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The Politician Columnist « Douglas Fisher



The Politician Columnist
On December 2, 1961 Douglas Fisher wrote his first column for the Toronto Telegram. Given his comments in the House of Commons a year and half earlier, it could be considered strange that John Bassett, the owner of the Telegram agreed to take Fisher on at all. A debate on who should get a license for a new private television station in Toronto led Fisher to take on one of the applicants, the same John Bassett. The Telegram reported Fisher’s outburst in the House.

    “I think it is generally agreed by people who follow newspapers that you have to go a long way and search extensively to find a metropolitan daily as bad in almost every way as the Toronto Telegram,” he said. “If the standards of the Toronto Telegram are going to be transferred to the television station, all I can say is God help the Toronto listeners and watchers”.[176]

At the end of the report it quoted Bassett’s reaction.

    I have no way of knowing the motives of these two gentlemen. I am not in the slightest annoyed by their comments. Their attacks on this subject are always well reported in the opposition paper in Toronto and as this paper will not accept any advertising for the Telegram, Mssrs. Fisher and Pickersgill are doing me a favor by acting as my personal public relations counsel.[177]

Fisher’s comments about the Telegram don’t seem to have influenced Bassett. Fisher talked with the Star, the Globe and the Telegram about writing a column but Bassett responded to the idea first and with the most enthusiasm. “What made the Bassett thing easy was he was open that he would never cut anything. ‘Unless it is so rank that we just won’t run it.’ But it never came to that.” Fisher recalls that the Telegram “gave me lots of latitude.”[178]

What Telegram readers got was a weekly take on politics by, as the editors described him, “the most independent voice in Canadian politics.” Under the byline “Douglas Fisher, MP” Fisher opened with a column rating the possible successors to Prime Minister Diefenbaker. In paragraph seven Fisher, the participant, let the reader in on what MPs muse about amongst themselves.

    In the cozy cockpit of the Commons, all of us know that a serious illness could suddenly create the need for a new Prime Minister. This may seem ghoulish, even macabre; but it is reality, a cloaked reality. For this reason, there is always a lively interest in the heirs apparent.[179]

The column then goes on to rate Fisher’s five choices if the need arose. Howard Green was his first choice because he is “the best-loved and most respected of the ministers” and he would be less of threat because he “is on the edge of elderliness” while George Hees “is well liked” but his “simplicity has been mocked openly by his opponents.”[180]

A week later Fisher took the reader into his own mindset as a politician who campaigned against the Diefenbaker sweep in 1958.

    The memory of that sweeping tide lingers with all of us who faced it. It was irrational in its surge. Ever since I have geared my political sensitivity to measuring the flow – and the ebb – of the Diefenbaker tide.[181]

Fisher went on to review Diefenbaker’s popularity and ended with his conclusion that Canadians “may re-elect a Conservative government; you cannot re-elect a Diefenbaker government.”[182]

Week three there was an addition to Fisher’s byline. His party affiliation was added and now he was “CCF MP for Port Arthur.” The column rated the leader of the opposition, Lester Pearson. There was no “participant” role in the column and Fisher presented a straightforward analysis of Pearson’s strengths and weaknesses making the point that Pearson did not have the “qualities and abilities” of a strong leader of the opposition. He ended with a question: “How could the Liberals gain 85 seats at the next election when led by the antithesis of what is usually expected in a politician?”[183]

The editors of the Telegram dropped the party affiliation in week four and this time the column is “Special to the Telegram.” Fisher paid tribute to the Telegram columnist Judith Robinson who passed away the previous week. Robinson had quietly supported Fisher in his run against C.D. Howe. Fisher recalled her visit to the riding during the campaign.

    She came sniffing into Port Arthur in the spring of ’57…this unusual journalist a Disraelian Tory in Canada. Her first stop at the Conservative committee room had disappointed. The highest aim seemed to be second place to Howe. So she came to see me, the CCF candidate. “Could we win?” We could! Wonderful!”[184]

Fisher went on to declare, “we became friends, and my view of her worth is very biased.”

Three of the first four columns clearly reflected the participant as the observer of political events. In each Fisher took the reader where no member of the press gallery could; into the lobby for leadership gossip, the MP worried about Diefenbaker’s political coattails, and his recollection of the journalist who supported his first campaign.[185] The uniqueness of what Fisher was doing was illustrated by the lack of consistency by the editors in introducing Fisher. In all four he was an MP but in one he was a CCF MP. In the next weeks the name of the column varied as well: “Ottawa Scene” one week and “Ottawa Outlook” the next.[186] Most weeks the Fisher column is the only Canadian journalism on page seven, the Telegram’s opinion page. Far-flung datelines from CBC far-east correspondent Michael Maclear and Telegram correspondent Peter Worthington took their place on the page and there was a regular column by Cardinal MacGuigan. Other Canadian political opinions were not used.

