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Conclusion « Douglas Fisher



In 1990 after Lucien Bouchard resigned from the Mulroney cabinet he began to write a column in Le Devoir. Jeffrey Simpson at the Globe and Mail commented.

    You have to scratch your head and think hard about another serious paper willing to give a weekly soapbox to a sitting MP. It would as strange as the Globe and Mail hiring Michael Wilson or Herb Gray to write a weekly column.[380]

Thirty years earlier the Toronto Telegram, certainly a serious paper of the time, did just that. Douglas Fisher brought his audience, in print and then television, a unique perspective on politics. Time and again he explained and illuminated the political process. Fisher loved the game of politics and had an enormous respect for the place of parliament in the political process. He used his columns to rate the parties, the leaders and the backbenchers that make the laws of Canada. Fisher described to Tom Earle in 1993 the satisfaction he drew from journalism.

    I suppose just what it enables you to do in keeping your mind and your imagination alive about what’s happening and what’s going on in politics. The greatest satisfaction, and this is very egocentric, is feeling that you have some understanding for what’s happening to your country.[381]

Politicians acknowledge Fisher’s “understanding” had an impact.
The former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who counts Fisher as a friend, says.

    There are no others who have done it like him. So it is not a loss or a gain. We gained when he came and we lost when he left. I don’t know of any other member of parliament who has been writing about parliament and public affairs as he has done for a second career. The inside knowledge and an understanding of the functioning of political parties in parliament better than anybody from the outside.[382]

The former Conservative Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney has known Fisher throughout his adult life.

    He was comfortable in is skin that he didn’t give a damn about changing mores or social rules of the journalist and so on. If he had a certain view, either for or against the Mulroney government, he published it. And if in the process of publishing a couple of columns happened to be supportive of the government he was accused of being a friend of the prime minister he didn’t give a damn. He was strong enough on his own to not worry about trivia like that.[383]

Herb Gray sat in Parliament with Fisher, then later in their careers, sat across from him answering Fisher’s questions. Gray said Fisher never forgot the MP’s perspective.

    His writings were informed by his hands on experience. Also the years he was based in Ottawa he had a lot of people he talked to. He called or maybe who called him. That’s the other side. He was respected as a fair-minded person. Some people wrote columns that was all from one, not just partisan, but from one approach, not understanding or respecting what it was like to be a member, It was a unique combination of challenges and pressures.[384]

Gray and Mulroney agree Fisher’s influence extended into the caucus of both the Liberals and Conservatives. Gray noted that Fisher “was one of the people who the caucus read and when they opened the paper they went to Fisher’s column. It had an impact with respect to public opinion and inside the Queensway.”[385]
Mulroney said Fisher,

    …had a following in the Conservative caucus. He was held in high regard by a large number of Conservative members of parliament and senators. Strangely I think they felt on some important issues an ideological kinship with him although he had been elected as a CCFer. But he was western in thought.[386]

Some of those caucus members on both sides of the aisle also wrote about Fisher’s influence. On the Conservative side John Crosbie, who served in Mulroney’s cabinet, wrote, “Douglas Fisher, the political columnist for the Sun newspapers, was the best informed, most impartial journalist in Ottawa.”[387] Eugene Whelan, a Liberal, recalled Fisher was the “fairest and most knowledgeable” member of the press gallery. “Doug can be tough, but I always read his column because it’s usually pretty accurate; just once in a while he’d get nasty and I’d have to call him up and tell him what I thought.”[388]

Journalists have also remarked on Fisher’s influence. George Bain and Peter Newman worked beside Fisher in the 1960s. Bain said Fisher was “Ottawa’s best-informed commentator on Parliament.”[389] Newman said Fisher was “one of the most thoughtful Ottawa journalists.”[390]

In 1971 the journalist and author Walter Stewart wrote.

