John Stephen Willison.

Reminiscences, political and personal online

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Liberal and Conservative newspapers. In this he was
supported by Sir Charles Tupper, who may indeed have
been responsible for the new regulation, since we had
many evidences that he was anxious to extend decent
consideration to Opposition correspondents. Probably
he was affected by his London experiences, and possibly
the representations which I made through Mr. Chip-
man, with whom I had friendly relations, may have
had some effect. It is certain that I took full advantage
of the connection which I was able to establish with the
Department of Finance, and that in my despatches to
The Globe such information as I obtained was not dis-
torted or interlarded with partisan comment. It may
even be that the Minister of Finance was treated with
greater leniency than his colleagues, who kept the door
closed against Liberal correspondents. From Sir
Charles Tupper I had the only invitation to dinner that
I ever received from a Conservative Minister while I
was a member of the Press Gallery. The thing was so
amazing that I hesitated to accept without authority
from the office. I telegraphed to The Globe and was
assured that acceptance would not be treated as a be-
trayal of the Opposition.

I had a working relation with a Conservative mem-
ber through which I was able occasionally to forecast
ministerial policy and even to announce impending
Cabinet changes in advance of the official organs. We
entered into no compact, but he was not neglected. In
my despatches he was the subject of many friendly re-



ferences and often I was censured at Liberal headquart-
ers over my apparent infatuation for this particular
member. But if I got, I had to give. Neither of us
committed any venal offence, and there was . mutual
advantage in the understanding. So far as I know the
relation never was suspected, nor will there now be any
fuller confession. Sir Hibbert Tupper was among the
first to follow the example of his father in mellowing
social relations between the parties and in reasonable
treatment of Opposition newspapers. I have never
thought that it was a political advantage to the younger
Tupper to be the son of his father. That, I think, was
the common judgment of the Press Gallery, and no man
of any considerable length of service in Parliament
ever imposes upon the Gallery or gets less than justice
in the press room. Its estimate of public men is not
greatly coloured by partisanship nor affected even by
advocacy of unpopular causes. Any man to whom the
Gallery yields its final favour has in his bosom the roots
of sincerity and integrity and may safely challenge the
judgment of posterity. In this the Gallery may not
agree, but I have always thought that if there had been
no disruption under Sir Mackenzie Bowell, and if Sir
Charles Tupper had not succeeded to an estate in
Chancery, Sir Hibbert would have been leader of the
Conservative party.

Hon. N. Clarke Wallace, too, during my term of
service in the Gallery, would not tolerate any ostracism
of Liberal correspondents. He was chairman of the
committee which investigated trade combinations, and
when the report was ready insisted that the Liberal
newspapers should have copies as early as their Con-
servative contemporaries. But Mr. Wallace was essen-



tially fair-minded, resolute and courageous. No man
could be more generous in every private relation or
more uncompromising in political conflict. A man of
fundamental convictions, he hated the meretricious pre-
tension and fawning subservience which distinguish the
politician from the statesman. There was more of
quality in Mr. Wallace than his opponents recognized,
and greater capacity perhaps than the country has ever
understood. I had many an angry controversy with
Liberal politicians because I held to this estimate of
Mr. Wallace against every persuasion and protest. In
The Globe my regard for Mr. Wallace was often ex-
pressed, and at many meetings of the Committee on
Discipline I was reproached and condemned. But
when Mr. Wallace resigned office and became an ally
of the Opposition in the long Parliamentary struggle
over the Remedial Bill, designed to re-establish separate
schools in Manitoba, the Liberal group discovered
virtues in Mr. Wallace which they had not suspected, or
at least had not acknowledged. One of my first appear-
ances on a political platform was at a joint meeting
where Mr. Wallace was the chief Conservative speaker,
and I was saved only by his mercy from abject discom-
fiture and humiliation.

