After the collapse of the Hong Kong iMail, which put 100 anglo journos on the street, I "did a runner," as the Aussies say, and left for Canada. There was no chance of getting a job locally.
I made a pit stop in Montreal to see my mother, now lodged in a decent Westmount nursing home run by a Muslim couple, though the wife was as proper a Westmount matron as one could have hoped for. The house was at a slightly more northerly latitude on Metcalfe Avenue than the one we occupied in my youth a block east on Kensington Avenue. Such things are important in Westmount, where social elevation and geographical altitude correspond closely.
Mother was still paralysed on her starboard side and complaining of the thorns in the rose, meaning that despite her acceptable quarters, they could have been better. No change there.
After a joint with Peter Leney, snort with Brian Mitchell and drinks all around town, I headed for Ottawa to bunk in with my putative son and former ward, Derek Reid, now in his twenties. It was 2002. Derek had managed to fashion himself as a "software engineer" after burrowing into the DOS (disc operating system) in my first 386 IBM clone, second 486 desktop and fourth Pentium chip. As a young teen in Montreal, he got the hang of the cyber world and had developed enough knowhow to be hired by an Ottawa software firm that was spreading terror of the coming Armageddon and selling what I long suspected were bogus cures for the bogus Y2K bug.
As the editor of the Suburban, I had pooh-poohed such fears, saying that all we had to do was copy the database on the Town of Mount Royal computers, a smallish, but still substantial local municipality in Montreal, advance the computer clock to 1999 and set the year to 2000, and see what happened when it crossed the line. I never got a satisfactory answer why this was a bad idea--even from Derek--just that better minds than mine had determined the danger and their conclusions should not be ignored. Even the otherwise sensible colonel of the Black Watch was stocking his home with stores and ammunition against the dread date January 1, 2000, when the world's computers would turn into pumpkins. But I always said, despite universal derision, that the Y2K bug terror was bogus.
Now that the dotcom boom had gone bust, Derek was selling marijuana by ingeniously creating a currency of his own--Derek Dollars--rather in the way Montreal's Molson's Brewery, the oldest brewery in North America, did after it started in 1787. The brewery issued Molson Dollars to publicans so they could buy its beer wholesale and resell it retail. They gradually removed the Molson Dollars from circulation as the tide of official currency replaced it. Derek did the same and gradually removed his Derek Dollars from the mix as they were replaced by real Canadian dollars.
He was also financing his dream operation, Red Beaver Bus Company. He had a hippy-dippy plan of having a bus company that would turn a profit, he said, though I never could see how. His idea seemed like the account in Tom Wolfe's 1968 "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who trekked across the US aboard a colorfully painted school bus in a cloud of marijuana smoke, pill-popping LSD from sea to shining sea. Of course, Derek had never heard of this or of Molson Dollars.
But cash-rich Derek had bought a bus and was refitting it with the help of his dope-smoking friends, who worked when they felt like it, which wasn't that often as the Canadian winter temperature fell. I had doubts about the wisdom of the venture, which would load the bus with 15 paying riders and run across the country to idyllic Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. But I held my tongue, as I was impressed with the way he was running his dope peddling operation and was more interested in him helping me build a website for my idea of a legislative news service. He had lost his job as a software engineer, but not his skills. Out of this, we produced a website of my design -legislativenews.org, or LNS--and attached it to his Red Beaver website.
I hated welcoming pages and vowed never to have one. Instead, the legislativenews.org reader was greeted by two columns of clickable one-paragraph items, each with a flag attached. I decided to start with Canada, UK, US and Australia. All had Hansards, or the Congressional Record in the case of the US. They were online and accessible. My plan was to make news stories from their deliberations on topical issues, either from their various houses in plenary session, or in legislative committees, which drew expert testimony.
I might add that with all the dope-smoking going on at Derek's--in which I was too often an eager participant--I was induced to escape to his mother's, a former paramour, who lived a few blocks away. Anne and I had resumed a loving long-distance relationship from Hong Kong, and I even invited her to marry me and pay her way there. She was living on welfare with her rent paid by Big Mother, and was skillfully milking the system with every disability claim and medical allowance imaginable. From her point of view, this was far preferable to being dependent on a man.
Anne and I had written an unpublished and probably unpublishable book, with the unsatisfactory provisional title "Siliad." It was about a newspaper war in Montreal between the leftist establishmentarian Guardian and the rightist community weekly that became the rambunctious Daily Argus. The tale followed the course of Homer's Iliad, with her champions Hector (Victor) and Paris (Morris) on one side and my hero Achilles (O'Calley) and Ajax (Al Jacques) on the other. Canada was secretly run by Theodore Szeus, the governor general. All the politicians were gods and all the journos were the mortal heroes.
