The Inside Story: A Life in Journalism

by Anthony Westell
253 pages,
ISBN: 1550023756

Post Your Opinion
by Alexander Craig

"I was thirty-seven before I used the most difficult word in journalism¨I." So said one of the deans of British journalism, Katherine Whitehorn.

Anthony Westell, one of Canada's most experienced journalists, seems to have decided to wait twice as long. He's written previous books, on public policy, but The Inside Story, A Life in Journalism (Dundurn Press, 253 pages $29.99, cloth, ISBN: 1550023756), he declares, is his first, and last, book of reminiscences.

Born in 1926, Westell emigrated from the UK to Canada in 1956, and was a prominent news-person, particularly in Toronto and Ottawa, with the Globe and the Star. ("Toronto in 1956 was an undistinguished city, with no high rises and in fact few buildings of interest.")

With this memoir, we get three books for the price of one: First, there's a long introduction on his early days in England's West Country, which includes his genealogy ("enough eccentrics to help me explain away some of the decisions I have made"). He spent the last two years of the war seeing much of the world with the Royal Navy, ending up, before his twentieth birthday, a Šveteran'. After entering journalism in Exeter and Bristol, he moved to Fleet St., and then emigrated to Canada.

The second section of the book, "A Working Journalist", looks at Ottawa from the inside; the Pearson vs Diefenbaker conflicts, such as the flag debate, the Trudeau era, and so on. He proudly sets out his substantial contribution to the debate on, and introduction of, the free trade agreement with the US.

The final section begins with a chapter entitled "Sideways into a New Career." He became journalism professor at Carleton, and then a university administrator: he'd never been a student, but became an associate dean of arts. Here as elsewhere, we get some crisp observations, as he reflects on his experiences: "To be the chair or director is usually a thankless job, shunned by those who have more sense than ambition, and no misplaced notion of duty. In some perfect past age, universities were said to be communities of scholars. Now they tend to be divided and divisive organizations harbouring competing interest groups."

Technology, it's said, is something invented after we were born. So this is very much a print journalism book¨television was simply not there when Westell began journalism in 1941, and he kept rigorously to the printed page as a political correspondent (and at Carleton he helped pioneer the use of surveys, and contributed a series of books on Canadian general elections). The reader is taken through some of the trends in journalism, and the profession, from changing views on objectivity to the different attitudes of bosses and proprietors.

Why did he choose Canada? Working with the Daily Express group in Fleet Street, he narrowly missed the New York correspondent job because Beaverbrook said of him, "Small head, big feet, won't do." (Both Beaverbrook and his World War One boss, Prime Minister Lloyd George, were small men with large heads and small feet.)

The power of proprietors is still very much in evidence, of course¨perhaps they were the very first to practice personal journalism (they own the presses, after all)¨as can be seen when he resigned in protest from the Canadian News Hall of Fame, after it nominated Conrad Black, then owner of the National Post. This provoked one of the Post's columnists "to write, twice, that she would like to cut my heart out. That's what is known, I suppose, as the new, more personal journalism."

There's a fair number of good, revealing anecdotes, and some interesting photographs here. Westell tells us he is "a journalist rather than a heavy-duty thinker, and I look for simple ways to explain complicated issues¨that is to say, my interpretation of these issues." His Inside Story helps us understand some of Canada's last fifty years. ˛


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