Press-Republican

May 17, 2013

Conservative champion gone

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch
Press-Republican

---- — One of the worthless but sentimental things I’ve collected over the years is a copy of the final edition of the Toronto Telegram, dated Oct. 30, 1971.

The Tely was my parents’ newspaper of choice, arriving by train a day late where we lived in the wilds of Northern Ontario.

When the Tely shut down, due to a looming strike, my parents reluctantly switched to the Toronto Star, which was then and is still now, a liberal-leaning paper. The Tely had been the voice of the moderate right, which had deep roots in a province riddled with Orangemen.

With the death of the Telegram, the right sought a new vehicle, and in short order some former employees of the paper started up the Toronto Sun, which would spawn a successful media empire and launch into the spotlight its founding editor Peter J. Worthington.

One of the most outspoken, controversial and honored journalists in Canada, Worthington died this week at age 86. To sum up the flood of tributes, Worthington was a hero for a certain post-war generation of conservatives in this country, a balance to the surge of liberalism stemming from the 1960s.

Before Worthington took the helm of the Toronto Sun, he had racked up an extraordinary career as a globe-trotting reporter with the Tely, hopping from hot spot to hot spot, including being at the Dallas police station when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

He dismissed that Zelig appearance (he’s in the TV footage) as “not a watershed moment” in his career compared to the turbulent news reel of human conflict that he had witnessed and chronicled.

The Sun was a tabloid, modeled on the style pioneered by the Brits, and its racy format of Sunshine Girls and heavy diet of sports and brazen opinions was previously unknown to staid Canadians. But the formula worked, and eventually Sun-style papers sprung up around the country, notably in Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton.

One of the great ironies of the newspaper business in Canada is that, through labyrinthine corporate maneuvers, the Sun chain Worthington and company founded ended up being owned by Quebecor, a media giant based in Montreal.

Quebecor also had its roots in the success of tabloids as competition for mainstream newspapers. Pierre Peladeau founded the Journal de Montreal in 1964, capitalizing on a strike that had shut down the province’s main newspaper La Presse.

Peladeau was an unabashed Quebec nationalist who made no secret of his desire to see the province become a country. Worthington had been an outspoken opponent of the Quebec separatist movement but was also no fan of the anti-secessionist champion, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, whom in his self-penned obituary he denounces for “his dislike of the military, his empathy for communism, his admiration of dictators (Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro), his lust for a written constitution and so on.”

At one point, the Trudeau government had Worthington investigated and charged for leaking information about Soviet spies trying to subvert Canadians. The case went nowhere, but Worthington reveled in having gotten under Trudeau’s skin.

Worthington may be remembered most for being a rock-ribbed Canadian champion of conservatives, but it was his experiences as a journalist that loomed largest with him at the end.

“Looking back, it was a privilege to have stayed at the jungle hospital of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Gabon and conferred with the great man; also interviewing and visiting the Dalai Lama, first when he escaped from Tibet in 1959, and later at his Indian retreat of Dharamsala in 1962; and interview the likes of Nasser, Nehru, Chiang Kai-shek, Lumumba, Jomo Kenyata, Indira Ghandi, Alan Paton, Joe Louis and such.”

It bears mentioning that Worthington was a patriarch of sorts to other high-profile conservatives.

His step-daughter Danielle Crittenden is a noted author and journalist, currently with the Huff Post in Canada. She wrote a comic novel (”The President’s Secret IMs”) based on imagined correspondence of George W. Bush.

Crittenden’s husband is David Frum, a conservative commentator who worked for Bush 43 and is often credited with the Axis of Evil phrase — a notion his famous father-in-law surely approved.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at pmblack@videotron.ca.