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Lusts of the media magnates

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Political power and control of the media often go together. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Newspapers, the “fourth estate” (after Lords, the Commons, and the Clergy in medieval British society), were supposed to be advocates for the people, defenders of common rights. It was the job of the press, wrote American humorist F.P. Dunne, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

In Canadian history, the combination of George Brown and the Toronto Globe ranks high on the list of media power brokers. Brown used the Globe to advance the interests of his Reform party before and after Confederation. Earlier, in Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe used his Novascotian to champion better terms for his province in the Canadian federation. After winning them, he served Prime Minister John A. Macdonald as a cabinet minister. He oversaw arrangements to bring Manitoba into Canada.

That’s a bit of background to help us look at Pierre-Karl Peladeau, whose nomination by the Party Quebecois in the current Quebec election (voting day April 7) has stirred a lot of interest.

Peladeau owns a controlling interest in the massive media conglomerate, Quebecor. The business was started by his father with a scruffy tabloid sheet, le Journal de Montreal, but has since grown to include the biggest newspaper chain in Canada – Sun Media.

booksPeladeau’s appearance beside PQ leader Pauline Marois electrified the campaign when he gave a clenched fist salute as he called for Quebec to become independent. He later said the outburst indicated his “passion” in life, both for Quebec and for his company which controls an estimated forty per cent of Quebec media outlets, including cable.

For a few days, Mme. Marois was talking up sovereignty, blithering on about “no borders, no tolls” but a Quebec passport and a seat for Quebec on the board of the Bank of Canada.

Suddenly, PQ fortunes took a nose dive, confirming that Quebeckers not only don ‘t want separation, they don’t even want a referendum on separation. Unless the PQ somehow manages to reverse the tide, the election is likely to produce a majority victory for the Quebec Liberal party. It now leads in the polls, raising the question of whether Peladeau can even win his own seat. The worst outcome for him might be to win personally, but then to have to serve in the Opposition. The potential upside for PKP in this scenario is that a PQ defeat would spell the political end for Pauline Marois.

This would open up a leadership contest, adding yet more irony to this strange melange. Peladeau, who is famous for having locked out workers at his companies, is well-known for his right-wing views. How will that fit with the social democratic, left-wing core of the party?

The Peladeau story illustrates once again how the combination of power and media can produce unintended consequences.

The all-time model for media megalomania as a root cause of power lust must lie in the life of William Randolph Hearst, the American media giant of the early and mid-twentieth century. It was always Hearst’s ambition to become President, a lust well documented in Kenneth Whyte’s biography, The Uncrowned King. Heart’s life was also brilliantly magnified in Orsen Welles’ classic film, Citizen Kane.

As noted above, Peladeau is not the first lord of the press to seek high political office. John Bassett, publisher of the old Toronto Telegram, ran for Parliament, unsuccessfully, in 1962. The only Canadian Prime Minister to have been a newspaper owner was Mackenzie Bowell (1894-1896), publisher of the small provincial daily in Ontario, the Belleville Intelligencer.

We mustn’t forget Conrad Black, the modern exemplar of the status-hungry media baron. He importuned British PM Maggie Thatcher to the point of winning a Lordship — Lord Black of Crossharbour — and a seat in the House of Lords which the disgraced former newspaper titan still holds. (He’s been stripped of his Order of Canada). Nor does Back any longer control the newspaper empire he built out of the old Southam family chain, nor the National Post, which he launched.

Pierre-Karl Peladeau has said that if elected, he’ll put his stake in Quebecor in a blind trust. Fair enough. But he’ll continue to profit from press properties across Canada — the country from which he so passionately wishes to separate himself. Then again, as Peladeau himself has said, “that’s just business.”

 

The new world of Canadian writing

March 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Not so long ago, Canadians who were feeling inundated by American culture were constantly being reminded of the importance of “telling our own stories.”

The message became a key tool in the kit of Canadian film and literary organizations. The media picked up on it, and the theme has since been showing up in newspaper columns and broadcast talks.