From the first I had an inveterate distaste for the
slander and scandal of politics. No doubt I offended
often, but in the offending I was not happy. Nothing
is more fatuous than the notion that a newspaper may
not correct an error or express regret for misrepresenta-
tion or misjudgment. Early in the session of 1 887, when
I had been only a few days in the Gallery, a severe
attack was made on Mr. J. C. Patterson, of Essex, over
an alleged transaction, which I need not explain. Mr.



Patterson, who was not in the House when he was in-
dicted, next day made a statement which I thought was
a complete and conclusive refutation of the charges.
When the House rose I sought out Sir Richard Cart-
wright, explained that in my despatch to The Globe I
had joined in the attack on Mr. Patterson, that I
thought he had been badly treated, and that I desired
to say so without reserve or equivocation. Sir Richard
suggested that a confession was unnecessary and would
be awkward, because if I acquitted Mr. Patterson I
would indirectly censure the Liberal members who
were responsible for the charges. He admitted, how-
ever, that the charges were clearly disproved and at
length agreed that I might explain and withdraw any
censure that my despatch had expressed. A few days
afterwards I had a letter from Mr. Patterson, in which
he declared that my action was without precedent in
his political experience.

I had more serious trouble over a friendly reference
to Sir Mackenzie Bowell. Shortly after The Globe
in which this reference appeared was distributed in the
buildings I entered the Liberal headquarters, uncon-
scious of offence, but was instantly assailed by a group
of Liberal members in language that was neither com-
plimentary nor restrained. In degree as I was humble
and apologetic the violence increased. My chief assail-
ant was a Liberal member from Central Ontario, who
declared that for years the Liberals of Hastings had
fought Bowell, that he deserved neither considera-
tion nor compassion, that any word said in his praise in
The Globe was treason to the Liberal party, and that I
had come to Ottawa, a stranger, without political ex-
perience or knowledge of Bowell's character, and



with feeble amiability or arrogant self-confidence had
commended a ruthless enemy in the columns of the chief
party organ. When it became apparent that humility
would not avail, I grew as violent as my accusers. I
think, too, that I revealed a talent in invective for which
they were not prepared. Before they had fully recov-
ered from their surprise, or admiration for my pic-
turesque vocabulary, I left the room and did not appear
again in "No. 6" until three of the members who had
joined in the attack came to me in the lobby with a
formal apology. They even admitted that what I had
said about Bowell was true enough, although they
could not fully agree that it was desirable to have
friendly references in The Globe to any member of the
Government. The member who had been most severe
in reprobation of my evil conduct became one of the
best friends I ever had, and thereafter I believe I had
the complete confidence and good-will of the Liberal
Parliamentary party. Of this regard and good-will I
had so many manifestations that those years at Ottawa
are the portion of my life that I would be most willing
to live over again.

I think of one Sabbath day on which I was engaged
from ten o'clock in the morning until midnight prepar-
ing for publication the private letters which led to Mr.
J. C. Rykert's expulsion from Parliament. I know who
gave me the letters and how they were obtained. But I
was responsible only for the despatch to The Globe, and
its preparation was not a pleasant duty. Ever after-
wards I refused to handle private letters. More than
once I declined to print such letters when they were
brought to The Globe by disloyal officials or secured by
other doubtful methods. More than once I prevented



publication of statements that could only hurt private
reputations and serve no public object. In the Press
Gallery there was a remarkable consideration for men's
private faults and follies. Of what all men knew only
the Press seemed to be ignorant. Moreover, so much
of what was common gossip at Ottawa was sheer, wan-
ton slander that we were reluctant to believe even when
the truth was as manifest as the daylight. Whether it
be admitted or not, there is a practice of reticence and
a standard of honour among journalists not less lofty
than that which prevails in the legal and medical pro-
fessions. Once from the platform a public man of high
reputation and distinction made a savage attack upon
the private character of a Conservative leader. All
that he said was sent to The Globe, and by my order
every word was suppressed. The next day the man who
had made the attack came to my house to express his
gratitude. He said, "I behaved like a common black-
guard, and I shall never forget that you saved me from
public obloquy, if not from self-contempt."

