Vive la Gazette libre!?

April 5, 2010

Vive la Gazette libre!.

A long time ago, for what now seems like a very brief period, I was a freelancer for the Montreal Gazette. I wrote book reviews and the odd article, mostly on cultural topics. I interviewed Irving Layton on his 80th birthday, and Mavis Gallant when she was 70 and came to Montreal to launch a new book. These were some of the high points.

I left the Gazette under a cloud. I could drag out the dreary details, and weave them into a plot, but I’ll stick to the basics. For six months I had a weekly column, and wrote about books. I got on well with the Books Editor, who was planning an expanded Books and Art section, and asked me to become a regular contributor. One day in January 1994, he invited me out to lunch. I imagined this was to discuss the new section. Instead, he told me he had received an ultimatum from upstairs — meaning the Editor in chief and publisher, Norman Brewster.

The message from the boss was: stop using me as a freelancer, or just forget the expanded section. He was upset, and wanted to hear my side.  I didn’t have a side. I couldn’t begin to imagine how I had become the single biggest obstacle to getting his project approved.  He asked if I had some long-term feud going on and named the managing editor. I  had never even met her.  “Well, she certainly seems to know you.”

Our Peking Duck had arrived, and we had to roll up those little crepes. That gave me something to do while I pondered what to say. Something about me must have ticked off the editors, but what? Why would someone as uninvolved in politics as I was, who had almost no known enemies, become a focal point of so much aggression? In a way, I was relieved. I knew I should never have started writing for the Gazette in the first place. I didn’t belong there. For the 3 or 4 years I’d freelanced on and off, I’d carefully kept my contributions as anodyne as possible. I’d gone out of my way not to reveal how much I despised that paper, which I never read if I could avoid it.

I certainly wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Several times, I’d been stopped in the street by Montrealers who recognized me from my photo and thanked me for writing about things they actually cared about. For a while, I’d even imagined I might settle in and start reaching out to a younger audience. Here was my comeuppance for entertaining such a silly notion.

Of course I would miss the income, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise — just the push I needed! I didn’t tell my editor that, though. I told him I was sorry, and how could I respond to critics I’d never met in person? He seemed dissatisfied but we left it at that. Over the next few months, he handed me rare assignments. In the fall, he had me review Robertson Davies’ unbelievably tedious, incoherent last novel, THE CUNNING MAN.  I no longer cared if I offended the people upstairs. I was shocked that such a mediocre book had even been published, let alone become a best-seller in Toronto. I called it “a dim portrait of the Canadian ruling class in all its tacky self-complacency.”

The publisher of McClelland and Stewart wrote an enraged letter, almost as long as my review, which the Gazette published over three columns. It accused me of being a “Marxist” because I’d used the phrase “ruling class.” A little firestorm broke out at the Gazette, but that week I happened to be in Louisiana at a Rolling Stones’ concert. I arrived home to messages from my editor begging me to respond and defend myself. He said that people around the paper had been “celebrating” all week. Another of those odd moments when I wondered what kind of outfit I had been working for.

In fact, the publisher’s list of accusations were mostly baseless, and easy to refute. I wrote a page-long reply, which appeared the following week in the Letters section of the Gazette. Some editor had reduced it to four lines, adding a sentence of their own which (a) was false, and (b) contradicted the other three lines – making me appear to be a total idiot. I phoned to complain, but no one ever called back.

I was angry and shaken, but not surprised. A couple of years earlier, the Gazette had done the same thing to a friend of mine: misquoted him wildly in a way that ended up damaging his career. They’d also refused to return his calls — it was obviously a pattern. He’d ended up leaving Montreal, a city he loved, out of disgust at their monopoly, and lived in Europe, where he won a major award for his photography before moving to New York.

I felt I had no one to blame but myself  for not cutting all ties with that  faceless gang downtown. I pulled myself together, and got on with my life. No point arguing with a gorilla, especially the kind that ran the Gazette. It seemed very simple and obvious. At the time.

I never wrote for them again. Instead I eked out a small freelance income writing for local weekly entertainment papers, often dipping into my savings to survive. After those ran out, I taught creative writing workshops, was a writer in residence  at a college in British Columbia, spent some time in other countries trying to figure out what to do next. I was still relatively young, more interested in forward motion than gathering hindsight.

