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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/10/2022 (224 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Free Press is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and we are taking a look back at two influential players in the paper’s history.
Tom Kent: Tasked with making newspaper’s coverage less partisan
The death of John W. Dafoe on Jan. 9, 1944 left a huge void at the Winnipeg Free Press. Replacing the great editor was no easy task. George Ferguson, with help from publisher Victor Sifton, served as the editor for two years, followed by Grant Dexter from 1946 to 1954.
In 1951, with Dexter wanting to return to Ottawa, Sifton began a two-year recruitment of Tom Kent, then the assistant editor of the Economist, having also had the same position with the prestigious Manchester Guardian (today, the Guardian).
Born in the West Midlands town of Stafford, England, in 1922, Kent was educated at Oxford University, where he excelled at philosophy, politics and economics. During the Second World War, he worked as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park and later began a career as an editorial writer. Though he was to live in Canada for 60 years, his English accent was as sharp as it was the day he arrived at the Free Press in 1954 to assume his position as editor. Sifton had given him a mandate to modernize the paper, which also meant making its news coverage less overtly partisan.
A brilliant thinker, Kent, even while he was editor, became involved in provincial and federal politics, especially becoming close with Lester Pearson, the future federal Liberal Party leader and prime minister, who was then a cabinet minister in the government of Louis St. Laurent. This was despite the fact that as Free Press editor he wrote several editorials criticizing the Liberal government’s “declining competence and its mounting arrogance,” as he put it. Nonetheless, in 1957, Kent assisted Pearson in drafting his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (Pearson received the award for his diplomatic resolution of the Suez Crisis) and also played a key role in devising the Liberal platform for the 1958 election — in which Conservative Party leader John Diefenbaker won a large majority. A year later, Kent resigned his position at the Free Press and relocated to Montreal for a corporate job. He cemented his reputation as a political strategist at the Kingston Conference in 1960 with a paper on social security that received much publicity in the press. He soon joined Pearson in Ottawa as a backroom adviser and helped shape government policy after Pearson and the Liberals formed a minority government following the 1963 federal election.
Kent, who died at the age of 89 in November 2011, wrote his memoirs in 1988, A Public Purpose: An Experience of Liberal Opposition and Canadian Government published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Here are some excerpts about his time in Winnipeg at the Free Press (reprinted by permission of McGill-Queen’s University Press).
Kent recounts how he first met Victor Sifton and eventually wound up in Winnipeg as editor of the Free Press from 1954-59:
[I]n the early postwar years the Winnipeg Free Press had a full-time correspondent in London, Frank Walker (later editor of the Montreal Star). We became friends, initially when observing the beginning of the first GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] conference in Geneva in 1947. After Frank had returned to Winnipeg, and had not been satisfactorily replaced, I became in 1950 a regular contributor to the Free Press. The first attraction was that it was an easy way to add to my income… but I became increasingly interested in Canada. I was, however, unprepared when the point of the 1951 invitation turned out to be that Victor Sifton, the owner of the Free Press, was asking me to become its Editor. At the time, I declined. The Economist was close to the centre of public affairs and had the income to build on its position.
Two years later, he changed his mind:
I was fascinated by Canada. In 1952 I made a second extensive visit, not only across the country but also, thanks to a bush plane of the Hudson’s Bay Company, into the north. I found myself in close sympathy with [cabinet] ministers [in the government of Liberal Louis St. Laurent] such as Douglas Abbott, [Lester] Mike Pearson, and Brooke Claxton, as well as with the mandarins who were then at the peak of their influence. In the first few years of the 1950s I was privileged to meet the government of Canada at its best. Perhaps there was an element of the grass looking greener on the other side of the water; but after due allowance for that, it still seemed clear that Canada was a better society, and Ottawa provided a better government, than I knew in Britain. Victor Sifton had left his offer open, and in the summer of 1953 I told him that I would now be interested… After Dafoe’s death in 1944, [the Free Press] … had become stuck in playing old tunes; such variations and improvisations as there were on the themes did not reflect the former skill and power. Victor Sifton was realistic enough to recognize that the paper had lost influence, which was what he most cared about, and honest enough to admit, to himself and a few others, that he had mishandled the senior staffing in succession to Dafoe. He offered me a mandate to modernize the paper, and I accepted.