Once I entered into a conspiracy with a reporter to
discover evidence that would prevent publication of a
discreditable story affecting a Conservative Minister
which very powerful influences had determined should
appear in The Globe. A doubtful action, perhaps, for
the story was true enough, but I am unrepentant. I have
related these incidents, because this is a chapter for
journalists, because I know that if I could compare my
experience with that of other editors and correspond-
ents I would find that they had done likewise, and be-
cause I am not certain that the public understands how
much of restraint and reticence is commonly practised
by the profession to which we belong.



In thirty years there have been revolutionary
changes in journalism in Canada. The staffs of the
morning newspapers have ceased to be the aristocrats
of the profession. The evening newspapers have equal
authority and equal circulation. They have as com-
plete news services; they have as much individuality
and distinction. But when I was in the Press Gallery
The Montreal Star alone among afternoon journals
compared favourably with the morning newspapers.
There is a common notion that party feeling has been
less acute and party warfare less implacable, but I
doubt if this was true either in the press or in Parlia-
ment until the Union Government was organized. As
it was in Canada so it was in Great Britain. We have,
however, passed out of the era of corporate domination
in the press and in politics. It may be that the day of
deliverance was long in coming, but that it has come is
beyond dispute. A generation ago it required courage
for a newspaper to attack a great railway or a group of
capitalists. Now it requires even greater courage to
defend corporate and financial interests even when
these are assailed by mercenaries and demagogues who
mouth duty and patriotism, but practise personal or
political black-mail. The last condition is better than
the first, but neither is ideal.

It is often said that the press declines in prestige and
authority. There may be loss of prestige with the few,
but there is increase of authority with the many. A
century ago the newspaper was read chiefly by the edu-
cated and governing classes. These in great degree did
their own thinking. They had knowledge of the facts
of history and the science of government. They could
reject misinformation and penetrate fallacious and mis-




chievous reasoning. Now, however, the newspaper
enters every household. It thinks for those who do not
think for themselves. It reaches the multitude who are
not instructed in social, economic or political science,
who have meagre knowledge of the experiences of other
generations, who have faith in the omnipotence of
statutes and the power of governments over natural
laws and inevitable human tendencies.

In proportion as we widen the franchise we enlarge
the body of uninstructed voters. There are those who
seem to think that the child of the twentieth century is
born with the inherited wisdom of the ages. The truth
is that man still lives only three-score years and ten, and
few of us are much wiser than the fathers were a thou-
sand years ago. How many of us believed that the
nations would learn war no more? We scoffed at
Armageddon, and stoned the Prophets of Preparation.
But human nature was unchanged. Autocrats and
despots still lusted for dominion. Blood was still the
price of freedom. War came, and all the genius of man
was devoted to the science of destruction. The press
chiefly inspires a democracy to exertion, endurance and
sacrifice for the preservation of its ideals and institu-
tions. Where there is no free press there cannot be a
free people. In such a world who can measure the
responsibility of the journalist?

It has been said that a constitutional statesman must
have the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a
second-rate man. In journalism the creed is the first
consideration. Moreover, a single mind must dominate
a public journal if it is to speak with the consistency
which inspires confidence and gives authority. It is
often said that a Delane, a Greeley, a Russell, or a Dana



are impossible conceptions for the twentieth century.
If so, the press must become devitalized. For a press
that is unequal to wise and strong leadership is a men-
ace to the Commonwealth. A fellow journalist once
declared that one man must "spit blood" to give vitality
and power to a great newspaper. It is a mistake to
think that a newspaper's opinions are expressed only in
its editorial columns. There is individuality and unity
in every public journal. The balance inclines towards
good or evil. There cannot be neutrality in motive or
effect. The editorial page colours the special de-
spatches. Even if no editorial opinions were expressed,
the news columns would advocate a cause or a party,
reveal the convictions or betray the prejudices of the
responsible editors.