Typical was the campaign of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an outfit that is strong for the CBC and other public broadcasting. It launched an Internet campaign  more than ten years ago – TellCanadianStories.ca – to push the idea that Canadian stories were being neglected on our airwaves.

The message evolved as Canadian film and literature matured, but never really went away. A London Free Press columnist, Greg van Morsel, recently summed it up this way:

“It took tireless authors who knew they had the write stuff, from the late Robertson Davies to the legendary Margaret Atwood. It took trailblazing Canadian publishers, like the late Jack McCLelland, willing to take chances on homegrown talent. Academics, too, had to be willing to teach CanLit and governments willing to invest in telling our own stories.”

A half century ago, the number of successful Canadian novelists could be counted on one hand, such as Morley Callaghan and Mazo de la Roche. Both won international reputations. La Roche, in fact, won the Atlantic Monthly $10,000 novel of the year award for Jalna in 1928 — a huge sum for the time. A bit of a 1920s Downton Abbey, it tells the story of a Canadian family, the Whiteoaks, in plot and narrative that had universal appeal.

51SoJzJLuQL._AA160_After WWII, Canadians began to learn the real history of the country in books by writers such as Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat.

Since their time, television spawned a People’s History and today, shows such as Little House on the Prairie, Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle  and Saving Hope are regular fixtures on major networks and abroad. In France, I was told that “Inspect-air Murdoch” is a favourite even if he “never knows what to say to Julia.”

Today, despite cutbacks at the CBC and an uncertain book publishing industry trying to adjust to the switch from print to online reading, we’ve never been stronger at telling our own stories.

What’s changed is that Canadian writers are no longer constrained to write about only Canadian things. We’re free to cast our interests around the world.

A crop of immigrant novelists has blended experiences of their native countries with Canadian life, ranging from Yann Martel to Rawi Hage. We’re seeing the same trend in non-fiction.  Three of the five short-listed titles in this year’s RBC Taylor Prize built on content from outside Canada.

Thomas King won the Taylor Prize and the B..C.  Non-Fiction prize for his widely-acclaimed The Inconvenient Indian, which casts a North American context for his look at what has happened to the aboriginal population of this continent since the arrival of Europeans.

Graeme Smith won a major prize for The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, a searing examination of what’s gone right and wrong in Afghanistan. Margaret Macmillan, in The War That Ended Peace, has produced yet another page-turning account of the First World War, its causes and its outcomes. J.B. MacKinnon gives us a global picture of the stresses facing our environment in The Once and Future World.

Modris Ecksteins added further lustre to his reputation with Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. John Valiant used a Siberian setting for his suspenseful examination of man vs. nature in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

In recent new fiction , J.L. Witterick has written a compelling (and controversial) novel on the Holocaust, My Mother’s Secret, about a Catholic Polish woman who saved Jews from the concentration camps.

The appearance of more Canadian books on global subjects – reflecting the willingness of Canadian publishers to go to subjects beyond our borders – is one of the brighter signs of Canada’s newly found maturity. We’ve told our own stories to ourselves. Now we’re telling the world’s stories to both ourselves and the world.

A show of contempt for Canada

March 10, 2014 Leave a comment

A single strand has run through the Quebec separatist movement almost from the day in 1967 that Rene Levesque left the Liberal party to establish the Parti Quebecois as the vehicle by which sovereigntists hope to ride to independence. It is their contempt for Canada.

That contempt was well summed up by former leader and Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, who said “Canada is not a real nation.”

Canada was and is, however, a “real” enough nation to have guaranteed the continuance of the French language, religion, and civil law after the British victory at the Plains of Abraham. It is further “real” enough to have become a bilingual country under that son of Quebec, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and to engage in a massive tax transfer that since the 1950s has benefited Quebec to the tune of some $146 billion. Without the $4.5 billion  the province will receive from equalization this year alone, its deficit would be twice the shortfall announced by Premier Pauline Marois.

