Conrad Black Creates Controversy in Calgary

Bob Blakey and I raise a glass to the memory of Bob Edwards at his grave in Union Cemetery

My fellow “gangrenous limb” Bob Blakey (left) and I raise a glass to the memory of Bob Edwards at his grave in Union Cemetery

I was one of the “gangrenous limbs.” That’s how Conrad Black characterized my fellow locked-out Calgary Herald employees and me in March 2000 when he came to Calgary for a bank shareholders’ meeting. Black at the time was chairman and chief executive of Hollinger, the company that owned the Herald. My Herald colleagues and I had been walking the picket line for four months. Union leader Andy Marshall asked Black why he was insulting his once-valued employees. Black responded: “We’re not. We’re amputating gangrenous limbs. If they have the grace of conversion and want to function as employees instead of staging an NDP coup d’état in the newsroom, they’ll be welcome.” Later Black told The New York Times he expected the labour dispute to drag on for two more years “and then we won’t have to keep their jobs anymore.”

The dispute continued for another three months, until 30 June 2000, and ended with the decertification of the union. Of the 93 employees left on the picket line, only eight opted to return to the newsroom. The rest, including me, accepted buyouts. We couldn’t see a future for ourselves in a non-unionized newsroom run by anti-union managers.

Since that time, this former media baron, Lord Black, has left the newspaper business, served a three-year jail sentence in the United States for mail fraud and obstruction of justice, and written a few books. I, too, have written a few books. That’s why both of us were invited to attend the Bob Edwards Award Gala in Calgary this past week. It’s the largest literary event held annually in Western Canada; a fund-raising dinner organized by the Calgary Public Library Foundation. The event is named after Calgary’s first media celebrity: Bob Edwards, the early 20th century publisher of the Eye Opener, a scandal sheet that broke all the conventional rules of journalism by running humour, gossip and satirical commentary instead of news. Black was invited to the gala to be recognized for his outspoken views, most recently as a critic of the American justice system. I was there to hold court as one of the 37 table hosts.

Some of my writer friends were appalled when they heard Black would be the recipient of this year’s Edwards award. Why would the Library Foundation want to honour this Montreal-born Anglophile who renounced his Canadian citizenship to qualify for a seat in the British House of Lords? Why would the foundation want to add Black’s name to a list of distinguished Canadian recipients that includes Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton and Mordecai Richler? The gala was sold out so there was no way the foundation could disappoint its paying guests by cancelling the event. But my friends hoped the foundation members would eventually come to their senses and acknowledge that choosing Black was a mistake.

The Herald’s Stephen Hunt had an article in the paper before the gala, documenting the annoyance of those who felt Black was a poor choice for the award. The most vocal and most articulate critic was Drew Anderson, editor of FastForward Weekly, who wrote in a blog that Black was the kind of individual who would have been “squarely in Bob’s crosshairs.”

I did give some thought to declining the foundation’s invitation. As a former Herald staff writer, I felt that a totally avoidable labour dispute in 1999-2000 had caused lasting and irreparable damage to what was once one of Western Canada’s finest dailies. But after further deliberation I decided to attend the event because I’m a huge supporter of the Library, and because I could write about the gala afterwards. And I’m glad I did because at one point in his speech Black was booed. But I’m not putting what I have written on the Internet. Instead I am making it available privately to interested readers for 99 cents. You won’t read about it elsewhere because Black’s 34-minute speech wasn’t reported on in the Calgary newspapers. Mine, which I title “Conrad Black: A Man of Too Many Words,” is the only account you will find anywhere. Just click on the “Buy Now” button below and I will have it securely delivered to your email inbox in PDF format.
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Why do I charge 99 cents per story?

Because I expect to be compensated for my work. That’s how I make my living: I write stories and sell them. I don’t have another day job, but even if I did, I would still expect to get paid for my writing. Does this make me “priggish and ungracious?” That’s how a British academic characterized British novelist Philip Hensher recently when Hensher refused to contribute an introduction to the academic’s book for free. The academic’s name is Andrew Webber. He lectures on modern German and comparative culture at Cambridge.

Hensher took to the pages of the Guardian newspaper to explain his refusal to work for free. “How does he (Webber) think that today’s writers make a living?” he asked. “We’re creating a world where we’re making it impossible for writers to make a living.”

Webber was not available for comment when contacted by the Guardian. But later he wrote a letter to the newspaper claiming that unpaid work contributes to the “common good of our culture.” “Many academics give freely of their time in support of, and in collaboration with, writers and other artists,” wrote Webber.

Fair enough, but the point here is that Hensher is not an academic. Neither am I. We don’t have university jobs to subsidize our writing. We depend on the proceeds of our writing to put food on the table. If you want us to contribute to the common good of our culture, don’t expect us to do it for nothing. We deserve better.