The printer with his "composing stick" has gone
the way of the rural shoemaker, the village blacksmith
and the household weaver. Many of the old printers
survive, but often they are lonely and pathetic figures,
mourning for the independence which the type-setting
machine has destroyed. No craftsman had greater
mastery over himself than the printer. No one was
less at the mercy of employers. No one could tramp
more gaily from town to town, from coast to coast, with
his tools in his hand and his skill in his fingers. He
was like the minstrel who had only his violin and his
companion who had only her song. His successor sits
at a machine which belongs to the company and feels
the dependence which is inseparable from the neces-
sity for capital.

The modern printing press, a miracle of inventive
genius, and of amazing productive capacity, costs from
$50,000 to $60,000. A battery of type-casting machines



costs a like amount. The motor has replaced the deliv-
ery wagon, increasing the outlay and driving rival news-
papers into fiercer competition. Half a century ago
there were few great cities in the United States and
Canada. Now there are many with a total population
of 500,000, and not a few with from 1,000,000 to 5,000,-
000 people within the civic area. As population ex-
pands rentals and taxes increase, cost of building, plant,
delivery and general organization rises, and the invest-
ment necessary to establish, publish and circulate a daily
newspaper becomes enormous as compared with the
outlay and revenue required under more primitive con-

Thirty years ago a metropolitan newspaper could be
established with $100,000 or $150,000. To-day in a
community of 500,000 the publishers are fortunate who
achieve success with $1,000,000. This means that the
professional journalist, whatever his genius or industry
or self-denial, cannot hope to own a daily journal. It
may be that few men are wise enough or good enough
to be a law unto themselves. God has made no more
offensive creature than the editorial bully. Neverthe-
less, the editors who have best served their generation
have had the complete control of their newspapers
which ownership confers, and it is hard to believe that
with less absolute authority they would have been as
useful or as powerful. But there is no evidence that
the independence of the press has been affected by the
necessity for great capital or that there is any greater
element of dependence in the relation of the journalist
to the newspaper for which he is responsible before the
public. Nor is the freedom of the press greatly affected
by its relation to advertisers. There are communities



in which a material percentage of the gross advertising
revenue is provided by a few great commercial houses.
But these have no natural monopoly. They succeed
chiefly through efficiency in service and volume of busi-
ness. In many households no newspaper is acceptable
which does not carry departmental store advertising.
Town and county are alike interested. In the coun-
ties readers order by mail, in the towns they purchase
direct. This advertising is generally trustworthy and
often attractive and pungent. In many publications
there is nothing of better quality. The pages of news-
papers devoted to store advertising are as interesting as
the news pages. Failure to secure this patronage is
equivalent to sentence of death to many journals. It is
a question if they could not better afford to give, free
space to such advertising than to be without it. The
journal which loses revenue by heroic posturing ceases
to exist. It is easy to practise virtue at the expense of
other people. In all human relations there is occasional
submission to inexorable circumstances, and as long as
newspapers depend chiefly upon advertising there will
be occasional consideration for the sources of supply.
But few of those who censure make as great sacrifices
for the public welfare or show equal disregard for
private convenience and private interest.

The war has greatly affected newspapers in every
belligerent country. It has been necessary to reduce
size and increase prices. In many cities the price on
the street has been raised from one cent to two cents a
copy, and there has been a proportionate increase to
mail subscribers. Generally, so far as can be ascer-
tained, the loss in circulation has not exceeded twenty
or twenty-five per cent. It is not desirable, either from



the standpoint of the publisher or the public, that cir-
culation should be reduced, but there will be compensa-
tion if the dependence of newspapers upon advertisers
is relieved. There will be relief also for advertisers
from the increasing charges to which they have been
subjected. Fewer newspapers may enter some house-
holds, but those that are taken will be read more thor-
oughly. There is no danger that the volume of adver-
tising will decline. As an agent of publicity the news-
paper has established its supremacy. For classes of
advertising, the magazines, the trade journals and the
weekly publications are as valuable as the daily papers.
Moreover, newspapers, magazines and periodicals are
giving increased returns to advertisers because both the
quality and the reliability of copy has improved. News-
papers also begin to recognize that they are not solely
responsible for the success of charitable, benevolent
and patriotic movements. Even political committees
discover that they have no squatters' rights in the adver-
tising columns. The press is bound to assist legitimate
social, commercial and political movements, but the
whole cost of advocacy cannot fairly be imposed upon
publishers. Those who demand free space in a news-
paper as an inalienable right do not expect to have
offices provided and furnished at the expense of land-

