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George Bain's bitter leave-taking from The Globe and Mail

Suddenly in April, 1987, George Bain, dean of Canada’s political columnists, disappeared from The Globe and Mati’s editorial page. Three months earlier, he had written his last column for the Globe’s Report on Business Magazine. Although inquiring readers were sent letters to the effect that Bain had simply quit writing the columns, they never learned the whole story. It is the story of how George Bain ended a 34-year relationship with the Globe after a protracted and bitter exchange with Editor-in-Chief Norman Webster.

Although he continues to write his “Media Watch” column for Maclean’s, wine pieces for Toronto Life and EnRoute, and weekly political commentary for two Halifax dailies, the void of not working for the Globe-a newspaper he’s been associated with for most of his career-is painful. “I’ve lost a feeling of respect and affection for a newspaper that I had a large measure of admiration for,” he says. “I also regret that a person like Norman Webster, who I thought was a good friend, treated me in such a deplorable manner.”

Bain had been making weekly contributions to the Globe from his home in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, since 1981, when his familiar byline reappeared on the editorial page. It had been missing for six years during his time at The Toronto Star. When Report on Business Magazine was started in 1985, Bain was asked to do a monthly national affairs column. Both of his columns dealt with the vagaries of political life in Canada, as seen from the perspective of a long-established observer.

Though Bain was now far from the centre of power-and his pieces sometimes suffered from it-his thoughts were always informed by vast experience and articulated in the cadenced style his readers had come to expect. Nevertheless, in the early months of last year, the work of the man whom Allan Fotheringham once called “the wittiest columnist ever to grace Ottawa” vanished from the pages of The Globe and Mail.

Officially, George Bain decided to give up his editorial-page column, but his decision was the result of frustration at the end of a year-long battle over its future. The negotiations began amicably enough in May, 1986, when Bain met with Webster in the Globe’s Toronto headquarters. Among the things they discussed was the issue of retirement. It pertained not only to Bain, then 66, but to other senior Globe writers, including fellow page-six columnists Richard Needham and Jean Howarth, business writer Ronald Anderson, sports columnist Trent Frayne and society watcher Zena Cherry. “He [Webster] was dillydallying about what to do with Needham, who apparently had promised that he wouldn’t stop writing until he dropped dead over his typewriter,” Bain says now. “I didn’t want to end up in the same embarrassing situation, so I suggested that we talk later in the year about my eventual phasing out.” Webster agreed, but the talk never took place.

Instead, Bain received a curt letter, dated September 24, 1986, from the new editor of Report on Business Magazine, Margaret Wente. She wrote, in part, “When it came to hard choices, we could not justify two columns on national affairs, and the one that seems to have the strongest rationale in our magazine is Peter Cook’s column on finance and the economy. Although we have enjoyed your column very much, we have decided that we will not continue to carry it after the January issue. On behalf of our staff and readers, I would like to thank you for your valuable contribution over the past issues.”

The shock of the first letter had barely subsided when Bain received another, dated October 10. This one was from a regular reader, who claimed to have heard Richard Needham speaking in Sarnia. Needham, wrote the reader, had told his audience that Bain had been fired from his editorial-page column.

Bain sent an anxious letter to Webster on October 18 in an attempt to get some clarification about both matters. Concerning Report on Business Magazine, he wrote: “I had heard quite a few good comments on what I was doing there, and none from anyone on the magazine to the contrary, and I certainly hoped that whatever else happened, my association with the magazine would continue. Since then I have had a letter, not from Geoff Stevens, who asked me in the first place to do that column, but from the new editor, a person I have never met, nor even spoken with on the phone, saying, in just about so many words, ‘thank you very much for your contributions, but we do not need you any more.’ Labor relations have never been the strong suit of The Globe and Mail, but I think I deserved better than that-and better than to have heard via a reader of The Globe and Mail that a staff-member, evidently chattily, is telling others that a decision affecting me on Page Six has already been taken.”

Webster took almost two months to reply. His letter, written on December 9, acknowledged that the Globe has had problems with labor relations but denied Needham’s alleged remarks. Webster wrote, “This particular embarrassment is made worse by a mischievous elderly gentleman who does not know what he is talking about.” But he went on to say: “We have a lot of Ottawa comment these days, and our Focus section should give more emphasis to Ottawa coverage in general. The time probably is coming to phase out your column. 1 would suggest we think about the summer parliamentary break as a reasonable time to do so.”

