John McGrath
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The Body Politic

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Columnists are supposed to be provocative and contrarian. In Canada, nobody does it better than Terence Corcoran. But how much of his bombast and umbrage is just for show?

The shelves in Terence Corcoran’s office at the National Post are piled high and deep. There are books and files on Canada’s debt, media concentration in America, financial planning and, of course, global warming. His files are legendary among co-workers, packed in boxes and cabinets lining the walls and floor, their subjects named in thick black marker: Spectrum ’08; Fannie Mae and so on. Under his desk is ONT-NDP, right on top of Recycling. His workspace is where the paperless office went to die.

“The facts are just lying there, without a life of their own, without some kind of interpretation,” he tells me. “That’s what writers do.” And he’s getting ready to do it. Corcoran spins his particular brand of pro-market interpretation into three columns a week for the Financial Post‘s FP Comment page. But today he’s behind schedule. “I have the worst deadline discipline of anyone,” he says. With three hours to deadline, he’s staring at a blank screen.

Which is not to say his mind’s blank. No reader could doubt the vigour of Corcoran’s opinions. He shares views on business and policy with small-government conservatives-not even the recent economic meltdown has shaken his faith-but he’s no one’s toady. He has attacked Alberta’s Conservative government on oil royalties and Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “incremental conservatism.” Corcoran’s unapologetic stance and bombastic style make me wonder if any person could really be as bellicose in real life, or are his friends right when they tell me he’s actually an unassuming man? His rock ’em-sock ’em style of punditry doesn’t exactly set him apart-there are plenty of bombasts out there. He is, however, an excellent example of a small cohort of columnists whose work rests neither on their various biases nor on their fluent wordsmithery, but on the strength of their commitment to research. The question becomes, is Corcoran a fire-breathing ideologue or a mild-mannered gentleman? The answer is, yes.

We expect columnists to be provocative and contrarian while giving their readers a particular take on the news. What’s not always clear is how much work lies behind the page. “I’m not saying it’s as hard as working in a coal mine,” says The Globe and Mail‘s National Affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson. But according to Corcoran, even a piece that reads as a rant may have required days of interviewing, background reading and web-crawling.

“Have you been in his office? You’ve seen all the files?” asks Derek DeCloet, a Globe business columnist. “He’s been doing this for so long that he has this incredible institutional memory. Here’s a guy who’s really not pulling it out of his ass.”

Yes, I’ve been to his office, on the December day when Harper appealed to Canadians for support, his government hanging in the balance following an economic update almost universally acknowledged as a massive mistake. Not so acknowledged in this office, though, because Corcoran’s advice will be titled “Why the PM must persist.”

At 3:15 p.m., Corcoran’s phone rings. It’s an Ottawa source-we’ll call him Ken-at the Ministry of Finance. Studying Minister Jim Flaherty’s fiscal update, Corcoran has been bothered by what looks like an accounting trick used to exaggerate the surplus. Seems future sales of assets are shown as current income. Ken, Corcoran thinks, will explain all: “He knows all the numbers backwards and forwards.”

The conversation is short, but not shallow.

“Okay, but why are you using this accounting? It’s not normal practice, is it?”

Ken takes a moment to explain. Corcoran’s eyes narrow just a bit behind unfashionably large square-rimmed glasses. There’s the slightest hint of a sigh. “I was hoping there would be a better explanation for it than that.”

Ken will get back to him.

Okay. As he waits, Corcoran browses the websites of the major parties for their perspectives on the update. The printer whirs to life, and I pass printouts across the desk. Odd: I’m watching one of Canada’s foremost advocates of small government surf the NDP’s homepage.

* * *

A bit after four, Corcoran still waits for Ken’s second call, but his fingers start pecking at the keyboard:

Let me explain. Into the grand fable of their attempt to take control of Ottawa, the opposition coalition and its backers have woven an imaginary tale of Tory economic negligence. They were at it again yesterday ….

* * *

Corcoran began his career at the now-extinct Ottawa Journal in 1968 and has been a business reporter or columnist ever since joining The Canadian Press in 1971. Corcoran moved through TheGazette, Financial Times of Canada, the Financial Post and the Globe, where for 10 years he had a column four times a week in the Report on Business section. When the National Post launched in 1998, he was recruited as editor of the Financial Post section, where he runs the FP Comment page. All that time, he’s been one of the country’s most prominent libertarians, advocating for the abolition of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), criticizing government policies that tried to make Nortel a “national champion,” attacking dairy price supports as a “heist” and famously denouncing both scientists and policy makers as a skeptic of climate change.

All this in a bracing style that separates him from the abundant supply of pro-market pundits mostly spawned well after he started writing. Corcoran’s career began before the post-war liberal hegemony ended with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. Like one of Darwin’s finches, Corcoran carved out a niche early and found that success followed.

There are plenty of other finches out there, of course, and the species Columnist canadensis has plenty of room for diversity. Toronto Star editorial page editor Ian Urquhart says, “There are whimsical columns, personal columns, humour columns, all of them have different demands.” Current-events columnists need research, he says, to gain authority. “Otherwise your writing is all ‘it seems’ and filled with hedging.” Corcoran, who describes his own style as “categorical,” isn’t much for hedging.

