HOW JOHN BASSETT, CORPORATE EXECUTIVE, BECAME A CELEBRITY
He owns a Toronto newspaper and a television station, but that isn’t why his name is known in most other parts of Canada. The real reason is that he appears to be interesting even when he isn’t doing much. Simple visibility could take him to the cabinet
USUALLY THE SUREST WAY for a Canadian to remain inconspicuous to the public is to become important in some endeavor that depends on public interest for its success.
This paradox applies, for example, to newspapers: who is the publisher of the Toronto Star or the Montreal Gazette? To television: who owns the Winnipeg station? To football: who is the chairman of the Ottawa Rough Riders? To NHL hockey: who are the directors of the Montreal Canadiens? For that matter, even to politics: who represents Spadina riding in the House of Commons?
A glaring exception to this pattern is John White Hughes Bassett, who has built his career on four of those ingredients of obscurity and who is now trying hard to include the fifth. Yet Bassett has managed to become one of the publicly conspicuous people of Canada. He is known, in person and in performance. to a wide variety of people in the Toronto area where his operations are centred. He is a controversial figure even in distant parts where his Toronto Telegram is not read and his TV station CFTO is not seen. (When Bassett outbid the CBC for Big Four football games and showed them on a small network, the bereft listeners didn’t blame an anonymous thing called CFTO—they blamed John Bassett.)
Bassett recently made himself more conspicuous by winning the Conservative nomination in Toronto’s Spadina riding at a time when he himself was the centre of a poli-
tical controversy. Open accusations that the award of the CFTO license to him was “fixed” by government favoritism are still simmering and have never reached a showdown. Bassett is only one of nearly 700 candidates in a general election enlivened by major national issues and bitter individual contests, but as a man who has become a political controversy before he has become a politician, Bassett’s fate in Spadina will be closely watched.
NOT A MODEST MAN
Bassett, who admits that he is an extrovert and “not a modest man,” attracts controversy as a matter of course. Few people who meet him, socially, in business and now in politics, come away without having formed a definite opinion of him. In addition many Torontonians outside Bassett’s immediate orbit have become what a friend of his describes as “Bassett-watchers — they take a part-time interest in him as in a bulldozer excavating a building site.”
Bassett is a second - generation Irish-Canadian who was born in Ottawa but called Montreal and Sherbrooke. Que., his home towns most of his life. He is forty-six years old but looks a dozen years younger, and most of his characteristics are somewhat larger than life-size. He is six feet four and a half inches tall and weighs 206 pounds; his voice is a little louder, his stride a little longer, his greetings a little more effusive, his grin a little broader, his tastes a little richer (he drives a
Rolls-Bentley and drinks champagne by preference) and his dedication to violent exercise considerably greater than most men's.
Bassett’s high visibility could be an asset in his political campaign. “Many a candidate,” says Controller Philip Givens of Toronto, a personal friend but political enemy of Bassett’s, “has to put most of his campaigning effort into just trying to get people to remember his name and face, even the bare fact that he exists and is running for office. Bassett will never have that problem.”
On the other hand, a study of Bassett in action shows that the Bassett legend tends to dim when he is not present to enliven it. In the terminology of the drama critic, the Bassett story plays better than it reads. People start to tell an anecdote about Bassett, realize halfway through that the point is going to be lost, and break off with, “Well, you’d have to be there to understand . . .”
Bassett - watchers notice things about him that pass unnoticed in others. More than one habitué of Maple Leaf Gardens, for example, has commented that at hockey games he puts on a show second only to Mahovlich on a good night. When the Leafs score a goal, draw a penalty or get into a fight, spectators in the vicinity of the Bassett box keep an eye on him to savor his reaction. He leaps to his feet, larger than life-size, face registering unabashed joy, disapproval or chagrin. If he dislikes a call by the
referee violently enough he will climb down into the aisle behind the rink-side seats and express his disapproval vehemently.
At Argonaut home games in the CNE stadium confirmed Bassettwatchers wait for their off-the-field highlight of the afternoon: Bassett’s emergence at the fifty-yard aisle wearing, in descending order, a cashmere cap, sunglasses, cashmere sweater knotted around his neck, over a cashmere polo coat. He waves and calls greetings to friends and acquaintances, and then the section can turn its attention to the gridiron action.
