Columns

Just in: media warlords bash each other

Allan Fotheringham November 9 1998
Columns

Just in: media warlords bash each other

Allan Fotheringham November 9 1998

Just in: media warlords bash each other

Columns

Allam Fotheringham

These are confusing times for that poor, putupon creature known as the newspaper reader.

Much sought-after, of course, by advertisers and publishers, this pitiful consumer for once has been pushed into the shade.

In a sudden outbreak of newspaper wars, the tycoons and media warlords at the top of the food chain have grabbed the spotlight. Conrad Black has launched his new national paper and within days the rich and fat but frightened Toronto Star unleashed a hostile takeover grab for The Toronto Sun empire and, well, the lowly reader can hardly find the sports scores for all the headlines screaming about what is going on among the fat cats.

There is all this trembling in the press clubs of the land over the advent of Conrad, the Darth Vader of Canadian journalism. Actually, all he is doing is bringing back to the world of scribblers the old tradition of newspapers as tribunes of expressed political views.

In Sir John A’s day, every sheet was clearly a Grit statement of propaganda, or a Tory one, equally slanted and tilted in its views. Conrad has just spent his apprenticeship spell as a media lord in London, where there are 11 national dailies and everyone knows their prejudices before they pick them up.

In 1945, the pro-Labour London Daily Mirror had a circulation of five million, a figure surpassed only by Pravda. Its star turn was a brilliant and vituperative column written by “Cassandra”—actually a meek and mild man by the name of William Connor. Cassandra itself was credited with the swift postwar defeat of the man who saved Britain, Winston Churchill, since the columnist was plugged into a population sick of misery, suffering, rationing, the class system and all that the prewar Tories stood for, and wanted, instead, national health and a new government. One newspaper gave them that.

AÍ Conrad is doing is clearing the deck and spreading his elbows. The first edition of his National Post featured an “exclusive” that Ralph Klein had agreed to address next spring’s bunfest of the Unite-the-Right gang—shocking news that did not really rank up there with John Glenn.

The next edition featured a long thumb-sucker by Stephen Harper—

the bilingual heir-apparent to Presto! Manning—sternly telling the new Tory leader (who has been rightly relabelled Jurassic Clark) to get with it and form a coalition with Reform if this contemptible Liberal mob of Spraypec fame is ever to be defeated.

Suddenly, the giants were swacking each other over the head with pillows, just like at a sorority party. The Star's John Honderich, boss of the most shamelessly partisan Liberal sheet in the land, was writing to the expiring Financial Post complaining about a Conrad book review that ran a concise 1,800 words. And Conrad was writing to The Globe and Mail complaining about a Rick Salutin column

that was about—surprise!—Conrad.

This is good stuff! Media warloads bashing each other in public! We love it, better than the last Eric Lindros bodycheck against the glass.

Publishers are always arrogant. Otherwise, why be a publisher—having to attend all those cocktail parties with illiterate advertisers. Your humble agent used to work for a publisher of The Vancouver Sun, whose orders, while writ in stone, were somehow more humble.

While toiling in the business department (with one Barbara McDougall), several scribes once spent two days figuring out physics and elementary engineering to explain why the swimming pool of publisher Don Cromie was losing water slowly. It was, it turned out, a crack.

When Sputnik went up, the eccentric genius Cromie—who inherited the paper at age 29 from his father who as a health freak died in his early 50s on his two-hour noonday walk— ordered Sun photogs to the top of Cromie-owned 1,200-metre-high Grouse Mountain in the belief that they would be much closer to the Soviet satellite as it passed over.

The obedient photogs took a ballpoint pen, scratched a streak across a negative, and the Sun had a “world exclusive” as Sputnik passed over Vancouver.

Conrad, of course, would shudder at such things, not to mention when Sun editors sent our stunning fashion editor Marie Moreau to Cuba to get the first interview with Castro (she got it) and football editor Annis Stukus to Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait to record the potential Third World War with China.

Instead, as luck would have it, there is the launch at this same tremulous time of tycoon angst, Conrad’s shortened and updated paperback on Maurice Duplessis: Render Unto Caesar. Included, of course, is the youthful Conrad’s accurate tale of the tamed and underpaid Quebec City reporters who received, at regular sessions, cash payoffs from the demagogue premier who was loved by the masses. (The same basis for Trudeau’s contempt for the press.)

Conrad doesn’t have much respect for reporters. But he respects newspapers. That’s a funny dichotomy, but it’s the essential point. His new sheet is too dense, at the moment, too arch. But that’s the man. And we love the warfare. Bring it on.