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In case you missed it, the Vancouver Sun celebrated 100 years of print this weekend. Free cupcakes and self-congratulatory pats on the back were in ample supply as old-timers waxed nostalgic about the newspaper business. Gregor Robertson even proclaimed it “Vancouver Sun Day”, and somewhere in Yaletown a purse-dog yawned in boredom.
“Preparing to write this column, I looked at the first edition of the Vancouver Sun,” reads a two-page spread by Stephen Hume in Saturday’s fluffy commemorative edition. “Nothing much has changed. The stories of Feb. 12, 1912, might have popped up on Feb. 12, 2012, and would doubtless have received the same play in the newspaper.”
We took our own look at the paper’s beginnings, and were a little confused by Hume’s assertions. Sure, it’s entirely possible he skipped past the Feb. 12 article accusing Japanese fishermen of poisoning sea creatures with “slime and blood”, or even the adjacent headline, announcing “Hindu captures half-breed thief”, coupled by the curious subhead “Turkey tempts Native Son who falls to attraction of succulent roast.” Not exactly the type of colour stories that will crop up in today’s Canadian Press newswire. But amusing nonetheless.
Yes, there are some colourful moments in the Sun‘s history it would probably rather forget. But since revisionism is as boring as it is lazy, The Dependent has collected some of the paper’s less sterling moments for your Monday reading enjoyment.
‘Greatness Recognising Greatness’
It’s common knowledge that the Sun began as a mouthpiece for the Liberal party.
“Of course this was quite a different model of the press than we know now—back then it was called the party press,” explains Marc Edge, author of Pacific Press and former Vancouver journalist. “Newspapers were started up by political parties to promote their candidates and platforms.”
Back then, the Sun was fond of printing lengthy excerpts of the party’s meeting minutes, full-text political speeches, and virtually anything that would discount the credibility of their conservative rival the News-Advertiser. What is less comfortably discussed, is how long this cozy political relationship lasted.
“The Sun started a Liberal Party organ—a fact they tried to keep secret later on during the ‘50s,” says Edge. Unofficial Liberal sympathies lasted well into the 1970s.
In its infancy, the Sun was used as a bargaining chip in a massive railway scandal. When the Pacific Great Eastern line went south and $25 million in government bailouts “disappeared,” Scottish contractor and key railway player Colonel Jack Stewart bought the paper from its Liberal owners. Stewart thought the publication could help shape public opinion in his company’s favour while he simultaneously picked the public’s pockets. (For good measure, he paid off the Conservative Party, the North Shore Press and the Province, too).
Then, Stewart hastily retreated back to Europe, temporarily leaving his share of the paper with a lowly office assistant by the name of Robert Cromie. Before Stewart had schooled him on the intricacies of business in B.C., Cromie was a bellhop at a Winnipeg hotel.
“Apparently when Stewart came back, Cromie didn’t want to sign it back over,” Edge explains. “So he just kept it.”
Some say he found company stock in a trashcan. Others claim the Sun was a gift in lieu of salary. Whatever the case, the province happened to be chasing Stewart with a $6.9-million lawsuit at the time, a figure which was later cut down to $1.1 million—thanks in part to Cromie’s steadfast testimony.
Thus, with no prior qualifications, and little knowledge of the newspaper industry, the Cromie family began a media empire in Vancouver.
If newspapers are the first draft of history, the Sun was producing a laughably rough draft in the ’30s.
“Bob Cromie was a bit of an eccentric, and he did like to travel and promote other countries,” Edge says. His travels took him to Joseph Stalin’s Russia in 1933, where roughly six million people were dying of starvation due to forced collectivization.
“I ask you to please don’t worry any more about Russia,” Cromie told his staff upon his return. “If Stalin and his group were such monsters, why did not the people turn on them? Why would they stand for it?”
Apparently Cromie wasn’t familiar with the concept of intimidation—or starvation for that matter. Regardless, the front-page lede “Russia has made the grade” went to print, flanked by a boastful “Sun Journalism!” advertisement.
“Mr. Cromie told of his visits to Moscow and Leningrad, his inspections of factories and public institutions, his visits to race courses and soccer fields and his interviews with people in various walks of life,” reads page one Aug. 14.
“He came away impressed by the sincerity of the Russian experiment.”
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, stiff competition heated up between Vancouver’s three major dailies. The Province was leading the pack in circulation, ahead of the Sun and the lagging Herald. All were slashing ad rates and pushing editorial envelopes to stay in the game.
Not pleased with this tiresome arrangement, Robert’s son Don Cromie arranged a fishing getaway with the general manager of Toronto’s Southham Press (the “absentee landlord” who owned the Province). With a handshake over sparkling Howe Sound waters in 1956, the two sealed a deal to buy out the Herald and begin a legally dubious partnership known as Pacific Press.
Canada’s Restrictive Trade Practices Commission was not happy with the monopoly. “It was known as anti-combines legislation here in Canada,” says Edge, “there was an investigation, and they found that yes, this was an illegal combination.”
