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The Trouble With Looking For Trouble
Looking for Trouble, Peter Worthington,
Key Porter Books, 470 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by John Marshall

 

Peter Worthington is a right-wing millionaire politician-journalist who, detractors say, has become a legend in his own mind. And now they can heft up his 470-page, aptly-titled book, Looking for Trouble, to make their case.

But then, a lot of cases can be made from this book. Not the least of these is the fact that it demonstrates that much-decried commercial journalism can be a good school for writers. The 57-year-old Toronto Sun co-founder and its star personality, one of the best legmen in the business, has provided a damn good read. For working jounalists there is a bonus: between the sometimes prolix backgrounding for his activities there are some valuable lessons in the craft and support for their criticisms of the media industry.

More significant, however, is the fact that both right-wing and democratic socialist readers can find their biases and beliefs reinforced while they enjoy that good read.

The dramatic transformation of an allegedly apolitical 1950's reporter of world crises into a commie-hating activist who documents the universally-conceded evils of the Soviet system is great grist for the exceedingly fine-grind mills of the ideologues of the right. (In the book there are no right-wing ideologues or ideologies. Those terms have become pejoratives applied only to those who express political and humanist philosophies or scepticism discomfiting to those of the far right.)

On the other hand, left-of-centre followers of Worthington's career from Tely-man on the spot to Toryman on the hustings can delight in those many facets of the book that reduce its author's ideological credibility. These range from paranoia to petulance peppered with often intriguing inconsistencies and — to those who know something of the context — missing pages. As he says in his introduction, journalism is strewn with the wreckage of those who were determined to tell the whole story some day but who seldom do so.

Still — and it's coming from one of those he labels an "ideologue" — the book in many ways is a delight. And this happy-warrior survivor of heart bypasses, of being named Peter Vickers (after the gun), of mob attacks, a childhood propensity for bed wetting, election defeats, an army-brat upbringing, charges under the Official Secrets Act, and a lengthy affair with a Soviet woman suspected of being a military intelligence agent, is not one of the wrecks.

His survival and success — in spite of galling election defeats by "NDP style circuses and fossilized Marxist bread," to quote one of the Sun writers he encourages — have made him a man of considerable influence. Developed via Canada's fastest-growing newspaper empire, that influence constitutes an important — disturbing to some — social phenomenon, Which is why, beyond journalistic or entertainment values, his book warrants serious critiques in other forums, too — by knowledgeable historians and political scientists, for example.

It's not a case of what makes Peter run. It's a question of what makes Peter stand for what is rejected by a majority of Canadians, hyphenated or otherwise. (He decries the hyphenations.)

Objective reporting is not an objective of this book-length journalism, nor is it expected from the co-founder of a newspaper that encourages non-objectivity even in its news columns. Nor is any part of this book just an expanded version of press club stories, as the University of Western Ontario's Peter Desbarats has written. The Toronto Star's Jack Cahill did a more entertaining, better-written job in telling of his more hazardous and more amusing foreign correspondent experiences in his 1980 book, If you don't like the war, switch the damn thing off!. Now that was penultimate press club stuff.

But Cahill, who says a reporter's main thrust is to spew out the essential simplicity of a story, arrived at a "simplicity" markedly different from that found by Worthington. The "basic simplicity" of the travails of chaotic humanity, Cahill wrote, is a bunch of statistics. And he pounded home the fact that 20 per cent of humanity — primarily we wealthy western ones — consume 80 per cent of the world's goods. Cahill makes a moving plea for recognition of the horror of this and of the potential there is for a global explosion by those we deprive of our advantages.

Worthington, in the course of describing his adventures, delineates localized misfortunes of the underdeveloped world, too. But the final "simplicity" lesson he apparently learned from his experiences is that humanity's only real problem is Soviet communism. And he lets no other considerations distract his sights from that target.

For example, he suggests the reason the Canadian government does nothing about Soviet spies (actually, lots of them have been kicked out of the country, the usual treatment) is because the government is infiltrated by Soviet sympathizers. One presumably could extrapolate from this that it must be a veritable termite nest of Nazi sympathizers because it has done even less about Nazi war criminals and their obscene apologists. And there's a surfeit of evidence in the hands of the RCMP and journalists indicating the country is full of them.

And yet, he stresses a lesson he says he learned in Beirut: "There is rarely clearly defined right and wrong in international disputes; both sides are right, both wrong, though one side is usually more right or more wrong than the other."

Worthington's supportive colleague, one-tune columnist Lubor J. Zink, might find that wishy-washy. On the other hand, Zink once noted approvingly that Lester Pearson said, "The U.S. intervened to help South Vietnam defend itself against aggression." Worthington, however, finds nothing good to say about Pearson, and in fact goes beyond just nudge-nudge, hint-hint to label him at least as a communist sympathizer.