The project had consumed our lives for the better part of three years, the only result of which was that we spoke to each other in terms of what happened in the book, to the total bewilderment of anyone within earshot.
I briefly entertained hopes that she could be trained to help me with LNS by doing the writing, freeing me to do the selling, but was quickly disabused of that notion. She could write well enough but would not take orders, necessary to create uniformity in product. Originality was not wanted on the voyage.
Content was not that difficult. I would scan the Congressional Record and the Hansards to find a politician demanding this or that lest there be a dreadful outcome with or without the measure under discussion. Or better still, report expert testimony given to a legislative committee. Sometimes it was controversial, sometimes merely interesting.
The writing was mechanical. Each story would be identified with either a Canadian maple leaf flag, Old Glory, a Union Jack or an Australian Southern Cross, and might begin:
"LONDON (LNS) - There were no irregularities in processing Crown Prosecutions in regards to knife crime in Wales as alleged by Conservative opposition MPs, Solicitor General Harriet Harman told the Commons March 12."
"Responding to Conservative questions Ms Harman said . . ." etc.
There would be a number of paragraphs after that, and 10 to 12 stories a day. At the end of each was a link to the transcript of the legislative debate itself.
I could not interest Anne in this as she was wedded to television, hating George Bush and the usual suspects that arouse feminist ire. So she could not be trusted to make unbiased selections of subjects or give both sides fair treatment once selected. That much I had learned from my experience with her on our Homeric venture. But for every good reason I should have had for ridding myself of my Dark Rosaleen, I loved her anyway. Who said love had to make sense? But with age I discovered, largely through the natural dilution of passion with the passing of years, that reason could rule passion, as one grew and the other diminished.
Derek and I came up with a folder filled with promotional bumf and sent it out to newspapers and news agencies in Canada. I was disappointed that more than one person who saw the folders with the stories laid out like a 19th century newspaper thought they were invented rather than taken from the legislative proceedings. Derek devised an internal search engine, whereby one could identify such specific topics as endangered species, global warming, defence spending or gender equality and find all that was said about them in the four legislatures. Old hat today, but a rare feature back then.
My pitch was simple: I said that we spend much time worrying about whom we elect, but pay little attention to them once elected.
Results were disappointing. No response at all. Even friends like Peter Leney were not impressed. But one day I got a call from an outfit called Informetrica Ltd. One of its founders, Mike McCracken, wanted to talk to me. He and his partner ran a political economic research house, occupying a floor of a respectable Slater Street office building in downtown Ottawa.
They invited me in and thought they might offer LNS on their website and pay me a decent wage. Informetrica fancied itself on the cutting edge of "social media." It was the first time I heard the term. They were in the business of providing opposition parties with economic research to bolster their arguments. This sounded ideal to me.
Informetrica had a big contract with Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (aka Lula) when he was in opposition and had a healthy retainer when he came to power. In these situations, the research capabilities of any government becomes the property of the party in power. Informetrica offered itself as a bargain-basement replacement resource.
It did not strike me at the time that they were all on the left, though it was easy to see that the various people who worked there were leftists, sharing a view that conservatives were bad, or at the very least misguided. This was no different from the composition of newspaper staffs throughout my career. Not that this bothered me, as I was assured that objectivity was all that was required of me, and I was scrupulous in this regard. If anything, I leaned a little left so there would not be any doubt about rightist bias.
I had dreams of making LNS global if only I could get investors. As for staff, all I needed in what I romantically imagined to be my cyber dragoons was a high school education and a command of English equal to the task of stringing together a news story based on legislative transcripts.
I imagined setting up squadrons of East and West Africans, Indians and Pakistanis in air-conditioned warehouses, being paid a pittance producing this stuff en masse. Not just from legislatures but from law courts the world over, as most everything everywhere soon promised to be online.
My life was turning into a 9 to 5 routine, and I was not thinking of ambitious grand plans, but becoming comfortable. It became a regular job I enjoyed doing in a little office of my own. Life was great. Anne, while railing away against Bush et al., liked making sure I had a good breakfast and was well turned-out for work every day. I confess to having enjoyed it, too.