“Categorical” often riles readers, and feedback is immediate in the internet age. Heather Mallick’s cbc.cacolumn about U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin last September unleashed a flood of vicious abuse: “I summed it up, ‘you fucking Muslim-Jewish-whore-bitch,'” she says. Corcoran’s critics, including Richard Littlemore of the environmentalist website, use less graphic language, but are no less committed as debunkers of the columnist’s fellow travellers-gadflies such as rogue atmospheric physicist S. Fred Singer and science skeptic Steven Milloy. As the editor of the Financial Post, Corcoran has even run their op-ed pieces. “These are villains of the worst order,” says Littlemore. “Fred Singer will deny anything you like.”

Littlemore isn’t alone when he labels Corcoran’s work on the topic “highly irresponsible.” Physicist Richard Peltier, director of the Centre for Global Change Science and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “2007 Assessment Report,” considers Corcoran’s repeated references to recent cold temperatures simply stupid: “He doesn’t seem to realize that the reason this winter has been so cold is because we’re in La Niña right now.” Though Corcoran has, in fact, written about La Niña, Peltier considers him “not a knowledgeable person. But he insists on giving his opinion, and ignorant opinion is of no value at all.”

* * *

Ken still hasn’t called, but Corcoran’s fingers tap away steadily now:

… Nor is there much truth in the media’s caricature of Stephen Harper as an arrogant strategic dolt whose monumental economic and political blunder has plunged his government, the country and the economy into a crisis.

* * *

Doug Kelly, the Post‘s editor-in-chief, strides through the door and bellows, “That’s it, Terry, I want you to pull out all the stops and really stick it to the pinkos! Like we always do!” It takes me a half-second too long to realize Kelly has staged this display as fun for my benefit. What’s actually happening is that Kelly is moving Corcoran’s column from FP Comment to the paper’s front page. This means at least two things. First, a hard limit of 850 words. Second, an extra hour to finish this thing.

People who have worked with Corcoran tell me that his public writings don’t match the private man. As theGlobe‘s Margaret Wente puts it: “In print, he’s absolutely fierce and uncompromising. But in person, like many columnists, he’s an introvert. He’s kind of shy and self-deprecating. Gentlemanly, even.”

I can see a clear difference between the man across the desk who has difficulty writing while I watch him and the persona on the page who’s so busy excoriating the left. Behind those glasses, his eyes dart from the screen to me and back, and his shyness has been clear since that moment of hesitation when I first asked how he writes columns that drive those on the left and in the scientific community to distraction. Through months of phone calls, e-mails, and in-person interviews, I’ve begun to realize he’s not worried about criticism, but cherishes his privacy, and a modicum of control over exposure. Yesterday evening, he left a voicemail message attempting to place “conditions” on my watching him at work (he wanted me to quote at least half of his column) but this morning, he tells me he didn’t mean it the way it sounded. He just thought it would make sense to include half of the column I planned to watch him write.

Most of this is probably a matter of comfort level. He’s a writer, not a performer. On camera, Corcoran could be a more erudite Bill O’Reilly, or Sean Hannity with a greater vocabulary, but without the shamelessness and with more daylight between him and the nearest conservative party. That’s not to say he lacks hubris: where many columnists publish regular mea culpa collections admitting mistakes, Corcoran says he has done it just once in his 10 years at the Post-to mark the paper’s anniversary last October, when the apologies included one to Wente for having mocked her critiques of Palin. In an era of growing government activism to cool the climate and thaw frozen markets, Corcoran doesn’t worry about history passing him by: “It could certainly head in the wrong direction, though.”

* * *

Finance finally calls back at 4:30: a second source on the fiscal update. Corcoran remains skeptical of the official’s explanation of what exactly is included in the revenue item for asset sales. “I still don’t understand what this means,” he says. He listens. Then: “Okay, so it isn’t ‘normal’ after all,” and listens again in silence, nodding and taking notes. Finally: “Okay. I get it. Thanks.”

Corcoran hangs up. “A total waste of time,” he tells me. “They used numbers in a way they shouldn’t have, but they add up. I don’t know if it will be useful, but it becomes a kind of obsession, just wanting to know what’s going on.”

* * *

He returns to his keyboard:

The whole production is a page from the work of the greatest academic authority on the subject, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, author of the 2005 bestseller, On
Bullshit. Liars, says Prof. Frankfurt, need to know the truth. Bullshitters, interested solely in advancing their own agenda, have no use for the truth. They just make things up so as to win over their audience ….

* * *

It’s now 7:30 and, at this point, Corcoran would already be late for his own section. But he’s watching the TV addresses by the PM and the opposition leaders just in case any of them say anything notable. They don’t. So he hits send, e-mailing the column to deputy editor Stephen Meurice. The reference to asset sales is brief and uncritical. Doesn’t he find it significant that Harper’s government is using numbers in a way it “shouldn’t” have? It just wasn’t relevant, he will tell me later, and there wasn’t space.

Meurice doesn’t question the piece’s reporting or conclusions. No one else does either. And the copy editor barely touches it. This is Terence Corcoran after all. Nobody bats an eye at the use, in a front-page column-twice, in paragraph four-of the word “bullshit.”

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