NOT A MODEST CAREER
Since he came to Toronto from Sherbrooke a little more than a decade ago as advertising manager of the Telegram he has parlayed these characteristics, plus what he himself calls the ability to recognize opportunities when they hit him in the eye, and an enthusiastic willingness to be helped by the right people, into the following business portfolio:
Bassett is chairman, president and publisher of the Telegram (as he once pointed out in a P.S. to a casual correspondent who addressed him as the editor); he is chairman and president of CFTO. of which the Telegram owns fiftyeight percent; a director and member of the hockey committee (the “silver seven”) of Maple Leaf Gardens. of which the Telegram owns thirty-three percent; chairman of the ArgoCONTINUED ON PAGE 69
JOHN BASSETT continued from page 20
“It’s not a question of whether Canada’s ready for Bassett. It’s whether Diefenbaker’s ready for him”
naut Footbail Club, in which the Telegram's share is eleven percent.
This Telegram-centred sports and communications complex started in 1952 when Bassett, with the backing of John David Eaton, president of the T. Eaton Co., bought the Telegram for $4,250,000; it would have an asking price of $20,000,000 today if it were for sale (“Which it definitely and positively is not.” Bassett says.)
Bassett also says that he is now poorer than when he left Sherbrooke. This is technically true. Bassett today owns nothing but a few directors’ shares, a couple of cars, a house and a closetful of clothes, some plain, some fancy ("Made to order because of my size, but they’ve never put me on a list of the ten best-dressed men.")
The only Bassett who works on the Telegram and also owns a significant part of it is twenty-one-year-old Douglas Bassett. John’s middle son. who is technically one of his father's employers and whose job is selling advertising.
This rather confusing situatio i can be explained. The Telegram and its associated companies are owned in trust by the four sons of John David Eaton and the three sons of John Bassett. What Bassett contributed personally — the idea and the active management, plus the Sherbrooke Record and the Argonaut shares he had bought earlier — gives the Bassett boys a thirty percent share in the package. Bassett's other sons are Johnny, twenty-three, who works for a Victoria paper, is married. has already made the Bassetts grandparents and is about to do so again, and David, twenty, a student at the University of New Brunswick.
Bassett decided on this form of ownership because of what he had seen happen to the Telegram: twice in four years it had had to be sold because of deaths, with heavy death duties and dislocation in management. “I could drop dead tomorrow,” he says, "and the Tely would carry on.”
“Besides.” he added with a grin, "it’s building up a nice nest egg for the boys.”
The Telegram has never been able to catch up with its evening rival. The Star, in circulation. When Bassett took over. Ihe Telegram’s six-days-a-week circulation was 223,000, The Star’s 395,000. When Toronto papers raised their prices to ten cents, however, the Star lost nearly 100.000 sales daily, and the Telegram went down only to 207,000. Since then, according to the latest figures issued by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Star has climbed back to 335,000 anti the Telegram to 232,000.
For two glorious weeks in 1955. however. Bassett thought he had the Star on the run. That was when he launched the Sunday Telegram. Bassett had asked Premier Leslie Frost to amend the Lord’s Day Act. which prohibited work on Sundays. When Frost refused, Bassett said he intended to publish a Sunday edition anyway. on the ground that the act permitted labor connected with "necessity and mercy.” and he contended that "disseminating news in a free democracy is a work of necessity.”
The novelty of a Toronto Sunday paper gave the first two issues a large circulation, and Bassett happily departed on a tour of Europe, confident that he’d return to find “hank vaults stuffed with money.” Instead, the Sunday Tely began losing money at the rate of $30,000 a week. Bassett closed it after seventeen weeks. “Ihe mistake 1 made,” he says, “was in seeing the Lord’s Day Act as the only obstacle.
This made me lose sight of the fact that Toronto people had got along for many years without a Sunday paper, and were content to stay that way.”
The Eaton-Bassett legend has it that Eaton put up the money to buy the Telegram and Bassett contributed the knowhow to run it. Actually, neither Bassett nor Eaton have ever publicly admitted that a partnership exists between them. Bassett says only. "The Eatons are our closest personal friends.”
