Meet Walter Thompson, wartime guardian of Canada’s news
LESS THAN twenty-four hours after Great Britain declared war on Germany, Postmaster General Norman McLarty, acting in his capacity as chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Censorship, announced the appointment of Walter Scott Thompson, director of publicity for the Canadian National Railways, as Chief Censor for Canada. Mr. Thompson, although a man of considerable bulk, can move with the speed of a startled hare when occasion demands. In the middle of the week he was in Jasper Park on railroad business. By Saturday he was in Montreal, cleaning out his desk at C. N. R. headquarters. Noon, Sunday, found him in Ottawa, and on Monday he opened censorship offices in the Langevin Block on Wellington Street, alongside those of the Postmaster General.
Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of communication are in the blood that flows through Canadian veins. A peacetime censorship such as exists in the totalitarian states is unthinkable for Canada. But war is abnormal. Publishers, editors and the public accepted the necessity for censorship as a war measure without a murmur; and the appointment of Walter Thompson as Chief Censor actually was applauded by editors and correspondents all over the Dominion.
Here is an odd, an anomalous situation. Prior to this appointment Walter Thompson was perhaps the most popular individual with newspaper and writing folk in all Canada. Yet by the very nature of his office it is next to impossible for a Chief Censor to be popular. His job is to deny, to reject, to say: “No!” and the whole weight of the Government is behind his negative. He can send people to prison who disobey or disregard his edicts. Y ou can t argue with a censor. His word is the law. A position so weighted with authority invests a man with tremendous power, but it seldom makes for a feeling of loving kindness toward him on the part of those with whom he has to deal.
Yet among those who know him best, who have had intimate contacts with him during the past quarter of a century, the idea of Walter Thompson being unpopular, even as Chief Censor, seems inconceivable.
It is likely that Walter Thompson knows more newspaper people, magazine people and picture people than any other man on the North American continent. He knows all the top-notchers on both sides of the line, most of them intimately, and a vast host of the lowly leg men. Literally, his friends among the writing men and women, reporters and editors, are numbered by the thousands. And they all love him. He calls the younger lads “my boy,” and gives them fatherly advice. Everybody who has met him more than once calls him “Walter.” He likes that. A man utterly without ostentation, by nature one of the most sincerely friendly people on earth, he honestly enjoys the society of newspaper and writing folks, prefers their company to that of more exalted beings. He even likes photographers, and the news cameramen cannot help being intolerable nuisances at times. Theirs is that sort of a job.
Perhaps the Government of Canada had that in mind when its Ministers put the finger on Walter Thompson for this most difficult and exacting post.
Not that Walter Thompson is especially qualified solely because of his innately sympathetic qualities. The newspaper people who have worked with him on scores of assignments, some big, others of less importance, love him for himself, but they admire and respect his exceptional efficiency, the rapidity with which he can act in emergencies, his bland imperturbability under stresses that would induce the screaming meemies in a less able citizen.
In twenty-five years of toil among the press gangs as a railway publicity man, he has tackled many tough situations, and licked them all. He handled the newspaper lads and lassies on two of the Duke of Windsor’s Canadian journeys, when he was Prince of Wales. He looked after the press arrangements for the Lloyd George tour of 1923, and that was no cinch. Walter Thompson was Chairman of the National Publicity Committee for the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Confederation in 1927; and the same Walter Thompson organized and directed the newspaper correspondents on the pilot train throughout last summer’s Royal Tour. That was his most difficult undertaking —until now.
The Royal Tour Assignment
UNDOUBTEDLY his brilliant success with the Royal Tour had much to do with his choice for the post of Chief Censor. On that momentous pilgrimage he convoyed a permanent press party of forty-nine newspapermen and six newspaper women, with a varying number of photographers, over 10,000 miles through Canada and the
United States without a single major mishap. That was something.
Walter Thompson carried his press party through numerous local emergencies. He soothed the hurt feelings of temperamental newshawks whose toes had been inadvertently stepped on, advised the ignorant, subdued the arrogant, checked the reckless, herded the laggards, supported the faltering. He toiled without ceasing, day after day and night after night, toward the completion of his twofold task; to see that the boys and girls got the news and pictures they wanted when they wanted them, and to protect his King and Queen from any improper intrusions by news reporters and cameramen.
