This may sound familiar: A politician makes outrageous statements that are barely tethered to reality. The attending press corps dutifully reports the falsehoods as facts, even as the reporters privately rail against the straitjacket of journalistic conventions which render them little more than glorified stenographers. And when the press finally start to hold the politician to account, he lashes out at the so-called “biased media.”
In the fall of 1965, Anthony Westell, The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief, was struggling with how to cover some of the campaign-trail exaggerations of Tory leader John Diefenbaker and still appear objective. So he began to append, in brackets, information in his reports that contradicted some of Mr. Diefenbaker’s assertions.
After all, as Mr. Westell explained in an unusual feature published three weeks before the Nov. 8 election, “what is fairness in reporting a politician who puts aside his truly remarkable memory for detail when he climbs on the platform and pours forth a private version of the facts?” (After Lester B. Pearson’s Liberals were re-elected, Mr. Diefenbaker swore he would never again speak to The Globe. Some years later, speaking in the House of Commons, Hansard records that he inveighed against the “self-appointed prophets of radio, television, and the press,” singling out “Mr. Weasel – Westell, I beg your pardon, that was a slip of the tongue.”)
The article helped establish Mr. Westell as a so-called “new journalist,” according to his 2002 memoir, The Inside Story: A Life in Journalism. But he was ambivalent about the development. “Was this really my role as a reporter?” he wondered modestly in the book. Still, some were mightily impressed: Broadcaster Eric Malling said Mr. Westell had “invented investigative journalism in Canada” during the campaign.
In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Mr. Westell’s achievements were many and varied. He won three National Newspaper Awards (one each for editorial writing and spot political news coverage with The Globe, and one for a Toronto Star series about changes to processes on Parliament Hill), edited the Literary Review of Canada, wrote three books on politics, served as director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, helped develop the framework for modern political polling in Canada and advocated for causes as varied as free trade and dying with dignity.
Mr. Westell died of metastatic prostate cancer on April 1 at the age of 91.
George Anthony “Tony” Westell was born on Jan. 27, 1926, in the history-soaked southwestern British city of Exeter, the second of three children of Wes, an insurance salesman, and his wife Diana Blanche Westell (née Smedley). “She was from a proud family in genteel decline, with traces of eccentricity, a weakness for gambling, and a tendency to emigrate. He was from a middle class family not long risen from the slums,” Mr. Westell wrote in The Inside Story. His mother passed away when he was six years old, and his unsentimental reaction prompted Mr. Westell to wonder for the rest of his life: “Was I already an unfeeling and introspective child when my mother died, or did her death make me so?”
Leaving school at the age of 15, he landed a job in early 1942 as an apprentice reporter with the afternoon paper, the Express & Echo, which had been sapped of manpower by the war. He covered entertainment, funerals, the courts and other local news before signing on in December, 1943, one month shy of his eighteenth birthday, for a three-year stint in the Royal Navy, which took him to Bora Bora, New Guinea and Australia. Witnessing the sharp divisions between the officers and his working class shipmates made him, “resentful of the sort of class distinction between bosses and workers that I might have accepted as natural in civilian life,” and he began to see himself as a social democrat.
Mr. Westell returned to the paper before moving on to the Evening World of Bristol, where his new neighbour on the reporters’ table, Jeannie Collings, caught his eye. Theirs “was not a romantic declaration of love but a private union of good companions who shared, in addition to the normal passion, a passion for journalism,” he wrote. They married in January, 1950, in a tiny St. Pancras Town Hall ceremony that cost them “about $2.00 in those days.” Their two children were raised largely by Ms. Westell, to whom Mr. Westell dedicated his memoir: “For Jeannie, who made my career possible at the cost of her own.”
Following a succession of Fleet Street jobs, Mr. Westell was refused a promotion to New York correspondent of the Evening Standard because the paper’s owner, the Canadian-born press-baron Lord Beaverbrook (née Max Aitken), decreed: “Small head, big feet. Won’t do.” He landed a reporting job with The Globe (because of his experience, his salary was $1 more than the union rate of $110 a week) just as its new owner, the Montreal millionaire Howard Webster, was expanding it from a provincial to a national paper, and the family moved to Toronto in November, 1956.
After a couple of years, Mr. Westell joined The Globe’s editorial board, later moving to Ottawa to lead that bureau. “A few weeks after I took over as bureau chief, a scandal struck the Liberal government, and other scandals followed one after the other for a couple of years. There were Mafia men and ministerial assistants, call girls and Cabinet ministers, spies and speculation about every sort of skullduggery. Much of it was more sensational than serious, but it made wonderful headlines.”
He agitated for change in the Parliamentary press gallery, pressing for the annual dinner to admit women and escorting the Conservative MP Flora MacDonald to the event.
While Mr. Westell’s reporting often upset politicians, it was also favourably cited more than once in the House of Commons. (On one occasion, MP Robert Andras read almost the entirety of a long A1 story by Mr. Westell into the record.)
He chronicled the country’s fractious flag debate and accompanied prime minister Lester B. Pearson on cross-country train trips and Mr. Diefenbaker on the 1965 campaign trail. He wrote movingly of both leaders’ exits from public life, of the country’s embrace of official bilingualism, and of Trudeaumania.
In 1969, Mr. Westell moved to the Star as a national-affairs columnist. Frustrated with the superficial drumbeat of daily news, he took a two-year leave of absence as a journalism professor at Carleton University, where he could think deeply about the political system and the news industry. In 1975, he and Alan Frizzell, another member of the faculty, organized a telephone survey of Liberal delegates to a conference. The venture became known as the Carleton Journalism Poll, which served as CBC’s pollster in the 1979 and 1980 elections. Later, though, he rued the way polls prompted journalists to emphasize the horse race over serious discussions of policy.
Over the subsequent decades, he toggled between column-writing at the Star and teaching at Carleton, where he became associate dean in 1985 and director of the School of Journalism and Communication in 1988. He spent 1980 as a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing about Canada-U.S. relations, and served as a visiting associate at the Americas Society in New York in 1983.
In the final decade of his life, Mr. Westell was an enthusiastic writer of newspaper op-eds and letters-to-the-editor. He was a particularly vocal advocate of the right to die with dignity and he cheered when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban on physician-assisted death in 2015.
“He thought the timing would work very well for him,” said his daughter-in-law Kimberley Noble, a journalism professor with the University of Guelph-Humber, who noted that he was ill with prostate cancer. (Mr. Westell also leaves his wife, Jeannie; his journalist son, Dan; daughter, Tracy; and granddaughters Lucy and Annabel.)
It was not to be: During an interview with physicians earlier this year, Mr. Westell discovered the new assisted-death law was more restrictive than he might have hoped. “It became quite clear that this desire for a civilized death in his own time ran up against the doctors’ need to establish that they’re ending suffering,” Ms. Noble said.
“He was a very dignified, stoic, British gentleman, and he and his wife, Jeannie, were young people during the war, and they saw a great deal of genuine suffering: death and disfigurement, and terrible family loss.” With that personal history, Ms. Noble said, her father-in-law could not bring himself to admit he was truly suffering.
“They also kept asking, ‘What do you want? What do you really want?’ And I think the answer they want to hear is, ‘I want to die, I want to die.’ And Tony said, ‘What I want is to be at home with my wife, in our beautiful apartment, with a gin and vermouth in my hand, watching the news.’”Report Typo/Error