Kent envisioned his chief objective as fairly straightforward, “moving the paper’s stance from its outdated, right-wing liberalism to a centre position in contemporary politics.” He was impressed by both Stephen Juba, who began his long stint as mayor in 1957 — “a man from the wrong side of the tracks and therefore much distrusted in the Manitoba Club”; and Progressive Conservative Duff Roblin, a “red Tory” who became Manitoba premier in 1958 — a fact that troubled the Liberal-Progressive premier Douglas Campbell who had always received the full support of the Free Press. Aware, too, of the increasing power of television, Kent also wanted to keep the newspaper relevant:
I adopted the simple practice of going to the office early, with the rest of the staff, so that appropriate editorials could be written in the morning for the paper which went to press at lunch-time. An incidental effect was that Victor Sifton, to whom Grant Dexter had looked for policy leadership, now read the editorials only after they were in type. We sometimes debated them afterwards, but not with rancour and always with detachment… Victor… never attempted to impose his views over mine. The details of policy mattered less to him than his delight in seeing the Free Press get attention and have influence, as well as make money (which it had done before, but did increasingly). Above all, he relished the paper’s involvement in political combats.
He set out to reshape the newspaper:
Once a natural initial suspicion of the newcomer and his different ways had been overcome, there was enthusiastic co-operation from the desk and reporting staff. Thanks to growth in circulation and profitability, the business management of the paper was persuaded gradually to raise the salaries of the journalistic staff from what had been miserably low levels. We were then able to attract some bright additional talent. The Free Press did not become by any means a great newspaper. But with the past, its news coverage became considerably more comprehensive, more consistent, more investigative, and much livelier. Above all, the news ceased to be an instrument of propaganda.
In 1957, Kent was somewhat surprised by the St. Laurent government’s defeat and the election of a minority government headed by the unpredictable Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker:
The thought of John Diefenbaker as Prime Minister, however, worried me deeply. I recognized the force of his oratory but I could see no evidence and feel no hope that he was capable of leadership in the complex process of government. That was why I had written, before the election campaign began, that despite all its faults, the St. Laurent government was still preferable to the alternative. And despite the errors of the Liberals during the election, nothing in the Diefenbaker campaign had provided any reassurance.
In 1958, Kent started thinking about a career change. But it was the controversial firing of Harry Crowe, a history professor at United College (now the University of Winnipeg) for criticizing the college and its administration in a private letter that was obtained by the college’s principal, Wilfred Lockhart, and a heated debate about academic freedom that ultimately led him to leave the Free Press and the city.
[The firing of Crowe] was an action utterly wrong on two counts: the reason for firing was an offence to academic freedom; and the evidence for firing derived from the illegitimate use of private correspondence. Nevertheless, there was a good deal of support for the college board. The governors of the University of Manitoba were not inclined towards public criticism of their opposite numbers at the junior institution. And the Chancellor of the University was Victor Sifton. I therefore felt constrained to mute our editorial comment… [W]hile I could compromise to this degree on the editorial page, the news columns were another matter. Our reporters had done a good job of digging out the facts of the Crowe story, but their independence of the “front office” was still fragile. Victor’s naturally strong emotions were engaged on the side of the United College board, and as the Crowe affair boiled up, with intense feelings on both sides, he found it increasingly irksome to leave the news staff to handle as they thought best the plethora of facts, assertions and statements and the many vehement letters we received.
There was a subsequent disagreement over a news article about the Crowe case that had been approved by Sifton when Kent was out of town. Matters came to a head.
On New Year’s Day, 1959, I told Victor that I was going to leave. He was deeply distressed, the more so when in turn each of the two most senior members of the staff declined, in the circumstances, to take my place. One of them came to tell me that the proud Victor had broken down and wept: things had been going so well and he had thoughtlessly messed it all up, for the paper and himself and me. I did the only reasonable thing and agreed to remain as if nothing had happened, for up to the middle of the year if necessary, to give time for restructuring… The conclusion of my relations with the Free Press was, however, sad. Victor Sifton did not find a successor to his liking… After some months [Sifton] decided to do what perhaps he had always, with part of his nature, wanted; he took the title of Editor himself. The consequences were not good. Victor was temperamentally unsuited to the role, it was not the way to get good work from others, and the tension told. He died two years later [on April 21, 1961]. Meantime, the Free Press had largely reverted to its earlier style and policies. As long as I was working with Victor, we got on well. After I had left, however, he became bitter. He was too realistic not to know that the influence of the Free Press, about which he cared most, had diminished.
