Three or four times a year, Toronto freelance writer Moira Farr buys a copy of Macleans. Early last December was one of those occasions: her streetcar was late, a convenience store was near and there was little else to choose from on the magazine rack. When she got home, she made a pot of coffee and started flipping through the magazine, noticing Allan Fotheringham’s column on the back page. His topic, in part, was the demise of Fenton’s, the upscale Toronto restaurant that served its last bowl of Stilton and leek soup in May of 1990. Farr was intrigued; she’d spent six weeks the previous summer researching a story on the death of Fenton’s and her piece was in the current issue of Toronto Life.
By the latter half of the column, however, Farr began to notice certain similarities. One of Fenton’s regulars had told her the restaurant served “portions that would suit a budgie.” The quote appeared verbatim in Fotheringham’s column. So did the confessions “I went numb” and “I grieved deeply”
Comments that Farr solicited from patrons mourning the restaurant’s passing. A regular told Farr that Fenton’s was a good place for men to take their mistresses; in Maclean s the line became Fotheringham’s own. Farr wrote about breast of chicken stuffed with veal, nuts and ginger; Fotheringham, perhaps coincidentally, cited the breast of chicken stuffed with veal, nuts and ginger. Farr described the interior of Fenton’s as “wires twisting out of the walls where light fixtures had been ripped away” with “flowers strewn across the floor.” Fotheringham saw it as “wires twisting out of walls where light fixtures were ripped away” with “famous flower arrangements strewn across the floor.”
What’s more, Farr’s material was used in almost the same order in Foth’s piece. Finishing the column, Farr was left amused, mildly annoyed and puzzled. Was this kind of thing legitimate? She called a few friends and they told her, quite frankly, it wasn’t the first time Fotheringham had been caught with his hand in someone else’s word jar. And so, three days later, Farr wrote a letter to Macleans editor, Kevin Doyle. “I was flattered that Allan Fotheringham read my article “The Last Dinner” in the December issue of Toronto Life and liked it enough to base half his column on it,” the letter began. “At least, I think it was my article (he does not attribute his source), since all the facts and quotes Fotheringham uses originally appeared there.”
Doyle called Farr as soon as he received the letter, assuring her that Maclean’s takes accusations of plagiarism very seriously. He also said he would talk to Fotheringham about it immediately. A couple of days later, Fotheringham called Farr. “This is the chap from the back page calling,” was the message on Farr’s answering machine. “Would you like to go to a fern bar for lunch?” At first Farr didn’t know who the chap from the back page was or why he’d want to visit a fern bar. Then she made the connection and phoned him back.
“I said I didn’t think that was necessary,” Farr told me a month after the incident. “I got the impression he thought the whole thing was kind of funny.” Interestingly, Farr said it wasn’t only Fotheringham’s laziness or irresponsibility that upset her. It was also his inability to get the stolen facts straight. In her letter to Doyle, she explained that Fenton’s was not, as Fotheringham claimed, a restaurant dominated by yuppies. On the contrary, she pointed out, it was the absence of young urban professionals that contributed to its demise.
I phoned Fotheringham at his Rosedale home a few days later and he began to laugh when Moira Farr’s name was brought up. “She’s so upset that we’re having lunch next week. She thinks it’s a great hoot.”
Mustering up my nerve, I told him I’d just spoken to Farr and that she did not have a lunch date with him and that she didn’t think it was all a great hoot. Why, I asked him, did he not attribute any of the material he used? Fotheringham stopped laughing and paused for a moment, as if considering the matter for the first time. The question seemed to irritate him.
“Nobody knows her name in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan or Dildo, Newfoundland,” he finally said. “I didn’t think I had to mention her by name.”
For almost 40 years Allan Fotheringham has been one of Canada’s most prolific and popular journalists; such titles as Malice in Blunderland and Birds of a Feather have made him one of a handful of non-fiction writers whose books are guaranteed best-sellers. A master of ridicule with a gift for the memorable phrase, he’s also one of Canada’s most highly paid media icons. An article in the now defunct Vista magazine estimated his 1989 income from newspaper columns, Macleans pieces, speeches, appearances on Front Page Challenge and a book advance at just under half-a-million dollars. And yet, despite his mammoth reputation, despite his ubiquitousness, I kept hearing that his star was on the wane. After all, the Moira Farr affair was only the latest in a string of professional embarrassments for the man they call Dr. Foth.
Allan Fotheringham’s most recent problems started in 1986 when he lost a much publicized libel suit; in a 1984 Macleans column he’d stated that two Vancouver lawyers, both associates of Liberal leader John Turner, were “cementing their connections through the tennis club circuits and the wife-swapping brigades” Despite two printed apologies, the court awarded the lawyers $10,000 each in damages. And 1986 also saw the beginning of the plagiarism accusations. Fotheringham had penned a column in Macleans about RCAF war veteran John Magee, whose poem “High Flight” was quoted by then US president Ronald Reagan after the Challenger space shuttle exploded. Editors of the British magazine This England told Kevin Doyle that passages of Fotheringham’s column were lifted from an article the magazine had published in 1982. Fotheringham denied it, even though whole sentences from the This England piece appeared almost verbatim in his column.