Of course, his main bete noir (or should it be bete rouge?) is Pierre Trudeau. And here journalist readers will find a lesson on how not to write, no matter how much they think the subject of some investigative story is guilty.

Worthington asks the question: "Why did Trudeau prosecute?" This is in connection with the celebrated government stupidity of unsuccessfully charging the Toronto Sun under the Official Secrets Act for publishing material that was no longer secret. His answer is that Trudeau, himself, approved the laying of the charge. (My sources indicate that was likely so, and that in fact the RCMP didn't think it would stick.) But then Worthington implies Trudeau did so to scare a leaky Security Service so it would not confirm "rumours about Mr. Trudeau's personal life and ideological beliefs, which with proof the Sun would be most likely to publish."

Think what that style of journalism opens up to all reporters. "There are reports that John Smith raped his secretary. If we get any proof of it, we'll publish it."

Possibly when he rereads his book, Worthington will repeat what he once said to Saturday Night's Robert Fulford while, according to Fulford. wincing at the naivete he brought to complex situations: "I look back at some of those stories and I shudder to think of what I wrote."

And yet this controversial man— aptly described by writer Judith Timson in Toronto Life as being disarming with a Boy Scout quality about him — does have merit as an object of study for other journalists.

In his days as a Telegram journalistic parachutist (a reporter jumping into instant expertise in the world's trouble spots) he was an object of some jealousy on the part of some of his colleagues. In fact, he recently told CBC Radio's Joe Coté that his biggest fear in those bullet-dodging days was that more than one crisis would break at the same time, or that one would explode while he was on holidays and someone else would get the assignment. But I recall expressing scepticism when one young Tely recruit sneered at Worthington's luck and told me he could do better. (Whatever happened to that guy?)

Worthington did at times have luck ("in journalism as in war, it's almost better to be lucky than good"), as when he found a seat mate on a long plane ride was Tom Dooley. He was a world news figure, a cancer victim doing fantastic work running a hospital in Laos. But generally Worthington made his luck.

In the case of Jack Ruby's shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Worthington, who had just arrived in Dallas that Sunday morning dead-tired, was in the police station because he decided to put off getting badly needed sleep until he checked out the layout. ("Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.") He hadn't known Oswald's move, scheduled for the evening, had been put ahead. Neither did his opposition, the Star's Rae Corelli, who lived every reporter's nightmare when he learned about the shooting from an editor's phone query.

In many other cases, the Worthington story demonstrates "luck" is really initiative. Just arrived in a troubled Jordan, he ignored other correspondents who said King Hussein would not give interviews, and he went to the palace to try anyhow — "I'm here to see the king." And he got his interview, because officials thought he was part of a German business delegation that did have an appointment. He quotes one of his mentors, the New York Herald Tribune's Joe Morris (later killed by a stray bullet in Iran): "The first law of journalism is that when you've nothing to do — do something."

It's all great fun. But for journalists — and for all who are concerned about the Canadian media — buried in the adventures and the ideology are disturbing messages.

Worthington, noting that Orwell said newspapers usually got anything they reported wrong, says, "That's not only a reasonably accurate observation, but also a fairly healthy attitude to take toward the press . . . the miracle is that sometimes newspapers get it right."

He also says what he claims is a prevailing myth — that the press knows what the public thinks, feels, wants — is rubbish. "Media people are incipient elitists . . . usually they are out of touch with the masses . . ." (I would agree this applies to many who have moved behind editorial administrative desks, but there are plenty of those out in the streets who are in tune with the public's needs. Sometimes, unfortunately, they have to resort to the alternative press, CBC public affairs shows and other media to get their work to that public.)

He also says there are many editors who discourage individuality and initiative, that libel lawyers have too much say in curbing press aggressiveness, that most newspapers are afraid to be first with an idea, that the smug Globe and Mail is the most overrated newspaper in the country, and concedes that his own Sun is not a good paper in over-all terms. He resigned (briefly) twice on points of principle — once because the centre spread feature pages were sold to advertisers, and once because he was overruled on the paper's choice of a mayoralty candidate. The board apparently wanted the most pro-developer big-business one. (Much of the money behind the Sun was developer money.) He does not tell about other cases of how the little paper that grew unfortunately grew into one like the old Telegram at its worst, when it, too, protected its principals' personal interests and to Hell with the news.

Some of this rightist's inconsistencies are such that you wonder if he is a closet leftist sympathizer. He provides scathing evidence of the mediocrity of the justice system and the social immorality in the nation he admires so much, the U.S.A. He even is critical of the CIA. And though this defender of the efficiencies of private enterprise equates union members with "disgruntled socialists," he says the only reason a union gets into a corporation is because there's been bad management.

There must be a lot of that going around — although the Guild is not at the Sun. Yet.

John Marshall is a freelancer.

 

Click Link To See Version of Tely Demise Disputed.

 

 

Published in Sources, Winter 1984



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