Book Review: Gene Allen’s Making National News cements the influential but little-known role Canadian Press played as a significant cultural force

Gene Allen | Making National News: A History of Canadian Press | University of Toronto Press | Paperback: $34.95

Reviewed by Catherine McKercher

Gene Allen | Making National News: A History of Canadian Press | University of Toronto Press | Paperback: $34.95

Reviewed by Catherine McKercher

Back in the 1970s when I worked at the Canadian Press (CP) in Toronto, my friends and I used to call it the People’s Daily Wire Service. It was a nod to the factory-like atmosphere of the Toronto bureau, where anonymous news workers toiled in obscurity around the clock, collecting, rewriting, processing, packaging and distributing news across the country. Of course, the reference also came with a wink: we made the news; the “real” People’s Daily made it up.

According to Gene Allen’s new book on the history of the Canadian Press, though, we were also making something else: a nation. In Making National News: A History of Canadian Press, Allen argues that while the CBC has been a significant cultural force in Canada, CP has probably been even more influential. Throughout most of the 20th century, virtually every newspaper in Canada—and most broadcasters—got from CP a common base of news, a shared connection that was critical to creating Canada. It’s no coincidence, he writes, that CP’s heyday, from the 1940s to the 1960s or 1970s, was also “a high-water mark for an optimistic sense of Canadian nationality.” As he puts it: “the nation evolved in parallel with the means of its articulation.”

And yet, few scholars have studied the wire service. Like the CP reporters and editors who slipped largely below the public’s radar, the institution itself has attracted relatively little attention.

Allen’s book fills that gap, and fills it well.

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There are two things you need to know about it before you crack the covers, however. First, it concentrates on (roughly) the first 50 years of CP’s existence, the era of telegraphic news transmission. This means it ends around 1970. Second, it is a scholarly, densely researched history of an institution. Allen, a historian and journalism professor at Ryerson University, had unfettered access to CP’s massive corporate archive and explored it thoroughly. The endnotes cover close to 100 pages, almost one-quarter of the book.

The book explores CP as a cultural, economic, social and political force, as a monopoly that was a component of a constantly shifting international news system, and as an organization that, though rooted in telegraphy, was buffeted by and adapted to newer means of communication. Above all, though, Allen sees CP as a nationalizing force. Nationalizing did not depend on nationalist sentiment, he emphasizes. Rather, the telegraph wires that relayed the same news, especially news from Ottawa, to everyone drew the nation together. CP’s reports were fact-based and deliberately non-partisan. They had to be this way, Allen notes, to satisfy the member newspapers, which were free to be as partisan as they wished.

Allen tells the story of CP chronologically, one chapter per decade. Early chapters deal with the origins of the national news co-operative, including the surprising role played by the Associated Press, the contentious issue of whether CP should seek (or accept) government subsidies and CP’s response to the invention and spread of radio. This is important material, though largely institutional.

The chapter on CP during the Second World War offers a livelier narrative. The war gave CP the chance to cement its reputation as the purveyor of Canadian news. CP expanded its staff in London and New York (cutting the budget for home news to compensate for the increased costs), forged close ties with the Canadian military and worked with government censors. Until 1942 it covered the war with a shockingly small reporting staff –a single war correspondent named Ross Munro based in England. Munro’s job was to focus on the Canadian angle of the war, filling his reports with the names and hometowns of the members of Canadian regiments. His main claim to fame, though, was his first-person account of the disastrous Dieppe raid, which attracted wide praise. Allen writes that the initial, censored coverage of the raid was later found to be “radically complete at best and deceptive at worst.”

One of the funniest stories about CP covering the war appears in note 109 of Chapter 4. (Did I mention the book has a lot of endnotes?) It seems that just before D-Day, Munro gave his boss, Gil Purcell, an “eerily accurate” memo on how Munro thought the invasion would unfold. Purcell tucked it in his briefcase. He left the briefcase in a milk bar on the Strand during a blackout. The bar’s owners handed it to the police, who sent it on to Scotland Yard, who sent it to Canadian military headquarters, who called Munro and Purcell in and gave them, in Munro’s words, “utter hell.” But at least Purcell got his briefcase back.

Purcell looms large in the book, as he did in the organization. He began working for CP in 1928 and hoped to become general manager in 1939. The board rejected him then, but gave him the job in 1945. He held it until retiring in 1969.

In the late 1940s, many hoped that the international reputation CP gained during the war would result in a peace-time network of international bureaus. Instead, under Purcell’s leadership, CP turned inward. And in the early 1950s it came close to committing institutional suicide as it fought off an attempt by the American Newspaper Guild to unionize CP’s staff. Allen describes a furious—at times dirty—company campaign to keep the union out. CP fired one out of four journalists, closed the Washington office, threatened to close the Ottawa bureau and deliberately allowed the service to deteriorate. “It took five years after the Guild was defeated for CP’s news operation to recover,” Allen writes, “and the legacy of bitterness lasted much longer.” CP would eventually be unionized, but not until the 1970s.

Allen does a first-rate job of recounting the story of the organizing drive and its outcome. It appears in a chapter that also discusses CP’s growing corporate structure, its ever-evolving dealings with AP and Reuters, the founding of the Broadcast News subsidiary, the development of CP’s French-language and picture services and the opening of a Moscow bureau. This 1950s chapter is a good example of the strengths of Allen’s decade-by-decade approach, which allows for a comprehensive history tied to a clear time frame. At the same time, though, it also shows the challenges his approach poses for handling themes that run across several decades, such as the CP board’s obsession with keeping costs as low as possible, the ever-changing relationships among the international news services or the influence Purcell exerted on CP before, during and after the war.

In his short conclusion, Allen notes that despite the changes CP endured during its early years, the telegraphic era of news distribution in Canada lasted for more than 50 years. It ended when CP converted to multiplexed telephone lines in the 1970s, and that’s when Allen’s book ends too. What happened to CP after that—the appearance of significant numbers of women in the newsroom, the creation and demise of a rival news service, the arrival of the Internet, the departure of key publishing companies from CP and its transformation from non-profit co-operative to business in 2010—is well worth a sequel.

Let’s hope Allen is working on it.

Catherine McKercher is a professor of journalism at Carleton University. She worked at the Canadian Press from 1975 to 1980.