On the subject of the magazine, Webster confirmed that Wente had been given a free hand. She had chosen to kill the Angus Reid Poll as well as Bain’s pieces. “I told Ms Wente to make her own decision,” Webster said. “I am sorry she apparently conveyed it to you with little grace.” He also apologized to Bain for the way things had turned out and for any hurt that may have been caused.

Bain could not be placated. On the contrary, Webster’s comments about Richard Needham, who has since given up his Globe column, infuriated Bain. Stoking his anger was Bain’s belief that Webster had used him as a lever to get rid of Needham. On January 7,1987, he wrote to Webster, accusing him of pulling just such a trick. Bain stormed: “You wrote, in effect to say that it was all untrue, the work of a mischievous old man, no such words had ever passed the lips of Norman Webster-but that, by the way, yes, you’re fired. In the circumstances, you really couldn’t expect me-could you, really? To regard your apology for ‘the hurt this may have inflicted,’ other than as a piece of rank hypocrisy. In talking with Jeff Simpson, I called you a son of a bitch, which adequately reflected my feelings, but was imprecise. Let me amend that to say that the weak and devious way in which you have dealt with this matter has been contemptible.”

Bain’s rage had an effect. Webster replied on February 20, calling Bain’s letter insulting and constructed around a ridiculous conspiracy theory. He denied any connection between the Needham and Bain cases and reaffirmed the editorial control given to Wente. Then he went much further. Webster explained what was behind his suggestion to stop Bain’s column by summer recess: he and his senior editors believed that the column “wasn’t all that great; that there were [sic] a lot of tap dancing without as much content as one expected from a Bain column.” Ironically, Webster ended the letter by saying the quality of Bain’s column had improved “in the past couple of months” and offered to keep it going until the end of 1987.

Managing Editor Geoffrey Stevens, who took over Bain’s Ottawa column in 1973 for seven years, confirms the Globe’s opinion about the declining quality of Bain’s work. “He was writing what was to be a national affairs column but he ran into a copy supply-line problem. He was out of touch with what was going on in Ottawa by being down east and his columns were beginning to reflect what was near and dear to George Bain.”

In spite of the slight, Bain accepted Webster’s offer but did not relent from his earlier views. He wrote two more months’ worth of columns but gave up, disheartened, in late April. “I was sitting at the typewriter when I asked myself, Why am I doing this anyway? I didn’t like the people I was working for. I was only doing it half-heartedly. So I threw away what I’d been writing and wrote my last column.” It was a farewell to his readers and he sent it in at the end of the month. Remarkably, it was spiked. Bain found out when he made his customary phone call to his editor, Alastair Lawrie, to check on the column’s arrival. He was passed on to Associate Editor Laszlo Buhasz, who told Bain that it was long-standing policy at the Globe not to print farewell columns. Bain’s only recollection of such a thing involves his move to the Star in April, 1973. Dic Doyle, then editor and now a senator, asked Bain not to write a final column to give Geoff Stevens a chance to take over the space smoothly. Bain complied as a favor; he believes this to be the birth of the “policy.” Geoff Stevens says otherwise, that the Globe will not publish first and last columns that declare themselves to be thus.

Bain’s column did run in Douglas Fisher’s space in The Toronto Sun of May 11, 1987 (it also appears opposite). Fisher introduced the piece by praising Bain’s informed, fair and witty writing, and he added a postscript: “An honest, modest departure, I say.” As for the Globe, there was no published word on Bain or his departure. Curious readers who wrote to the paper were given the simple explanation that he had stopped writing his pieces.

George Bain is one of the pioneers of the political column in this country. He began, in the 1950s, by filing straight stories from Ottawa. The Globe and its readers liked his insightful, to-the-point writing style so much that the paper eventually allowed him to write a regular column. His ability to spot the inconsistencies between political words and actions combined with good reporting to earn him a grudging respect in Ottawa.

Without George Bain, there would be no Jeff Simpson. Thirty years ago, he set the standard by which political columnists still abide. He was one of the first to resist the subtle co-optation that comes from observing powerful people in close quarters. He cast himself as an unofficial opposition, carefully monitoring the activities of the government. “If I could claim anything, it would be that I popularized Ottawa watching,” he says now.

