On February 5, 2001, Izzy Asper, executive chairman of CanWest Global Communications Corp., Canada’s largest media and publishing company, threw a party at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The atmosphere was more like a Liberal love-in than a corporate gathering-the crowd included Finance Minister Paul Martin, Herb Gray, then deputy prime minister, and former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna. Asper and his two sons, David and Leonard, schmoozed with cabinet ministers, senators, and members of parliament over cocktails and canapés while CanWest executives glad-handed members of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Lawrence Martin, arguably the most widely read political journalist in the country at the time, worked the room as expertly as any politician. As the national affairs columnist for Southam newspapers, Martin knew most of the people in the room, but not his new de facto employer, David Asper. Inevitably, they would meet.
Asper, of course, was familiar with Martin’s columns and was not indifferent to the political pundit’s point of view. In particular, he was irritated by a column Martin had written advocating more funding for the cash-strapped CBC. As Asper saw it, the column collided with his family’s corporate interests. In addition to the 14 major metropolitan dailies, 50 percent share in the National Post, and more than 120 community papers CanWest acquired from Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. in November 2000, the Aspers also own the Global Television Network, a CBC competitor. “David was still clearly annoyed about the column that evening,” Martin says. “I was a little surprised because I hadn’t thought twice about offending my employers when I wrote it. If the CBC had more money, then it wouldn’t have to compete in the advertising market against networks like Global. I told him it was natural that he wouldn’t agree with some of my columns, because no two people agree about everything.”
Martin’s deft response comes after years of practice. Such minor antagonisms make up the consistent thread in a lengthy and varied career as reporter, columnist, and author. At age 54, he has the air of someone who likes to work within his own parameters, impervious to any outside pressure-the kind of man who does what he wants and says what he thinks, whether people agree with him or not. “He was an editor’s dream and an editor’s nightmare,” says John Fraser, one of Martin’s former editors at The Globe and Mail and now master of Massey College in Toronto. “He always got the good story, but it was never what the editor conceived.” As far as David Asper was concerned at that National Gallery party, Martin probably didn’t fall into the nightmare category-yet.
Not long after their first meeting, Asper took exception to another column. This time Martin had suggested that Kim Campbell, former minister of justice and attorney general, and the first woman prime minister of Canada, should be appointed to the Senate. “Campbell would be ideal for the Senate slot,” he wrote. “As a former PM, she would bring some well-needed prestige to the body. At 54, she is still young, full of creative energy and sizzle.” Asper was furious, his anger rooted in his own past. A lawyer by training, he worked to free David Milgaard after he was charged with murder in 1969. As justice minister, Campbell repeatedly shelved Asper’s appeals on Milgaard’s behalf, though eventually his client was exonerated. Martin’s column ran on a Saturday. On Monday he received an e-mail from Asper saying, “You’ve ruined my weekend.” Martin says that he was unaware of Asper’s history with Campbell, though “even if I did know, I still would have written it.” But he concedes that the e-mail made it clear that Asper “really hated that column.”
Martin continued with his work as national affairs columnist, and continued to chafe against the views of CanWest management. Shawinigate, the name coined in reference to investigations into Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s interests in a hotel and golf course in his hometown of Shawinigan, Quebec, was an especially contentious point. Not surprisingly, as Izzy Asper used to be the leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party and, according to Martin, is friends with the prime minister, Martin kept coming back to the subject in his columns, questioning everything from Chrétien’s future in Ottawa to why the media weren’t probing the affair more deeply. In late February 2001, he even wrote a 7,000-word essay that pulled the elements of the story together into a comprehensive summary of the situation. David Asper responded in a letter to the editor published in the National Post and Southam’s other major dailies 10 days later. “The time is now long overdue for Mr. Chrétien’s accusers to ‘put up or shut up’ with facts and hard evidence,” he wrote. In late March, Martin wrote, “Chrétien built his reputation as a politician on an image of a straight shooter. More and more, this is being called into question. More and more, his word is being invalidated.” And indeed, more and more, Martin was keeping the Shawinigate issue in the public eye. “I continued writing about Shawinigate because I knew that if its many tentacles were fleshed out, it was a major scandal, and that others would see and understand this,” he says.
The turning point in Martin’s relations with his corporate owners came the following July. He had just finished a round of golf at the Royal Ottawa Golf Course, with-in an ironic twist of fate-PMO communications director Francie Ducros. Martin knew that Southam’s editor-in-chief, Murdoch Davis, was due to arrive from Winnipeg that day, and he assumed it was a routine sojourn for shoptalk. He recalls that just before he started pushing the Shawinigate issue, Davis had sent him an e-mail saying, “Your work has been superlative-great reporting, wonderful detail, fine writing.”
