When Peter Worthington agreed to be the founding editor of the Toronto Sun, his goal was to kick authority in the shins.
It was 1971, and the already legendary newspaperman had built a reputation for tough reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous war zones for the Toronto Telegram (one legend has him fending off an attack by feral dogs in Vietnam by killing one and throwing the carcass at the other). When that paper folded, he saw an opportunity to replace it with a scrappy tabloid that would fearlessly stand up for the “little guy” with irreverence and a sense of humour.
Decades later, the Sun Media newspaper chain is the largest in the country by number of titles and operates with his founding principles in mind as it agitates and pokes at authority figures and fights for those who have little voice outside its pages. That goes double for the company’s Sun News Network, a television station built on the Sun’s reputation as a source of “hard news and straight talk” with a heavy conservative focus that sets it apart from other news outlets in Canada.
“In the Sun, there is no such thing as the other side [in editorials] – it’s always our way or the highway,” says Mark Bonokoski, a national editorial writer for Sun Media and former publisher of the Ottawa Sun. “That’s what makes working there such a delight.”
Mr. Worthington died Monday, but not before filing his own obituary for the paper’s Tuesday edition. He leaves his wife, Yvonne Crittenden, son Casey Worthington and stepchildren Guy Crittenden and Danielle Crittenden. He had six grandchildren.
The 86-year-old journalist never stopped writing for the paper he founded and was a regular presence in the newsroom, submitting as many as four columns a week on subjects as wide-ranging as his ongoing battle with backyard racoons and the United States military’s decision to allow openly gay soldiers among its ranks.
In an interview last year, he said he was often surprised by the way readers would respond to his work. He was particularly vexed by those who would leave comments on his pieces, saying it was often “depressing” what would receive the most attention.
“Sometimes you hit a chord and you get maybe 400-500 responses and it’s usually about something inconsequential,” he said. “[It’s] not Syria-Afghanistan, it’s something about smoking or hamburgers or dogs or something.”
Mr. Worthington – who served as a platoon commander in the Korean War, helped start the Sun from the ashes of the Toronto Telegram and served 12 years as its editor-in-chief.
Prior to joining the paper, he reported from hot spots around the world as a correspondent for the Toronto Telegram after being hired by J.D. MacFarlane, who encouraged Mr. Worthington to give up his dream of studying at the University of Beirut to pursue a career as an international correspondent.
“He was just looking for a place to work and my father managed to convince him that it made more sense to work at the paper,” said Richard MacFarlane, whose father was the city editor at the Telegram at the time and took pride in hiring Mr. Worthington. “He said ‘If you stay with me, you’ll get all the education and travel that you could want.’”
His faith was well founded – Mr. Worthington became the first Canadian journalist to set up a bureau in Moscow, and used his position to help his translator defect. He was also an eyewitness in a Dallas police station in 1963 as Jack Ruby shot John F. Kennedy’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald, and was in the photo that made its way onto front pages around the world in the following days.
In 1978, he was charged under the Official Secrets Act after using his Sun column to identify 16 Canadians charged with espionage and treason after their dealings with the USSR’s security agency. The charges were dismissed, but cemented his reputation as a fearless defender of the freedom of the press.
“Here was a man who wasn’t afraid to take on anybody,” said Paul Godfrey, who served as chief executive officer of Sun Media and currently runs Postmedia Network Inc. “He was idolized, he was feared, and he was loved.”
Mr. Bonokoski felt that fear – he said many of the writers at the newspaper chain would worry about how their work would be interpreted by Mr. Worthington. While he was old-fashioned in many ways, however, Mr. Worthington would never yell or make a fuss when he wasn’t pleased with something going on in the newsroom.
“I wrote an editorial about Conrad Black that displeased him once because they were friends and I said something about his citizenship,” Mr. Bonokoski said. “It hurt him in a personal way, you could actually see that. He was disappointed in me.”
Mr. Worthington won four National Newspaper Awards during his career, a rare accomplishment that puts him among the most frequent winners since the awards were founded in 1949. He won for feature writing in 1962, staff corresponding in 1969, editorials in 1972 and enterprise reporting in 1978.
And as much as he loved the paper, he was also critical at times. He was fired by co-founder Doug Creighton while promoting his autobiography for suggesting that the Sun wasn’t a real paper, but hired back shortly after and tasked with starting the Ottawa Sun. Rather than dwell on the incident, he simply added a chapter to the autobiography and used it to further promote the book.
“Now includes the inside story of his firing from the Sun,” reads the cover of Looking For Trouble, which also details his failed bid for political office in a 1982 federal by-election. He ran as an independent after losing a nomination for the Progressive Conservative Party.
Mr. Worthington’s last column in the Sun reflected his blunt approach to writing as well as his compassion – it was a call for Canada to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants to “enable them to become citizens.”
“At times it’s useful to compare America with Canada, and so far as ‘illegals’ are concerned, we have a considerable advantage, but only if we get off our rumps and move towards making the backlog of ‘illegals’ into productive citizens,” he wrote.
Mr. Worthington enlisted in the Canadian Navy in 1944 at the age of 17, but was turned away when they realized his age. Service was in his blood – his father was Major-General Frederic Franklin Worthington, who helped found the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps.
He persisted (and aged) and went on to train as an air gunner in the Second World War and was an intelligence officer in the Korean War.
“People overuse the term ‘force of nature,’ but Worthington truly was,” said John Paton, chief executive officer of Digital First Media and founding publisher at the Ottawa Sun. “His journalism career informed his world view and he came to his strong anti-communism stance having been an eyewitness to what was wrought in its name.”
Mr. Paton added: “As an editor, he was also willing to defend your right to your own beliefs, even if they differed from his. He could be difficult, as all talented people are. Has anyone ever worked with a truly talented journalist who wasn’t?”
Writer David Frum wrote in a post Monday morning that his father-in-law – he is married to Mr. Worthington’s stepdaughter, Danielle Crittenden, who is international blogs editor for the Huffington Post – managed to rise above the challenges placed before him as he aged, using many of his most difficult moments as fodder for columns. When he suffered a fall in April that cut his face and left him sprawled on the pavement outside of a grocery store, the paper ran a large photo of his cut-up face to go with his account of the ordeal.
“A gifted athlete and a shrewd businessman, Peter Worthington excelled at everything he did,” Mr. Frum wrote. “He seemed beyond ordinary human weakness: He suffered a heart attack 30 years ago and was saved by a bypass operation. He filed a series of columns for the Sun detailing his operation, and within a very few weeks afterward, celebrated his recovery by climbing China’s Mount Gonga. … If there is a Heaven, Pete’s already baffling the angelic editors of the local press by producing copy faster than they can use it.”