I didn’t know Peter Worthington, co-founder of the Toronto Sun chain, had fallen ill last week until I got an email from a family member. Peter had been in Mexico and on his return a virulent staph infection set in. “Can one see him?” I asked but his organs were already compromised and the reply came a day or two later from son-in-law David Frum. Peter was “down a road on which there are no good destinations . . . every option explained to him by medical team . . . he refused heroic measures.” So Peter remained lucid and aware in his hospital bed, joking with family, his wife, Yvonne by his side. Goodbyes were exchanged and the utter bleakness of the situation was lightened by Worthington’s inevitable need to poke fun at himself. When he had winked at his mischievous granddaughter and whispered, “I’ll see you down there” (referring to hell), when he had stayed tears with laughter, he requested a sedative knowing he would not wake. He was letting go with a smile, a quip, giving his family a final remembrance of him sleeping peacefully. He was 86, but he might as well have been in his twenties. He was, in the best sense, the Peter Pan who never grew old.
There is a moment, less than a beat of a second, when a living being leaves its physical body. What was animate becomes nothing. An empty sac. To see it happen to one you love is indescribable, no words can express this emotional wasteland. Worthington departed with his customary dignity and lack of vanity. He never wanted to draw attention to himself and was deeply suspicious of those who did. Hence his lack of interest in interviewing the Great and Good though they were available to him. He was more curious about the tyrant, the eccentric, the men at the centre of a storm. His autobiography, Looking for Trouble, is both a superb memoir and equally a brilliant reportage and analysis of the modern world. He was a Canadian original who could not even get the Order of Canada—not that he felt he deserved or ever coveted one. That world, dominated by a coalition of media, bureaucrats and intelligentsia all with mildly leftish views, never warmed to him. He was at best, they felt, some anti-intellectual contrarian, certainly not one of them. In fact he was dead straight, a moral man who simply couldn’t turn his back on truth.
Peter’s father was a highly accomplished general. As far as I could see, Peter had two basic loyalties: to the military and to “little” people—ordinary men and women who tried to do something decent. He never completed high school, got into university on a fib, signed up with the Canadian Army to go to Korea. After Korea and re-enrolment in university, he stumbled into journalism. He volunteered to pay for himself to cover the Canadian peacekeepers in Gaza after the 1956 Suez Crisis and never turned back. Biafra, the Congo, Eritrea, he was there at the very worst of times. He was front-row centre when Lee Harvey Oswald was assassinated in Texas. He actually interviewed Aleksandr Kerensky, the provisional Russian prime minister between the czars and Lenin. Worthington was forever in death’s crosshairs. “Danger is a narcotic,” he wrote of his experience in the final years of the bloody Algerian civil war. “Surviving a dangerous situation unleashes such a surge of euphoria that it acts like a drug. One sometimes feels, after enduring stark terror, the need to go back for more.”
He matched up with the Toronto Telegram’s legendary publisher John Bassett who gleefully underwrote Worthington’s search for trouble. When union demands and the Toronto Star’s success forced the 1971 closing of the Telegram, Worthington’s Toronto Sun was born. Not a moment too soon. Canadian journalism had languished unopposed in weedy fields of moral relativism.
The Cold War was at its height in the 1970s. U.S. involvement in Vietnam gave impetus to appeasement with the U.S.S.R. The radical left was setting the agenda and Western values were ridiculed as the putrescence of dead white men. By 1978, the Globe and Mail could actually laud Mao Zedong, the man responsible for an estimated 50 to 70 million murders through deliberate famines and gulags, as “the Great Humanitarian.” Worthington, stationed in the U.S.S.R. in 1965, had become a Cold War warrior. Once back in Canada, he helped defector Igor Gouzenko, ridiculed by the Canadian press, throughout his life. He enabled his Russian interpreter Olga to defect. He gave a home to the intrepid and unfortunately named anti-Communist writer Lubor Zink.
The Toronto Sun was, as Worthington wrote, two papers. “The frivolous superficial Sun of the provocative Sunshine girls, axe murders, three alarm fires . . . and the Sun of deep and genuine concern for democracy and freedom, for Western values and the plight of mankind . . . relentlessly suspicious of the Soviet Union . . . and angry at human rights groups, which we believed actually created racism by their intemperance.” Domestic and foreign policy came noisily together when in 1978 Worthington published an RCMP document listing Canadians who had been co-opted into working for the KGB. Prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a self-professed admirer of the Soviet Union, both denied the information and wanted it withheld. The newspaper, its publisher Doug Creighton and Worthington were all charged under the Official Secrets Act, giving rise to the famous comment by Creighton when the case was dismissed that he was pleased but expected his co-defendant would appeal.
Now, there’s no more room, Peter. I always wrote long. I wish I had seen more of you these last 10 years. We’ve run the clock out. Once again, the banal truth is that we never value valuable people until it is too late. I made a lot of mistakes when we worked together at the Sun and you always tolerated them and helped me out. This mistake I’ll have to deal with all by myself.
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