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Introduction « Douglas Fisher



On July 30, 2006, at the age of 85, Douglas Fisher ended his 45-year career as a newspaper political columnist. In his final column Fisher wrote that during his career he tried to convey “the opposition MP’s mentality into journalism. Over the years my opinions have been more critical than approving of whatever government has been in power.”[1] From 1961 to 2006 Fisher, alone in the Ottawa press gallery, knew what it was to be an opposition member of parliament. From 1957 to 1965 he served as the Cooperative Commonwealth Party member of parliament for the riding of Port Arthur in northern Ontario and while other Canadian federal politicians have occasionally dabbled in journalism only Fisher took it on full time.[2]

Political journalism is a specialized niche. Only a handful of journalists focus on covering politics and even fewer become political columnists. Some take the formal route by going to a journalism program in university and then taking a series of jobs, perhaps municipal or provincial political reporting, until attaining a position in Ottawa. Others learn the skills of journalism on the fly from editors and colleagues in newsrooms with the foundation of a university degree.

Occasionally a journalist will come to the craft late in life after exploring a number of different fields and slowly recognizing that what he or she really wants to do is journalism. Fisher was one such latecomer. He wrote his first political column in 1957 a few weeks after winning a seat in parliament. In December 1961 he started writing a column every Saturday for the Toronto Telegram. Fisher decided to leave politics when the 1965 election was called opting to become a full-time journalist. Even then Fisher would always be more than a journalist. As a columnist, television interviewer and host, labour negotiator, and lobbyist, Fisher became an institution on parliament hill and in the Ottawa press gallery. His years in Parliament as a “maverick MP” and his growing profile as a journalist also meant Canadians came to know and look for his political opinions.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney first met Fisher as an 18-year-old student in Nova Scotia. Mulroney and Fisher’s paths crossed regularly for almost fifty years.

    I think it is fair to say that for many years Doug was known as the dean of the parliamentary press gallery and very highly regarded and very straightforward. A man of strong views, strong opinions and unafraid to articulate it, to voice them.[3]

Fisher never studied journalism or worked in a newsroom and his writing was almost always in the form of a column. Sometimes it would stray from politics but the format was always the same. Whether writing for the Canadian Forum, the Toronto Telegram and Toronto Sun, the Legion Magazine or his various other contributions to journals and magazines Fisher was a columnist who primarily focused on federal politics. Fisher wrote for the Toronto Telegram, until it folded in 1971, and then for the Toronto Sun until July 2006. Between 1957 and 1964 while a member of parliament for the riding of Port Arthur, Fisher wrote an occasional column called “Commons Comment” for the Canadian Forum.

As early as 1957, he also saw the potential of television as a medium for journalism in public affairs. He was one of the pioneers in using local television in his successful campaign for a seat in parliament that same year. For the next eight years, as a member of parliament, Fisher focused on broadcasting as a member of the House of Commons Special Committee on Broadcasting responsible for overseeing the activities of the CBC and broadcasting issues. In the 1960s Fisher began another long career as the host of a series of television programs about politics. He was a commentator for CTV News on major political events, such as leadership conventions, and a regular panelist on the weekly CTV program “Question Period” and a regular commentator on CJOH in Ottawa.

As a politician Fisher had a wide range of policy interests but he focused on four policy issues: forestry, transportation, broadcasting and sports. He was also involved in aboriginal issues and parliamentary reform. When he left politics to make his living as a journalist, Fisher’s passion for all these issues continued. His first editor at the Toronto Sun, Peter Worthington, says it was Fisher’s many interests that made him so valuable as a columnist. “He was kind of a renaissance man in the sense that he read books, he did political stuff, the sports stuff. He did virtually everything.”[4]

Douglas Fisher’s career put him in a unique position in Canadian political journalism. To define and explain this I will borrow a term from ethnography and human studies, participant observation, and apply it to Fisher’s approach to life and his journalism. Danny Jorgensen in Participant Observation: A Methodology for Human Studies writes:

    The methodology of participant observation seeks to uncover, make accessible, and reveal the meanings (realities) people use to make sense of their daily lives. In placing the meaning of everyday life first, the methodology of participant observation differs from approaches that begin with concepts defined by way of existing theories and hypotheses…In short, then, the methodology of participant observation provides direct experiential and observational access to the insiders’ world of meaning.[5]

Fisher, from his first days in politics, used “observational access” to become a participant observer. “Ethnography in contemporary settings increasingly involves the study of people in one’s own culture in settings that, for example, often stress work and display spatial diffuseness and ethnic heterogeneity.” I will argue that Fisher, as a member of parliament, was a participant-observer. He took his “case study” and from his first days as a politician applied the experience to journalism. After he left parliament he undertook a series of roles as an active participant-observer while continuing to write a regular column from Ottawa.

