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DON MCGILLIVRAY WAS A MASTER OF OUR CRAFT « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

DON MCGILLIVRAY WAS A MASTER OF OUR CRAFT

Last week in Victoria, Don McGillivray died at the age of 76, far from Parliament Hill where, first as a reporter and later as a columnist, he covered politics for over a quarter century, mostly as an employee of Southam. I notice his passing with much regret, because I never got to the point of telling him how very good he was.

I should have told him how much I used to count on his analyses, usually laced with his intrinsic common sense and gentle humour. I never told him he led off my private “top 10” from the Parliamentary Press Gallery. My selection of this shifting galaxy was on the basis of what I have read or heard by about 1,500 members of the gallery since 1957, when I became a keen witness and dependent on journalistic Ottawa.

(My present top 10 runs to these deceased: Don McGillivray, Brian Kelleher (CBC Radio), Norman Depoe (CBC-TV), Dave McIntosh (CP), Charles Lynch (Southam); and these still alive: George Bain, Peter Newman, Richard Gwyn, Chantal Hebert and Jeffrey Simpson.
In the years since 1962, when McGillivray’s reportage of several wild and woolly House of Commons committee hearings hit me as the most readable, sensible and succinct accounts I had ever read, I became a coffee-cup acquaintance. Don was shy, and it was years before I appreciated he was the best read man I had met since Northrop Frye. He never flaunted his erudition or the resources he gathered through life: grammars, dictionaries, indices, bibliographies, yearbooks, biographies, royal commissions, parliamentary and media commentary, novels, caricatures, etc.

Eventually, we got to occasional mutual spoofing -he about my anti-Liberal bias, I about his teaching of innocents about journalism (as did other exceptional press gallery writers such as Anthony Westell and Bain). And when he began to press for a new association dedicated to “investigative journalism” I argued that for every worthy John Sawatsky encouraged, there’d be someone else distorting “leads” into unjust travesties.

Don was taken with his students’ promise. He wanted them to associate in a group based on standards and methods, in time creating a mythic round table of equals – all skeptical but fair searchers for the truth. So came the creation now called the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Why, outside the craft, was Don not better known nationally? Well, he was somewhat shy and he hated to use the first person singular. His copy never ran in Toronto, and he was not used much by CBC-TV or Radio, or by CTV and Ottawa’s CJOH-TV, which set the pace with an evolving circle of commentators in the ’70s and ’80s. Also, Don concentrated more on issues, signified by bills, acts, reports and lobby groups, and in sketching the open relations among politicians, federal and provincial. He did not focus much, as so many of his colleagues did, on ministers or mandarins or the “spinners” for the party leaders.

Perhaps because he grew up in the west and worked for Prairie papers, perhaps because of a few years in the UK and in Washington, perhaps because his columns from Ottawa ran in dailies from B.C. to the Maritimes though not in Toronto, the readers in his mind were a cross-section across the Canadian map, not those who nattered in or close to politics or the higher bureaucrats of the federal leviathan.

My clipping file of Ottawa columnists or top reporters was started in 1957. Often in weeding it, or searching out a past situation, I wind up reading some of them. This isn’t disheartening, although most of the situations are long forgotten, So much, however, stands up, as analysis and as prose.

One hindsight from scanning such files reminds me there has always been a common denominator in the gallery – however the whole may be dominated by “pack” journalism – of excellent copy. And none is more readable and stands up better than McGillivray’s pieces.

It is noticeable from the back files how female writers began arriving on the Hill in larger numbers in the Trudeau years. I recall McGillivray telling me in the early ’80s that by 2000 women would dominate the ranks in schools of journalism. He was right, and lately he must have grinned, not grimaced, because the newspaper columnists getting the most national notice are women – Christie Blatchford, Margaret Wente, Hebert. My hunch about Don, posthumously, is that posterity in the whole field of journalism and its personnel will remember him ahead of almost all contemporaries decked with the Order of Canada, through the legacy he created with and for students and neophyte reporters.

Source: BY DOUGLAS FISHER, TORONTO SUN

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