Robert Fulford's column about Conrad Black & Canadian newspapers

(The National Post, August 10, 2000)

Erratic behaviour, or the appearance of it, will open any powerful figure to severe criticism, because a certain consistency is a quality we need and desire in our leaders. This is one reason why it was easy to pounce on Conrad Black last week. To change willingly, in the speed of a press release, from the best and most important publisher in Canada to the owner of one half of one newspaper -- certainly this will look to just about anyone like erratic behaviour, no matter how reasonable it seems to Mr. Black and his shareholders.

But if certain people are now happily bidding him goodbye, and hoping that his remaining interests in Canada will shrink to insignificance, professional journalists should not be among them. Directly and indirectly, he has done more for the standards of our profession in Canada than anyone in memory, and we journalists will be ungrateful wretches if we fail to acknowledge it. Beyond question, he shook the Ottawa Citizen out of its torpor and gave the national capital a good newspaper for the first time in a generation. In Vancouver, the Sun came alive under his ownership, and a similar change occurred in the Montreal Gazette. People who read those papers, often or occasionally, know that something wonderful happened to them almost immediately after Southam gave way to Hollinger. It was not a coincidence. Four years ago those papers were purchased by a publisher who likes good newspapers and thinks that excellent journalism leads to profits.

Will all this automatically be undone, now that Mr. Black has sold them? Some believe (and appear to enjoy believing) that his influence will immediately disappear, like water poured into the sand. As a Globe and Mail editorial put it, with the condescension that has made that page a source of comic delight for decades: "If he leaves behind no compelling legacy here, his flamboyance and simultaneously amusing and irritating way with an attention-seeking locution will still leave a hole." No compelling legacy? Apparently Mr. Black's former papers will, in the Globe's view, revert to their pre-Black condition.

That seems unlikely. CanWest Global paid great sums for them, having shown no similar eagerness to acquire them when they were run by Southam. Something about those newspapers made them far more desirable and expensive than they were when Southam owned them. Could the difference be good journalism? And if that is the case, will this fairly obvious fact escape the new owners?

What about Mr. Black's legacy closer to home? The Globe and Mail today is radically different from the Globe we knew in the late winter of 1998, which was about the time its owners realized with alarm that Mr. Black was serious about starting a new national daily. Will the Globe, following the logic of its editorial, be changing back to its former style? Some might wish it to follow that course, but probably not the current editors. Will the Globe abruptly stop running inadequate copies of the Post's most original feature, Avenue? Will The Toronto Star undo the changes it made, notably the creation of a separate Toronto news section, as it prepared to fight the newspaper war?

Readers take newspapers personally, as editors often learn after making what they wrongly consider minor changes. Writers, too, even those like me who are only freelance contributors, also develop emotional connections to newspapers. My own feelings about the National Post are highly personal, and have continued to surprise me over the last 22 or so months.

Most publications, from The New Yorker to The Toronto Sun, begin badly. When the Post appeared in the fall of 1998, I expected a mediocre performance at first, a rough draft on which the editors could then improve. Instead, it burst from the gate like a thoroughbred. It was much better than I had expected, and in fact better than any brand new paper had a right to be (as I wrote in Toronto Life when I was still a Globe contributor).

That was startling. A few months later I discovered something amazing: Every morning, I was spending longer with the Post than with The Globe and Mail, the paper I was writing for regularly, the same paper I had read and admired since the Second World War. The reason was obvious. The Post had much more interesting material. And then, eight or ten months after the Post's start-up, I realized that Mr. Black and his employees had truly astonished me. They were putting out the best newspaper published in Canada in my adult lifetime. It was the most remarkable achievement in print journalism since 1936, when George McCullagh, a former business reporter who had grown rich in the stock market, purchased the Toronto Globe and combined it with The Mail and Empire to create The Globe and Mail.

Not too long after all this became clear, I was writing a column for the Post. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. After a while a close friend said: "Admit it, Fulford, have you ever had so much fun reading and writing for a newspaper in your entire life?" The answer was no, absolutely not. Ever.

I have a certain history with Mr. Black, of which friends occasionally remind me. In 1987, when he bought Saturday Night magazine, I decided not to continue as editor because I felt we wouldn't get along. How, then, friends sometimes ask, can you write for him? But I didn't refuse to write for Saturday Night, and didn't advise anyone else to stop writing for it; a few years later, I began contributing again. It was being an editor in his corporation, not a writer, that I found daunting and unpromising. But the editors of the National Post, under Mr. Black's corporate umbrella, have created an editorial culture that is generous, creative, and encouraging. To write for the Post is a pleasure.

Even so, some other friends ask: How can you stand its opinions? Stand them? I love them -- and love them best when I agree with them least, particularly when they are the work of self-described right-wing bastards like Mark Steyn. Those of us who have spent our working lives with left-wing bastards deserve a change. The Post writers and editors are a great relief from the everyday whine and drone of the journalists contributing to the CBC and the various newspapers and magazines I see. Post writers do not assume, as most Canadian journalists do, that insane or deluded residents of Alberta and Ontario have elected vicious dictators to their provincial governments. Nor do Post writers assume that all social questions, from medicare to public schools, were settled long ago and carved in stone, never to be questioned.

George McCullagh, it occurred to me the other day, was assailed for bias at least as often as Mr. Black. Around the Globe newsroom in the late 1940s the word "fascist" was sometimes attached to his name, and the Globe news columns were always considered hideously one-sided -- totally committed to the Liberals in the 1930s, totally committed to the Tories in the 1940s. The Liberal prime minister, Mackenzie King, saw McCullagh's paper as a menace. He wrote in his famous diary: "I fear it may become in time a big-interest, Fascist organ ..."

Even before last week, the Post took its readers and writers on a hectic, unpredictable ride, which made the paper much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. Last week the ride took a fresh turn, and we all, readers and writers, found ourselves confronting a new and unknowable future. I for one find the prospect both terrifying and delightful.

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