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Back in 1990, when I was new to freelancing for the Gazette, I’d been invited to what I thought was a dinner party at the home of a colleague. It turned out to be a meeting of a cabal. When I realized this, and also —  shocking  to me at the time — that the people at this meeting (including my editor) were completely serious about forming a secretive club to further their careers in journalism, I stood up, thanked them all, and walked out. Needless to say, they never invited me to dinner again. Which was fine by me because in my mind, they were a pathetic, deluded bunch of losers and bores. The next best thing to zombies. I had no interest in wasting my life and talent in such company. The fact is, though, for the next twenty years most of them steadily advanced in their careers, while I became roadkill in their rear-view mirror.

Even back then, I was naively grateful for the freedom that came with so-called failure. Free to indulge my fantasies, pursue my eccentric obsessions, I got used to hitting walls, bouncing off them, and running onward to the next adventure. It became my trademark pattern, and considering the alternatives, I have few regrets.

Having distanced myself by rejection from the increasingly controlled world of print journalism, I was able to watch its death throes as one newspaper chain swallowed another. In 1996, I helped launch a class action suit against the Gazette and its parent company, Southam Inc., later bought by Hollinger, later absorbed by CanWest which collapsed in 2009 and filed for bankruptcy protection. Our lawsuit was about electronic rights for freelancers, and like other similar class actions, a possible way to define the future of journalism in the age of the internet.

I’ve spent the past two decades living like a flea on the back of a dying animal. Over time, prospects for freelance writers have grown much bleaker, to the point that independent journalism has almost disappeared as a profession, a casualty of corporate concentration and the proliferation of free information on the web.

The cabal people — those who attended that meeting, and others like them — are still around. Perhaps some now feel they’re hanging on by their fingernails, but most have acquired real estate and middle class lifestyles. As an aging road warrior who no longer can afford my own apartment and live from contract to contract, I still prefer my way of life to theirs.  I’m free to blow with the wind. Whereas some of them seem to be staring into the abyss these days.

I sense their desperation, although I can’t help noticing how well-off they are, compared to me. Then again, when you’ve sold your soul once, it gets easier to keep on doing it. Especially in these “uncertain times.”

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Something else has been going on. Something I could not have imagined, if I hadn’t been watching it develop over decades. Maybe it’s nothing new. Maybe in the past I stupidly ignored the background warnings.

Those I call the “cabal people” have not scattered, or given up. If anything, they’ve pulled together under a new, more secretive cover. They now control my writers’ association. In a way, this makes sense, I suppose: that they would move out into the community, take on new protective colouring — especially now that newspaper jobs are practically non-existent.

These people never seem to start out at the bottom of any organization — but move directly onto the executive, bringing their habits of secrecy and closed-circuit networking along with them. These are people of whom it can be said, “Everything they do will succeed.” In place of ideas or charisma, they have organizational savvy. They sit at meetings, engulfed in an aura of eminence grise. Adept at gathering in grant money, they also determine policy, and most of what they do is behind closed doors. Once a year, they get up at the AGM, present their financial statements, and then withdraw into their chambers to go on running the association in secrecy. Like some mysterious, private club. They don’t see it that way, of course. But all questions and other incursions into their territory are carefully rebuffed while everything they touch runs very, very smoothly.

People will say, that’s how it is. That’s just how organizations work. Who am I to disagree? Except I’ve been observing that there is more going on than mere rule by a clever, able oligarchy. If that were all, the obvious solution would be “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

These former journalists, who I might have considered colleagues in the past, appear to me to have switched professions. They are no longer employed as freelance writers, although some still write articles and books, and get them published. I’m not sure who reads these books and articles. As far as I know, there’s not much of an audience out there for print anymore. And the subjects seem carefully chosen to be inoffensive.

What these writers seem to be involved in, these days, is much closer to surveillance. Since the internet’s viral invasion of every area of our lives, spying has become a universal human function. We are all spies nowadays, and most of us don’t even get paid for it.

*****

There’s another insight I’ve gleaned from all this. I used to assume the people in power were somehow out to get me. But now I realize it’s not me, but “people like me.”  We are in the process of being removed, in ways that make it hard to see what is going on.