Canadian journalism has a long tradition of journalists participating in the political process. Newspapers were known for their strong affiliation with political parties and their lead political reporters often had close ties to politicians. In some cases this went so far as to provide advice and even lend a hand with the writing of speeches. Men such as Grant Dexter and Bruce Hutchison are examples of journalists who maintained a close rapport with political leaders. One oft-repeated example of this is in 1958 when Prime Minister Pearson handpicked Hutchison to fly to Ottawa from his journalism assignment in Washington to conduct a television interview on CBC TV. Hutchison recalled the harried preparations just before the live interview in his memoir The Far Side of the Street. “Between us we worked out half a dozen simple questions for me to ask him and I jotted them down on an envelope.”[7] Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien acknowledges Hutchison’s influence. “A guy like Bruce Hutchison from the Vancouver Province would come to Ottawa and meet all the ministers and discuss the ministries with everybody and he had a lot of influence on us.”[8]

However, during this period, these relationships between journalists and politicians usually took place behind the scenes. Readers knew the political take of their newspapers but the relationships, the active participation of political journalists, was not disclosed when the reporter was in the observer role. Conflict of interest was defined more loosely than today and it allowed for much greater direct influence by journalists in the political process.

Douglas Fisher, however, came at his role as a participant-observer through his election to parliament. He was first an MP, accountable to parliament and his constituency, and secondly an observer. This unique entry point raises conflict of interest issues for Fisher as a journalist during his years as an elected politician and later as a participant in the development of public policy. As a politician Fisher had an access to information that no journalist could obtain directly. He was allowed in the lobbies of parliament. He was conscious of the concerns of his party’s leadership about his journalist. He recalls his party’s leader in the House, Stanley Knowles “was particularly concerned about the kind of things that would shred the unity of the caucus.”[9] Unlike the journalists who had the ear of politicians Fisher came to his journalism from the inside with a voice and vote in parliament that itself was subject to reporting by the Ottawa press gallery. Fisher acknowledges that advantage he had because of his unique relationship to his contacts. “It gave me great power. Some people didn’t like and it most people didn’t know.”[10]

How did Fisher use this privileged information in his journalism? His stated intention was to “write an intelligent column for readers who were interested in politics with some seriousness.”[11] However did his various participant roles during his career place him in a conflict of interest as a journalist? The issue of conflict of interest is muddied by the fact that Fisher was a columnist. His work was never on the news pages of the newspapers that ran his journalism and, on television, he only appeared on public affairs programs. Formal conflict of interest rules are applied to journalists assigned to the news pages and newscasts but the rules are much less clear for columnists. Through the use of specific examples the thesis will explore the ethical issues Fisher, and his editors dealt with.

One specific post-politics active participant-observer example I will explore was Fisher’s involvement in sport policy. From its inception in 1969 until it folded in the 1990s Fisher was on the board of directors of Hockey Canada. Chris Lang was the secretary treasurer of Hockey Canada and says Fisher was “the key, principal thinker on Hockey Canada in terms of strategy.”[12] Lang also says Fisher was “the guy that single-handedly got us a Minister of Sport in 1976. He single-handedly did that. Sport was going nowhere and Doug felt that to make it go somewhere it should have a cabinet thing and he single-handedly got that done, there is no question about that.”[13]

Twice, in the 1960s, Fisher participated as a politician as well. He ran for Parliament in 1968 and then sought the nomination for a by-election in Manitoba in 1969. While he was unsuccessful on both occasions he continued as a columnist during these campaigns and wrote about his experiences, using them to reflect on the politics of the day. I will argue that Fisher used his knowledge of life in the political arena to become a journalist with the credentials to cover and expound on politics in a way that no other Canadian political columnist could. Fisher’s “inside knowledge” says former Prime Minister Jean Chretien gave him “an understanding of the functioning of political parties in parliament better than anybody from the outside.”[14]

The regular political column on the editorial-opinion page of newspapers was just starting in Canada when Fisher came to Ottawa. The Winnipeg Free Press was one of the few newspapers that ran political columns usually by Grant Dexter, the paper’s associate editor based in Ottawa, and Victor MacKie. The format was already widely used in the United States. For years newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post had regular columnists and some were syndicated across in the United States. They reported on the politics and policy choices made in Washington and opined on international news as well. In the mid-fifties American columnists like Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippmann were syndicated across Canada as well in papers such as the Toronto Telegram and Montreal Gazette. So the development of a Canadian political column gave readers of the editorial-opinion pages of Canadian newspapers a regular Canadian perspective for the first time.

