story about a military widow who was fighting DND after her husband’s death. I was waiting for the call or email that he couldn’t make it all day.
The CDS walked through the door at precisely 4:50pm as planned. Huge relief!
Some quick time in the makeup chair (men wear makeup for TV too) and we were off to the races for our interview. The CDS answered each question I posed to him and even answered a few follow up questions after the formal interview finished.
The CDS made news on the veterans file (he's pretty happy with the current system), the possibly bugged new defence HQ (he hasn’t been briefed on the security side), and the future of the F-35 and Cyclone helicopters. He also talked about some tough cuts coming up for the military – so keep an eye out for more news on this next week.
The interview was over in less than 10 minutes. It flew by after the months of planning and negotiations. The CDS, his two staffers (who had been watching the interview from the studio) and I had a quick chat about how things went and I thanked him for coming. It was great to get some answers from the CDS on key issues. I’m already gearing up for the next time…