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

TV producer Arnold Amber, centre, oversees CBC Television coverage of the Liberal Leadership Convention in Calgary in 1990.

CBC

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

"Arnold's great skill was planning a news special. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of Canadian politics," said Peter Mansbridge, who worked as the anchor on many 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 during this period was to plan coverage of the major events, and then co-ordinate the broadcasts. It was a high-pressure job, in particular for a man who was a Type 1 diabetic all his life.

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Mr. Amber was also in charge of news specials on a number of international crises, including the Vietnamese boat people and the civil war in Lebanon. Along with specials that were planned in advance, he oversaw breaking news stories.

"News specials would break into regular programming quite often, and that doesn't happen today," said Tony Burman, the former head of CBC News, who worked with Mr. Amber for 20 years. "Arnold had a 360-degree understanding of what was going on. He was a dedicated journalist and never wavered from his high principles."

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

"I remember we were on the air for 14 hours straight during the papal tour," said Mr. Mansbridge, who first worked with Mr. Amber as a reporter. The two men produced a documentary on Hong Kong for the program Newsmagazine in 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 on the lookout for recruits, he once asked a candidate in a job interview whether 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 business. His mother worked as a bookkeeper. Young Arnold went to a Jewish parochial school and when he was a young teenager the family moved to California because of his father's health problems.

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.

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

"My mother brought her wedding dress and she says the only person she knew at her wedding was my father," 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 in London. Arnold Amber wanted to see the world, and worked as a correspondent in Europe and Africa.

At one point when he was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reporters were not allowed to approach a dignitary who was landing at the airport.

"My father told my mother she could go up and ask some 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 father shouted at [my mother] not to worry, that he would come and get her out as soon as he filed his story."

After spending close to a decade in Europe and Africa, Mr. Amber and his family returned to Canada. He worked at the Toronto Star, then joined the CBC National News as a writer, and then lineup editor, the person who decides what leads the newscast and in which order the stories will run. He ran the local 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.

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He produced other programs for the CBC, including Inside 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 outside the studio as well. For many years, he was head of the CBC branch of Canadian Media Guild.

"He became the first president of that part of the Canadian Media Guild that represented 5,000 CBC employees," wrote Carmel Smyth, the former head of the union in an online obituary. "He was chief strategist, bargainer, and architect of some of the most progressive union agreements for media workers in Canada."

He was critical of CBC management during the eight-week lockout in the summer of 2005. In an article published in The Globe and Mail, Mr. Amber blasted Robert Rabinovitch, then president of the CBC, for throwing the corporation's unionized employees onto the streets. He also identified the key sticking point as the corporation's practice of relying excessively on contract employees rather than granting permanent status to new hires.

"People have been around the CBC for five and six years without staff positions and are denied the opportunity for job security and career development," he wrote. "… If CBC gets its way, there will be less hope for real careers in public broadcasting."

Though he was a passionate union man, when Mr. Amber tried his hand at capitalism he was quite good at it. He was chairman of the board of the Canadian Media Guild's labour-sponsored fund, which invested in oil and gas assets. The fund was profitable until the government ended federal labour-sponsored funds in the 2013 budget.

Mr. Amber also co-founded two organizations promoting the rights of journalists: Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).

"Away from work, he was an outspoken advocate for the rights of journalists, promoting the need for political access, access to information, supportive legislation, and other tools necessary to do the job properly," Ms. Smyth said. "Most working journalists don't speak out publicly for a variety of reasons, but Arnold felt so strongly about it he couldn't 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 that led to Nelson Mandela's presidency.

"My father walked into the newsroom and they thought here is another white guy like them. They were wrong," Jeannine Amber said. "When the white South Africans implied the black voters were not capable of making decisions and were being led by community leaders, my father lost it. He told them that's what everybody does, seek advice from people they trust."

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

"He was as entertaining as he was devoted. There was no one I would rather spend time with than my dad," said his son David Amber, a TV sportscaster. "Even in the last few years, walking with a cane, he made it to every hockey game or recital his grandchildren were involved in."

He is survived by his wife, Phyllis; his children, Jeannine, Gillian and David; and four grandchildren.

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