Covering politics has always been a central part of Canadian journalism. In the 1950s a handful of reporters had great influence. Bruce Hutchison, editor of the Victoria Times, wrote speeches for the Liberal leader, and then Prime Minister, Lester Pearson. Blair Fraser, Ottawa editor for Maclean’s, also was close to the leadership of the Liberal party. Tom Kent was editor of the Winnipeg Free Press between 1954 and 1959.

    Hutchison and Fraser were, for example, very much, what shall we say, inclined to give their private opinions to politicians. Politicians asked for them and so journalists gave them. But it was all a much smaller clubbier world. It was really taken for granted I would say.[15]

The Globe and Mail introduced George Bain and his “Ottawa Letter” column in early 1955. A few weeks later the Toronto Star picked up columnist Charles Woodsworth then in June 1956, Peter Stursberg replaced Woodsworth. In both newspapers the columns appeared on the editorial page and ran two or three times a week. All three journalists had held various other reporting and editing positions before being given the role of a political columnist. In September 1955 the Montreal Gazette added a daily political column by Arthur Blakely. Called “Ottawa day-by-day” Blakely’s column ran Monday to Friday.

I will argue that the creation of the political columnist was a response to the need to provide more analytical journalism as the role and import of the federal government grew. It was a coming of age for Canadian journalism. In an M.A. thesis, written in 1962, Colin Seymour-Ure wrote.

    The Gallery reactions are herd reactions. This is bad in itself, but it also encourages chasing the same stories and a concern with the anticipation of news…The gallery cat chases its tail. To try and anticipate the news is a sound principle, but it should not be done at the expense of analyzing what is already known.[16]

The need to look deeper into the policies, role and politics of Canada required a new kind of journalist who was not focused solely on reporting the news of the day from the House of Commons. Douglas Fisher was among that first generation of Canadian political columnists and in the 1960s he became an innovator on another level by taking on a partner to share the column duties and the byline. Harry Crowe, an historian at York University, shared the writing duties for three years.

The political column was also a response to the advent of radio and television news. Radio reported hourly on political developments in Ottawa while both radio and television presented the news in the evening. Newspapers needed to find new avenues to hold readers and provide different information. Some of the columnists in Ottawa in the 1950s were contracted by radio and television to present commentaries and this increased their profiles and salaries as columnists. In the 1960s Fisher would follow and build on that model developing a following on television.

As a participant-observer Fisher faced potential conflicts of interest. First, as a politician, his columns in the Canadian Forum raised questions within the caucus of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party where he sat as a member. Fisher acknowledges the tensions in caucus. “Where it breaks down is the pressure if you get a live topic. You will always have…it’s your colleagues that will raise hell. I think Stanley Knowles was sometimes beside himself. What was I going to raise?”[17] Then as a full time journalist there were other conflicts for Fisher and his editors. He ran for parliament, advised a series of cabinet ministers on a number of issues and worked as a labour negotiator all the while writing a column, hosting a weekly television program and making other television appearances as an interviewer and commentator.

Today, most Canadian news agencies maintain guidelines for journalists warning them to be wary of potential conflicts of interest. For example the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation guidelines state:

    Employees are required to disclose, in writing, to their immediate supervisor all business, commercial or financial interest, where such interest might conceivably be construed as being in actual, apparent or potential conflict with their duties to the Corporation.[18]

This thesis will consider the journalism issues that Fisher, as a participant-observer faced. Fisher became a unique combination of politician, lobbyist and journalist. How did his employers, the editors and producers, deal with the disclosure of his various roles? Fisher compartmentalized his different interests to accomplish his goals in journalism and in public policy. So, while Fisher, the journalist, did not take a salary for any of his policy work, there were a significant number of occasions when his readers and viewers were not fully aware of his many interests. Fisher’s unique position as participant-observer did, at times, place him in what might be construed as a conflict or interest.

