CANADA

Turner’s trusted media image-maker

BRUCE WALLACE July 25 1988
CANADA

Turner’s trusted media image-maker

BRUCE WALLACE July 25 1988

Turner’s trusted media image-maker

His unimposing bearing and resistance to self-promotion are rare in an industry that places a premium on style and bravado. In fact, Henry Comor, medical-doctorturned-television-communicator, refuses even to discuss the details of his job as the current media adviser to Liberal party leader John Turner. “To most people, media consultants are simply slick packagers who are hired only to deceive the public,” said Comor. “My philosophy is to help the real person come across on television.” Now, with a federal election looming, Comor is working to relax Turner’s public style in an attempt to improve the Liberal leader’s low personal standing in the opinion polls. And now that many Liberal partisans, as well as national political columnists, say that Turner’s media image has been improving, the slight, bespectacled Comor has emerged as one of his most trusted and loyal confidants.

Although Turner’s staff publicly downplays the extent of Comor’s influence on the Liberal leader, some have taken to referring to him privately as Merlin—after the medieval magician in the King Arthur legend—for his success at helping Turner appear more at ease and effective on television. And Turner’s friends say that Comor’s eclectic interests, which range from computers to Canadian antiques, allow him to distract the often-harried opposition leader from the constant stress of Ottawa politics. Said Raymond Heard, Turner’s communications director, who introduced the two men to each other last August: “Turner and Henry get along well because Henry is an intellectual who can talk about absolutely anything and everything.” Added one Turner friend: “Comor can get Turner to turn his mind off politics and onto other things.”

The British-born Comor took an unorthodox route to the corridors of power. He was an actor from the age of 3, then studied to be a medical doctor in Manchester, England. But later, under the stress of working as a doctor and training to obtain his fellowship in the Royal College of Physicians, Comor’s weight slipped to 97 lb., and a sympathetic medical professor encouraged him to return to acting. The move was a success, as Comor went on to build a successful career in London’s West End in the 1950s, acting at one time with Trevor Howard in the successful, long-running drama The Devil’s General.

But in 1956, Comor moved to Canada to work in commercial television. He quickly built a career as an actor in CBC television and radio dramas. In 1981 and 1982, he was a writer and host of a popular CBC summer series called The Medicine Show. Said Duncan McEwan, the program’s executive producer: “Henry was passionate

about medicine and the human body. But he is very much a product of the British stage: an erudite man with widespread thespian interests.”

Comor also developed a strong belief in Canadian nationalism and took time out from his acting career from 1964 to 1968 to serve as president of the newly formed broadcasting union, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. During those years, he helped to spearhead ACTRA’S lobbying of the federal government during the drafting of the

1968 Broadcasting Act. Said Margaret Collier, who served as Comor’s executive secretary at ACTRA: “Henry was a strong Canadian cultural nationalist who was influential in getting ACTRA to lobby on behalf of Canadian productions.”

Comor has also worked extensively in the United States. In 1968, along with his wife, Jill Showed, Comor wrote, directed and starred in an offBroadway musical entitled Just For Love, which a New York Times critic dismissed as “bland.” It closed after five months. But Comor worked steadily in New York City and for a time was a well-paid spokesman for Panasonic Co., the Japanese electronics manufacturer.

He returned to Canada in 1970 and, after a 1975 back operation interrupted his work as a movie producer, he turned his energies to teaching media skills. The CBC hired him to teach broadcast journalism skills to its reporters and he excelled in the then-infant field of media consulting in Canada. Said Mike Duffy, CBC TV’s Ottawabased national affairs correspondent, who trained under Comor: “Henry’s theory is to remove all artifices, such as microphones, which are barriers to communication. He teaches you how to act naturally.” Comor’s media theories encourage such stylistic touches as having television reporters pause in mid-report and look away from the camera lens, just as most people tend in conversation to naturally break eye contact. Said Comor: “The idea is to deliver thoughts and emotions from the head and the heart, not words from the printed page.” The success of that approach enabled Comor to command fees of up to $5,000 a day.

Comor is not the first specialist who has attempted to help the Liberal leader. In 1986, Turner hired Toronto communications consultant Gabor Apor to

try to improve his television persona. But Turner advisers acknowledge that Apor, who has since ceased to be involved on a day-to-day basis with Turner, never enjoyed an easy relationship with the Liberal leader. Said one friend of Turner: “Turner knew he was not coming across on television and he lost his patience and temper with Apor. But Comor has built Turner’s confidence, partly through technique, but partly through psychology.” Rank-and-file Liberals say that they see the results of Comor’s work. John Manley, a newly recruited Liberal candidate for the Ottawa South riding, watched Turner make a spirited speech to the Liberal caucus on July

13. Concluded Manley: “Turner’s performance was great. He is so different from the man we remember from the 1984 campaign.”

For his part, Comor said that he is deeply loyal to Turner. “I could not do this job if I did not believe in the man,” said Comor, who added that his own political views are sometimes more left wing than those of Turner. “I would never work for Margaret Thatcher—no matter how good the offer—simply because I disagree so strongly with her political beliefs.” In fact, during the height of the unsuccessful Liberal caucus revolt against Turner’s leadership last April, Comor turned down an offer to be a writer for a series on Britain’s BBC network because, he told associates, “I cannot leave John in his hour of need.”

Comor is now a ubiquitous presence at Turner’s public appearances. Last

May, when Turner visited his mother’s childhood home in Rossland, B.C., to videotape political advertisements for the next federal election campaign, Comor was one of the advisers present. During the week in Ottawa, Comor often watches Turner’s performance on television monitors in the House of Commons lounge to see how his client comes across.

Still, not all observers believe that Comor is solely responsible for Turner’s improved public style. Said Apor: “If there is an improvement, the credit belongs to John Turner. Improvements do not happen overnight, and maybe Turner’s maturation time is now.” Added Doug Small, Global

TV’S Ottawa bureau chief, who has also been tutored by Comor: “Henry has not taken all the rough edges off Turner, and I am not sure that the public would want him to.”

But many of Comor’s industry colleagues acknowledge that he is helping to alter the image of media consultants from untrustworthy agents to legitimate political advisers. Indeed, it is an image in need of repair. Said Apor: “Canadians still think that the presence of a media adviser signals a problem for the politician. We have yet to be recognized as an industry that can enter by the front door.” For now, Comor is content to remain in the Liberal party’s back rooms. But in an age when television often dominates politics, Comor has staked out an influential role.

— BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa