From 1969 to 1977, there existed in Halifax a radical newspaper called The Fourth Estate. Last night, Fourth Estate alumni held a reunion at the Wooden Monkey in Dartmouth. I was honoured to be invited as a guest.
As explained by various speakers at the reunion, The Fourth Estate arrived on the scene when Halifax was still a deeply conservative place—women were not allowed into bars, with the sole exception of the Ladies Beverage Room in the Lord Nelson Hotel’s basement, which in turn was not open to un-escorted men. There was one major newspaper in town, the Chronicle Herald, and it was terrible.
How terrible was the Chronicle? Up until the 1970s it was entirely a boys’ club—none other than Alexa McDonough, who was present last night, was one of the two women reporters hired to break the sex barrier.
And consider this, from the report of the 1970 Davey Senate Committee’s Report on Mass Media. It’s a long clip, but so very worth the read:
As a final entry in this random and admittedly incomplete assortment of journalistic cop-outs, we must refer at some length to the situation in Halifax. The city’s two dailies, the Chronicle-Herald and the Mail-Star, are both owned by the Dennis family; according to the publisher, they are essentially morning and evening editions of the same newspaper. They enjoy a virtual monopoly on print communication in Halifax, and there is probably no large Canadian city that is so badly served by its newspapers. The Mail-Star prints a ringing (and rhyming) declaration of editorial prowess on its masthead. But there is probably no news organization in the country that has managed to achieve such an intimate and uncritical relationship with the local power-structure, or has grown so indifferent to the needs of its readers.
The Dennis newspapers, which are highly profitable, have for years been guilty of uncaring, lazy journalism. This is not merely our opinion.· It appears to be shared by a substantial minority of the reading public in Nova Scotia. How else do you explain the remarkable growth of The 4th Estate, a boat-rocking bi- weekly (now a weekly) that has achieved a circulation of 8,000 in less than a year, and a readership estimated at several times that number? Or that this Committee received more letters from unhappy newspaper readers in Halifax than from any other area in the country?
Nick Fillmore, The 4th Estate’s managing editor, provided the Committee with a list of news stories that broke in his newspaper:
August 14, 1969 -A report that a study to determine the feasibility of harnessing the Bay of Fundy tides showed that the project was technically feasible but financially impractical. (A major story on the same subject, carried by the Chronicle-Herald several weeks later. It was also picked up by the Canadian Press.)
Nov. 20, 1969-A report of irregularities in the handling of liquor seized by a Police Committee Chairman in the town of Liverpool, N .S. (Attorney General’s Department later invited the town’s former police chief to present facts about the administration of justice in the town.)
Dec. 3, 1969 – Report that the first international fisheries agreement was being made to limit the catch of species of fish off the east coast of Canada. (Item reported in early February in the daily press.)
Dec. 25, 1969-Report that the U.S. Defence Department withdrew a signed $3.5-million contract from Fairey Canada Ltd. of Dartmouth, N.S. for defence equipment because of pressure after Canada announced cuts in its NATO forces. (Item unreported so far as I know.)
These are important regional stories. It seems odd that a two-man operation like The 4th Estate could scoop an organization with the resources of the Chronicle-Herald and the Mail-Star on all four of them. It seems even stranger that the Dennis newspapers, once scooped, didn’t follow up these stories immediately – either to enlarge on them or to knock them down.
This may be because the Dennis newspapers appear reluctant to publish anything that might embarrass the government. At the hearings, L. F. Daley, vice- president of the Halifax Herald Limited which publishes the Chronicle Herald, was questioned about the charge – contained in the December 20, 1969 issue of the Globe Magazine – that “in the twelve years in which Robert Stanfield was Premier there wasn’t one word of criticism of his administration in the Halifax papers. But it was that way even before Nova Scotia turned Conservative with Stanfield. While Henry Hicks was Premier, he too was the apple of their eye.” Mr. Daley told us he found that charge “pretty hard to believe.” But he didn’t offer the Committee any instances of the Mail-Star or the mounting editorial campaigns against government policies. Nor were our researchers able to discover any.