On the other hand, as a participant-observer, Fisher brought a perspective and approach that other journalists did not have. His political background gave him an access that other columnists in this era did not have. Politicians sought him out for off-the-record advice and Fisher didn’t hold back from giving his opinions. Throughout his career as a journalist, politicians saw him as someone who had been “one of them”. Former Prime Minister Chretien says, “If Doug would tell me it was off record I had no problem. I would sleep very well.” Fisher always chose to be part of the political process, be it in the halls of the House of Commons, the parliamentary cafeteria, then in the West Block, the offices of Cabinet Ministers or giving his opinions to committees of parliament.

This paper will be divided into four chapters. The first will look at Fisher’s life. Using interviews with Douglas Fisher as well as other biographical material and interviews he conducted earlier in his career I will show what shaped a boy from northern Ontario into one of the most widely read columnists in Canada.

Chapter two will review his role as a politician with an interest in journalism and broadcasting. I will use the interviews with Fisher as well as the record of his contributions in the House of Commons and in his committee work. Fisher began his journalism while an MP. At this stage Fisher, the participant-observer, was first a politician and secondly a journalist. This will be assessed to consider the conflicts and opportunities this early foray into journalism presented. I will review his role in the CCF and NDP and his rise from backbencher to deputy leader. Fisher was an early adopter of the power of the media and its influence grew during his political career.

The third, and central, chapter will focus on Fisher’s journalism after he left politics but continued to participate in various public policy issues. Now Fisher was more an observer-participant as he wrote a daily column and in the 1970s appeared as a regular panelist on Canada’s most important weekly political television program, CTV’s “Question Period”. He hosted or produced a variety of other television programs and was a regular contributor to news programming on CJOH television in Ottawa. I will review his writing and, where possible, the programs he was involved with. It is in this period that Fisher undertook a number of different roles as participant.

Moreover it is critical to explore the issues of disclosure and conflict of interest in Fisher’s work. How did Fisher and his editors make his readers and viewers aware of his many roles as a participant-observer? Could a columnist today be an active participant-observer?

It is also important to place his work in the context of other columnists. I will review two-week periods, one during the 1968 federal election and the other the last days of the Meech Lake Accord in June 1990, to explore the differences and similarities between Fisher’s work and that of Ottawa columnists writing for the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail.

The conclusion will assess Fisher’s contribution to political journalism. I will argue that the participant-observer as political columnist brings a valuable perspective to readers, listeners and viewers. In Fisher’s last Toronto Sun column he lamented “the growing irrelevance of the House as the dramatic, dynamic stage of the parliamentary system.” He wrote the future for Canada was filled with opportunity but the politician’s voice rings in his last words that there will only be a “better society…if we cultivate our politics sensibly.”[20]

1.Fisher, Douglas, Toronto Sun, July 30, 2006.
2.Sheila Copps and Paul Hellyer are two examples but neither was a member of the press gallery covering the day-to- day doings of the House of Commons.
3.Mulroney, Brian, (telephone interview) interview with the author, March 27, 2009.
4.Worthington, Peter, (telephone interview) interview with the author, April 28, 2009.
5.Jorgensen, Danny, Participant observation: a methodology for human studies, (Newbury Park, Cal., Sage Publications, 1989), pg. 15.
6.Johnson, Jeffrey and Christine Avenarious and Jack Weatherford, “Active Participant-Observer: Applying Social Role Analysis to Participant Observation,” Field Methods, May 2006. pg. 132.
7.Hutchison, The Far Side of the Street, (Toronto, Macmillan, 1976) pg. 247.
8.Chretien, Jean, (telephone) interview with the author, May 19, 2009.
9.Fisher interview with the author, November 9, 2008.
10.Fisher interview with the author, November 9, 2008.
11.Fisher, interview with the author, March 17, 2009.
12.Lang, Chris, interview with the author, May 19, 2009.
14.Chretien, interview with the author, May 19, 2009
15.Kent, Tom, (telephone interview) interview with the author, April 1, 2009.
16.Seymour-Ure, Colin, Inquiry into the position and workings of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa, M.A. Thesis, Carleton University, Ottawa, 1962. pg. 163.
17.Fisher interview, November 9, 2008.
19.Chretien interview, May 19, 2009.
20.Fisher, Douglas, “In Closing Mr Speaker…” Toronto Sun, July 30, 2006.

©George Hoff