Martin says, “He followed the spectacular compliment later, telling Peter Robb, my Ottawa bureau chief, how he was so satisfied with my column.” When Davis arrived, they met in Robb’s office, where Davis said to Martin, “Let’s get right to the point, I’ve got bad news.” In no uncertain terms, the national affairs columnist was told that his contract would not be renewed, though Davis insisted that “it’s not because of the quality of your work.” As Davis went on to explain it, Martin’s position would be terminated, though a national political column would be maintained, albeit in a different form. On this point, the Aspers have followed through. Martin’s column has been replaced with the highly controversial national editorials in the National Post and Southam’s other dailies. The editorials come from CanWest’s head office in Winnipeg and are written or assigned by Murdoch Davis. Neither Davis nor the Aspers are willing to talk publicly about the circumstances of Martin’s dismissal, except through a company representative who says such a discussion might be a conflict of interest. Martin, though resigned to his fate, is almost as circumspect. “I’ve been told that Chrétien and the PMO put pressure on the Aspers in regard to my coverage of Shawinigate and I believe it,” he says. “People can draw their own conclusions as to whether that pressure was a significant factor in my dismissal.”
Martin appears strangely unassuming for someone who looms at 6-foot-4, considers a 79 a decent golf score, and slams his tennis serve hard and fast enough to stun his opponents into submission-when he actually gets it over the net. But when he sits down to talk about his career, his massive hands seem to grasp nervously for anything within reach, or play through his thick mop of dead straight silver hair. He crosses and uncrosses his long legs. He doesn’t look you in the eye when he talks, and his voice is barely perceptible, making it hard to believe that he is a figure who has gained such notoriety in the journalistic community. But his work has reverberated all the way from the PMO to the walls of professional athletes’ shower rooms.
When Martin started out as a sports reporter for the Globe in 1974, the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs went so far as to appoint Dave Dunn, one of the defencemen on the team, to keep him off the team bus and out of the locker room. In one case he quoted team owner Harold Ballard as saying, “Inge Hammerstrom could skate into a corner with a half-dozen eggs in his pocket and not break any of them.” At the time, Swedish players had a reputation for being quite weak, and the comment caused a ruckus-the Swedish players were upset about his harsh statements. Then there was the friction between Martin and Hockey Hall-of-Famer Dave Keon. “In response to several assertive stories, Keon marched down the aisle of a plane on a flight to Los Angeles, stopped at my seat, and began berating me, saying my hair was too long and that he and some of the other players were planning to shorten it,” Martin recalls.
The pattern of confrontation continued as Martin shifted his interests to domestic and international political affairs in the ensuing years. In 1975, he covered the preparations for the Montreal Olympics, where he refused to be taken in by the euphoria of the event and instead focused on the corruption that was being ignored by most of his colleagues. When he returned from Montreal, he started to cover politics, asserting his iconoclastic view on Joe Clark, then Progressive Conservative Party leader. “All his reporting on Clark alienated him from the Ottawa bureau,” says John Fraser, his national editor at the time. “I was always defending him. Because he was in Toronto, he wasn’t caught up in the niceties and genial deals between the journalists and the politicians.” And in the end, Martin’s alienation worked to his advantage. Clark’s leadership was very fragile and it collapsed.
The Globe subsequently sent Martin to Washington to cover American politics, though even this posting was far from straightforward. Prior to leaving, Martin and Paul Palango worked on a story about doctors and nurses in Toronto hospitals leaking files to the RCMP. That story led to a royal commission enquiry, which wanted to know where Palango and Martin found the information. While Palango faced the heat, Martin’s Washington posting kept him out of the spotlight. “I could have gone to jail for contempt of court,” he says, “but they couldn’t get me if I was out of the country.”
After Washington, Martin was posted to Moscow. He lobbied hard for the job, anxious to get a glimpse of the other side of the Cold War. He began his three-year stint in 1985, at the inception of Gorbachev’s term as Soviet leader. “Gorbachev made promises of reform and I believed him,” Martin says. “I sensed he was genuine, so I cast my stories in a positive framework.” That didn’t sit well with Martin’s American colleagues in Moscow, who saw him as a pushover for Soviet propaganda. As it turns out, Martin was right. “What I remember most is that he made that call,” says Norman Webster, the editor who assigned Martin to Moscow. “He knew that Gorbachev wasn’t just a pretty face, another old communist, but someone who was going to change things dramatically and irreversibly.”
Talk to Martin’s colleagues and peers and you always get a similar story. He’s a journalist who doesn’t like to run with the pack, who goes his own way no matter what the consequences. Geoffrey Stevens, a former colleague from Martin’s Globe days, says, “He is not part of the journalists’ fraternity-he’s a square peg. He really believes what he writes is the truth, and if that stirs up a little shit, then all the better.”
