Borden Spears: Reporter, Editor, Critic
Chris Redmond is Director of Internal Communications at the University
Borden Spears (1913-1983) was a newspaper editor and watcher whose platform was the ombudsman’s corner in the Toronto Star and eventually the Royal Commission on Newspapers. In this modest book are collected some dozens of Spears’s thoughts about newspapers, chiefly columns that appeared in the Star and appreciations of him and his work by another of Canada’s vocal media observers, Dick MacDonald.
As ombudsman, Spears would report on errors made by the Star and on trends and quirks in the way it explained the world to Toronto. Columns thus deal with sloppiness by reporters and (especially) headline writers, simplistic use of statistics, and unfairness to prickly minorities. Others take on larger issues — press freedom in various countries, relations among media and business and government, the meaning of “news” itself.
Spears clearly loved newspapers and saw blemishes in them, not cancers. One essay after another commends Canadian newspapers, or at least insists that they are better than readers have any reason to expect, for all their regrettable mistakes and biases. Newspaper people reading this book will love Spears; others may find themselves wondering whether his apology for journalism doesn’t become a little defensive after a while.
Having made a career out of defending newspapers, even while scolding editors for using “suicide” as a verb and calling the worship of Krishna a cult, Spears spent his last couple of years as a member of a royal commission that scared newspapers nearly to death by recommending limits on media ownership and contracts between editors and their employers. The last chapter in this book sets out his thoughts on those issues; critics who thought Spears had sold out to government might be surprised to find him defending not newspaper owners but journalists, and seeking always to put more defences around journalists’ freedom to observe and write.
In good English, of course. Spears wrote good plain English himself and did not try to hide his liberal education. He used the occasional Latin phrase, the occasional historical or literary allusion. Nor did he hide other aspects of himself, such as his quiet United Church faith, which was a bulwark and which comes out not only in essays or newspaper coverage of religion (pretty poor, he said) but in less predictable places.
MacDonald presents Spears — as Spears presented himself in the pages of the Star — as kindly, sharp, and wise, a universal uncle to journalists and to the public who rely on them. You need not agree with every word Spears writes in order to realize that here was someone who, after a lifetime in the world of newspapers, was still deeply aware of their purpose and their frequent failure to achieve it. But, he would add, there was still hope that they could.