More than two decades later, Kent’s career intersected with the Free Press once again. On Aug. 27, 1980, the Free Press’s long-time rival, the Tribune owned by Southam and the Ottawa Journal owned by Thomson Newspapers simultaneously shut down both papers. For a time, this gave Thomson, the owners of the Free Press, a monopoly in Winnipeg and Southam, which owned the Journal’s rival, the Ottawa Citizen, a monopoly in that city. There was great outcry about the two corporations — which together then owned most of the dailies in Canada — colluding and thereby costing hundreds of employees their jobs. The federal government responded by establishing the Royal Commission on Newspapers and appointed Kent to head it. His report criticized the concentration of the newspaper business and he made an assortment of recommendations to control it. In the end, however, the federal government did not act on them.
Historian and writer Allan Levine’s most recent book is, Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder.
Grant Dexter: The Free Press’s well-connected man in the capital
R.B. Bennett, the Conservative prime minister from 1930-35, detested John W. Dafoe, the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, and the feelings were very, very mutual.
“Day after day, edition after edition,” George Ferguson, the managing editor of the paper, recalled, “Dafoe explained to his readership, much of which had voted for Mr. Bennett, because it was sick and tired of Mr. [William Lyon Mackenzie] King [the former Liberal prime minister], that it had made a terrible mistake.”
Dafoe had never liked Bennett, whose views on international trade he regarded as “mercantilist theories of the 18th century.” Dafoe was a firm believer in free trade and considered Bennett’s 1930 campaign promise to raise tariffs an abominable idea. Following Bennett’s victory in the summer federal election of 1930, he instructed the paper’s 34-year-old correspondent in Ottawa, Grant Dexter — who had joined the newspaper in 1912 when he was only 16 (Dafoe knew his father) and had relocated to Ottawa early in 1924 — that his reports should be critical of the new Tory prime minister.
“We shall carry on our own brand of warfare against Bennett,” Dafoe wrote to Dexter in early August 1930, “without much regard as to whether or not it fits in with the plans of the Liberal board of strategy, and I should not be surprised if we do more execution than they.” Dafoe envisaged the paper as the “unofficial opposition.” Devoted to the Liberals at time when partisanship ran deep in the parliamentary press gallery, Dexter was more than happy to comply.
John “Jack” Sifton, “the Major” and the eldest son of the late Sir Clifford Sifton, who served as Free Press publisher for a few years, disagreed with Dafoe and privately told Dexter to moderate his writing on Bennett. Indeed, during 1930 and 1931, the paper had lost about 2,000 subscribers because of its anti-Conservative editorials and articles. As Sifton wrote to Dexter in late January 1931, like many Winnipeggers he would rather “read the editorial page of the [Winnipeg] Tribune than that of the Free Press.” Dexter politely replied that he would adhere to Sifton’s suggestions, but never truly did; his boss and mentor was Dafoe and that was not about to change.
Dexter learned from his confidential sources that during Conservative government cabinet meetings, Bennett regularly castigated against Dafoe as “unfair, partisan, mean and unscrupulous.” Yet because Dafoe was far away in Winnipeg, Bennett’s ire was directed at Dexter.
In February 1932, the prime minister was in Washington, D.C., for the World Disarmament Conference and Dexter had travelled there to cover the event. One day in a reception room at the Canadian Legation (as a first step to establishing an embassy independent of Britain, Canada had opened a legation in 1927) Bennett was about to brief Canadian and American journalists on the conference discussions when he spied Dexter among the group of reporters. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he declared, “there will be no press conference. I refuse to say anything in the presence of Mr. Dexter, the emissary of John W. Dafoe of the Winnipeg Free Press, whose only purpose here is to distort and misrepresent Canada’s position.” At that, he marched out of the room.
Some months later back in Ottawa, Dexter was having lunch at the posh Rideau Club and was in the washroom speaking with a lawyer he knew about Bennett’s economic policies. Suddenly, a stall door opened and out walked the prime minister. “Well, Dexter,” he began, “what falsehoods have you been disseminating today?” A tense conversation ensued in the washroom and then out in the dining room where Bennett insisted on joining Dexter for lunch.
The prime minster accused Dexter of misrepresenting the government’s position, and the Free Press and the Toronto Star, another partisan Liberal newspaper, of nearly “wrecking” the recent Imperial Economic Conference that Bennett had convened. Dexter declared his innocence claiming that he was not guilty of “malignant distortion.” But Bennett refused to believe him and said he was “abysmally ignorant of what took place.” Desperate, however, to win Dexter over, the prime minister told Dexter he would supply him with background information and confidential details.
Dafoe was stunned when Dexter told him what had transpired and urged Dexter to keep communications open with Bennett. Yet in the end, nothing in Dexter’s or the Free Press’s coverage of the Conservative administration changed. And by November 1933, Bennett was claiming publicly that the Free Press, Dexter and the Financial Post, another paper he loathed, were conspiring against him.