    Another name to be reckoned with, although he is not nearly as admired, is the Telegram’s Douglas Fisher. Fisher’s success, as I see it, comes not so much from his shrewd analysis (as a former MP and a major figure in the CCF, he knows much more than most of us about how politics work), as from the refreshing fact that he has something to say and says it well.[391]

Another contemporary, Allan Fotheringham, didn’t agree with Stewart about Fisher’s writing style. “Fisher wouldn’t know a leader if he found one in his soup…Fisher’s column in the Toronto Sun could be improved 50 per cent with ten minutes work with a strong pencil.” However Fotheringham read Fisher. “If you must know, the most useful Ottawa columnist to a reader is Doug Fisher, a large baleful man who (for some strange reason that has always puzzled me) does not like me.”[392] Peter Worthington, Fisher’s first editor at the Toronto Sun, concurs with Fotheringham on both points. He says Fisher “was a curious kind of columnist because sometimes the essence of what he wanted to say was in the middle or the bottom of his column. But he always had a viewpoint that was somewhat different from the conventional one. It was really important to the paper.”[393]

Political journalists in Ottawa today are no less respectful of Fisher. Chantal Hebert is the national affairs columnist for the Toronto Star. She credited part of his influence with politicians on the fact that he had been a participant.

    I mean people don’t have to speak out of school to tell you about a leader’s approach to issues versus someone else. But there are limits to that and if you are a former politician, and on that Fisher is not unique…I mean I watch Jean LaPierre operate here in Quebec…Former politicians will be told things by other politicians that journalists won’t. Part of that reason is if you are a former politician you are not crossing a line. Yes, you’ve crossed a line by becoming a columnist but not by having inside information or having some rather intricate networks within given federal parties.[394]

Robert Fife, now the CTV Bureau Chief, says.

    Really, you had to read Doug Fisher’s column…you just had to. It’s funny because he wrote for the Sun and he should have been really in the Globe and Mail. His stuff was so insightful…He knew more about parliament than any journalist working on Parliament Hill. He read Hansard every single day. Nobody was doing that! I mean we go for Question Period, that’s it. He read the whole friggin’ thing![395]

Jeffrey Simpson has been the Ottawa columnist for the Globe and Mail for 25 years.

    One of the things that he uniquely, of all the columnists of my time and before my time, he was very interested in individual members of parliament and in the institution of parliament. Which I am sure came from the fact that he was once a member of parliament. He was a backbencher and I think therefore he had a life long affinity for the backbench members of parliament and for what went on in the precincts of the House of Commons and committee. He would read Hansard, which the rest of us did not do. He would have coffee over in the cafeteria, in the West Block, with clusters of MP. I don’t know how many were his sources but they seemed to be a variety of parties. And he liked them in terms of respecting them as MPs and they liked him.[396]

As can be seen in many of the comments about Fisher there is an implicit understanding of his role as a participant and an observer. His peers valued his experience campaigning for office, his years on the opposition bench and his awareness of what was possible in the game of politics. His direct involvement as a participant with government bureaucracy, for example Hockey Canada, gave Fisher an inside knowledge of government decision-making. He lobbied the government for support on sports issues, not as a journalist with an axe to grind, but as the chair of Hockey Canada. As a participant he knew how the political process led to power and created policy.

As a journalist he read Hansard and government reports other journalists ignored. He talked to everybody as Fife says, “He talked to people in the Senate. He talked to the ‘outs’ and he talked to the ‘ins’. So when the ‘outs’ came in they knew Doug and when the ‘ins’ were out he kept watching them.” Fisher always shared his institutional memory with his audience. Day after day his columns put a current political happening in context for Canadians. Nancy Wilson, who worked with Fisher in the late 1970s, says he did that for journalists too. “If you weren’t sure of something or you wanted to know the history of something go and talk to Doug. And the thing is that he wouldn’t just rattle off something and fill in the blanks he would explain the deep background.”[398]

Could Fisher serve two masters? Could he be a participant, as a politician-journalist or as a lobbyist-journalist, and report fairly on the political happenings in Canada? First it is important to remember that Fisher was always a columnist. Much has been written about journalism ethics and conflict of interest. Nick Russell in Morals and the Media stated, “The journalist needs to clarify whether outside work is acceptable before he does it. And it is advisable to publicly declare any possible conflict.”[399] Russell was writing about staff reporters. Fisher considered himself a freelancer and a columnist. Russell warned, “Freelance work can also threaten the integrity of the reporter himself.”[400] Again, the caveat here is that Russell does not explore the role of the columnist and was referencing reporters. In 1962, the year Fisher began his column, Eugene Webb, then the Director of Research at the Medill School of Journalism wrote, “It is the columnist’s role to express opinions.”[401] Anthony Westell, was a political reporter in Ottawa and for two years a columnist for the Toronto Star. He gave up his column and explained his reasoning this way.

