MEDIA WATCH

Some sackings are more civil than others

What is new is that the importance of ‘the manner of delivering professional blows’ is relative to whom they are delivered

GEORGE BAIN August 28 1989
MEDIA WATCH

Some sackings are more civil than others

What is new is that the importance of ‘the manner of delivering professional blows’ is relative to whom they are delivered

GEORGE BAIN August 28 1989

Some sackings are more civil than others

MEDIA WATCH

What is new is that the importance of ‘the manner of delivering professional blows’ is relative to whom they are delivered

GEORGE BAIN

There is no altogether satisfactory way of being fired, but some are better than others. Peregrine Worsthorne recently told readers of the London weekly Spectator not just where and by whom he was sacked, but the precise moment—just when the waiter at Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair had served him two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast. It was then that the editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph, Andrew Knight, told him that the Daily and The Sunday Telegraph—Worsthorne was editor of the latter—were to be merged under one editor, and he was not it.

To Worsthorne’s mind, “the manner of delivering professional blows can be very important.” They ought not to be delivered at breakfast, when “one is not on one’s guard.” But there was also a friend of his, a distinguished author and a senior editor at Collins, the London book publishers, who was sacked over a ham sandwich in a pub. “A ham sandwich in a pub,” said the friend, making the distinction between that and dinner in a posh restaurant, “really is to add insult to injury.” Worsthorne’s account of his sacking in the “Spectator Diary” for July 8 gave rise to letters the next week. The first was from Jock Bruce-Gardyne, a Scottish peer, journalist and member of The Spectator’s stable of writers. He wrote tartly: “Mr. Worsthorne’s description of a ‘sacking breakfast’ must have distressed every true journalist who read it, except, perhaps, those who had experiences of the author’s own technique during his brief days of glory at The Sunday Telegraph. . . . When, for instance.. .he cancelled the column in The Sunday Telegraph which I had contributed on and off for 12 years. . .he thought it wiser not to break the news himself, leaving that task to one of his underlings. Me, I’d rather have a sacking breakfast. At least the host can then look you in the eye.”

From the Daily Telegraph, Adrian Lighter wrote that “Perry [Worsthorne] mentioned the method of his ‘sacking.’ He was not sacked. If

anyone is to be ‘sacked’ or offered a change of job, most would prefer it to be over breakfast at Claridge’s to a ‘regretful’ note from an employer. Despite his distress, Perry accepted the change, and all his colleagues are delighted. ...” Worsthorne is now editor of the comment pages at the Daily Telegraph.

At the Toronto Globe and Mail, which is building experience in summary dismissals— and has faced two lawsuits as a result of recent firings—feeding the sackee does not figure largely in the methodology. Former editor-inchief Norman Webster was even beckoned out of the company cafeteria—where they might have split a Danish—for the heart-to-heart talk with publisher Roy Megarry, from which he emerged in December as editor-in-chief emeritus and prospective roving foreign correspondent. That may have been a half-step below a sacking breakfast, but was at least a half-step above getting the word at second hand, through an underling. But Webster survived the semi-indignity and has been named editorin-chief of the Montreal Gazette, where he is working in tandem with the retiring incumbent, Mark Harrison. Webster assumes the title on Sept. 1.

Now Webster’s colleague, Geoffrey Ste-

vens, who was removed as managing editor of The Globe and Mail soon after, is suing the newspaper and publisher Megarry for wrongful dismissal, alleging among other things deceit, fraudulent or negligent representation and humiliation. The allegations are rooted in a conversation Stevens says that he had with Megarry on Jan. 3, which resulted in his leaving on a three-week trip abroad assured that his job was secure. On his first day back in the office, he was told by William Thorsell, who had been installed as editor-in-chief in Stevens’s absence, that his own successor had been named—Timothy Pritchard, late of the paper’s “Report on Business” section. Stevens also was offered—and refused—another position.

What is new here is the thought triggered by Peregrine Worsthorne’s account of his ouster—that the importance of “the manner of delivering professional blows” is relative to the party to whom they are delivered. The troubles between Megarry, on the one hand, and Webster and Stevens, on the other, became critical over the hiring and firing of Barbara Yaffe, who twice before had been a Globe employee. She was hired by Stevens to become Vancouver bureau chief and then was dumped after she had made her arrangements, because Stevens, in Megarry’s view, had overstepped his authority in hiring her.

Stevens has said that Megarry, in the summer of 1988, told Webster that he was considering firing Stevens over the hiring—to which Webster replied that, if he did so, he would have to fire both of them. They both knew what was in the works. Yet neither quit in protest when their employee was left high and dry. After suing for $1.2 million, Yaffe settled out of court in April this year for $67,500 and, having moved from St. John’s to Vancouver for the Globe, now works for The Vancouver Sun. None of this history has deterred Stevens from suing the Globe and Megarry over assurances he thinks he had that his own job was safe.

But, by Stevens’s own account, it was not Megarry who fired him; that decision was taken by the new editor-in-chief, William Thorsell. And it would seem that new editors at the Globe, even below the level of editors-in-chief, have the benefit of a policy of dispersed responsibility—if not in the matter of hirings, at least of firings. When a column I had been doing for some time in the Globds Report on Business magazine at the request of Geoffrey Stevens was cancelled without notice—the piece for the next issue was in the word processor when I got word—it came, not from Stevens, but in a brisk note from Margaret Wente, the new editor of the magazine, with whom I had never exchanged a word even by phone, and had scarcely heard of. When I complained to Webster about this treatment after an association of more than 30 years, he wrote back that the cutting of the column and another feature “had not been in my mind, but I think editors. . .have to have quite a bit of freedom to decide how they will run their shops.” Megarry presumably can now avail himself of the same argument with reference to himself, Thorsell and Stevens. By comparison, a sacking breakfast—at McDonald’s, never mind Claridge’s—is civility itself.