The Power of the Press Undiminished

“By all means let us have clean politics. This paper has long been laboring to keep Provincial politics clean. But with little success.”

The appeal was the lead editorial in the Daily Colonist on Tuesday, August 22, 1916, as the British Columbia moved into the final weeks of a general election campaign with voting day set for September 14. It was a two party fight with the Conservatives favoured to defeat the Liberals in a canter.

The Liberals were under the leadership of Harland Carey Brewster who was making a second attempt to get least a foot inside the Legislative Chamber. Brewster’s first shot for the brass ring was in the election of 1912 when he waged verbal war against Richard McBride’s Tories – and suffered wipe-out.

Of the 42 seats in the 1912 house McBride’s Conservatives won 39, the Social Democrats and the Socialist Party of Canada managed one each with the final seat going to an Independent Conservative. No Liberals. Two years later McBride resigned after being appointed British Columbia’s Agent General in London, England. He was replaced by his right hand man William John Bowser. Brewster was ready for the re-match.

So the Colonist, which had revered McBride along with most of the province, quickly reaffirmed its support with its demure request for a good clean fight especially from “the Opposition (which) has poured forth such a flood of vileness.”

Having waxed hard and long for “clean politics,” the newspaper dropped the gloves for a little editorial bare knuckles seemingly unaware that Brewster without a seat in the Legislature was not and never had been leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

“The truth is,” it roared, “that the Liberals have no other weapon at their command than misrepresentation and vituperation.”

That was just for openers. The Colonist declared that the Liberals in the two years they were wandering the political wilderness with no voice in the Legislature had swamped British Columbia and Canada in “the dirtiest mess ever disclosed in provincial politics for absolute, needless, nastiness. It is without parallel in the history of the Dominion.”

It named M. A. Macdonald, a Liberal candidate in Vancouver, and the Provincial Liberal Association as the active authors of unpleasant words and accusations claiming private detectives had been employed “to snoop” on the Conservatives.

The newspaper strongly hinted some of the vigilantes were from south of the 49th Parallel. “One of the snoopers was afterwards jailed for perjury … another is in jail in Seattle for some offence and, as far as we have seen, has not denied that he has been guilty of bigamy.”

If the Colonist editor was alive today Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton would be making offers for service as a speech writer. He – and we can be sure that in 1916 it was a “he” – could work either side of the fence. Who could deny the appeal of: “Let us by all means have clean politics; (it would) begin by ceasing to allude, as the Liberals do, that every Conservative minister is the incarnation of dishonesty and either engaged in stealing public money or else planning to do so.”

The Colonist writer saved one final broadside for the Liberal power brokers whose blind support for Liberals “is enough to make one ill …and yet it is to put such men in power that Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper is lending all the weight of his distinguished name and such influence as he has been able to acquire. Clean politics; political purity. Doesn’t it jar you?”

Yes, and it still does. As do editorial writers, columnists and twitters who cite assumptions as facts.

(In 1916, voters noted the Colonist rhetoric, ignored it and elected 36 Liberals. Only nine Conservatives and two Independents survived. So much for the power of the press which remains undiminished and unchanged a century later.)


One comment

  1. People may pay attention to sermons but rarely heed newspaper editorials. In my newspaper career I worked in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In the first case the socialist CCF held power for 20 straight years despite the vehement editorial opposition of the province’s two principal dailies. They only fell from grace because of the introduction of medicare, not the instructions to voters from editorial writers.

    It was similar in Alberta with an even longer reign for the Social Credit party and equally vigorous editorial contempt. The Socreds died a natural death, unhastened by the press.

    It is a sign of democratic health that voters will think for themselves.

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