Readers are skeptical about the news media, but our traditional news outlets are more reliable than they were in the years post-Confederation.
During the promotional tour this fall for my book on the history of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill (Dundurn), I have often been asked about the news media today. The questions range from concerned inquiries about the parlous state of the industry to queries that betray outright cynicism about the veracity of news today.
The questions are well-founded. Many of the voices we respect are in financial free fall and, inevitably, some will not survive. (According to a study for the Public Policy Forum in 2017, more than 250 Canadian newspapers had disappeared since 2010.) Apart from battling the new digital economics driven by Facebook and Google, conventional media outlets also confront mounting skepticism from a jaded public. In the words of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, we live in “a world of seemingly stagnant distrust” about institutions. And media outlets lead the list, behind government, business and non-governmental organizations. Almost half of Canadians surveyed say they have lost faith in news media, and more than half no longer follow the news. Across the world, almost 40 percent of respondents say they are worried about “fake news.”
But shading the truth is as old as Confederation.
The journalist Arthur Ford recalled the time in 1913 when, as a freelancer for the Fredericton Gleaner, he was covering the great Commons debate about the Naval Aid Bill, the legislation brought forward by Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden to support Britain in the looming war with Germany. Liberal Leader Wilfrid Laurier’s address was much anticipated, especially given a split in his ranks and anti-imperialist sentiment in Quebec. Laurier was to follow the speech by the Minister of the Naval Service, Douglas Hazen, a close friend of James Crockett, the owner of the Gleaner. When Ford asked how much copy the paper wanted on the speeches, Crockett responded: “Ignore Laurier entirely. Send Hazen verbatim.” Ford concluded in his 1950 memoir, As the World Wags On, “In those days government news was treated like patronage for the government papers.” The reporters on the government side were known as “the ministerial press.”
The post-Confederation era was a time when parties rigidly controlled the news. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald invested his own funds in several newspaper ventures, including the Mail in Toronto and, when that publication proved not sufficiently Tory for his liking, the Empire. Laurier and his wealthy friends launched L’Électeur (now Le Soleil) in 1880, and he installed his friend and adviser Ernest Pacaud as the editor. Shortly before the 1910 election, Laurier, then prime minister, learned of a Conservative plot to take over the pro-Liberal paper La Presse and organized his own group of railway barons, who successfully fought off the bid.
It’s not that the newspapers, then the only real source of government information, suppressed the news — it’s that they were highly selective. “A Conservative paper covered the speeches of its leaders,” Ford wrote, “and more or less ignored the speeches of the Liberals and vice versa. Reports were biased and unfair.”
George Brown’s Reform-Liberal Globe in Toronto fairly fulminated after a raucous night of Commons debate in 1878: “To say that Sir John A. Macdonald was on Friday night somewhat under the influence of liquor would be a grossly inadequate representation of the fact. He was simply drunk in the plain ordinary sense of the word.” And the paper went to town in 1873 when it obtained a memo documenting the secret payment to Macdonald and his Conservative colleagues by Sir Hugh Allan, who wanted the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Globe stacked 18 different headlines on page 1, complete with exclamation marks: “THE PACIFIC SCANDAL! Macdonald and Cartier Take Money from Allan.”
John Willison and John Dafoe were two of the leading members of the press gallery in their day, and both went on to head leading newspapers, Willison at the Globe in Toronto and Dafoe at the Free Press in Winnipeg. Both were very close to Laurier. One of Willison’s early acts as editor was to protect Laurier from a major embarrassment on the eve of the election of 1891: he opted not to publish a letter that a prominent Liberal front-bencher, Edward Blake, was planning to deliver to his constituents in Durham, attacking Laurier’s proposed reciprocity plan for free trade with the United States — then involved Laurier in a compromise with Blake to keep his views to himself until after the election. (Laurier lost to Macdonald anyway.) In 1917, after Willison and Dafoe fell out with Laurier over conscription, they helped to elect Robert Borden as the Unionist prime minister.
The symbiotic relationships between prime ministers and press continued through the years. The journalist Grattan O’Leary of the Ottawa Journal, who liked to say he voted with the Tories but drank with the Grits, openly supported his friend Arthur Meighen — even travelling with the Conservative prime minister to an Imperial Conference in 1921 in the guise of a reporter with the Canadian Press and filing favourable stories. The respected journalists Grant Dexter and Bruce Hutchison wrote speeches and election material for Liberal Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King over the years and played important roles behind the scenes in Lester (Mike) Pearson’s ascent to the Liberal leadership and the prime minister’s office in the 1960s. Dexter once said their job was to “help Mike shine.” In 1902 A.J. Magurn, a press gallery veteran who was Dafoe’s predecessor at the Free Press, also had help on his mind when he used his long-time service to the Liberal Party in his demand for a Senate seat: “I helped you when you needed it most, now I want you to help me.”
To be sure, there was overtly partisan “news.” Clifford Sifton, owner of the Free Press and Laurier’s powerful interior minister at the turn of the 20th century, created a “News Bureau” that published a series of bulletins that friendly Liberal papers were expected to run. “The theory that you want the elector to read both sides and trust to him that you are right, is not practical politics,” he declared. Later, in the mid-1930s, the Conservatives retained a Toronto advertising agency to record dramatized sequences of “our friend and neighbour Mr. Sage” savaging Liberal Leader Mackenzie King, running them without any disclosure of their party affiliation. When they returned to power, the Liberals passed a law banning such electioneering on radio.
The worm started to turn after the great pipeline debate of 1956, when the Liberal powerhouse minister C.D. Howe invoked closure to ram a financing bill through the Commons. Angry opposition MPs accused the Speaker of changing his rulings under government pressure. The Commons descended into bitter name-calling. Gallery reporters were appalled by the affront to Parliament. It was the beginning of a more confrontational spirit in the press gallery. In 1962, Val Sears of the Toronto Star gave voice to the mood when he famously declared, “Come, gentlemen. We have a government to overthrow.”
After Watergate, it seemed, everyone wanted to be a journalist. And now, in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, they have their wish. The tweet and the clip rule over substance. Amidst all the clamour and competing voices, it is not surprising that people are confused about what to believe and whom they can trust. Attacks on the press are increasing. It may be pointless to argue, as I do, that most news and information from traditional outlets is more reliable now than in days of yore. Yet citizens remain skeptical. The challenge for conventional news outlets is to demonstrate their authenticity and their value. The journalists know they are under the microscope. There is no tolerance for mistakes or partisanship. Because truth in news is vital to our democracy, the reporter’s job is more important now than ever before.
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