THE TABLE TALK OF ROY THOMSON

Peter C. Newman December 1 1971

THE TABLE TALK OF ROY THOMSON

Peter C. Newman December 1 1971

THE TABLE TALK OF ROY THOMSON

PETER C. NEWMAN

The outrigger spectacles, with lenses as thick as bottle-bottoms, magnify his glinting blue eyes. They peer out with Mister Magoo-like good humor plus a touch of Heinrich Himmler’s icy cunning, and even though the conversation has barely started already you know there is no one else like Roy Herbert Thomson, the first Baron of Fleet. A penniless Toronto ad salesman at 40, now, at 77, he is worth an estimated $350 million as the head of a worldwide publishing empire which includes 185 newspapers, 150 magazines and 290 other companies on four continents. Thomson cultivates the image of himself as the living embodiment of the profit motive. Seated next to Princess Margaret at a recent fashion show, he spotted a lamé gown on one of the models. “My favorite color,” he told the Princess. “Gold!” During his 1963 encounter with Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian dictator teasingly asked what use Thomson’s money was to him:

“You can’t take it with you,” said Khrushchev.

“Then I’m not going,” said Thomson.

Although his companies (in which he owns a personal share of 78%) had a net profit of $24 million last year. Thomson still weighs his own baggage for trans-Atlanbc flights so that he won’t have to pay any overweight. The son of a Toronto barber, Thomson quit school at 14 and gradually began building up his publishing empire, though he didn’t achieve his peak until he bought The Times of London in 1966. Deprived of his Canadian citizenship when he was elevated to a barony in 1964. he now comes back to Canada mainly for summer and Christmas holidays. During one recent visit, sitting beneath a Gainsborough landscape in his office on Toronto’s University Avenue, he talked to me for most of a morning. This is a sampling from his comments:

NOBODY HAS ANY SYMPATHY FOR A RICH MAN EXCEPT SOMEBODY THAT’S RICHER AGAIN. I MEAN, HELL, I EAT THREE MEALS A DAY AND I SHOULDN’T. I SHOULD PROBABLY EAT TWO. AND I ONLY HAVE SO MANY SUITS OF CLOTHES, AND I’M NOT VERY PARTICULAR ABOUT MY DRESS ANYWAY, AND I CAN’T SPEND, OH, NOT A SMALL FRACTION OF WHAT I MAKE, SO WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING? I’M NOT DOING IT FOR MONEY. IT’S A GAME. BUT I ENJOY MYSELF. I LOVE WORK. I LIKE TO BE SUCCESSFUL. I LIKE TO LOOK AT ANOTHER PAPER AND THINK, JESUS, IF ONLY THAT WAS MINE. LET’S HAVE A LOOK AT THE BALANCE SHEET.

The Americans made a big mistake in Vietnam. 1 know, l had dinner with the President in the White House the night when Prince Charles and Princess Anne were there. We had a little private dinner of 14. Just Mr. and Mrs. Nixon and a few other people. Henry Kissinger and l got to be great friends. I gave him a lunch just the other day over in London. I invited the editors of the other papers in Fleet Street, and we gave him lunch at the office, and he was very outspoken about everything. He told us all the facts.

I could do without culture. I haven't got any, particularly. And I could do without art. I can do without the theatre. I can do without all these things. But I can’t do without eating. And I can’t do without clothing. And I can’t do without housing. I think the first thing we should do is to make sure that people get the proper things to eat, that they have the proper housing conditions, and that they have enough clothing and education to make them more fit for the world. In my opinion, that is the proper order of priority. Some people love culture. They live on it. They appreciate it and I rather envy them in a way. But, not for me. My favorite music is about the level of Gigi. I like tunes like the Blue Danube Waltz, Sailing Down The River and South Pacific.

I REGRET GIVING UP CANADIAN CITIZENSHIP, BUT I HAD NO CHOICE. I DIDN’T GIVE IT UP. THEY TOOK IT AWAY FROM ME. THEY GAVE ME THE SAME REWARD THAT YOU GIVE A TRAITOR. IF I HAD BETRAYED MY COUNTRY, THAT’S THE REWARD I WOULD GET — TAKING AWAY MY CITIZENSHIP. CANADA SHOULD ALLOW TITLES. IF YOU GET A TITLE FROM THE POPE, THERE’S NO TROUBLE ACCEPTING THAT.

I never tell our editors what to write. I give them complete authority to run their papers editorially.. Now, the only criticism / have is if they write badly. Sometimes we’ll write and say: if you are talking about somebody, you should give his age, maybe where he lives, and that sort of thing. Those are basic things for a good reporter. We never criticize their views, though I often disagree with them. Very often I know more about a subject than the man who’s writing about it, but I never criticize him. I don’t even tell him that 1 dis-

agree with him, and that I know he’s wrong. What we do is this: We set out an operating pattern and we say, look, we’ve got to get this much advertising, that much circulation. That’s our revenue. Well, how are we going to spend that revenue and hopefully leave a profit? We decide that it takes so many linotype operators, and so many editorial people and so on. And we allocate to the editorial department the amount of money commensurate with that operation, and the editor can then spend it how he likes. I would hate to have the responsibility, like some proprietors of newspapers assume, that their views are right and they should be imposed on people. I’m often wrong. I think I’m all right at business, but I’m not an editorial proprietor; I’m a business proprietor. And the result is that I don’t expect my editors to listen to me and take what I say as being gospel. 1 could have more power if I wanted it, but I sometimes think that if you started to use this power there’d be more restrictions placed on you. If l were to run all my newspapers on one policy of abolish liquor or abolish something else, it wouldn’t be long before I’d be abolished.