These considerations begin to prevail with publish-
ers and to be understood by the public. For the condi-
tions which have existed newspapers have had a degree
of responsibility. They have hesitated to confess that
they are commercial enterprises, selling news and space
as a farmer sells his wheat or a manufacturer his pro-
duct. They are responsible for the character of the



advertising they accept, for the opinions they express,
and for the material which they admit into the news
columns, but they have no obligation to private or even
to public interests which does not rest in equal degree
upon other citizens. This is not a sordid view of
journalism. It does not suggest neglect of duty or sacri-
fice of character for revenue. It does ignore cant and
pretension. It does separate the journalist from the
Pharisee. No institution can have a life worth living
unless it is solvent. Nothing affects the character of a
newspaper more vitally than the shifts and compromises
inseparable from an empty treasury. It is fortunate,
therefore, that publishers have come to recognize the
value of space, that prices to subscribers have been
increased, and that even governments, political parties,
and social, commercial, municipal, and national organ-
izations realize that they can best advance their inter-
ests by liberal expenditures for advertising. With in-
crease in the variety and volume of advertising, there is
less dependence upon any single class of advertisers.
There is also a better guarantee of quality and reliabil-
ity. The final reliance of a newspaper is upon popular
suffrage, upon the public opinion which in degree it
may create, but which it must express if it is to have
large circulation and adequate financial support. There
may still be Greeleys and Danas and Delanes and Rus-
sells, as there will be many a Jap Miller, who, according
to James Whitcomb Riley,

Helt the banner up'ards from a-trailin' in the dust,

And cut loose on monopolies and cuss'd and cuss'd and cuss'd.



Of those who gave distinction to the House of Com-
mons thirty years ago how few survive. It is long since
Sir John Macdonald whispered, as he passed out of the
Chamber for the last time, "It is late, Bowell, good-
night." Even Bowell, upon whom the years fell so
gently, has joined the leader he followed with such
trust and ardour. Hon. Edward Blake and Sir Charles
Tupper, often described by Sir Richard Cartwright,
with a snap of the jaws, as "Master Blake" and "Master
Tupper," have vanished. More often, however, Sir
Richard called the robust Nova Scotian "Mine ancient
friend Sir Charles Tupper, Bart." And "Bart" came
out with a bark. We think of Blake with a sense of
loss, of Tupper with a sense of possession. Cartwright
loved neither, and Blake had at least as much love for
Tupper as he had for Cartwright. But this is not the
time for that story.

Behind the Conservative leader was Sir John
Thompson, who in a single session, and indeed in a
single speech, established an ascendency in the Com
mons which he held until his death. He had, too, a
moral as well as an intellectual ascendency. As much
as any other man of his time he strove to give dignity
and decency to the public life of Canada. I like to
think that as editor of The Globe I protested over and
over again against the common insinuation that he was
more loyal to his church than to his country, and that
his faith was a disqualification for public service. I



said in The Globe, when he became Prime Minister,
"With the fact that Sir John Thompson is a Roman
Catholic we have nothing to do. It would be a poor
tribute to the liberality and intelligence of the Cana-
dian people if it were laid down that a Roman Catholic
may not equally with a Protestant aspire to the highest
office within their gift. Any attempt to arouse sectarian
prejudice over his appointment will not make for the

Online LibraryJohn Stephen WillisonReminiscences, political and personal → online text (page 9 of 25)