MEDIA WATCH

A bitter parting on the Hill

George Bain January 25 1988
MEDIA WATCH

A bitter parting on the Hill

George Bain January 25 1988

A bitter parting on the Hill

MEDIA WATCH

By George Bain

Key Porter Books, publishers of Friends in High Places, by former Toronto Sun columnist Claire Hoy, has a file of about 500 newspaper clippings, half of them variations on the theme of Brian Mulroney, in the late 1970s, having thrown up at a Desmarais family wedding reception in Montreal—a story, incidentally, denied in a letter to the Montreal Gazette by Paul Desmarais, head of the family (and of the many-sided Power Corp. of Canada). Vancouver Sun columnist Jamie Lamb plucked the tale from a copy of the Hoy manuscript. Lamb’s column, in his own paper and others, ignited publicity that caused Key Porter to jump the print run to about 32,000 from less than 20,000 before the book came out on Nov. 7. Key Porter anticipates a total hard-cover sale of 28,000 to 29,000, solid best-seller figures, when all returns are in. But readers who bought the book looking for more on the alleged happening at the wedding party, and such other tidbits as Mila Mulroney’s having sworn like a longshoreman at the CBC’S Peter Mansbridge—which Mansbridge denied— will have been disappointed.

The stories say something about what will influence book-buyers to part with $24.95—and about what Hoy refers to as his “style.” It is a censorious style that the Sun decided was being exercised in the column with such preoccupation on the perceived flaws—perceived by Hoy—in the characters and performances of Brian and Mila Mulroney as to make the column “one-dimensional.” Now, columnist and newspaper have parted, and a court will decide whether Hoy jumped or was pushed. He alleges improper dismissal, blaming his troubles with the Sun on pressure by the Prime Minister’s Office on Sun publisher Paul Godfrey, a former chairman of the Metro Toronto council and lifelong Conservative. Godfrey denies any such pressure occurred.

Hoy’s allegation may be difficult to sustain in court. He says that Toronto lawyer Edward Greenspan told him when they met at a bookdealers’ breakfast, where each was flogging his book, that Godfrey was upset because he was getting complaints from the Prime Minister. (Greenspan denies that any such conversation took place.) Most of the rest of Hoy’s evidence of conspiracy is based on his having heard, he says, from Tories that Mulroney would like

to be rid of him. Prime ministers are no fonder of their critics than other people, and in a talk for Maclean’s that I had with Mulroney about media relations last year he made no secret of his dislike of Hoy’s journalism and what he considered its malignant influence on malleable members of the Ottawa media pack. But by the same token, assuming contact at all between Sun executives and the Prime Minister, both sides would need to have been extraordinarily immersed in the affairs of the country for Mulroney’s feelings about the paper’s political columnist not to have surfaced. Still, Godfrey makes a plausible point when he says: “The funny thing is that, if I had been susceptible to complaints, I wouldn’t have left [Hoy] there three years. Why was he given time off to complete his book? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Hoy’s lawyer, Howard Levitt of To-

Claire Hoy alleges improper dismissal, blaming his troubles with the Sun on pressure by the Prime Minister's Office

ronto, divides the complaint into two main parts—one, that Hoy suffered effective dismissal, and the other, that the offer of an unwanted other job was made in bad faith. While undoubtedly it does something for Hoy’s considerable self-esteem to cast himself as the lone fearless reporter hounded by Authority—certainly it generates publicity for a journalist now going freelance—the other is the interesting argument.

Hoy was a highly paid, widely read Sun columnist before and after going to Ottawa in early 1985 from being political columnist at the Ontario legislature. There was no sudden break. John Downing, Sun editor, recalls a meeting, about IV2 years ago, at which he said: “Don’t try to paint us into the corner that we’re trying to change what you’re writing. We’re just suggesting that you don’t write about the Prime Minister as much. Go ahead and call him anything you want, just don’t do it as much.” The complaint was that the focus on Brian and Mila Mulroney was obscuring other subjects.

The Sun seems to be a chatty place to be fired or quit from. If there were mis-

understandings, they didn’t occur from lack of communication. Executive editor Les Pyette dates a talk with Hoy last fall from another meeting he, Hoy and Godfrey had earlier at which they went to lunch and then to the ball game. At the subsequent meeting, Pyette says, Hoy accepted, though not happily, to come to Toronto to do a new, general column, politically based. Moving costs were discussed.

That was after Godfrey in September had sent Hoy a letter that Godfrey thinks of as conveying options and Hoy calls an ultimatum. “He gave me two options,” Hoy said. “One was to go to Toronto to start a page 2 column at large. Sure, they said that from time to time if I wanted to write about federal politics I could. But the main focus was to be on Toronto. The other option . . . was covering the U.S. primaries and the U.S. election out of here [Ottawa].” Hoy says that he would have accepted the Washington bureau had the Sun opened one.

When Hoy didn’t turn up to begin the new Toronto column but kept filing from Ottawa, Pyette called on Jan. 4. The conversation ended with Pyette saying, in effect, “Are you resigning?” and Hoy saying, “You’ll have to talk to my lawyer.” When the lawyer’s letter arrived soon after, offering to negotiate something other than the Toronto column, Sun management said that it constituted resignation.

The meat of Levitt’s argument for Hoy—Levitt is the author of a book called The Law of Dismissal in Canada— is that Hoy was employed to do a particular job, which was political commentary. “It’s not something peculiar to the media,” he says. “It’s just that someone cannot be moved to a dissimilar position without their consent, and if they are they have a right to say, ‘That is not the deal I have here, either by oral contract or just by practice ... I refuse the transfer, and if you transfer me you are simply firing me ” Swallowing that as a workable concept is hard, nearly as hard as swallowing Hoy’s style as an ideal, but there is some satisfaction to be derived from contemplating the discomfiture that a highly publicized favorable decision would cause newspaper proprietors, notorious for regarding workers as chattels. The irony would be that the Sun, which has been open to the widest range of opinions and had unusually open management-newsroom relations, should be the place.