    As I wrote to my editor, Marty Goodman, I have come to the conclusion that I am not a good columnist. This is not false modesty; I still think I’m a pretty good political reporter and analyst. But I do not write well enough to worth reading on the score alone, and I am not enough of an extrovert to impose my personality on the facts.[402]

Fisher thought of himself as enough of an “egocentric” that he took “satisfaction” in imposing his take through his column. Fisher remembers advice he got from the Canadian journalist Greg Clark. “He always used to make the point to me…you’ve got a tendency to want to judge things. He said that’s fine. He said just keep on doing it.”[403]

How impartial was the judge? It is clear that Fisher’s column and television work gave him a platform that he relished and that he used. It is clear that part of the reason for the impact of his journalism resulted from the information and insight he gained as a participant. Politicians of all parties were aware of Fisher’s many roles and still they respected him. Most journalists were aware of his many roles and, while some did not agree with him, they read him partly because of his contacts, experiences and deep knowledge of the political process. But what of his readers and viewers, did they have the necessary information about Fisher to put the information in his work into perspective? Not all of Fisher’s participant roles were public knowledge. During his years as a politician his audience knew Fisher was an MP and sometimes that he was a CCF or NDP caucus member. They were less likely to be aware of his parliamentary committee assignments or his position within the caucus or party. After he left politics his audience did not know that he actively advised ministers such as Marc Lalonde, John Munro and Iona Campagnolo. When asked Fisher could not recall ever recusing himself from a television interview because of his other interests.[404] On the CTV program “Question Period” Fisher interviewed cabinet ministers almost weekly, including Munro and Lalonde and others. As a TV commentator in Ottawa his background was only occasionally described and rarely fully. Copies of his program are not available so it is not possible to ascertain what disclosure was provided in those programs.

As a columnist his editors provided little information for readers and Fisher himself did not disclose his interests on a regular basis. His active role at Hockey Canada was well known. There were many references to Fisher in stories about Hockey Canada. His participation was acknowledged in his magazine pieces but disclosure was rare in his Toronto Sun columns.

Did a conflict of interest exist when Fisher wrote his column while a politician? Politicians are the key source for political journalists. One analysis of the relationship between journalist and politicians by Paolo Mancini put the trust issue this way.

    Newspersons recognize that familiarity with political figures implies risk, problems and often ambiguous situations, but at the same time they admit that such familiarity is an essential part of their job. Not only is it necessary for the journalists to have a specific knowledge of the subjects they are working on, but must be interactionally competent, which can only be achieved through direct experience. The problem here is that the role differences between politicians and journalists tend to dissipate.[405]

Fisher however was both rolled into one. In this rare case could the roles “dissipate” and were there consequences for Fisher both as participant and observer because of his dual profession? The example used here of Fisher’s journalism at the time of the Gordon budget in 1963 suggested that Fisher, the opposition MP, knew he had a front page story when he stood to ask Gordon if he had outside help in writing his budget. Mancini wrote, “The ‘contract’ between politician and journalist is extremely complex.”[406] What happened when that “contract” resided in one person? At the end of the Gordon episode Fisher cleared Gordon of wrong-doing going out of his way in print to make it clear that he felt Gordon was a politician with high standards guilty of poor judgment.

As a participant Fisher needed his peers, members of parliament, to trust him. As an observer Fisher needed to be trusted by those same members of parliament who were the subject and source of much of his writing. Mancini’s “ambiguities” are multiplied and his “contract” is much more complex in the case of Fisher. He wrote about what he saw and heard in venues only a member of parliament had access to and those MPs, his colleagues as participants, knew he alone had the means to put forward his version of events. It meant that Fisher, as a caucus member, a committee member, or MP, could put forward his take with a knowledge of words spoken and positions held while other caucus members needed to reach out to another journalist to try to filter and disseminate.

In turn other columnists, his fellow observers, and writing on the same topic as Fisher, did not have the same access. It was as simple as being privy to an aside on the floor of the House that went unheard in the press gallery or Hansard or being part of the decision making on who would be called before a committee of parliament, It meant Fisher had a context for what he wrote that no other political columnist could obtain.