But numbers aren’t the real issue.It’s contempt that hurts.

This sentiment sank to a new low over the weekend (of March 9) when Premier Marois announced that Pierre Karl Peladeau, the controlling shareholder of Canada’s biggest newspaper chain — Quebecor Media — would be a candidate for the PQ in the April 7 provincial election. Quebecor’s properties include the Toronto Sun and Sun Media chain, plus the Sun News TV channel.

uooGS8hM2WuiOygSrHQEjBJkDsdIa0y-9e2WfALYwXiE804ouBng1L2alx2rE8uek7ho7g=s131Peladeau, whose wealth is drawn from a variety of newspaper and TV holdings in a business established by his father, declared “I am a sovereigntist” and said he was running so that his children could live “in their own country.”

While the law would require Peladeau, if elected, to put his shares in trust, he is reported to have said that he would not sell them, even if ordered to do so.

As one wag observed, Peladeau is the first billionaire to join the PQ. Aside from illustrating his contempt for all the Canadians who have done business with his papers and helped to enrich him, this sets up some interesting dichotomies which Quebec separatists are going to have to deal with.

Premier Marois touted Peladeau’s candidacy as evidence that the PQ will have a strong grip on the economy — previously a weak spot in the party’s armour. He’s seen as a “star candidate,” his candidacy hailed as a “game-changer.” It remains to be seen how Peladeau’s well-known pro-business — and anti-union — stance will go down with party supporters. The PQ is a social democratic party, and most of its followers. besides being Quebec nationalists, stand well left of centre.

The Peladeau adventure also has to set off alarm bells in the executive corridors of the National Hockey League. He’s been a prime mover in the scheme to build a $400 million, publicly-financed, hockey arena in Quebec City. The idea was that the NHL would bring a team to the city once the stadium had been built. The steel frame is already up. But the Peladeau connection is sure to be seen  as a negative by many NHL owners.

Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is asking some interesting questions about Peladeau’s influence over Quebec media during the electi0n campaign.

It is too early to make predictions on the outcome of the Quebec vote, although the PQ apparently has an edge in the key francophone vote. Overall, according to a poll by CROP, the Liberals and PQ are tied at 36 per cent.

Premier Marois refuses to commit herself to holding a referendum if the PQ wins a majority. But neither does she rule it out. That could scare off nationalist voters who don’t want to see Quebec plunged into a third, and more divisive then ever, referendum.

But it’s Pierre Karl Peladeau’s contempt for Canadians that will count for most people outside Quebec — and many inside, too. He’s used our freedom of the press to gain control of a vast media empire that has given him power and profits.

Will Canadians be much longer interested in subscribing to or supporting Quebecor Media papers, knowing that profits will conti9nue to accrue to Peladeau through his controlling interest?

We have laws in Canada against foreign ownership of news media. Peladeau should think about this when he campaigns for an independent Quebec.

Family and fortune — what makes a memoir

March 6, 2014 Leave a comment

I recently heard Mark Medley of the National Post say that he receives four or five family memoirs a week, sent in with hopes of obtaining a review. There’s little prospect of this happening, considering that major newspapers receive several hundred books each week, each sent in with the hope of gaining mention.

I didn’t have reviews in mind when I began work on mt family memoir, which I call Lives of My Fathers. 

My intention, like that of other family memoirists, was to create something my children would enjoy, and hopefully pass along to their children.

I’d started work on my family tree in the 1990s. I had taped an oral history from my father about 1980 but otherwise,I knew next to nothing about his or my mother’s ancestors. That left me little to start with. I began by posting a question on a roots web site, telling what I knew from my father, Percy Argyle  — his birth in Derbyshire, England, First World War service, and emigration to Canada.

