In Canada, we’ve killed the fine tradition of the gossip column
There was a time when it didn’t take much to shake the pillars of Canadian society. Back in 1967, the Globe and Mail caused conniptions in Toronto’s better postal codes simply by printing a list of names. Columnist Zena Cherry had obtained the lowdown on the tenants of the ritzy new Sutton Place apartment hotel. The problem was, many of the gentlemen cited hadn’t bothered to inform their wives about their swinging pieds-à-terre, or about the ladies sharing them. If a similar list fell into the hands of a journalist at one of our big city dailies today, it’s arguable whether it would even make the paper. That’s because gossip writing has all but disappeared from the Canadian media landscape. And it doesn’t look like it’s coming back anytime soon.
New York City, on the other hand, and much of the U.S. press, is transfixed by a tat tle and hush-money scandal rocking the New York Post. Jared Paul Stern, an Ottawa-raised contributor to the tabloid's infamous Page Six gossip column, stands accused of trying to extort more than US$100,000 from Ron Burkle in exchange for keeping the super market billionaire's name and doings out of the paper. (Since the story broke, there have been revelations of gifts, trips and cozy busi ness arrangements between other Page Six staffers and their occasional targets.) But it's an unthinkable imbroglio for media on this side of the border, and not because of any superior ethics or tougher laws. It's simply because we have no columns that business
types, entertainers or society matrons dread enough to try to keep their names out of.
It wasn’t always that way. At one time almost every paper in the nation chronicled high society gatherings and kept close tabs on the drinking and dining habits of politicians, sports figures and local bon vivants. “People were very interested in what their neighbours were doing,” says William Weintraub, a veteran journalist and author of City Unique, a history of the rough-andtumble Montreal of the 1940s and ’50s. The Gazette, the Herald and their French-language competitors had duelling columns devoted to the city’s rich nightlife. They covered the comings and goings of hockey players such as Maurice “Rocket” Richard, and turned edgy characters like the exotic dancer Lily St. Cyr and boxers-turnedrestaurateurs Slitkin and Slotkin into bona fide celebrities. Weekly scandal rags such as Hush, Flash and Midnight (which later morphed into the Globe supermarket tabloid) picked up on the infidelities and divorces that newspapers wouldn’t touch. And all that was required to keep a story out of print was a simple tribute. “The thing to do to get in good with the gossip columnist was to send him a
box of liquor once in a while,” says Weintraub.
But those columns, once newspaper fixtures, began to die out along with their writers in the 1970s, and had pretty much been banished from the quality dailies by the late 1980s. In part, that trend may simply be a question of economics. The cost of being wrong when it comes to gossip in Canada has risen steeply in the past few decades. It’s not that Canadian laws have changed, says Roger McConchie, a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in libel cases. Courts in this country have long been “unsympathetic” to those who publish rumours or innuendo, especially in comparison to the U.S., where public figures have to prove not just that information wasn’t true, but that it was printed maliciously. Increasingly in Canadian courts, however, judicial disapproval is translating into hefty verdicts. By McConchie’s count, there have been more than 60 libel awards in excess of $100,000 handed down since the precedentsetting Hill vs. Scientology case (a Canadian record $ 1.6-million judgment) was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1995Another explanation is that the times, and our culture, have changed. With the emergence of, first, the supermarket tabloids, then the celebrity-driven television shows like Entertainment Tonight and the Internet, Canadians’ common frame of reference is now Hollywood, not homegrown. “Everybody knows that Gwyneth Paltrow just had a baby and named him Moses,” says writer Rosemary Sexton, who once covered the society beat for the Globe and Mail. “But people may not know, or care, that Catherine Nugent is back in Toronto society.”
But while “notebook” columns filled with the weakly humorous odds and sods of Canadian political life proliferate, and the recently resurrected Frank magazine fills the nation’s demand for salacious tattle, something is missing, says Sexton. “We’ve lost something in not having our own stars to talk about.” Is Canadian gossip a victim of globalization? This country’s cultural protectionists are already busy planning a campaign to save it. At least that’s the rumour. M jonathon.gatehouse@macleans. rogers. com
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