Christie Blatchford was merciless when she saw injustice

by Conrad Black

Friday was the first anniversary of the death of Christie Blatchford, who must rank as one of the outstanding journalists of my time in the Canadian newspaper business, (more than 50 years). A number of readers, among many who miss her yet, have asked several of us at the National Post to elaborate on what we wrote a year ago, and from the perspective of the year, to describe the legacy of her qualities and personality. As I wrote then she was from the rugged northern Québec mining city of Rouyn-Noranda where her father managed a hockey arena. This gave her an early appreciation of the northern frontier of populated Canada, of rugged towns with hard-working men in hard jobs and of equally purposeful but non-emasculating women, and of the integrity and dignity of ordinary people.

It also gave her an early exposure to sports which enabled her to be a pioneer woman in sports reporting. Sports and dramatic subjects, especially criminal trials, became her principal specialties in a journalistic career of 48 years. But she also had the genius of all excellent columnists of being able to cobble together a hilariously good read in a very short time when she was on deadline with no clue of what to write about. Her most frequent fallback subject was her own romantic life, which from her descriptions, was raunchy, good-natured, and punctuated by hilarious incidents.

Because she was so amusing when she made any effort to be, it was easy to overlook the serious and highly perceptive nature of much of her reporting and comment. Most notably she was one of those few journalists who always maintained the distinction between reporting and comment even when a story contained elements of both. There are now very few journalists who do not combine them by simply slanting the reporting to magnify a bias, but Christie Blatchford did not do that. She reported fairly, even when her narrative was interrupted by a tendentious comment. Because she had no vanity, her writing was never pompous, and because she was such a thorough professional, she always went like a terrier for the full story, and once informed from her own diligence and perceptiveness, she was fearless in presenting a story and capping it with her opinion of what she had just faithfully described.

She was firmly rooted in her professional status as a capable and honest reporter and commentator and never imagined herself to be a philosopher or sociologist. And she was anchored by the patriotism of someone who spent her early years in that small part of Canada that was not much influenced by the United States. She did not spend all her time watching American television in Rouyn-Noranda and she was aware from her earliest years that Canada was a bicultural country. Accustomed from her earliest years to severe winters, she was never, as far as I knew, particularly addicted to dalliances in southern climes. She was an unalloyed, dyed-in-the-wool Canadian. Her father was a war veteran and Christie never lost her deep affection for the Canadian military, as she demonstrated in her widely acclaimed reporting on the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

A hockey fan from early days in her father’s arena, her first professional journalistic article was to object to attempts to make hockey a more genteel game. She wrote that it was one of the few things that Canadians were better at than anyone else and that while international hockey was fine, we should not be tamed into making it a softer game on the theory that that is what the fans in Canada wished. She was a kind person, but she was also a tough person: she sought no sympathy for her romantic misadventures, and from my contact with her in the month of her final illness, she engaged in no self-pity at all, though there was no reason that she could not have hoped to continue writing well and unabashedly enjoying herself for another 10 or 15 years. (She was 68.)

She was no bleeding heart but she hated injustice. As a court reporter, she had a strong and intelligent intuition about guilt or innocence; she never rushed to judgment or joined the crowd in condemning an unpopular accused such as Jian Ghomeshi, (or me when I was a criminal defendant). But when she became convinced that someone was corrupt or abusing a position of trust or engaging in objectively despicable activity, she continued to report the facts impartially but rendered her opinions mercilessly. She wasn’t an especially stylish writer, but she was a very effective and clear writer: short sentences, simple words, emphasis on the dramatic and on the humorous, the model of the pithy writer always mindful of length, in the manner of pre-Internet writers who always had to be wary of consuming too much space in a newspaper. I didn’t know her well enough to know if she had any regrets about her career or about not having had a family of her own, but if there were such regrets she was the sort of person who would keep them to herself and never let them get the better of her. She was a professional in all things.

She is missed and now especially because there are so few journalists who are open-minded, who are capable of self-discipline in writing and comment, and who clearly separate the irrefutable facts that occurred from their own analysis. As most of the printed media slowly yields under the relentless pressure of an unlimited amount of internet and television competition, and as our politics coarsen and educational standards decline and the media-consuming public becomes less and less demanding, all conditions which Christie lamented and in her own discrete way resisted as best she could, the premium on the good editor, the clear writer, the reporter of integrity, and the succinct and perceptive commentator becomes greater than ever.

The more endangered the traditional journalism that Christie Blatchford practiced was, the more indispensable she became. And then, over a few months, she died. I was no intimate of hers and it is not for me to put on the airs of the inconsolably aggrieved, but I was an avid reader and a cordial acquaintance and even from that detached perspective I can militate that she is missed as a professional and as a personality. Yeats famously wrote that “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Christie Blatchford was the best in her field, had informed convictions and argued them passionately. There will always be a shortage of diligent journalists who write clearly and never depart their professional integrity. Christie Blatchford will be long and gratefully remembered for many more anniversaries.

First published in National Post.


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