That began an incredible chain of contacts, enabling me finally to trace my father’s line back to the Rev. Richard Orgell (17th century spelling for Argyle), who became the Vicar of Lullington in the Church of England. I found his graduation from Oxford University in 1599 and his subsequent ordainment on a Church of England web site.I heard from Argyles across Britain and Canada and in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. All were very helpful. One sent me copies of letters written by a young Harry Argyle, a coal miner who died in a mine accident in South Africa during the gold rush of the 1880s. I travelled to England and met with cousins Sonia Smith, Patrick Smith, and Chris Argyle.

I had less luck in tracing my mother’s family.I was able to establish her birth in Yorkshire as Katherine Connor but I could find nothing on her Irish antecedents. So in writing my memoir I naturally chose to focus on my father’s side of the family tree.

When you set out to write a memoir you have a few choices. You can write the stark details of the types of events that used to go into family Bibles – births, marriages, deaths, with little narrative development. Or you can fill in the blanks with what is definitely known about your people — what they did, where they worked, the challenges they would have faced.

livescover

I wanted to do more than that. I decided to regard the information I had turned up as nothing more than a skeleton. I would use my  imagination to put flesh on the bones — to write Lives of My Fathers as if I were writing a novel. It would be true to  all the hard facts, but I would draw on my imagination to create scenes and dialogue and maintain the narrative. All the while, I hoped, remaining authentic to the experiences they would have had.

I thought about the Australian  writer, Kate Grenville, who set out to write a memoir of her grandfather. She decided his story would  be better told as a novel. For that reason, she changed his name and wrote what was  entirely a work of fiction. Her events and characters are all adapted from the actual historical record.

I decided to use her model, but not to change the names. The Argyles of my historical records would become the Argyles of Lives of My Fathers. their stories based on things that really happened.

This meant doing a lot of research beyond the family tree. As there is a legend in my family that our origins were in Scotland, and that two brothers had travelled south to Derbyshire in the English Midlands on a religious pilgrimage, I decided to work that into my memoir.

But what about their origins? Again, I tapped into my research to imagine how the first Gaelic arrivals from  Ireland would have settled on the west coast of Scotland. Argyle, I learned, means “coast of the Gaels” in Gaelic.

My memoir is broken into four “books.” The first, entirely fictional, tells the story of a mythical Rothan who settles in the Argyle district of Scotland in the sixth century. Hundreds of years later, two descendants set out for England, seeking to become priests. One is burned at the stake for heresy. The other establishes the family line in Derbyshire.

The second book is about Richard Argyle the vicar of Lullington and Erasmus Argyle. the lord of Heage Hall. Thomas Argyle, the first to own this once great estate, has survived the Great Fire of London, just as his father has lived through the English Civil War that saw the execution of King Charles I.

The third book tells the tale of  Edward Argyle who journeys to Australia on a leaky ship, becomes a “squatter king” with thousand of acres under his control, and sires a future premier of the Australian state of Victoria — Sir Stanley Argyle.

The last book begins with William Argyle and his widow Catherine, who becomes a rag and bone collector to keep her family from starvation in 19th century England. I draw on census records that show her giving such an occupation, and later becoming a shop owner before her son, my grandfather John Argyle establishes  a tinsmithing business with his brother Thomas. After their business is done in by cheap imports of pots and pans from Germany, John sends his family, including my fifteen-year-old father, to Canada.

I end the memoir with my father’s service in the First World War, in which he takes part in the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

With true events like these, I had no difficulty building scenes and dialogue that I believe give a true reflection of their lives.

I found myself with far more material than I could use. One branch of the Argyles converted to the Mormon faith and sailed to America. Joseph Argyle led his pregnant wife and several children across the plains in the first “hand cart” trek of the Mormons to Utah. Many of his descendants live there today. After writing several chapters about Joseph and the Mormons, I decided not to use them — it was all too much. Even without their story, the book I had printed through blurb.ca runs to 344 pages. If you’re so inclined, you can download an e-copy of my book here.

There are easier ways, of course, to write a family memoir. I hope you’ll write one for your family. Understanding our origins helps us to better understand ourselves.