There is no need to enlarge upon the plain tale of that success. The tremendous newspaper coverage the world over speaks for itself. The millions of words, the thousands of pictures, and finally the glowing tributes paid by grateful writers to Walter Thompson’s genius in Canadian and United States papers are all a matter of record. So is the fact that he was granted a private audience at Halifax where Their Majesties presented him with gifts as visible signs of their appreciation. Continued on page 39
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Beyond question the Royal Tour was the biggest newspaper assignment in the history of Canada's press, and one of the biggest jobs United States newspapers have had to tackle in recent years. It is impossible to estimate the extent to which the tact, industry and experience of Walter Thompson contributed to the triumph; but every newsman and woman who covered the full journey on the pilot train is agreed that with a less capable executive head in charge, there must have been some discordant note sooner or later that would have had repercussions in the published accounts of the journey.
Such tours are always difficult to organize and to control; and this was unique. The preliminary work alone was a mountainous task. There was room on the train for less than one hundred press people all told. There were more than a thousand applications. A certain proportion of these came under the heading of “Must.” But once that list was established, it could not have been anything but a heartbreaking business for Walter to weed out the borderline cases. Only the best in the business were assigned to this story, naturally. Many of them were Walter’s good friends, and he is not the type of man who enjoys denying a favor to a friend. He was compelled to turn thumbs down on hundreds of applications. That experience will stand him in good stead in his new job.
The press of three countries demanded representation; Great Britain, Canada and the United States. Every type of newspaper was included, and there were half a dozen different methods of approach to the story to be considered. In New York, for example, the attitude of the dignified and friendly Times and Herald Tribute was entirely different from that of the tabloid News and Mirror. Photographers had special and peculiar problems of their own. So did the press association men. The British correspondents had a time differential ranging from five to ten hours to keep constantly in mind. Many of the boys and girls were entirely strange to Canada and Canadian ways. They had to be acclimated and it was part of Walter Thompson’s job to acclimate them.
It was inevitable, but unfortunate, that the pilot train had to travel always half an hour ahead of the Royal train. The usual custom is for a press car to be attached to special trains carrying distinguished personages on long tours, so there is opportunity for immediate contact in the event of a news break. In federal elections prime ministers and party leaders hook press cars onto their trains, hold press conferences twice daily as they rush up and down the land making speeches. The same convenient custom obtains in American presidential campaigns. Queen Marie of Roumania had a press car on her lively jaunt through the U.S.A. and Canada some years back. So did M. Georges Clemenceau and Mr. Lloyd George.
On the pilot train Walter Thompson submitted himself to considerable personal discomfort in order to be always with his gang. He had an office fixed up for himself in one of the cars, and there he remained night and day, immediately accessible for any query, complaint or request for advice the newshawks might drop in his lap.
There was no protective secretariat. The boys would barge in and sit on the edge of his desk, or perch on the arm of a chair, and yelp: “Hey, Walter, how about this?” The attack of the girls might be milder, but it was no less insistent. There exists on this earth no more demanding individual than a sob sister hot on the scent of a scoop.
Through it all this most patient of men never for a moment lost his temper, or handed out a sharp answer. He just sat there, calmly administering impartial justice to the high, the middle and the low.
When things got hot he permitted himself one characteristic gesture. Anyone who knows Walter Thompson well will recognize it. From the breast pocket of his coat he would remove an immaculate white handkerchief. With this in his hand he would dab at his broad unwrinkled forehead two or three times. Then he would restore the handkerchief to its accustomed place and solve the problem in a few crisp sentences.
Chief Censor Thompson is going to need that quality of calm serenity in the midst of turmoil. It is one of his most notable attributes.
A Filing-Case Memory
ANOTHER trait is his amazingly retentive memory. That, too, will serve him well at Ottawa, for he will have to hold in his mind thousands of seemingly insignificant, but actually vital, details. He gave a striking demonstration of his gift for mnemonics on the occasion that was, for the press representatives, the high spot of the Royal Tour.
At Rideau Hall each of the permanent reporters assigned to the tour, plus the members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, were individually presented to Their Majesties.
The trip at that time was but four days old. There were in that group between ninety and one hundred men and women. The Press Gallery members were, of course, familiar to Walter; but many of the British and American correspondents he had met only once or twice, and then in hurried business contacts.