Then, in 1987, Fotheringham got in a jam with Southam News, which had given Foth a plum posting in its Washington bureau two years earlier. The appointment ended, according to Fotheringham’s account in Birds of a Feather, after a tasteless comment he made at a Southam directors’ meeting in Ottawa during the Canada-US free trade negotiations. Fotheringham, the guest speaker, in advisably quipped that the Americans could not be serious about free trade because their chief negotiator, Peter Murphy, had an inoperable brain tumor. The American Ambassador to Canada, Thomas Niles, was among the guests and he was not amused. Several months afterward, Fotheringham writes, he was given his walking papers by Nicholas Hills, Southam’s Ottawa general manager at the time. But Paddy Sherman, then president of the Southam Newspaper Group, says Fotheringham’s departure was not a result of the Niles incident but of his disappointing output from Washington. Hills felt Southam was paying its star columnist too much for what itwas getting and he approached Fotheringham about the possibility of renegotiating his hefty contract. That, says Sherman, “spooked” Foth into signing a deal with Toronto Sun Publishing, owner of the tabloid papers and The Financial Post, where Fotheringham’s column now appears.
More recently, Fotheringham became a problem for Maclean Hunter when he lost a suit to British explorer Sir Ranulph Twisleton-WykehamFiennes last July. In a 1988 column, Foth described Sir Ranulph as a “professional bore” and “a close relative of Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau.” Sir Ranulph sued and was awarded more than $200,000 in damages and $150,000 in legal costs when a London court ruled that Fotheringham had libelled him with this statement: “no one has ever been able to demonstrate that any scientific or historical benefits have resulted [from Sir Ranulph’s expeditions].” The decision is under appeal and a ruling is expected shortly.
Staffers at Macleans have been tightlipped about the effect Fotheringham’s continuing troubles have had on his relationship with management, and Doyle and managing editor Bob Lewis have not made themselves available for comment. But one reliable source at the magazine, who requested anonymity, told me there i.1″ a rumor swirling around: the management board at Maclean Hunter is just about fed up with the black eyes Fotheringham has caused. Nor has Fotheringham’s book publisher, Key Porter, been immune to carelessness on the part of its star author. Nine months before he pinched Farr’s reporting, Fotheringham was again accused of plagiarism, this time by Maritime writer Silver Donald Cameron. In Birds of a Feather Fotheringham appropriates-often word for word-material from a submission made by Cameron to the 1970 Davey Special Senate Committee on Mass Media. Fotheringham’s explanation was that he didn’t know he was using Cameron’s stuff, that he’d been in Europe and had assigned a researcher to gather the information used in that section of the book. Key Porter backed him up but, once again, Fotheringham’s reputation took a hit.
Print and television personality Larry Zolf has traded barbs with Fotheringham over drinks at Toronto’s Hop and Grape tavern and, often, in print as well. I spotted Zolf strolling the halls of CBC’s the fifth estate offices while I was talking to Stevie Cameron, Silver Donald Cameron’s sister-in-law. “There will never be a Fotheringham school of journalism,” he said, popping his head into the room. “Foth certainly would fail [Ryerson journalism instructor Robert Fulford’s ethics course.”
A week later, I attended Fulford’s ethics class. As Zolf predicted, Fulford was baffled by the F arr episode-not so much by what Fotheringham did as by the manner in which he did it. At least, he told the class, Fotheringham used to be a lot more clever about his thievery. For instance, he said, with This England Fotheringham chose an extremely obscure target, thus cutting down his chances of being caught. But with Toronto Life he was, in effect, shoplifting in broad daylight.
“I don’t think it’s all that serious,” Fotheringham said during our telephone interview. “Plagiarism has become such a trendy topic these days, but all journalism is based on basically what someone else has written or reported.”
Is this what Fotheringham has become-the highest paid rewrite man in Canada’s history? Frank magazine regular Geoff Heinricks, who recently co-wrote a profile of Fotheringham for The Globe and Mail’s West magazine, says one of the reasons Fotheringham is writing secondhand news on a more regular basis is because he is no longer an insider in Canadian political circles-mostly by choice, partly by exclusion. This would explain Fotheringham’s tendency to quote other writers, or himself, as he so often does. Heinricks also says that behind Fotheringham’s pose of imperturbability lies an unhappy, word-weary writer.
“He’s having some dark days,” Heinricks said from his Toronto home. “He seems quite tired of this whole country. I think he’s in a rut. He’s been doing what he does for so long that he doesn’t seem to put much thought or feeling into what he writes anymore.”
In the short time I spoke to Fotheringham I was struck by how unapologetic he was. Yet I realized afterwards that anything like remorse would be too out of character, too unbecoming a man of his stature. He’s a cinch for the Canadian News Hall of Fame and Hall of Famers have an image to uphold, a glorious past to live up to. I also suspect they’d be the last to realize their batting eye is not as sharp as it once was, that their fastball has lost its zip. Plagiarism, meanwhile, is the journalistic equivalent of a spitball-an illegal pitch that can artificially extend the career a year or two.
Fotheringham’s last Macleans column of 1990 did, however, offer some hope. In a column written a few months before the Farr controversy, Fotheringham stated that Canada is “a country that has too much geography and too little population.” At the end of the year, Fotheringham recycled the aphorism, but this time he amended it. It read: “This country, as Mackenzie King told us, has too much geography and not enough population.” Robert Fulford would be proud.