When the 1962 election was called the Telegram dropped Fisher’s column for the duration of the campaign. He was welcomed back the first Saturday after the election, June 23. “DOUGLAS FISHER, returned as New Democratic MP for Port Arthur, now returns to page seven with his view of politics.”[187] The column leaned heavily on Fisher’s experiences during the campaign. He reported that the question of leadership had been important to voters. “The results confirm a disturbing theme I met throughout the campaign, as a politician meeting people singly or in a group. There was little enthusiasm for our party leaders.”[188]

I will not examine each and every column in Fisher’s career as a politician – journalist. Instead I will focus on a few that illustrate how Fisher used the column and how he handled the fine line he tread as a politician writing a column. Was he a politician first or a journalist?

On October 22, 1962 one story dominated headlines around the world. President Kennedy announced a blockade of Cuba after Russia deployed missiles in Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis, as it came to be known, forced politicians in Canada to take positions. Fisher, as a MP, usually spoke on domestic affairs, and for his column on the crisis he focused on the debate in Parliament. He opened with a reference to a speech by an Alberta Conservative MP, Terry Nugent, critical of the U.S. position. Fisher provided no quotes from Nugent but used his name and affiliation with the government to tie one Conservative to anti-U.S. criticism.[189] Fisher turned to the NDP position and how the party communicated it. He reported that the initial NDP reaction had been one of caution because “it was not the time for an off-the-cuff appraisal, critical or otherwise.” The next day “wires were coming in from individuals and party groups across the country demanding a forthright stand that was critical of the American move.” Fisher noted that the NDP’s Tommy Douglas, elected in a by-election the day the crisis began, “zeroed in with a blunt comment on the illegality of the American move.”

What about opinion amongst other members of the House? Fisher told his readers, “I cannot publicize the private words of members in chats behind the curtain or in the lobbies.” Then with that caveat left hanging he hedged the sources of his opinion gathering. “It is my opinion after many conversations that there is a much larger support for – or at lead a tendency to see some merit – in the Nugent criticism of the U.S.” A careful reader might have concluded some of the sources did indeed come from the “lobbies” of the House of Commons. He went on to put the NDP position while admitting it might not be popular justifying his own support this way.

    Many of you would bridle at any presumption of mine in suggesting this party view is the correct or only one of worth. But like my colleagues, I do feel it is a direct consequence of our consistent stand on nuclear weapons, on the United Nations, and on unilateral action by any of the major powers.[190]

In the House Fisher stayed seated for much of the time during this week of international crisis. He limited himself to one question about Canada’s civil defense preparedness “at this particular critical moment.”[191] This column illustrated how Fisher spun his observations of the debate taking a minor Conservative backbencher’s speech, using it to his advantage by turning it into his lead. He followed that by suggesting that the confidential MPs views “behind the curtain” in the House might actually be supportive of a more anti-American position. The politician/participant clearly struggled with the journalist/observer. In this case the NDP politician put his party’s case to the reader.

176.Toronto Telegram, June 22, 1960, pg. 2.
177.Ibid. pg. 2. Note: The Toronto Star gave the story page-one play and used the Fisher quotes. June 22, 1960, pg. 1.
178.Fisher interview, December 6, 2008.
179.Toronto Telegram, December 2, 1961, pg. 7.
180.ibid. pg. 7.
181.Toronto Telegram, December 9, 1961, pg. 7.
184.Toronto Telegram, December 23, 1961, pg. 7.
185.Note: Fisher called Robinson the night of his win in 1957 and the Telegram was the only Toronto paper with a quote from Fisher the next day.
186.Toronto Telegram, April 7, 1962 and April 14, 1962
187.Toronto Telegram, June 23, 1962, pg. 7.
189.Canada. House of Commons, Debates and Proceedings (Hansard), 23rd Parliament, 1st Session, Vol. 1, pg. 853,October 23, 1962, Ottawa. Nugent told the House that the U.S. firing on a Russian ship would “constitute an act of war, would constitute unprovoked aggression.”
190.Toronto Telegram, October 27, 1962. Note: The second Telegram editorial, “The Misguided Ones” that day attacked the NDP position. “There is a fundamental difference between the NDP and the rest of Canada in the area of foreign affairs.” October 27, pg. 6.
191.Hansard, pg. 884, October 24, 1962.

©George Hoff