His newspaper career began with a copy boy’s job at The Toronto Telegram in 1936. He eventually became a regional stringer in rural Ontario, then a salaried reporter. After he returned from the war, in which he was a bomber pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Bain worked again, briefly, for the Telegram, then signed on with the Globe in 1945.

Bain first went to Ottawa in 1952 to join the paper’s two-man bureau. He quickly developed a reputation for strong-willed but well-balanced reporting. Clark Davey, who went on to be the Globe’s managing editor for many years, joined Bain in 1955 as junior correspondent. Davey, who is now publisher of The Gazette in Montreal, recalls Bain’s legendary intensity and integrity. Davey says that Bain would often become physically ill when he got wrapped up in a piece. Bain was sometimes found in the marble-lined stalls of the press gallery men’s room throwing up in mid-story.

Davey particularly remembers Bain’s treatment of the Herbert Norman story. Norman was the Canadian ambassador in Cairo who committed suicide in 1957 after being accused of being a communist spy. Bain was so livid over External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson’s lukewarm defence of Norman that he wrote a column demanding Pearson’s resignation. Later he regretted the piece, written in the heat of the moment, and wanted to tender his own resignation to the paper. Only after much persuasion and reflection did Bain decide to stay on.

“George has a personal integrity that still comes through in the stuff he writes for Maclean’s,” says Davey. “He’s the closest thing we have in Canadian journalism to a conscience right now.”

The Sun’s Douglas Fisher, who shared a television program with Bain on Ottawa’s CJOH ftom 1964 to 1969, has similar views about him. Fisher thinks that Bain’s courage and integrity made him the Globe’s first serious columnist in Ottawa. “He was the pioneer and the symbol of the Globe’s political reporting when there was little coming from the Hill. Younger people [at the Globe] may think that Bain spends too much time rehashing history, but they don’t realize what kind of beacon-a lighthouse-he’s been to the paper. Today, political columnists are a dime a dozen. Thirty years ago there were none. He was the first bona fide political columnist in Canada.”

Bain’s tenure in Ottawa was interrupted by a posting to London from 1957 to 1960 and to Washington from 1960 to 1964. He returned and stayed until 1973. That year, the Star lured him away; it offered a lot more money to the man its reader research showed to be the most-read writer on the Toronto papers. He was made editor of the editorial page. Bain now thinks of this period, which lasted until 1979, as a mistake. “I should have done it earlier in my career or not at all. I was used to life as a columnist. A columnist conceives a piece, writes it, sends it in, and usually doesn’t hear from anyone about it.”

Bain so disliked the committee process of writing editorials that he got himself sent to Europe again, between 1974 and 1977. When he came back to Canada to write a daily column, he found himself increasingly at odds with the paper’s editorial stance. Unlike the Star, for example, Bain was particularly critical of the way the Trudeau government handled the repatriation of the constitution. The gap continued to widen until, as Bain says, “I sort of gradually fell out of the relationship with the paper.”

He began to think more seriously about the overtures he’d received from John Godfrey, now editor of The Financial Post but then president of the University of King’s College. Bain went to Halifax in late 1979 to become director of the school of journalism. “We viewed him as the dean of Canadian journalism. He was the person who could command respect and who had the contacts that would be important to the school in its early days,” says Godfrey now. “We also felt that he was the perfect role model because he would remain a practising journalist by appearing in the Globe. He was a terrific teacher- patient, with high standards and the students adored him.” Bain formally renewed his Globe associations when he first took the director’s job, reappearing in the paper in September, 1981. This arrangement worked well enough until the bitter dispute of 1986.

Bain stepped down as director after five years, but he and his wife, Marion, liked Nova Scotia so much they bought four acres of land over looking Mahone Bay harbor, an hour’s drive from Halifax. They live in a Cape Cod-style house that Bain designed himself, surrounded by trees and rhododendrons. His legendary wine collection is safely stored in the basement. He often stomps about the countryside with his Airedale terrier, Jake, enjoying the pleasure of solitary thought. His freelance pieces keep him bent over the computer in his den for close to 40 hours a week. He leads a good life, fleshed out by the memories of an accomplished career. But there’s an air of disquiet about George Bain now. It is the hurt felt by a reflective and cultivated man whose dignity has been deeply offended.

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