Dexter, who had been born in St. Andrews and grew up in nearby Parkdale, Selkirk, Hamilton, Ont., and Winnipeg, was probably the most well-connected journalist in Ottawa for more than two decades. Once Mackenzie King and the Liberals were back in power following the October 1935 federal election, Dexter, as well as his close friend Bruce Hutchison, the Ottawa correspondent for the Victoria Daily Times (Hutchison was also the Free Press’s associate editor from 1944 to 1950 before embarking on a successful book-writing career) had almost total access to King.
Dexter became Dafoe’s “eyes and ears” in Ottawa. Dexter wrote hundreds of memos recounting in great detail for the “Chief,” as he called Dafoe, insider information about the government’s policy decisions, private conversations he had with King and his cabinet ministers, and the comings-and-goings and political gossip that were swirling around King and the capital.
“The secret memos,” Dexter noted in a January 1942 letter to George Ferguson, “really developed as a means of communication between various people here and the Chief. These people were mostly ministers and they did not want to write directly, but they wanted him to know certain things… I was the convenient channel.” That critical information was then used by Dafoe as key reference material for his influential editorials on “The Page,” as the paper’s reporters called it. Apart from Dafoe and Dexter, the only people who knew about the memos were Dexter’s wife Alice, who typed many of them, Ferguson, Bruce Hutchison and Victor Sifton, Clifford Sifton’s youngest son, who became the newspaper’s general manager in 1935 and later co-founded FP (Federated Paper) Publications with Max Bell of Calgary as a holding company for the Sifton family’s and Bell’s newspaper interests. (Dexter’s papers and his memoranda can be researched at the Queen’s University Archives in Kingston, Ont.)
From 1936-38, Dexter was working for the Free Press in London where he filed stories about the impending conflict with Nazi Germany. There, he befriended another future Liberal prime minister, Lester “Mike” Pearson, who was a member of the diplomatic staff at the Canadian High Commission office. During the Munich crisis of 1938 — in which British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, among others, ultimately appeased German dictator Adolf Hitler by compelling Czechoslovakia to let him take over the Sudetenland — Pearson provided Dexter with highly confidential information that wound up in the Free Press. (Dafoe was one of the few Canadian newspaper editors to criticize the agreement; many Winnipeg readers disagreed with him and called him a warmonger, though he was proved correct.)
“Mike has felt a little nervous now and then, for fear Ottawa would notice the similarity between our cables and their information,” Dexter wrote Ferguson on Sept. 20 1938, 10 days before the Munich Agreement was concluded. “But I think the facts were sufficiently changed and much has gone confidentially … Mike is taking his life in his hands talking out of turn. You can imagine what [Mackenzie] King would do to him. And Mike is a bad devil when he wants to be.”
Returning to Ottawa before the Second World War broke out, Dexter spent the next years covering King’s wartime administration. Thomas Crerar, the Manitoba MP and key member of King’s cabinet, was one of Dexter’s highly placed sources. Dexter respected King, though he did not know about King’s interest in spiritualism and seances (neither did Bruce Hutchison, as he told me in an interview in June 1990, a little more than two years before he died at the age of 91). Dexter did consider King “a queer sort of fish,” as he put it.
King was happy to share private information with Dexter and valued the support of the Free Press and other Liberal papers. After one closed-door conversation in early January 1945, about the recent cabinet dissension over conscription, King wrote in his diary, “I told Dexter confidentially what was in my mind which he seemed to appreciate very much and with which he was in entire accord. It seemed to give him a great thrill. He was most friendly in every way.”
Dexter thought otherwise about this encounter. He had wanted to speak with King about the future, but the prime minister only wanted to talk about the conscription crisis. “Mighty interesting and exceedingly frank,” Dexter noted in his memorandum about the discussion, “but not helpful.”
On occasion, as in October 1941 when Dexter reworked a cabinet memo about a government wartime economic policy, he wondered whether his close connection to the Liberals had compromised his ability to be a journalist even in an era of intense partisanship. He tried to distance himself from the Liberals, yet it was difficult.
Two years after Dafoe died in 1944, Dexter returned to Winnipeg and spent eight rather unhappy years as the paper’s executive editor. He then returned to Ottawa to cover national politics again. He died in December 1961 at the age of 65. Bruce Hutchison deemed his late friend and fellow-journalist, “one of the most influential Canadians of his time.”
Partly adapted from Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media.
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