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Edited by Bill Freeman & Marsha Hewitt.
James Lorimer & Co. Toronto. 1979.
$19.95 (cloth), $10.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Don Sedgwick


THIS HAS BEEN ONE OF THE MOST popular books that James Lorimer has published recently, but it has raised more - than a few eyebrows in Hamilton, the subject of the book. Bill Freeman and Marsha Hewitt have come down pretty hard on the city's politicians, business people and the media, particularly The Spectator. "If the only paper in town can't come to grips with the issues we raise," said Freeman recently, "then God help the public."

Freeman and Hewitt may soon need some heavenly help themselves because they are now the defendants in a $200,000 libel suit. In the first edition of Their Town the authors suggested that Dominic Morganti—a prominent Hamilton businessman—was connected with organized crime. This "fact" was prominently featured in a review published by the Toronto Star late 1979 and written by former Spectator reporter Mike Walton. He referred to Morganti as "a known Mafioso." The Star printed an apology the following week after learning that "the publishers have withdrawn these statements about Morganti from succeeding editions of the book."

By that time, however, the book's authors were already infamous. A writ had been filed by Morganti and several others in the Supreme Court of Ontario seeking an injunction against further distribution of the book and author promotion. As far as the media in Hamilton were concerned, an injunction was hardly necessary; they wouldn't touch the book anyway. Tom Charrington's "Open Line" show suddenly dropped Freeman and Hewitt from the guest list. The Spectator did publish a rather lame review, but cancelled an interview with the authors. When a prominent bookstore in the area launched a promotion campaign for Their Town and Dalton Camp's Points of Departure, The Spectator coverage mentioned only the Camp book. Evidently the story about the book is just as interesting as the book itself.

The background material for the present libel suit can be found in the chapter on the Mafia, "The Hamilton Mob," probably the liveliest section of the book. It will no doubt appeal to anyone who followed the Connections series that the CBC aired several years ago. The authors have evidently done some in-depth investigating, but a few questions have arisen about their accuracy.

A check of the court transcripts shows that Morganti intends to grill Freeman and Hewitt about their sources of information. I found this item on page two of the plaintiffs' charges:

The Plaintiffs state that the defendants knew or ought to have known that the statements published were untrue and defamatory and further state that the defendants did not take the most elementary steps necessary to check out the alleged "facts."

The outcome of this legal battle will evidently be a judgement on the authors' credibility as writers, as well as a test of the libel laws.

The Spectator plays a major role in the chapter on organized crime and throughout the text of Their Town. One fascinating chapter deals with the history of the paper and its reputation for avoiding "tough" news coverage. The authors contend that the recent history of the paper can be divided into two eras, according to who was publishing the paper at the time: Tom Nichols from 1968 to 1970 and John Muir in 1971 and thereafter. Investigative reporters from the Nichols era uncovered corruption at City Hall, opened up the Clinton Duke affair, leading to a judicial enquiry, and paid close attention to politics, education and local issues in Hamilton.

According to the authors, the Muir era has been characterized by "soft" news and a concern for placating prominent Spectator advertisers. The Hamilton Harbour scandal, for instance, was one major issue that was virtually ignored.

It's interesting to compare the account of Freeman and Hewitt with that of Walton, the former Spectator reporter mentioned earlier. He contends that the section on the paper "is sprinkled with inaccuracies" (he doesn't name any) and that under Muir's direction "it's not the complete cream-puff, quietly in league with Big Business, that it is made out to be." One fact is undeniable. Under Muir's direction The Spectator lost some of the best editors and reporters it ever employed: Warren Barton, Gerald McAuliffe, Tom Coleman, Peter Moon and Malcolm Gray all went to The Globe and Mail.

Overall, Their Town is a somewhat uneven book because the presentation is not up to scratch. There are numerous typographical errors and the prose in some of the earlier chapters is a bit plodding. The important thing about the book, however, is simply that it deals with crucial issues. Freedom of information, political scandals, social iniquity—these subjects are the grist for reporters and they are issues worthy of public attention. As journalists, we should be grateful that at least one Canadian publisher has the guts to tackle some touchy issues head-on. Let's hope the judge finds that Freeman and Hewitt have followed in the tradition of good reporters everywhere: they got all their facts straight.

Don Sedgwick is a freelance writer and a contributing editor for Quill and Quire.


Published in Sources Winter 1980/81


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