The fact is that Eaton put up no money to buy the Telegram, but his signature backed a bank loan of four and a quarter million dollars which Bassett used to bid for the Telegram.
Bassett admits that as general manager of the Telegram at the time he was in a favorable position to know what the Telegram was worth. But he had no way of knowing what other groups — including Jack Kent Cooke, then as deeply involved in publishing and broadcasting as Bassett is now — would bid. Bassett’s bid was "what 1 thought it was worth, plus $225,000 for insurance.” The “insurance” sum was the margin by which the Bassett bid topped the next highest, by U. S. publisher William Loeb.
"Doesn’t it make you unhappy,” a friend once asked Bassett, “that you bid $200,000 more than you needed to?”
"I should feel so unhappy every day,” Bassett answered. “The Globe sold for SI 1,000.000. the Star for $19.000.000. Next question?”
The question in many minds is why Bassett, with a full-time role as a major figure in Toronto sports, publishing and TV, wants to be elected to the House of Commons, where he is likely to find himself chosen as a political whipping boy by the Liberals, and perhaps something of a hot potato to his own colleagues.
"It's not so much a question of whether Canada is ready for Bassett, but whether Diefenbaker is ready for Bassett,” a Liberal strategist commented recently.
Bassett's own reason ignores the controversy. “Ever since 1 can remember I’ve wanted to be an MP. I ran in Sherbrooke seventeen years ago and was beaten. I hope to win this time.”
The Bassett-CFTO issue started two years ago, before and after the Board of Broadcast Governors, a government-appointed body preponderantly Conservative in membership, awarded Toronto’s first private TV license to a group headed by Bassett. Many people heard Bassett declare. before the BBG decision was handed down, that he was going to get the license. After the award Bassett declared, in the presence of many witnesses, that “Diefenbaker gave me the franchise.” Joseph Sedgwick, a noted Toronto lawyer and counsel for radio station CERB's TV application, wrote a letter which the Globe and Mail published and which read in part: "If the result is not to be explained by any ordinary process of thought or reason, a clue may be found in some lines of Kipling:
Ere they hewed the Sphinx’s visage Favoritism governed kissage,
Even as it does in this age And it will do evermore."
This scarcely veiled accusation that the BBG had shown favoritism brought no more severe official repercussion than what a Telegram report described as “a dignified and artistic spanking” of Joseph Sedgwick by Dr. Andrew Stewart, BBG chairman, the next time Sedgwick appeared before
the board on behalf of a client. Dr. Stewart said: “The board does not have the protection available to other bodies before which he (Sedgwick) appears. We would not seek this kind of protection. The board is quite content to be judged, at the proper time, by those to whom the board is accountable.”
In the House of Commons Jack Pickersgill, a former Liberal cabinet minister and chief needier of the Diefenbaker government, and Douglas Fisher, who happens to be a Telegram political columnist as well as a CCF MP, have both been sharply critical of the BBG’s award. Outside the House, Pickersgill told the Toronto and York Liberal Association: “Can anyone explain any reason but one why that one applicant was successful?”
“These cries of ‘fix’ don’t bother me.” Bassett told me recently. “They’re made by people who are poor losers. But they’re a terrible insult to the Board of Broadcast Governors. Sure, 1 made statements that showed confidence in our winning the license—because I thought our application was the most convincing. It’s as if someone asked me which team would win the Stanley Cup. I’d answer, The Maple Leafs, of course.’ And then, when the Leafs won, the other person would yell that the hockey playoffs were fixed. It’s as absurd as that.” Bassett says the BBG has since proved its impartiality by turning down his attempt to sell a twenty-five percent interest in CFTO for $2,500,000. (Later Bassett got the money by way of a loan from the ABC.)
The BBG chairman has shown some distress at Bassett's boasts. At hearings of the Commons Broadcasting Committee last June, Pickersgill asked Dr. Andrew Stewart if he had heard that Bassett had been claiming he was quite certain that he would get the license, even before the BBG began its Toronto sittings. Dr. Stewart said yes, he had indeed been told this. Then Stewart became obviously angry at the recollection, and added: “1 did not know Mr. Bassett as well then as I do now, but I am quite sure that he was capable of saying that.”