The King and Queen appeared at the entrance to the large room where the newspaper people were assembled. Their Majesties had with them one or two members of their entourage. Walter Thompson met them in the doorway, for a brief conference, the result of which evidently was that Walter would make the presentations. As the King and Queen passed slowly down the line, each of those more than ninety individuals was duly presented by name and identified with the publication sponsoring him. Walter did not bobble a name or a paper. In several instances he added a few words amplifying this or that special qualification of the man, the woman or periodical he was naming. All this without any reference to notes. An amazing performance.
One recalls a sixteen-vear-old incident in connection with the Lloyd George tour of 1923. A dozen reporters, most of them Americans, occupied the press car. The simple routine of this trip called for morning and afternoon conferences and attendance at numerous public meetings, but nothing very formal. When the party reached Ottawa, though, the boys struck a snag. It was a brief stay of only a few hours and Mr. Lloyd George was being entertained at a swanky Ottawa club by Mr. Mackenzie King, then, as now. Prime Minister of Canada. The occasion demanded at least dinner jackets. No reporter in an ordinary lounge suit would be admitted. Only three or four of the reporters had bothered to bring along dress clothes, and one of those discovered to his horror that, assigned to the job at the last minute and packing in a terrific hurry, he had with him a dinner jacket, trousers, vest and shoes, but lacked shirt, tie, links and studs. It was around seven o’clock in the evening and the haberdashery stores were closed, including the one in the Chateau Laurier.
Walter leaped into action. He had the hotel manager telephone the owner of the hotel shop, imploring him with smooth but urgent words to rush at once to his place of business, open up the store and sell the necessary equipment to the bereaved reporter. The dinner jacket crew
went to the function complete, covered the speeches, then returned to the hotel and shared their notes with their colleagues, while Walter Thompson sat on a bed and beamed benignly on the proceedings.
It was on that trip, too, that this guardian angel of the press solved the problem of how to get laundry done, always a bothersome proposition on these hurried rushes up and down the land. He persuaded the porter on the press car to collect the dirty linen at convenient halts, express it to the designated hotel at some stop two or three days ahead, where it was invariably waiting, washed and ironed, for the gang upon arrival. You can’t help loving a man who thinks of things like that.
ONE important reason for Walter Thompson’s success as a publicity man, and one that will contribute greatly to his success in his present task, is that in his earlier years he was a working newspaperman, and a good one. He was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, on October 22, 1885. That makes him fifty-four years old this month. His father was a Scottish editor of distinction, so the craft is in his blood. After completing his academic education at Rutherford College, Newcastle, he went directly to London where he toiled successively as a reporter and in various executive editorial jobs for theSfi James Gazette, the Daily Express, the Evening Standard and the Observer.
Young Thompson developed a tremendous itch for travel; or perhaps it was born in him. He went to London in his late teens, and started on a sort of Empire saunter in his early twenties. His travel methods were simple. He picked out a spot where he thought he’d like to be, went there and worked for newspapers until he had saved enough money to go somewhere else. By turn he sojourned briefly in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the South Sea Islands. By
1911 he was in Montreal, with more experience behind him at twenty-six than most Canadian newsmen acquire in a lifetime.
His first Montreal job was city editor of the old Daily Witness. A year later he took over the city desk of the Herald. He was appointed press representative of the Grand Trunk and Grand Trunk Pacific in 1914, and there he has remained ever since, having located at last one job where he can get paid for gadding about. His regular tour of duty from Halifax to Vancouver and into the United States carried him 50,000 miles every twelve months, up to the time of the declaration of war and his appointment as Chief Censor.
The marching years piled vast responsibilities upon him. When the Canadian National System came into being, he was made Director of Publicity for the whole complicated setup; railways, steamships, hotels—the works. Later his superior officers handed him the direction of radio and advertising activities. In December, 1937, he was appointed Director of Publicity for Trans-Canada Air Lines.
On first glance at the man you’d wonder how he could possibly carry such a load of responsibility. He is portly, his movements are leisurely, except under stress, and his complexion is pallid. He abhors the idea of exercise for fun; but his mental processes are greased lightning. He is a wizard at organization, and his judgment in the matter of selecting able and conscientious assistants is unerring.
If any man in Canada can administer a rigid wartime censorship on newspapers, magazines and radio and still retain the affection and esteem of the people with whom circumstances must of necessity bring him constantly in conflict, Walter Thompson can do it. He often remarks in conversation: “I like the newspaper
boys and girls. They speak my language.”
Fair enough. He speaks theirs.