I guess that as far as Canada is concerned, the era of the newspaper mogul is more or less over.
When I got into Canadian newspapers in the 1950s, I first went to work for Roy Thomson, who owned a string of small, indifferent newspapers, that in the next ten years he transformed (by moving to Britain) into a string of international newspapers and TV stations, of which the flagships were the newly-established Scottish TV (he said it was like “a licence to print money”), the long-established quality newspaper The Scotsman, a brief reign as owner of The Times of London, (legendary among British newspapers) and The Sunday Times, which under his ownership became one of the best newspapers in the world. I never met him, and never really wanted to.
Next I worked for the Winnipeg Free Press, owned and published by Victor Sifton, a member of the long-established newspaper-owning family of western Canada.. When he was expected to walk through the newsroom Albert Boothe, the city editor, would warn those of us who were sitting around to make ourselves scarce by going into the library, or to find some way of looking busy. I never met him, and never really wanted to.
Finally, I worked for The Montreal Star, owned by a business tycoon John W. McConnell, and published by his son John G. McConnell. I never met the father, and especially never wanted to, but I did have occasion to meet the son a few times, when I was the paper’s correspondent in London in the 1960s. He would escape from his intermittent rehab for alcoholism, grab a bottle of Scotch, drink it on his flight to London, and be in really poor shape on his arrival. He once favoured me with the remark, “You seem to be a bit on the left side,” the only thing he ever said about my work.
When he came to London he seemed to be usually interested in buying something by the artist Augustus John, which no doubt he could well afford to do, if he could find one for sale. On one occasion he complained bitterly to me about having to stay at the Hilton, on Park Lane, instead of at the posher Dorchester, because on his previous visit he had left the bath running and the water had cascaded down the stairs, so they no longer welcomed his custom.
I always thought that the newspaper, which I never thought was really well run, but was ticking along profitably, was in good hands so long as the alcoholic son was in charge. When others in the family, uninterested in the newspaper, wanted more money from it, everything went to what I might call rat-shit. The paper was sold to the Free Press company of western Canada. After a few years, The Star, which under the McConnells had been determined never to have a union, especially of journalists, allowed a strike to drag on for months. On returning to publication, they found they had lost their readership, which for some years had made it the highest circulation newspaper in the country, according to Wikipedia, although I don't believe that was so during the years I worked for it. In 1979, eight years after I had left the paper, The Star folded. John G. was the only ultimate boss I could say I ever had some sympathy for.
I have been somewhat chided by one of my sons recently about having expressed a lifelong detestation for bosses, because he said, I have not lived an especially praiseworthy life myself and could perhaps have been more understanding of their problems, lifestyles, and pecadilloes. Well, I guess that is just the way I was raised, or if not raised to be like that, it is just the way I am.
I was once or twice in the same room as Lord Thomson, as he became, when he was riding high as the world’s greatest newspaper proprietor --- and the firm he founded still is one of the world’s biggest companies, although they have long-since moved out of the newspaper business. On that particular occasion I had been delegated to attend a meeting of the Commonwealth Press Union. This plump little man was sitting in front of me when I made some no-doubt slightly irrelevant remark that occasioned him to turn around, gaze at me for a moment through his terrifyingly thick lenses, just long enough to gather that I was no one of moment, and then turn back to the business of the meeting. I think that is the only occasion in my life I ever mixed as more or less an equal with any tycoon. Both sitting in the same room, conducting the same business. I was really glad to get out of there.
It used to bug me when I was younger that a man had the power to order me what to write or to do, just because his father had made a lot of money. Of course, the occasions when that sort of thing were specific were few and far between, and would occur only when, for example, the proprietor’s wife was irritated by some potholes in the road, and the word came through from on high that I had to write something about the disgraceful state of the roadways.
Still, I always knew that their orders were always there, although in everyday life they were oblique, even if usually unstated. One of the distinguishing things I found about journalists in high positions was that they always said they believed they were following their own inclinations, never had to receive orders about what to think or write, but I always knew that was because only that sort of believer in the system was ever hired for those kind of jobs.
J.W. McConnell, the father, was a major contributor to McGill University, about which it was impossible to write a negative word. (I did manage on one occasion to get a whole-page article into the paper, ever-so-slightly critical of the behaviour of the university administration, about the hearing granted to a lower level professor who had supported the student movement to turn McGill into a French-language university, and all my friends said, “How the hell did you ever get that into the paper ?”)
I always heard that J.W. had made his money originally by cornering the sugar market during the First World War --- I don’t know if that was true or not --- but he certainly owned the St. Lawrence Sugar Company as his major business, and we were never allowed in the paper to refer to the boxer as Sugar Ray Robinson. It used to gall me from time to time, that just because he had made money in sugar, he now had the power of life and death over what I wrote. (I felt the same about all of the eight newspapers I worked for, all of whose owners were wealthy men.) He used The Montreal Star as a portal for his business interests, to such a point that our correspondent in Ottawa was frankly regarded as John W’s point man with the federal government.
In addition, of course, old McConnell and his wife were crazy about the Royal family. I had to cover them when they came to town in 1959. Here again I experienced the truth of our oft-repeated claims to be defending freedom of expression. I wrote, for example, that a few soldiers ringed Place d’Armes when the royals arrived, before a small crowd. What came out was that soldiers were needed to hold back the crowd. .grr-rr…. On the Royal tour I conducted a kind of underground guerrilla opposition, writing only about the people the royals met, and trying to write funny pieces. But it was only partly successful. The desk men laughed at my funny pieces, spiked them, and then would use my by-line over a piece of agency copy.
Great days for the freedom of the press. Now gone, like the old-time proprietors?
Wot the hell, wot the hell!