Ottawa is one of the most pleasant places on earth if one is settled in as I was. I remember reading a spy novel of Mossad and Arab secret agents racing around the world killing and thwarting each other's schemes. But when they got to Ottawa, they seemed content to veg out on the grassy banks of Rideau Canal and surveil each other until their Mideast spymasters insisted they get on with more active skullduggery. The author understood Ottawa's soporific charm.
At first, I went to the National Press Club of Canada, but not often. My Informetrica colleagues were members, but I had little in common with them, and there didn't seem to be many newspapermen of the Montreal Men's Press Club type I had long befriended. The crowd seem to be divided between a few stars and their fawning acolytes, and various government information officers, who showed no interest in me nor I in them.
I was beginning to feel alienated from my Canadian confreres and was missing Hong Kong, though journos there were little different from those in Canada. But at least they had been somewhere and made a living in Hong Kong. And I tired of telling locals that contrary to their assumptions, there were probably more beggars in Ottawa than there were in Hong Kong. Not that there were many in either place. But I was fond of saying that if you were just standing around in Hong Kong, you were soon in the way.
I ran into Rosa Harris, a girl I should have married if there were any sense to love at all. She was ideal in many ways. She was the daughter of my father's deputy and brother to Leon Harris, who had been a colleague at the Montreal Gazette and the Montreal Star and a friend in London in the 1960s. But Rosa and I could never push it beyond a sibling relationship.
She had become the editor of Ottawa Magazine, a prosperous lifestyle magazine. I sold her the idea of doing a piece on the Canadian Hansard, which was well received and I hoped as enjoyable to read as it was to research. I found the man who ran the place one of the most engaging men I had ever interviewed and, from what I could see, one of the best loved bosses I have ever encountered.
There are a few things one learns about the dynamics of legislative transcription. One is that an hour contains the same number of words to be transcribed whether it’s a three-member Dorval Island village council or an hour-long session of the 3,000-member Chinese People's Congress. If one person speaks at one time, one hour can fit in roughly the same number of speakers' words as any other hour.
The four legislatures were quite different in style and substance. The Canadians were the most sophisticated, having to operate in two languages and understand reference points from two civilisations as well as needing a common understanding of the ways and methods of their giant neighbour to the south, the United States, and of the United Kingdom. The Canadians also had the longest names, both of members and of constituencies.
By contrast, the Australians had the shortest names and culturally seemed to draw on a population that was chiefly from one ethic group from one district of one city--the east end London Irish and their descendants. Of the four legislatures, the Australians were the most rambunctious, where members were the most frequently "warned" by the Speaker--a prelude to expulsion--and the sergeant-at-arms was a hard-working fellow who deserved every penny he got. The Australians were also given to making the longest speeches.
British legislators were the most amusing, the most witty. The subject matter they handled was also the most diverse because, at these pre-devolution times, there were no provincial or statehouse realms of responsibility as there were in Canada, the US and Australia. In Britain the closing of a tiny village post office could erupt into furious parliamentary debate and produce the odd bit of priceless wit.
The US House of Representatives and the US Senate were more bombastic than witty. But congressmen and senators had substantial numbers of skilled staff who could research questions of a topical nature, tapping into the vast resources of the Congressional Budget Office that could back up utterances with newfound statistics that made speeches newsworthy.
One thing that is unappreciated by non-editors is that while an editor ends up discarding 95 per cent of what he receives, he must read it first to know if it is garbage. This dimension to the job is seldom recognised for the enormous amount of work it is to fill wastepaper baskets with confidence it is bona fide rubbish. This was as true of legislative news copy tasting and the task I found most onerous.
Over the months, it became clear that Derek's Red Beaver Bus venture was going nowhere. His place was raided by the police. Not for dope, but because he had allowed his flat to become a base for squatters and malcontents wanting to rage against Bush during his forthcoming Canadian visit over the Iraq attack. Cops were not interested in marijuana as long as one didn't do it in the street or cause complaint.
Satisfied that he and his pals had nothing incendiary in mind, the cops departed. We argued constantly about Iraq. My objections to Bush's conduct were slight and had to do with that American penchant to do military interventions ineffectively on the cheap, like the 1867-68 Fenian raids against Canada and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. The Yanks usually figured that a band of third-rate disgruntled expatriates would do the heavy lifting and America, like the US Cavalry, would ride in to save the day, firing a few triumphant shots against the fleeing foe to signal a glorious victory.
