Friday, 25 September 2009

Downing re Fisher

John Downing, former editor of the Toronto Sun and a Day Oner, remembers Doug Fisher:

Doug Fisher was such a giant, both in stature and as a political commentator, that all the eulogies after his death never quite caught all of him.

Peter Worthington came closest when he called him a "Renaissance man." And Editor Worthington certainly captured the essence of what Doug meant to the Sun when he was there on Day One.

He gave us instant credibility with the politicians at all levels, and if people don't think that's important, they weren't around for the municipal ad boycotts of the Sun when I ran a column the local clutch-and-grabbers didn't like.

(There was some fuss recently about him often being overlooked in the tallies of Day Oners. When I was his editor, I know from several dealings on his behalf with Doug Creighton that not only did Doug consider him one of the originals, he was treated that way financially and Creighton was more furious than I was when the pay office one year missed his Christmas bonus.)

Doug Fisher had an even temper most of the time, which I think came from the hard years of World War 2 listening to the "brazen throat of war," and also from his years in the bear pit of the Commons as an MP and deputy house leader. He was used to BS, but never shrank from fighting it.

He was a keen observer of all the writers and editors around him and loved assessing young reporters as to their future. We consulted him about hirings. He despaired over some Sun writers and some of the things we did, but was loyal and kept it hidden.

But he hated one of our columnists for his "malice and lies" and pleaded with me to keep him out of his way because he was worried what would happen in a confrontation. The writer was half Doug's age and in reasonable shape, so I observed I didn't think he would punch Doug.

"No," Doug said, "I'm afraid I would kill him."

Doug couldn't stand the honours of journalism. There was something phoney and arbitrary about them, he felt. So I submitted some of his insightful columns to the NNAs and he was a finalist. He never said anything to me, but he came to Toronto and went to the awards even though he hated the experience. His son Matthew told me that Doug didn't want to dishonour the Sun or its Editor by not appearing.

I didn't learn because I proposed Doug for the Canadian News Hall of Fame and he was accepted. He came to the dinner and was gracious, but once again I was told privately he didn't really want to do it.

Doug's files were famous. He had the best political files around and Liberal and Tory prime ministers told me they would like their officials to get their hands on them after Doug retired.

The Sun paid extra rent just to house Doug's rows of metal filing cabinets. But then he had to winnow them down, and then he retired away from them. Now, Google and the Internet can be used to dig out in a hurry background that only Doug two decades ago could produce instantly to buttress his columns.

Doug also was a sports historian of note, and at one point was chair of Hockey Canada. It was Hockey Canada, of course, who presided over the famous Canada-Soviet hockey series/brawl of 1972.

I hope Doug has written somewhere, and I missed them, the wonderful stories behind the series. I think it was Alan Eagleson who confessed to me that there were some hassles over hotel bills etc. and the big chartered plane wasn't allowed to leave Moscow until Doug volunteered his credit card.

Doug had his own TV show in Ottawa that ran for more than 25 years, a record, but was also often called on to do national commentary for the CBC. I grumbled to him that I knew the CBC disliked the Sun because of our raucous criticism (led by Worthington), but it would be nice if they stopped identifying him as a syndicated writer and said he was from the Toronto Sun. When the Ottawa producers kept refusing, Doug said he wouldn't do any more appearances until they did. It could have been a costly decision, but the CBC gave in. Which was a nice change from the endless barrage of talking heads from the Globe and Star.

When a columnist writes through five decades, there can be tensions over editing. (As I know.) And Doug's sentences on some occasions could ramble from convolutions to thickets of facts. After all, he knew so much about everything because he was such an omnivorous reader. He would devour a thick book in an evening. So column changes would be made, and most of the time he accepted them and used to publicly praise Associate Editor Glen Woodcock for his pruning.

But then Doug was an honest, gifted tireless worker at whatever chore he chose. If only we had dozens of such men in the House. Then it wouldn't be quite so common.

Thank you for your e-mail, John.

Memories of Doug Fisher can be e-mailed to TSF.

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