When I lost my “job” as a freelancer, at first I took it personally even though I  knew I was just one of many casualties of a much larger phenomenon: consolidation and globalization of the media. This geopolitical trend entailed liquidation of undesirable elements in order to clear the way for our replacements. A new, alien race of journalists displaced the old guard that had  included left wingers, sixties types, people who believed in certain values that stood in the way of total control by faceless strangers. Social activists, rebels, and also indefinable creative types – and the list goes on. It also includes most of the locals, those who had grown up in the city and knew its recent history as a newcomer never can.

As one media giant swallowed another, there were fewer and fewer places left for freelancers. Anyone who didn’t sign up for the secret agenda was on the hit list. And suddenly career advancement depended on being the sort of sociopath who would do anything to get ahead.

First came a whole new climate of extreme censorship. Since writers have sensitive antennae and adapt quickly to changing signals, they soon started practicing self-censorship. Later, they even became “self-policing.”

My writers’ association, which used to be a loose assortment of varied individuals with literary aspirations and abilities, now runs like any corporation. It draws on a network of people, some innocent newcomers, others shadowy lifers. They operate very smoothly. They have 600 members, 5 of whom actually attend the AGM. It’s almost impossible to meet the other 595 – who support the association with their membership fees, sign up for workshops, receive the newsletter, etc.  Like any group of shareholders.

This is convenient for the people who took it over, some years back, and decided this was the way to secure grant money. But it’s not so interesting for anyone raised in a world where, sometimes, writers got together in organizations to express their views on important subjects – lend their weight to political causes – and generally kick up a fuss. Which is what, I always thought, a writer’s role was in this world.

But apparently not.

We have writers’ associations because there are so few other places for them to be. Writers are annoying, as is free speech. One solution is to gather them into organizations, and keep them busy taking workshops, attending readings, etc. – so they’re less likely to notice that all the writing jobs have been taken by company people. Without anyone noticing.

Because, really, nothing succeeds like success. And when you function inside a secretive network, your rise to the top is often inevitable, like the continuous forward motion of a locomotive.

Hello, Brave New World…

**********

I used to think certain people were just more organized, assertive, and professional  — that’s why they got the positions working for the corporations I despised. But now I subscribe to the theory that they are chosen, less for their abilities, than their loyalties. They slide into positions because they already work for the “Company.”

But which company is it? It would be tempting to think “the CIA.” Some of these people do act just like operatives. Most are simply ambitious sociopaths, while others are probably sincerely naive, or just useful idiots.  Like any collection of eager beavers, they come in all shades:  liberal, conservative, even radical. Something unites them, though. They don’t come from “here.” They are not “one of us.” They came from outside, and  moved up a ladder that might as well have been invisible. I couldn’t see it. I stayed at the bottom, and when I climbed, it was only a couple of rungs before I was called to a meeting of the insiders – at least they invited me, once. And once I’d listened and looked, I knew I could never live with myself if I didn’t get up and leave.

But who was the man upstairs, on whose behalf they had called this meeting? That’s what I couldn’t see, back then.

Fifteen years later, it’s become a lot clearer. At the top, in those days. were people like the editor-publisher of the Gazette, whose own ascent to prominence had been swift and inevitable. Starting out as a cub reporter for a small regional paper owned by the young Conrad Black, he’d risen in five years to become Editor-in-chief and Publisher of the Globe and Mail. Quite an achievement! How did he do it? Sheer talent and grit, I guess. Not to mention the Brewster family’s long-standing connections to the CIA and US military.

Norm Brewster’s dad, Lorne, is mentioned in certain CIA files in the MKULTRA archive in Washington, along with the then-chancellor of McGill University, as part of a long list of “friends of McGill University.”  It might seem odd that McGill had so many friends in New York City, during the years it harboured a notorious secret program that used kidnapped children from Quebec orphanages and native reserves .as guinea pigs for the military. That’s a topic for another day, another blog. Also, Norm Brewster’s wife, Pamela happens to be related to a US army General and a Senator — something I learned by visiting her Facebook page and looking at her Thanksgiving photos.

So what’s a family like this doing, running Canadian media?  It’s certainly not Norm’s wide-ranging intellect. It might be his secret society connections, though. I guess some people are bred to power.