The advantages and risks for Fisher were many. His honesty and fairness earned him a grudging acceptance by both his fellow participants and his fellow observers but it is clear from the digs and asides by both groups that the position he created for himself was, on occasion, seen as a conflict. Fisher says he played “it as fair as you can…and I took it that if no one ever took it too far to protest that I was respected.”[407] A key to Fisher’s ability to do journalism while a politician was that he was a member of the NDP caucus. Herb Gray summed it up. “Whatever he wrote did not affect his party to gain or hold power. He had some greater freedom of action. Even when he was writing when he was still in parliament which I guess was novel.”[408]

His readers did not always know of Fisher’s personal stake in issues he wrote about. The title of his column, for a time “Inside Ottawa” and then “Inside Politics” hinted at his participant role. He often provided the participant’s view of politics, and the making of policy, in a way that other columnists could not achieve. Politicians resented the way Fisher rated them in his columns but the reader, trying to make sense of the political dynamics in Ottawa, got an interpretation of the strengths and weaknesses learned by sitting in the House day after day, in committees and in the back rooms out of bounds to other gallery journalists. The examples reviewed here showed that Fisher was conflicted when he put his own participant actions under the observer’s gaze. However his audience often gained a different and unique perspective.

Acceptable practice for a columnist was still being defined. Fisher began his column seven years after the regular political column was introduced in a number of Canadian newspapers. Jeffrey Simpson says that in the early 1960s “there were very loose rules, conventions, in those days around reviewing these things.” Jean Chretien says Fisher had an “inside knowledge and an understanding of the functioning of political parties in parliament better than anybody from the outside.”[409] The reader of a Fisher column did not always have all the information about Fisher’s role but he or she gained the “understanding” of the participant’s knowledge and experience.

Was Fisher in a conflict of interest after he left politics? One example examined here was his participant-observer role as a candidate in Toronto in the 1968 while a political columnist. Did his criticism of Trudeau during that campaign result because Fisher held a different view of Canada or because he was a New Democrat seeking to defeat a Liberal MP in a Liberal riding in Toronto during a campaign where Trudeau’s popularity surged? Toronto newspapers reported Fisher’s candidacy and the Telegram wrote an editorial supporting Fisher’s right to be a candidate. However, as we have seen, the reader picking up the paper in the last week of the campaign was not informed of his role as a participant in the political process. Yet the week after the campaign Fisher delved into the inner workings of the campaign using his participant role to illuminate what had happened. Were the standards different in 1968 from today? We know that at least two other Toronto candidates who were active, one as a newsreader at CBC radio, Bruce Rogers, and the other as a commentator at CHUM, Phil Givins, had to give up their positions. CRTC regulations imposed that on broadcasters but Fisher as a print columnist was under no such obligation and the Telegram chose to keep publishing Fisher. It should be noted that when Fisher was a MP seeking re-election in 1962 and 1963 in the riding of Port Arthur, outside the area of the paper’s circulation area, the Telegram suspended his column during the campaign periods. The comparison with the political columns in the Star and Globe showed clearly that Fisher was more critical of Trudeau during the last week of the campaign.

Could the political participant be impartial in his journalist observer role? Stephen Ward wrote, “One answer is that partialities can be a hindrance to ethical deliberation. The ethical perspective requires that we assess our duties without the distorting influence of personal inclinations and passions.”[410] Ward also said, “We can consider how an action will affect ourselves and others. We can partially transcend our perspectives and critique our partialities.”[411] In Fisher’s case he wanted to win his seat, that was his “personal inclination.” Fisher acknowledged his “partialities” in the columns he wrote the week after the election.

However that was after the election. The daily reader of the Telegram should have been informed in some way that Fisher was a participant and observer in the political process in the days before the election. A columnist is read for his or her opinion but in this case the appearance of a conflict of interest did exist and the limited disclosure did not provide the reader of the column with enough information. The Telegram should have provided disclosure.