But while the investigation dragged on, the Sun and Province quietly consolidated operations anyway. Both papers were composed and pressed using the Sun’s facilities. Ads for one paper were not accepted without payment for a corresponding ad in the competition’s pages. They also hiked ad rates, an illegal practice known as “profit pooling.” Cromie and his Southham counterpart argued vehemently that a partnership was financially necessary for the survival of both publications, conveniently forgetting about the Herald altogether. The businessmen expertly danced around the legally binding word “merger,” claiming one or both papers would have folded otherwise.
The anti-combines commission did no such dancing: “Pacific Press Limited is a combine in that it is a merger, trust or monopoly,” reads a statement of evidence presented to both companies. The document adds this competition-stifling monopoly “is likely to operate to the detriment of the public.”
But by the time the decision was delivered in 1960, it was too late for the mutual assets to be separated. “It was difficult to unscramble the omelette they’d made,” says Edge. “The economic necessity argument stuck.”
Remarkably, the commission accepted the amalgamation, only recommending that no further combination or collusion be pursued. (This clause was long forgotten when Southam took full ownership of the Sun in 1980).
Losing Its Soul
One of the Sun’s most celebrated writers of all time was Allan Fotheringham. “In the 1960s and ‘70s he was the Vancouver Sun’s ace political columnist,” writes John Mackie in Saturday’s paper.
But the Sun’s retrospective fails to mention “the Foth” was run out of town by managing editor Bruce Larson, a brush-cutted ambulance chaser who held great contempt for young long-haired idealists.
“Larson basically played out the string and didn’t rock the boat and didn’t make his mark on the Sun at all,” says Edge. “I think it would have been a much different newspaper if Fotheringham had made managing editor or publisher.”
It was new journalism pitted against the old boy’s club, and the Sun‘s management eventually chipped Fotheringham’s name off the masthead, rather than trifle with Larson’s “if it bleeds it leads” formula. “The Sun definitely lost something when they allowed Larson to win that power struggle,” Edge says.
During the same period, Doug “Bulldog” Collins took hold of the Sun‘s opinion pages, filling them with xenophobic diatribes.
“If it is racist to prefer our own traditions and institutions (poor though these may be) to those of others, I am again guilty,” reads page six of a paper dated Sept. 28, 1979. “If it is racist to think that our own Canadian kids should not become minorities in their own schools, and that they are entitled to learn their own language properly instead of waiting around while newcomers from totally alien cultures attempt to learn it, then I am thrice-damned, because I hold the view that Canadian kids have some rights, too.”
“Unfortunately they were wildly popular,” recalls Edge of the Bulldog’s anti-immigration columns. “Immigrants were his target; feminists and academics a close second.”
The Gay Question
In a similar club as Collins was right-wing columnist McKenzie Porter, who, in 1975, said “only the imprudent citizen knowingly elects a homosexual to parliament.”
“It is true that homosexuality often coincides with genius,” Porter admits. “But genius, which sometimes is akin to madness, is not a political asset. What a politician needs more than any other intellectual virtue is common sense. And common sense, as we shall see, rarely occurs in homosexuals.”
The columnist urged that any man who feels the slightest inkling of homosexuality should remove himself from politics immediately. “During my 40 years in journalism, on both sides of the Atlantic, I have acquired many male and female homosexual friends. All make delightful, mentally stimulating company. But I cannot think of one who is suited to political office.”
Around the same time, Porter also campaigned against defecating in company toilets—an act he called an “offence to the eyes, ears and nose of one’s colleagues.”
Speaking of dark sides—when Pink Floyd came to Vancouver for the first time, at the height of their creative output in 1975, music critic Don Stanley emitted several exaggerated yawns.
Stanley said Floyd’s “music varied from stupidly trivial to the charmingly trivial … Both Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters have undistinguished voices.” It was the first concert to bring a live light show to the PNE stage.
“A consistently dull show, in other words.”
And, before we get too excited about celebrating the Sun‘s centennial, it’s worth noting that they’ve actually celebrated it before.
“We celebrate our 100th birthday today doing what we do best,” reads the front page on May 8 of 1986. What the paper did best, it seemed, was bend the truth: it was not the Sun‘s birthday, but rather the centenary of the News-Advertiser, which the Sun bought out in 1917.
This was also around the time cost-cutting measures relieved the paper of many seasoned staff. Critics took note: “What we have today is a paper that looks like a cross between a scrappy, low-rent USA Today and the colour comics,” observed former writer Ian Gill in a Vancouver Magazine feature. “On a good day, it looks just a little bit ugly.”
The Sun and the Province now inhabit the same building at 200 Granville St., a place Edge remembers well. “Once Southham owned both, it’s hard to believe there was true competition,” says Edge, who covered the courts for the Province in the ‘80s.
Edge recalls his paper’s advertising campaigns—from billboards to TV inserts—were slashed to keep the Sun afloat. “They didn’t want the Province to outstrip the Sun,” he says. “I don’t think that’s very competitive, is it?”
But like its first day in print, the Vancouver Sun makes no apologies for its shortcomings. “We do not intend to apologize for any shortcoming which may appear in this initial issue,” reads the paper’s first editorial. The rag goes on to ask readers to overlook its defects as “inevitable” and look closer for underlying merit.
If you can overlook racism, political partisanship, illegal monopolizing, ambulance chasing and questionable musical taste, the Vancouver Sun may just be the “Gosh-Darndest Paper in the West.”