I once watched him chair a panel discussion, in which he introduced the first speaker with a series of Masonic hand signals, and suddenly a bright rainbow aura, the intensity of luminous car paint, appeared to surround the woman’s body, and continued pulsating through her entire talk. I thought I must be hallucinating. All around me, the sparse audience appeared to slumber in a deep trance. After a while, her aura settled down and became a brilliant duo-tone purple and green.

That was back in 2003, when I had just begun to wake up to my own past. The panel discussion was on The History of the Scots in Montreal.

It was the first time I had laid eyes on Brewster, the editor who ten years earlier had ended my career as a freelancer at Montreal’s only English-language newspaper. Thin, bald, pale to the point of translucence, he  seemed like a nondescript twin of Mr. Burns , the evil nuclear plant owner on The Simpsons.

The hand gesture he repeated three times in his introduction – bringing fingertips together to form a pyramid — was also one frequently used by Mr. Burns in Simpsons’ episodes. I turned to the man sitting next to me – whom I also just happened to know – and repeated the gesture while whispering in his ear: “That’s a Masonic signal!” He whispered back, “How do you know?” Coincidentally, I’d just been reading about Masonic hand signals on the internet. I knew this represented a calling together of the energies.

The speaker herself was quite frog-like, a Scottish historian from Glasgow. My ancestors also came from there. When her aura  lit up like a Christmas tree, I stole a quick look around the room to see if others were reacting to these subtle fireworks. I saw only bored, pained-looking faces.

Maybe my mimicking this gesture had gained me entrance into some secret ritual. While she droned on, I doodled my thoughts. Sitting on my right was a woman in a blue suit whose eyes were on my notebook. When I wrote “The speaker has a rainbow aura” I noticed she leaned in closer and squinted to read it.

After the panel discussion was over, she turned to me and said “Are you Ann Diamond?”

This was Pamela Brewster, wife of Norm, who was chairing the panel that day in her place. She asked me what I was writing about these days.

Before I could answer, she mentioned a short story of mine she had read years ago. It opened with a scene from my childhood, when my twin brother and I played on an oriental carpet in our living room, which was also the scene of a dream I had at age five – of my mother being bitten by a poisonous snake.

Pam remembered that scene in detail. I certainly found that strange. Only the day before, I’d decided to use that passage as the opening for a new book about my family in the Cold War. And the previous week, I’d spent several hours at the Gazette library, looking through their old clippings about the Allan Memorial Institute, the notorious Montreal psychiatric hospital where CIA-funded experiments were carried out on unwitting patients – including my father, who spent six weeks there in 1962. I’d also taken a walk over to the Montreal Neurological Institute, where my father had been sent for more tests, and noticed the plaque on the wall honouring the Brewster family’s generous donations to neurological research.

Looking into Pam Brewster’s eyes, fixed on me with great attention, I had the strangest feeling she somehow already knew that, too, and also guessed what I was writing about.

It made me uncomfortable to be speaking to her, now.  Or rather, listening to her go on on about how, years ago, she’d attended a performance I had written and presented in the Fringe Festival. I hadn’t known her back then, or  realized she was my fan…

********************************

It wasn’t unlikely she’d heard from someone at the Gazette that I’d been doing research in the library. To gain access to the Gazette library, in their new location, I had to phone ahead and make an appointment the day before. I was asked to present picture ID and wait while my name was entered in their computer by a receptionist sitting in a bullet-proof glass booth, who phoned upstairs to have someone come and escort me up the escalator and into the library. There I had to pay a $25 fee to look at the files I had specified over the phone.

While I was going through the clippings, a man came in and chatted with the librarian for half an hour. I recognized him as someone from the old days – a conservative journalist from Alberta who had made life difficult for a friend of mine. He kept an eye on me while they chatted, but I made no move to acknowledge him. Two hours later, on my way to and from the toilet, I had run into two women I knew who worked there. Both asked me the same question: “What are you doing here?”  One of them had taken my writing workshop, five years earlier.

Given the paranoia in that building, I wasn’t surprised that Pam Brewster seemed awfully interested in what I was writing about these days. And given what had happened, ten years earlier, I felt the need to tread very carefully. I’d sometimes sensed an expectation that I was “the sort of person” who might, someday, surprise them all by walking in there with a weapon. Someone with a grudge against the place. Someone whose life had been ruined, who was crazy enough to go after revenge ..