The issues of disclosure and partiality were also present in Fisher’s work with Hockey Canada. On the board of Hockey Canada Fisher was the one member who, according to Chris Lang, “had no vested interest.” Lang says Fisher, “had no axe to grind so he was the most objective of anybody. He never abused it from his column point of view. He very rarely came out in his column and used that.”[412] However we have seen that Fisher wrote about board issues without disclosing his role. Ward holds that “Journalists should not become so emotionally close to any group that they do not report ‘inconvenient” negative facts or dismiss the interests of other groups. These are facts the public should know.”[413] Fisher was invested in the 1972 Canada-Russia series and that should have been disclosed on a regular basis in his Toronto Sun columns about the series. He was in Moscow, sitting not in the press box but beside his Hockey Canada colleagues, due to his position at Hockey Canada. If one uses as a guideline the CBC policy code then disclosure was required. Although this was quoted earlier in the paper it is important to repeat that it states disclosure is required, “Where such interest might conceivably be construed as being in actual, apparent or potential conflict with their duties to the Corporation.” On the other hand this policy is for news reporters. Fisher was writing an opinion column not reporting the news of a game or the series. Still the reader of his column got an edited insider’s take on the series. The reader did not know that the participant was editing the work of the observer. So, either way, a fuller disclosure should have been made to the reader.

Fisher made a significant contribution to Canadian political journalism. He was one of the first political columnists in Canada and the only elected federal politician to go on to make journalism a full time career. The consensus is that his participant experience made him a columnist who had to be read. The sources he developed over almost five decades in Ottawa made him one of the best-informed observers of the political scene. Fisher’s approach was to talk, listen and judge.

    I took it as it came. I didn’t have a definite plan. I just did the same thing every day. I circulated a lot. I talk a lot. I was forty some years there. I had an awful lot of buddies in the protective staff. I got taken up by a couple of people including two auditor-generals.[414]

Fisher’s status as a former politician meant that Prime Ministers were among the politicians who related to him as a journalist differently from his colleagues in the press gallery. Jean Chretien says simply:

    He was Doug Fisher. He was quite a personality. Sure he wrote thing I did not like too much but that was his job. But he was fair. He would play by the rules. And he tells you I would to ask you this…but not for publication. If I could I would tell him and he would keep it that way.[415]

Fisher played by rules that have changed. He had relationships with politicians that are rare today and challenged by some journalists. Chretien and Mulroney both lament the loss of a columnist like Fisher. Chretien says:

    Journalists could be very useful to us and we could be very useful to them…for them to understand why we make a decision it is very helpful to having informal discussion so that you understand why and why not.[416]

Mulroney is blunter.

    I mean to deprive themselves of an opportunity to sit down and find out what Ignatieff is thinking today, or what Chretien was thinking four, five, ten years ago is to deprive readers of a rich source of legitimate information. You can tell by a Prime Minister’s body language whether he’s in favour of a particular project or not. You learn a lot by watching Prime Ministers and so on and Doug Fisher realized that. He didn’t give a damn what any of these other characters said and thought in the gallery.[417]

Jeffrey Simpson says Mulroney “talked to Doug in a way that he didn’t talk to the rest of us that’s for sure.”[418] Senator Duffy says, “I believe that because he had been an MP he was able to talk to ministers and other people who would be of his general age, for example a guy like John Turner or Jean Chretien, or Trudeau even.”[419] Max Keeping adds, “He could talk to anybody. All the prime ministers…I was a reporter on the Hill for seven years and I don’t think there was anybody who could pick up the phone and call any of the Prime Ministers.”[420]

However columnists today see another side as well. For Simpson there is a risk to the closeness Fisher had with the political elite.

    Any Prime Minister has so much more information at his disposal than you do as a journalist. You’ve got the public record and a little bit of inside stuff. So the information balance is enormous and you are therefore never in a real position of equality with a Prime Minister and you are therefore quite easily manipulated and I didn’t want to be.[421]

Chantal Hebert says the degree of access is what distinguished Fisher from columnists today.

    That is something you get over time and it also something you get if you want to. You can choose not to want to. Almost every columnist, that is a senior columnist, has some experience of talking with politicians and political leaders and not turning around and telling all in the column the next day. One of the reasons people talk to columnists is that we don’t actually quote them. And sometimes you don’t even know that we spoke to them. I mean a columnist who doesn’t have that experience is a very odd columnist.[422]

Hebert says that another thing that distinguished Fisher from other participant columnists is that “he didn’t use his columns to become a remote spin-doctor which most of them do.”[423]

Would Fisher be able to be a participant-observer today? Iona Campagnolo doesn’t think so.