I haven’t been enthusiastic about the radio or television business for some time. You see, anything where the government has got you by the balls, I think your chance of getting rich out of it is very bad. As soon as you start to make more money, collectively, than they think is good for you, they’ll put in more restrictions. And I don’t like that kind of business. It isn’t free enterprise anymore.

MY AMBITION? I USED TO SAY AS A KID: I’M GOING TO BE A MILLIONAIRE BY THE TIME I’M 30, BUT I WASN’T. BUT I GOT THERE ALL RIGHT IN THE END. BUT THAT’S THE OBJECTIVE YOU HAVE GOT TO HAVE. NOW MY REASON TO MAKE MONEY, AND IT LASTS RIGHT TO TODAY, WAS PROTECTION FOR MYSELF AND MY FAMILY. I CAN REMEMBER WHEN I WAS A YOUNGSTER, THE OLD PEOPLE WOULD GROW UP AND THEY’D HAVE TO RETIRE. AND THEN THEY’D BE SICK OR SOMETHING AND THEIR SONS WOULD FIGHT OVER WHO WAS GOING TO KEEP THEM. SO I SAID TO MYSELF, LOOK, MY CHILDREN ARE NOT BLOODY WELL GOING TO HAVE TO LOOK AFTER ME WHEN I GET OLD, AND THEY DON’T EITHER. I THINK THAT WAS THE BASIS OF MY AMBITION AND I’M OBSESSED WITH IT.

It’s inevitable that Canada will gravitate in the direction of a closer partnership with the U.S. My guess would be that we’ll probably become one country some years hence — not yet. I think it would be a good thing. It will mean a better standard of living for the people. We’re just a carbon copy of America. When people talk about developing a Canadian culture, 1 can’t see that Canadian culture is any different to American. French Canadians are different. But 1 don’t think I want to have the culture of the French Canadians. Do you?

The welfare state robs people of incentives. If in my early days there had been family allowances and old age pensions and all the rest of it, I wouldn’t be here today. Because I’m naturally a lazy person I don’t like to work particularly. But I got myself in the habit. I got so goddamned many things to do today that I can’t help myself. And it’s been that way all my life. They say business is the law of the jungle. I think it’s the law of life. I think that if you want to live and you want to prosper, you’ve got to be ambitious. You’ve got to be ready to work. You’ve got to be ready to sacrifice leisure and pleasure, and you’ve got to plan ahead.

I was 40 years old before I had any money at all. But these things don't happen overnight. Now how many people are there that will wait that long to be successful, and work all the time? Not very many. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I'm a bloody fool. But I don’t think I am.

I’VE MADE A LOT OF MONEY, BUT I’M NOT THE BRIGHTEST GUY IN THE WORLD, BY A HELL OF A .LONG WAYS. I’VE FOUND THAT OUT SINCE I’VE BEEN IN THE HOUSE OF LORDS. ABOUT 90% OF THE THINGS THEY DISCUSS THERE, I’M A COMPLETE IGNORAMUS ABOUT. I’VE GOT A ONE-TRACK MIND, BUT I BLOODY WELL KNOW MY OWN BUSINESS.

Luck is an opportunity seized.

I’m not a bit sorry that I didn’t take up John Diefenbaker’s offer to become Governor General, because I have accomplished more since then than I would have got with a governor generalship. It tempted me. But it wouldn’t have suited me very well because I’m too much of an extrovert for that. I can’t conceal my feelings very easily. I talk too much everybody says, but I talked myself into more deals than I ever talked myself out of, so I’m still ahead of the game. At any rate, it worked out for the best. Since then, I’ve got a hereditary peerage. And I’m a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, that’s a GBE, which is the highest order of the British Empire. That entitles you to be “Sir.” So if I hadn’t got a peerage I’d be Sir Roy, so I’m right at the top of the heap.

MOST PEOPLE WOULD SAY, I WOULDN’T WANT TO DO WHAT YOU’VE DONE, EVEN FOR YOUR SUCCESS. THEY’D SAY, YOU’VE MISSED A LOT OUT OF LIFE AND SUCCESS HASN’T MADE IT ALL WORTHWHILE. BUT IT HAS TO ME. IT’S JUST A MATTER OF AMBITION AND DETERMINATION. YOU KEEP PLUGGING AWAY. I LEARN MORE FROM MY FAILURES THAN I LEARN FROM MY SUCCESSES, BECAUSE I LEARN BLOODY WELL NOT TO DO THEM AGAIN. NOTHING HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME IN MY LIFE THAT HASN’T BEEN FOR THE BEST. NOW I ACCEPT DEATH. I LOST MY WIFE. I LOST A DAUGHTER. BUT THOSE THINGS, I MEAN, YOU CAN’T MEASURE THEM IN TERMS OF HAPPINESS OR SUCCESS OR FAILURE. I’M A VERY IMPERFECT INDIVIDUAL, AND I’VE DONE A LOT OF THINGS I SHOULD’T HAVE DONE, BUT I HONESTLY AM NOT A PERSON WHO CAUSED ANYBODY ANY SUFFERING IF I COULD HELP IT. ■