But even as an outsider, he’s well connected. Growing up in Hamilton, he studied political science at McMaster University and consorted with quite a crew. He recalls that Martin Short used to do imitations of him, Eugene Levy used to throw back beers with him, and Dave Thomas succeeded him as the editor of the university newspaper, The Silhouette. Even now, Martin attracts great contacts, seemingly through luck, but it takes an undeniable skill to make the sorts of connections that come so easily to him. He goes for lunch with Finance Minister Paul Martin. Before Shawinigate, he played golf with Jean Chrétien, despite unearthing some of the juicier anecdotes for the first volume of his Chrétien biography, Chrétien: The Will to Win. After doing more than 250 interviews for the best-selling book, Martin found some stories that Chrétien likely hoped would never catch up with him. One of these recounted an adolescent Chrétien feigning appendicitis, going as far as having a perfectly healthy appendix removed to avoid time at his much-detested boarding school.
For all Martin’s achievements as a journalist and status as an insider in Canadian politics, there remains the question of why CanWest failed to renew his contract as Southam’s national affairs columnist. If, as Davis told Martin, it had nothing to do with the quality of his work, then what was the thinking? Martin expresses frustration at one aspect of the way things were handled-none of the editors at the papers in which his columns appeared were contacted prior to his dismissal. Scott Anderson, editor of the Ottawa Citizen, says he had ongoing discussions with his bosses at Southam, but was never approached specifically in reference to this situation. “I thought very highly of Larry. He was obviously very thorough, very good at digging, he writes well and has a good sense of humour,” he says. Neil Reynolds, editor of Southam’s Vancouver Sun, also had no problems with Martin’s work. “He is an exceptionally wise (and often witty) analyst of people and events-one of the very best, if not the very best, in the country. With Lawrence, you always get a quality piece of work at the end of the day.”
Ostensibly, Martin was laid off because CanWest’s Southam wanted to take a new direction with the column, and the financial burden of keeping Martin on staff, at a salary of about $112,000 a year, was too onerous. In fairness, the monetary argument has to be given consideration. Martin surmises that the corporate course of thought went something like this: “To please our bosses who grant us our TV licence, let’s get rid of this idiot.” The double profit of saving Martin’s salary and silencing a squawking columnist turned out to be an unexpected cause celebre. But Martin, who usually pines for gossip, has been tightlipped about the issue. “A proprietor is a proprietor,” he says. “If you go to the trouble of owning something, you’re going to want to have your finger in the pie. I realize I have to have a mature attitude about this.”
But while Martin hasn’t gone public with his account of the circumstances surrounding his demise at Southam, other journalists have. Globe columnist Lysiane Gagnon bluntly claimed that Martin’s contract was not renewed because of the columns he had written about the Shawinigate issue. CanWest’s Davis addressed Gagnon’s article in a letter to the editor, dismissing her comment as “pure conjecture.”
Compelling conjecture, in the view of many. “He was doing good work, and no one else was fired at the time,” notes Stevens. “When you do layoffs, you do comprehensive layoffs, you don’t pick them off individually. When his three-year contract came up with the Aspers, the message was very clear. They were attacking their own staff for being anti-Chrétien.”
Since the transfer of ownership from Conrad Black to the Aspers, a certain paranoia has pervaded the country’s Southam-run newspaper offices. Some journalists claim their work has been stifled. A couple of writers have resigned. The fear is that the new owners are exerting the rights and privileges of ownership through editorial control. Competing media have wasted no time picking up the story. The Globe was quick to report, for example, that published versions of columns for Montreal’s The Gazette had been altered from the original versions. In early December, many reporters at The Gazette pulled their bylines and composed an open letter of protest to CanWest’s national editorial. In late February, some at the Regina Leader-Postfollowed suit, pulling their bylines after some arguable editing. Stephen Kimber and Stephanie Domet, both columnists for Halifax’s Southam-owned Daily News, resigned because of what they perceive to be CanWest’s censorship, and the ball of dissent is quickly gaining momentum. “People are generally more apprehensive about what they write,” said Globe columnist Jeffrey Simpson in November of last year. “The Aspers are tightening the belt.”
Even Martin himself will concede that things did change with the transfer of ownership. “I’m considerably to the left of Conrad Black and the Aspers are more centralist,” he says. “But I have had more trouble with them.”
Martin, who old friends describe as bright enough to be a brain surgeon but who instead opted for journalism, doesn’t let his apprehension obscure his judgement. After a long career of run-ins with athletes, politicians, editors, and even the law, backing down when it came to a run-in with his employers was inconceivable. And after a very public history of rabblerousing, redirecting his career, and re-emerging in surprisingly favourable positions, he seems to have done it again.
He recently signed a six-figure deal to write the second half of his Chrétien biography, and believes books are a concrete contribution that last longer than the short-lived stories that occupy newspaper pages. It’s a lonely endeavour, and he misses the lively banter of the newsroom, but not the “pack journalism” that he believes sways many writers to compromise their own ideologies by succumbing to peer pressure. He is also writing an intermittent column for the Globe and becoming a familiar figure on the speech and TV commentary circuit, usually focusing on the topic of journalistic perspective. As he says, “I try to be independent-I am not beholden to ideologies, political figures, or fashion of the times.”