    I doubt it because it has become so extremely partisan. And there is…seems to be a declared wall set up between the government and the media which probably would not lend itself to the trust that is needed there. But in my time, 30 years ago, I think there was a lot of interaction between the media and the federal ministry in government. It wasn’t collusion it was another voice coming from the people you had to hear.[424]

Herb Gray agrees:

    It would be very difficult. There may be conflict of interest rules like at the CBC or a newspaper on what you can do. I’m not aware of any journalist, whether sport or otherwise, who are simultaneously on some kind of advisory group…There is no doubt that he had a status that I don’t know if any journalist today would be in that position.[425]

Mulroney says today there is a “degree of cynicism that developed between media and politicians,” and Fisher “was a different breed of cat and I don’t think we are going to see too many like him any more.”[426]

Fisher wrote for an audience. He asked questions on his various television shows for the viewers. As he wrote in his final column he brought the opposition mentality to his journalism. However it was deeper than that because for more than 40 years he brought the participant’s inside knowledge to his observations. The reader, while not always aware of Fisher’s roles, got a perspective that was original and informed. Canadian political journalism is less rich without Fisher’s voice.

380.Simpson, Globe and Mail, June 15, 1990, pg. 14.
381.Fisher interview with Earle, September 13, 1993, pg. 176.
382.Chretien interview, May 19, 2009.
383.Mulroney interview, March 27, 2009.
384.Gray interview, April 15, 2009.
386.Mulroney interview, March 27. 2009.
387.Crosbie, John, No Holds Barred, (Toronto, McLelland and Stewart, 1997) pg. 302.
388.Whelan, Eugene, The Man in the Green Stetson, (Toronto, Irwin Publishing, 1986), pg. 138.
389.Bain, George, Gotcha, pg. 8.
390.Newman, Peter, The Canadian Revolution – 1985-1995, (Toronto, Viking Press, 1995) pg. 260.
391.Stewart, Walter, Shrug, (Toronto, New Press, 1971) pg. 213.
392.Fotheringham, Allan, Birds of a Feather, (Toronto, Key Porter Books, 1989) pg. 167-68.
393.Worthington interview, April 28, 2009.
394.Hebert, Chantal, interview with the author, March 16, 2009.
395.Fife, Robert, interview July 20, 2009.
396.Simpson interview, April 24, 2009. Note: I have presented only a small sample of opinions on Fisher. Many others have written about his influence. Every politician and journalist I approached for an interview responded quickly and all agreed to talk about Fisher.
397.Fife interview, July 20, 2009.
398.Wilson interview, April 27, 2009.
399.Russell, Nick, Morals and the Media, (Vancouver, UBC Press, 1994) pg. 53.
401.Webb, Eugene, “One way to tell a columnist”, Columbia Journalism Review, Fall, 1962, pg. 23.
402.Westell, Anthony, The Inside Story, (Toronto, Dundurn Press, 2002) pg. 170.
403.Fisher interview, March 22, 2009.
404.Fisher interview, November 23, 2008.
405.Mancini, Paolo, “Between Trust and Suspicion: How Political Journalists Solve the Dilemma,” European Journal of Communication, Volume 8, 1993, pg. 38.
406.ibid. pg. 40.
407.Fisher interview, December 6, 2008.
408.Gray interview, April 15, 2009.
409.Chretien interview, May 19, 2009.
410.Ward, Stephen, “Utility and Impartiality: Being Impartial in a Partial World.” Journal of Media Studies, June 2007, pg. 157.
411.ibid. pg. 159.
412.Lang interview, May 19, 2009.
413.Ward, “Being Impartial in a Partial World”, pg. 164.
414.Fisher interview, March 15 2009.
415.Chretien interview, May 19, 2009.
417.Mulroney interview, March 27, 2009.
418.Simpson interview, March 24, 2009.
419.Duffy interview, March 12, 2009.
420.Keeping interview, April 15, 2009.
421.Simpson interview, March 24, 2009.
422.Hebert interview, March 16, 2009.
424.Campagnolo interview, March 16, 2009.
425.Gray interview, April 15, 2009.
426.Mulroney interview, March 27, 2009.

©George Hoff