The Committee was told of many instances where reporters’ stories were altered allegedly to fit the Dennis “party line.” It is difficult to define exactly the line between “news suppression” and honest disagreements between reporter and editor on matters of taste, emphasis, and presentation. But we think the flatulent nature of the Dennis editorial product supports the view that something very close to news suppression frequently takes place. The interesting thing is that it appears to have happened not to protect the newspaper’s interests, but to further what the publisher deemed to be the public interest. That these interests always seem to coincide with those of the Halifax Establishment recalls a venerable and well-loved piece of English doggerel:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
We find it ironic, and a little sad, that the Chronicle-Herald pride’s itself on being a direct descendant of the Novascotian published by Joseph Howe, the father of Canada’s free and responsible press. What would old Joe – a hell-raiser, a crusader, a baiter of Family Compacts – think of the Halifax newspapers today?
Admittedly, these are strong words; our disappointment with the performance of the Halifax newspapers, as one instance of the kind of journalism we deplore, has been expressed in language that some may deem intemperate. It is only fair to point out that two of our own members believe this; of the three Nova Scotia Senators on the Committee, two have asked that they be dissociated from these comments. In the view of Senator J. M. Macdonald and Senator Frank Welch, the Chronicle-Herald and the Mail-Star are serving their province competently, honestly, and independently in the public interest. They point out that the majority of the Committee, personally unfamiliar with Nova Scotia history and Nova Scotia practice, may apply a yardstick that is inapplicable to Nova Scotia conditions. We respect their position.
Last night, Ralph Surette, a Fourth Estate alum who now has a column in the Chronicle Herald, said that Graham Dennis didn’t see a problem with going 12 years without questioning Robert Stanfield. “It’s not our job to question the government,” Graham told Surrette. “It’s the opposition’s job to question the government, and it’s our job to report what they each said.”
The Fourth Estate alumni all agreed that the Chronicle Herald has improved immensely, and they said The Fourth Estate was responsible. There was a bit of good-natured ribbing back and fourth with Ian Thompson, the Associate Publisher at the Herald, who was also invited to the event. Thompson gave a defence of Graham, a man of his place and time, and several other speakers spoke of Graham as a kind man whose greatest sin was a patriarchal benevolence towards his community.
But about The Fourth Estate. It’s fantastic. You can still read it, as the Nova Scotia Archives has placed every issue on line. This was no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners journalism, taking on the powers that be and making a difference.
Reading the back issues, I’m impressed with a lot of things, but probably most impressed with the paper’s reporting on the landlords and slumlords of the day.
The paper published some notable and worthy writers who would go on to do other great things: McDonough, Stephen Kimber, (now Silver) Don Cameron, Frank Cameron, Surette, and so many more, many present last night.
The Fourth Estate existed in a different time, but many of the issues it addressed are still relevant today. Consider: in the very first issue of The Fourth Estate Nick Filmore and his father, Frank Filmore, explain that they had left an earlier paper, called simply The People, to start a new paper, because of editorial interference by the owners of The People. They go on:
But from the beginning there were some very basic philosophical differences between shareholders [of The People], not only in the matter of editorial policy but in business ethics.
Both Managing Editor Nick Filmore—Now Managing Editor of the 4th Estate, and Frank Filmore, from the beginning, voiced strenuous objections at the attitude displayed by some shareholders towards advertisers.
The Editors believe the demonstrated success of a newspaper is, in itself, all the inducement required to persuade advertisers to use the newspaper’s services.
Advertising is, of course, the lifeblood of any newspaper but the Editors do not believe it is necessary to bulldoze advertisers in the course of solicitations.
The Filmores were dealing with the corrupting influence of advertising on newspapers in 1969; 45 years later, the situation has gotten far, far worse. Thankfully, we now can use a different business model—we don’t need the “lifeblood” of advertising that dead tree newspapers require.
It’s important to recognize the important journalism of the past, and I hope to return to the subject often. Truly, the great journalists of the past have been a huge influence on how I go about my work. They’ve charted this course before, led the way, left signposts everywhere. I’m forever grateful for them, and inspired by them.