I was aware of this vague expectation, like a dragonfly shimmering in the air between us, as our eyes met. A look that tells you there had been talk, that maybe I was one of a series of people they had disposed of, over the years. Some of whom had never gotten over it.

And frankly, that felt odd to me. Like a theatre improv game when the director whispers in the ear of the other actor, telling them who you “really are” – without letting you in on the secret. So you ended up acting out an awkward scene, where the other actor’s beliefs have as much concrete presence as any tightly-held belief, because it’s all they have to judge you by, and meanwhile you have to guess what they might be thinking, while trying to be “yourself” — as you understand that self to be…

Meeting me in the hallway, both women had looked alarmed at first sight. Each paused or took a step backward, taking a quick look at my hands, just to make sure I wasn’t packing anything. Then they put on their friendliest smiles, and we chatted. The second woman even invited me to the cafeteria to have a coffee with her and her editor, a friendly Brit who, for all I knew, might even have been the anonymous editor who, long ago, had rewritten my letter, cutting it down to three sentences and adding a fourth of his own. But you would never have guessed that from his friendly manner, as he asked me what I was researching in the library today.

Now that I was seated with an editor who looked senior enough to remember, I asked him if he had known a Gazette reporter named John Robertson, and what became of him after he left Montreal and moved to Winnipeg. The editor had heard of him, and said he would look into it. And that was that. I went back to library and continued reading the Allan Memorial file, which went back to the earliest days of its founding, in 1942.

******************************

I also had asked for another, much smaller file on a related story: the case of a former Montreal Star reporter named John Robertson, who (according to certain sources) had interviewed a young boy in 1962. The boy lived in a group home not far from McGill, and told Robertson about the children who lived in a sealed-off wing of the Allan Memorial, where they were part of secret experiments with LSD, hypnotism, electroshock and sensory isolation, which McGill was doing in collaboration with the US military.

John Robertson was a big-hearted drunk, who took the boy out to a tavern, snuck him in, and talked to him for hours, getting all sorts of details about the experiments and the scientists running them.  But the article he wrote for the Gazette never appeared. It was too sensitive. So, allegedly, Robertson put it away for 15 years, until 1977 – long after the children were dead – when the truth of CIA experiments at McGill made international headlines. In August of 1977, a few days after the story broke, thinking “Now is the time,” he went to his editor with his old typescript and proposed that they run it as part of an expose on the Allan Memorial. The Montreal Star had refused the story, back in 1962, but that was years ago, back in the days when no one knew about the CIA’s involvement.

Robertson had three articles from the unpublished series he’d written back to 1962. One was about the children in the laboratory, and the other was about the involvement of the military, and there was a third.

The Gazette turned him down. It probably seemed incomprehensible to Robertson. It probably shocked him that neither of Montreal’s two Anglo dailies would touch the story of the children. Robertson cared about kids. H was a long-standing advocate for children, especially kids who got in trouble and ended up in group homes and foster care. Writing about them was one of his specialties.

In the years since leaving the Montreal Star and joining the Gazette, he’d also  become a popular talk show host on Radio CJAD, where he’d led a noisy campaign against Bill 101, the law that made French the working language of Quebec.  So, if the Gazette wouldn’t publish his story, he could always air it on the radio.  Children in secret military experiments at McGill? Listeners would have been stunned. It certainly would have made waves, perhaps even caused a scandal, or provoked an investigation…

In the Gazette file on John Robertson, there was a small item dating from that week in August, 1977, only days after the world learned of McGill’s central role in the secret “mind control” program funded by the CIA. It told of how popular talk show host and Gazette reporter John Robertson had suddenly left Montreal for Winnipeg, after he was surrounded by “three men” in the Gazette parking lot, and told his family was in danger if he didn’t get out of town. The three men were reported to be “members of a certain political party in Quebec City.” Readers were expected to fill in the blanks, and conclude that “separatists” from the Parti Quebecois had decided to move on Robertson for his opposition to their language laws.

Robertson left Montreal in August 1977 and never returned.

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April 5, 2010

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