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    When newspapers lied for political masters

    From before Confederation until nearly the end of the century, almost every significant nineteenth century newspaper in Canada was owned or controlled by either the Liberal or Conservative parties. If at times it did not tell barefaced lies, the party press was “often compelled to keep the vital truth below its breath,” the Toronto Mail asserts, January 8, 1887, in confirming its breakaway stance as a fully independent newspaper. It was the first major Canadian newspaper not controlled by a political party. It had been a Conservative mouthpiece for 15 years. “Un mensonge tout haut, et la vérté tout bas,” said the Mail.

    Toronto's Mail building, home of the Mail newspaper, published from 1872 to 1895 before merging to become the Mail and Empire in 1895 and the Globe and Mail in 1936

    Toronto’s Mail building, home of the Mail newspaper, published 1872 to 1895 before merging to become the Mail and Empire in 1895 and the Globe and Mail in 1936

    So distorted was reporting by the political newspapers that a single event often seemed like two very different happenings. On April 30, 1864, Parliamentary candidates at a nomination meeting at Halifax were greeted with “great hissing;” the audience was filled with “disgust and distrust,” candidate Charles Tupper received “the loudest demonstration of disapproval,” and the meeting broke up in “the wildest uproar and confusion,” according to the anti-Confederate Acadian paper. But in the British Colonist account, the meeting hall was filled to capacity by enthusiastic Confederation supporters; “rapturous plaudits cheered on the able and eloquent speakers;” Tupper “was received with wildest demonstrations of approval;” and those who said otherwise were guilty of “downright lying” and “odious, cowardly, unspeakable manners.”

    In Toronto, John A. Macdonald and other Conservatives launched the Leader in 1853 as a counter to the Globe, the country’s leading Liberal paper, established by George Brown in 1844. But unhappy with the Leader’s performance, the Conservatives withdrew their support and funded the Mail in 1872. Like the Leader editors, those at the Mail ultimately chaffed at party restrictions. While continuing to support Conservative principals, the paper began to oppose a few particular party policies. But now, said a lengthy Mail editorial, “the working partnership between us and the Conservative party has broken down; and nothing remains for us but to… make the Mail an independent journal, serving neither party and criticizing both with the freedom born of a complete deliverance from political ties.”

    With no other form of mass media communication, newspapers wielded great influence on public attitudes in the nineteenth century, which is why political parties sought to control them.

    With the Mail among the vanguard, major Canadian newspapers all became politically independent. But not immediately. With the Mail going its own way, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, late that year organized yet another Toronto Conservative mouthpiece, the Empire. The Mail did not prosper without party support. Seven years after declaring its independence, it merged with the much larger Empire to form the Mail and Empire. In 1936, mining financier George McCullagh bought both the Globe and the Mail and Empire to form today’s Globe and Mail.

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    TAGS: Newspapers. Politics. Journalism. Lies and liars. Globe and Mail, John A. Macdonald.

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