Apart from the licensing controversy, later events at CFTO have kept Bassett conspicuous. The station, near Highway 401 in suburban Toronto, was designed and equipped in a lavish manner. A New York producer who visited the studios declared that none of the key stations of the big U. S. networks could touch it. Joel Aldred, the TV announcer and impresario who had a minority share in the station’s ownership, was responsible for this layout and for the imaginary program schedule of high calibre which was presented to the BBG in the Bassett brief.
Much of what the brief promised — symphony concerts, ballet and Stratford productions, performances by the Canadian Opera Company, live drama and revues—never went before the cameras, but CFTO was launched ambitiously enough, with a payroll of nearly 400. The station’s projected first-year income of $3,200.000 was exceeded, but so were the costs—to the extent that CFTO lost $1.400.000 in 1961. Bassett and Aldred reached a showdown. Each wanted to buy out the other.
“I won.” says Bassett, “because 1 controlled more shares. We were running a five-Cadillac operation when what we needed was two Cadillacs and a Ford.”
With Aldred out, CFTO has become a comparatively austere operation. The staff has been cut to 280: no program uses more than two cameras: the make-up staff is down to one girl instead of four, and make-up is not used on some programs— including one on which Bassett recently appeared to debate public versus private TV with a CBC representative. Some of the $20,000 worth of props Aldred ordered
have been sold; color TV cameras, hopefully installed, have been returned to the suppliers. CFTO is now operating in the black, Bassett says, and is on its way to becoming a profitable operation, if not, as Roy Thomson, another Canadian publisher. called his own Scottish television license, “a license to print money.”
The CFTO controversy is not likely to play much part in Bassett’s campaign for election in Spadina. His Liberal opponent, Perry Ryan, says he will campaign largely on a “Lester Pearson for prime minister” platform and avoid personalities.
Bassett says he was offered the nomination in other Toronto ridings but chose Spadina because he lives in it (at the north end. bordering Forest Hill Village) and because the Telegram’s new $9.000,000 building will be located in its south end. The middle of the riding contains perhaps the most international population of any area in Canada, including twelve percent Jews and considerable blocs of Italians, Poles, Chinese, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Portuguese and a dozen other nationalities.
Bassett’s opponents say that he has carefully cultivated these ethnic groups, both in personal contacts and by giving considerable space to their activities in the Telegram. In pre-Bassett days the Telegram
was known as the spokesman for the Orangemen of Toronto, and for a time carried the Union Jack on its front page as a pointed rebuke to the Star for being too involved in foreign entanglements such as trade with Russia. Bassett has engaged both Cardinal McGuigan of Toronto and Rabbi Reuben Slonim as columnists. Bassett says he has always been interested in a variety of races and faiths, an interest he inherited honestly from his father.
“People who remember my father only as the president of the Montreal Gazette.” he said, "evidently don’t know that he came to Canada himself as a penniless immigrant from Northern Ireland.”
Bassett was the first non-Jew to become a member of the Primrose Club in Toronto. When his name was proposed some directors were opposed to admitting him. but the argument that carried the day was that to keep a Gentile out might look like discrimination. Bassett says he uses the club more than most he belongs to. because he likes its atmosphere.
Bassett maintains that he will use neither the Telegram nor CFTO to promote him as a candidate. At a meeting in the riding recently he met his Liberal opponent. Perry Ryan. Ryan said. “I hope you're going to give me equal space.” “Certainly.” said Bassett, "except on the editorial page.” Bassett has published photographs and laudatory profiles of both his opponents and their wives in the Telegram—the NDP candidate in Spadina is Robert Beardsley, a schoolteacher — but says there’ll be no profile of him. “In fact,” he added, “I’m not even going to ask my editors to assign reporters to cover my campaign. I’ll cover myself as best I can.”
Liberal strategists are more concerned
about the indirect influence of the Telegram in Spadina. They say there are signs that Liberals who are also city council politicians, and who value a place on the Telegram’s civic election slate, will not campaign all-out against Bassett.