At first, I was in favour of what Bush had done, though I wished he hadn't looked so pleased with himself. I particularly liked the use of Afghanistan as a segue into Iraq, which I saw as the greatest potential mischief-maker intent on doing us harm. But because the Afghans had been so beastly to women, Bush enjoyed a huge female tailwind to propel his Iraq invasion plans forward. Militarily, Afghanistan did not matter much. I thought it could be handled with B-52 bombers “From a Distance,” in the words of a then popular song. Osama bin Laden was like a star soccer player who had lost the ball and was at the wrong end of the field. I totally backed the Iraq attack, confident that the force was big enough to do the job. Iraq had the opportunity and motivation to train terrorist airline pilots to repeat 9/11 attacks worldwide. What’s more, Richard Butler, the Australian Labor Party luminary and former UNSCOM chief, agreed in his book “Saddam Defiant.” There was near total unanimity back then. Even the virulently anti-Bush media were clicking their heels like Prussian grenadiers after 9/11.
Of course, I had every confidence in the British Army and would have backed the US in Vietnam had the Brits been in it whole hog. Margaret Thatcher had arrested the feminist rot in the army. But I was worried about the American conduct of the war. They were forever talking about "heroes," calling Canadian allies "heroes." Canadians don't do "heroes"; we do first class infantry. We do our best to do the job at hand. Heroics occur, but they are incidental.
However, Americans are Americans and they have their own internal spiritual mechanisms, rather like Tigger in the Winnie the Pooh stories. "The wonderful thing about Tiggers is that Tiggers are wonderful things!" Which, while exasperating, often terrifying and clearly maddening, is nonetheless true, which makes them all the more annoying! Canadian patience was sorely tried when some hotshots from the Illinois Air Guard (a reserve unit!) strafed Canadians, killing four on the ground while they were doing live fire exercises. The Illinois Air Guard, undoubtedly anxious to be heroes in their Chicago clubs, thought the firing on the ground was from the Taliban. Then Bush gushed on about our being heroes. It took a long time before the Taliban killed more Canadians than the Americans did.
I confess to overestimating Saddam's Iraqi strength and his forces' resolve. One had to consider the World II-scale Iran-Iraq War had ended in stalemate after eight years. So Iraq troops were experienced and battle-hardened, unlike the US troops who could only look back on defeat in Vietnam.
I had no faith in the much-vaunted opposition in exile and their ragtag forces, but I do confess to naively accepting that democracy could be imposed, as we imposed it in postwar Germany and Japan. Wanting to believe in my neo-con creed, I admit to blinding myself to the obvious, that opponents of Saddam were divided into factions who hated each other as much as they hated Saddam.
At least the Germans and Japanese were united in wanting to rebuild the good life they enjoyed not so long before. Iraqis had no such fond memories. The three stars in their flag represented the three warring factions--Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds--that had always hated each other and only made peace under savage Turkish rule, then under no less savage British rule when Turkey gave up its holdings after losing World War I.
So I took too much heart when former US president Jimmy Carter, a political foe, declared the resulting election "fair and credible." While I had no reason to question Carter's judgment, I was completely wrong about its significance. Put simply, democracy was not the answer. The Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds still hated each other and their battles raged on, one not wanting to be ruled by the other.
Long before that, I had been taken in by US intelligence estimates that the Iraqis had 370 warplanes housed in secret desert hangars ready to fly out and attack the American invaders as they made their way overland in single file along the road to Baghdad 400 miles to north.
But that did not dawn on me till later. From Iraqi Occupied Kuwait City to Basra was a 100-mile run on a broad front for the Desert Rats, Britain's 7th Armoured Brigade, with their new Challenger 2 tanks that totally outclassed Iraq's Soviet-era armour and Chinese hand-me-down clones. The Brits took Basra handily.
The mass sortie of 370 warplanes that I expected never happened. It struck me that the 350-mile road between Basra and Baghdad with marshy bog on either side was like the I-95 in Florida I hitch-hiked in 1964. Take two steps off the road and I was wading with gators.
So I figured that once the road was filled with an enormous American column a one-time strafe of those 370 warplanes could stop the whole US show in its tracks and it would be hard to fix it because each smoldering vehicle would block attempts of other vehicles to push them out of the way.
Anyway, it didn't happen. It was as if the 370 warplanes disappeared from consciousness. Perhaps they were never there. Simply another canard to keep the fear of Soviets alive after Communism collapsed and Russia became a garden-variety dictatorship. While the Allies destroyed Iraqi interceptors early in the war, it was clear that there was no point sending up more warplanes to be shot down--so little air combat took place after that.
