A torpedo in a three-piece suit
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 November 2005)

The life of Beland Honderich, which ended this week, was a masterpiece of self-construction. One of six children from a poor rural family, he became, by a supreme exercise of will, the creator of the modern Toronto Star and a dominant figure in Canadian journalism. His colleagues held varying views of his intelligence, but no one ever doubted his single-minded dedication. Always quiet-spoken, he was full of compressed and managed energy. I sometimes thought of him as a torpedo in a three-piece suit.

His leadership style rested on merciless repetition. He would suggest a course of action to an editor, who would explain why it couldn't be done. Honderich would then move to another subject. The next day he would make the same suggestion, and the editor would think of another reason to reject it. On the third day, as Honderich outlined his idea once more, even the dimmest editor got the point: a suggestion was an order.

Who can explain where his determination came from? His father dreamed ineffectual dreams while his mother kept the family alive by running the telephone exchange at Baden, a south-western Ontario village. Her sons included not only Beland but also Ted Honderich, who eventually held a major chair in philosophy at University College London.

Honderich supported Liberals and liberals, suspected the motives of the United States, opposed free trade, and passionately favoured economic nationalism. He made these opinions the political core of the Star. He was a Star man from the 1940s, when he started as a reporter, until he left the board of directors 10 years ago. Even then, as a shareholder, he stayed in touch.

In the 1950s, having won a power struggle for the editorship, he set out to make Toronto forget the Star's reputation as a broadsheet newspaper with tabloid content. Advised by an American social-science firm, he realized that the emerging cosmopolitan city could embrace relatively serious journalism on politics, the arts and social issues. Against Star precedent, he emphasized talent from outside the paper.

He hired a one-man show named Nathan Cohen from the CBC to be his drama critic and entertainment editor. He acquired Pierre Berton, who wrote a great daily column and created more talk than any Toronto media personality before or since. Berton in turn urged Honderich to make Duncan Macpherson, then a magazine illustrator, into a political cartoonist; in almost no time, Macpherson was the best in the country. Later Honderich brought in Peter C. Newman and Peter Gzowski.

For several years, he emphasized individual voices. Many who flourished under this policy (as I did in the 1960s) remained forever grateful to him. But later he relied less on personal writing and more on readership surveys. Martin Goldfarb, the pollster, advised him on his major moves.

Honderich liked to express his decisions obliquely. If he turned against something or someone, he had to find complicated and inscrutable reasons. Once he decided that yet another managing editor had disappointed him (he ran through at least 14 of them) and should leave. Another publisher might have simply fired the man, but Honderich needed to see himself acting on ethical and objective principles. He commissioned a survey of the newsroom by professional pollsters, who reported that morale was low (a statement that could be made on almost any day of any year) and the managing editor unpopular. This gave Honderich the moral justification to put a new man in the job.

In the 1980s, he decided The Star should commission an official history to celebrate its 100th birthday. When the book was finally written, he didn't like it. But he could not be seen as someone who killed a book, in effect a censor. Instead he gave implausible excuses. He said certain delays had made the book too late to appear in the centennial year, 1992. Later, he said business was bad and the board wouldn't tolerate his spending money on the book. That book remains unpublished today, its reputation improving with each year it spends in the vault.

For decades, Star editors spent their time trying to read Honderich's mind, pondering his remarks like scholars decoding ancient, fragmentary texts. No one ever found the Rosetta stone.

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