Bob Edwards: Booze-loving newspaper satirist

(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)

Bob Edwards 1859 – 1922

Bob Edwards
1859 – 1922

Bob Edwards was Calgary’s first media celebrity, a genuine pre-television superstar who put the frontier town on the North American map long before the cowboy showman Guy Weadick launched the Calgary Stampede or Mayor Don Mackay gave away his first white hat. “Calgary,” said a New York politician during the early part of the 20th century, “is, I believe, a place in Canada where the Eye Opener comes from.”

The Eye Opener was Edwards’s “newspaper,” a satirical publication that broke all the accepted rules of journalism by running gossip and satirical commentary instead of news, yet enjoyed the largest circulation (35,000) of any paper published west of Winnipeg.

Read the rest of this 1,300-word story for 99 cents. Click on the “Buy Now” button below to have this story securely delivered to your inbox as a PDF. 
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J. Patrick O’Callaghan: Maverick publisher

J. Pat O'Callaghan 1925 – 1996

J. Pat O’Callaghan
1925 – 1996

I worked for seven publishers during my three decades in Canadian daily journalism. Pat O’Callaghan was my favourite. I liked him best because he supported independent reporting and refused to kowtow to politicians or business leaders. He even refused to be beholden to his own bosses. During his three decades in Canadian journalism, this Irish-born renegade ran chain papers in Red Deer, Windsor, Edmonton and Calgary, all the time “cheerfully overlooking that the newspapers were owned by others.”

We knew him by reputation long before he arrived in Calgary. In Red Deer and Windsor he had written editorials on the front page under his own byline, reminding readers that a member of their community – not an absentee landlord – was running the day-to-day operations of the paper. In Edmonton, he  transformed the Journal into an extension of his professional Irish persona, colouring the masthead shamrock green, promoting the paper on green-painted billboards, and selling it from green street boxes. What would he do in Calgary? We couldn’t wait to see.

He arrived in July 1982 to replace the retiring Frank Swanson, who had overseen the paper’s move from downtown Calgary to a $70 million plant on a hill overlooking the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. We would always refer to this red-brick structure as “the new building,” even after we’d been in there for 20 years. Today the building is up for sale and some of us are still calling it “the new building.” Old habits die hard.

O’Callaghan introduced a succession of changes at the Herald – some whimsical, some farsighted – aimed at making readers (and staff) sit up and take notice.

Among the whimsical was his decision to strike “The” from the masthead of this paper that had been known variously throughout its 100-year existence as The Calgary Herald, The Calgary Daily Herald or, simply, The Herald. O’Callaghan claimed to have a historical justification for his decision to rename it Calgary Herald, but no one could ever find the evidence. The illuminated sign on the west side of the red-brick building kept the design of the old masthead. O’Callaghan couldn’t convince his Southam bosses to spend the money on replacing it.

Among O’Callaghan’s farsighted decisions, applauded by Herald employees with preschool children, was to make the Herald the first paper in Canada with a day-care centre on the premises. O’Callaghan also added Sunday to the paper’s publication schedule (“because we live in a seven-day world”) and switched the Herald from afternoon to morning delivery so that “a minor daily paper in Calgary” would not have the breakfast market all to itself. Herald readers still had the option of saving the paper for afternoon reading, he said.

O’Callaghan banned black-and-white-pictures from the Herald’s front page at a time when the paper’s library of colour photos was much like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. He emboldened his columnists to make their work reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.” He launched a Sunday magazine that came with the Herald for six years, and won a few national and regional awards along the way. And all the time, he worked to make the Herald the voice of Alberta. “Politically, we’ve never had a voice,” he said. “How can we when we only have 21 MPs who are swamped in Parliament, and a Senate that’s a joke at best? The only weapon we have is our voice.”

His independence made O’Callaghan a loner. He got no support from the Herald’s Toronto owners when he thundered in print against the National Energy Program. He alienated the Alberta politicians and business leaders who could have become his closest allies. “In this job, sooner or later, someone wants a favour or special treatment,” he said. “So I’ve avoided terribly close friendships.”

His eastern bosses eventually tired of his independence, especially when it started costing them money. They recalled him to Toronto at the end of 1988, when Calgary’s auto dealers started pulling their ads from the Herald to protest a series of stories, written by our great consumer reporter Brock Ketcham, listing suggested retail prices of new vehicles. “A typical swan song for a career that has been studded with a certain amount of controversy,” noted O’Callaghan with a certain pride.

He was then 63. Instead of settling into quiet retirement, he took his typewriter with him to Aurora, Ont. where over the next seven years he churned out a steady stream of freelance columns on Canadian unity, freedom of the press, and other subjects.

His last column appeared in the Globe and Mail on Canada Day, 1996, just one month before he succumbed to heart problems at age 70. The stated subject was Southam’s announced decision to establish its own national news service as an alternative to Canadian Press. The real subject, however, was something close to O’Callaghan’s independent heart.

Recalling that the Southam publishers of his time had always been free to back the political party of their choice, O’Callaghan expressed hope the proposed news service would not result in Southam newspapers singing the same political tune across the land:

“One would like to think than an element of such independence has survived the various crises Southam has passed through in recent years.”

I miss him to this day.