Bassett cheerfully admits this might be possible. But he says that as long as civic elections are run on nonparty lines, and newspapers continue to publish slates of favored candidates, there is nothing he can do about it.
Bassett hasn’t always dealt casually in millions of dollars and in the destinies of many persons. His first job, as a reporter on the Globe and Mail, paid $45 a week (but he also had $90 a month in dividends from a small share in his father’s Sherbrooke Record). His modest invasion of Toronto journalism came about this way: In 1937 he graduated with honors in history and English from Bishop’s College University at Lennoxville, Que. (On that same memorable day he became engaged to a classmate, Moira Bradley, and received a Ford convertible his father had promised him if he won honors.) He left immediately to take a postgraduate course at the University of Brussels, where he attended one day’s lectures, then departed with a touring hockey team organized by a Belgian promoter.
In London Bassett met his father and was introduced to George McCuIlagh, a young Toronto promoter who had, with the backing of mining millionaire William Wright, recently amalgamated the Globe with the Mail and Empire. Bassett asked McCuIlagh for a job and was told to report to Toronto.
Bassett never acquired the traditional cub reporter’s romantic view of newspaper work. He was born into it and regarded it matter-of-factly as “the shop.” He came to the Globe to learn more about it before settling down as publisher of the Sherbrooke Record. Senior Globe reporters like Bruce West. Ralph Allen and Royd Beamish helped Bassett and also took him along on their late-night beer-drinking and discussion sessions. Bassett in turn talked them into a recreation most unusual among underpaid reporters — early - morning horseback riding.
Bassett's colleagues remember him as a conservative, united-empire traditionalist even in his twenties. After Britain’s declaration of war and before Canada’s entry, Bassett and Ralph Allen were assigned to man-in-the-street interviews on the subject, “Should Canada hasten to the help of the Mother Country.” Bassett’s story said that ninety-five percent of “typical Torontonians” answered yes. Allen, an irreverent Westerner, reported that ninety-five percent answered no.
In 1939 McCuIlagh organized the Leadership League, appointed Bassett his assistant orator in promoting it. and gave him a $l()-a-wcek raise. The league was a weird combination of Right-minded cliches and screwball ideas. For several months the Globe devoted all of page seven to the League and its stated purposes: “To reduce government, lower taxes and public debt, kill patronage, save home ownership, revive farming, beat unemployment, make the railways pay. guard freedom and achieve unity.”
To “reduce government” the league offered this plan: each riding in Canada should elect one candidate who would serve both as federal MP and member of his provincial legislature, devoting part time to each.
Bassett remembers the league as “a much misunderstood movement” and says some of its policies still influence his political thinking, particularly the idea that Canadians should participate much more widely in the choice of political candidates. His own nomination in Spadina might be
considered a triumph for this principle, perhaps not quite in the way the league meant: a total of twenty-eight nominations were handed in — all bearing the name of John Bassett.
After three years with the Globe, Bassett went overseas with the Black Watch and later joined a reinforcement draft of the Seaforth Highlanders which was torpedoed and rescued in the Mediterranean. Bassett saw action in Italy, where he was promoted to major in the field, and in Europe.
Two weeks after the war ended John Bracken, leader of the Progressive Con-
servatives. cabled Bassett to return to Canada to run in the 1945 “khaki election.” Bassett was one of several young officers who ran in that election. Davie Fulton, now minister of justice, and Col. C. C. Merritt. VC., won their elections. Bassett was defeated in Sherbrooke and George Hees. now minister of trade and commerce, lost to David Croll in Spadina. where Bassett is now running.
After his defeat Bassett bought out his father’s majority share in the Sherbrooke Record and settled down to become a small-city publisher. He joined service clubs
and civic organizations, put on weight (a peak of 235 pounds) and made the acquaintance of the three sons who had been babies when he went overseas. (David, the youngest, once asked his mother: “How long is that man going to stay?”)
The Bassetts stayed only until 1948, when George McCuIlagh bought the Telegram and invited Bassett to work for him once more. Four years later he was a publisher in the most competitive newspaper city in Canada, and he had started the career that was to make him the most conspicuous man in the most unlikely surroundings,