Of course, these thoughts--however all-consuming at the time--had little to do with my work at Informetrica, though the people there were among the few I knew who knew enough about these regions to be worth talking to. Sadly, they were so disparaging of Republicans and conservatives, free with ad hominem dismissals, that tensions tended to develop between us. And, uncaring lout that I am, I was not mindful enough to avoid getting into arguments with my paymasters.
Whether this development resulted in doubts about the quality of my work, I cannot say, though it could not but help accelerate dissatisfaction. Mike McCracken began to complain about political bias in my work. Fortunately, this was easy to disprove, or so I thought. I asked him for examples and he provided them. So I produced the transcripts of the parliamentary proceedings in question. In the three or four examples, I showed him to his satisfaction that, given the input of both sides in these debates, I had been fair.
I think that's when we came to realise that it was not me being unfair; it was the media that provided the bias he sought without seeking. That seemed to be the source of complaint: that my reports were more right-wing than the supposedly right-wing media. What we both came to realise was that the media voted one way, while the bulk of Canadian, British, American and Australian electorates voted the other way, and to cover the people's representatives fairly one would have to paraphrase their conclusions without disparaging them--which is exactly what he didn't want done, though he wanted it to appear to be done that way. That is, he wanted it to look objective but be subjective, yet have deniability that this was so. It was all very awkward.
In these discussions I began to identify what I came to call the MAB: the media-academic-bureaucratic complex. Leftists tend to dismiss my notion as a mad conspiracy theory, but it's not that. There are no Elders of Zion or a Masonic cabal in the works.
No, it’s more of a general area of co-operation and agreement among people who see things the same way. Universities serve as the filtration service for the other two sectors; that is, one cannot get a shot at the top jobs without the blessing of the academy before entry into the media or bureaucracy. Some areas are shielded from this, though decreasingly so. In the academy the exceptions are in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, where 2+2 must equal 4, and Hillsdale College; in the media, Fox News, the Washington Times and the Orange County Register; and in the bureaucracy, the US Marines and US Special Forces. Thus, the MAB is another party and in no way represents the attitudes of most people who, judging from electoral results, are as much to the right as the MAB is to the left.
MABsters tend to believe in more government, more regulation, prioritizing health and safety, and demand rules and regulations that further these objectives, aka "perceived needs of the community." And the more women they take on, the more they believe it; and as they take on more women, they increase believers in absolute numbers.
I remember in the 1970s, when the bias became accepted, what they called the New Journalism seemed very much like the old journalism of the 17th and 18th centuries. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that objectivity made its lasting debut. It governed the craft for the next 130 years in its greatest period of growth, with its subsequent, if not consequent, decline marked by the rise of New Journalism's licensed, self-righteous bias.
Nineteenth-century objectivity came in with Darwinism and the popularisation of scientific method. That, together with the speed provided and the brevity demanded by the new telegraphic style, discouraged opinion and nuance, and gave rise to the news agency wire service.
Reuters news agency first sold news of business, war and diplomacy to banks and financial houses before retailing it to newspapers in the 1850s. Reuters was entirely objective as was its contemporary, the New York Associated Press, later simply The Associated Press. News agencies sold news to rival newspapers, which supported opposing political causes.
Thus, news agencies were the first to find that objectivity paid, and they proved to be its most consistent champions ever since. But as junior journalists became senior journalists from the '60s and '70s into the '80s and '90s, what was once the view of rebellious youth became establishment thinking. Thus, in 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists dropped "objectivity" from its ethics code. Instead, the goal now was to seek "truth." This was justified because as one could not be truly objective, there was little point in trying. And if one could not be entirely truthful, one might as well resort to falsehood; and in the aid of a political cause, one now aimed for "credibility." Fibbing in a good cause was no sin.
This set the tone for the fading of objectivity in favour of subjectivity, taking place so imperceptibly that no one appreciated it was happening. The fact that journalists shared political views was no more noticed than a wind at one's back. Of course, headwinds were instantly felt by those on the right--as evidenced by rousing cheers Republican candidates received from audiences the moment they criticised the media.
In vain I made this point to McCracken. While he listened sympathetically--he was the classic nice guy--and appeared to be understanding of my plight, he simply concluded that that "we were not a good fit" and that ended my time with Informetrica.
After week or two of languishing about in the so-called Land of Opportunity and continuing to supply my website, now solely attached to Derek's Red Beaver website, which lived on in the hope of revival, I thought it best to return to Hong Kong. There at least I would run into people who did not think a conservative view of politics was completely mad.