Peter C. Newman was a plagiarist and a biographer for hire, but I couldn’t say that
For decades he was considered the "dean of Canadian journalism," but that didn't stop the whispers about his dirty little secret
Tradition advises that we not speak ill of the dead, but that seems to have pretty much gone out the window recently with cancel culture. It was actually defenestrated spectacularly in 2001 when racist columnist Doug Collins died and his former employer, the Vancouver Sun, ran an editorial vilifying him. “Even when Mr. Collins was right he was wrong,” it read, “because all he did with his bellicose approach was stoke the unconstructive anger of his supporters.” Collins ruffled a lot of feathers by railing against immigrants as a Sun columnist in the mid-1970s, then quit in a huff and took his poison pen to the suburban North Shore News, where for 14 more years he specialized in Holocaust denial and vilifying Jews, gays and feminists. “His views frequently incited hatred,” the Sun pointed out. “The tragedy of Mr. Collins’ life is that he turned his enormous talent as a writer to useless ends.” His biggest claim to fame was being the first person found guilty of contravening the antihate provisions of B.C.’s Human Rights Code in 1999 for a series of columns he wrote questioning the Holocaust and referring to the film Schindler’s List as “Swindler’s List.”
The recent passing of legendary editor and author Peter C. Newman prompted no similar vitriol, as he was roundly lauded as an icon of Canadian journalism. The former Toronto Star editor, after all, had transformed Maclean’s in the 1970s from a monthly general interest magazine into a must-read weekly news magazine. (Long since restored to monthly publication, it has recently been transformed again, this time into a lifestyle magazine for millennials.) Newman then embarked on a long career as an author, writing 35 books and winning a half-dozen literary awards. He turned his 1975 classic The Canadian Establishment into a trilogy over three decades, and his trilogy on the Hudson’s Bay Company (for which he received a $500,000 advance from Penguin) helped to illuminate Canada’s settler past. Newman specialized in politics and business, lionizing many of Canada’s leaders in both fields including media mogul Conrad Black in 1982’s The Establishment Man when he was only 38 and just at the start of his spectacular rise and fall. Named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978, Newman was promoted to the rank of Companion in 1990.
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Newman has had his detractors over the years, mostly academic historians who objected to the poetic licence he took as a popular historian, as well as his use of “quotations appearing in secondary works,” as one reviewer of 1985’s Company of Adventurers put it.
Nor are Newrnan’s “borrowings” limited to lifting archival quotations from secondary works. The book includes more than thirty unindented lengthy quotations, some nearly a page long, from the secondary authors’ own texts. Much of Newman's text also appears to be a paraphrase of other writers’ work, with only a minority of the references acknowledged in his endnotes.
None were as fierce as Black, however, who turned on Newman after the 2004 publication of his 733-page autobiography, Here Be Dragons, which salaciously reported that Black’s second wife, Barbara Amiel, had “introduced him to the delights of oral sex.” In a writ that was dramatically served on Newman at a gala dinner on the 100th anniversary of Maclean’s, Black sued him for $2.1 million. The alleged libel was not bedroom gossip, but Newman reporting as true the findings of a Securities and Exchange Commission report that alleged Black had operated his newspaper company Hollinger Inc. as a “corporate kleptocracy.” The report prompted a criminal investigation that would eventually see Black sent to prison for five years. (He would later be pardoned by President Trump after writing a glowing biography of him.) Newman soon apologized for repeating the then-unproven allegations.
After Newman reviewed Jean Chretien’s 2007 autobiography My Years as Prime Minister and its publisher took out a quarter-page ad that hinted he hadn't even read the book, Black went after Newman again. He mocked Newman’s books in the National Post he had founded in 1998 for fabrication, exaggeration, and a lack of footnotes. “What he wrote was not history,” Black wrote in a column headlined “A Peddler Of Gossip, Well Past His Prime” that has disappeared online, which is not surprising since much of the Post’s early content was lost with a redesign. More alarming is that it has also been expunged from the Canadian Newsstream database with the notation that “display of this document is currently not permitted.” All that comes up using the headline as search terms are a few letters to the editor and an interesting column. Luckily I downloaded the original at the time. “As a non-fiction biographer,” Black wrote, “Peter Newman does little work and is a shoddy writer.”
He interviews many people, has researchers scan the media and uses every catchy or amusing phrase, regardless of believability, and presents them in a light and sequence that makes his usually destructive case. He then quarrels with his researchers and helpers, who accuse him of lacking rigour.
Newman replied in the Post that “my operational code is to make facts dance; that's why I’ve sold more than two million books,” and added: “All my books are peppered with footnotes.” (I have one of Newman’s books, as you will learn. Its few footnotes are entirely anecdotal.)
Perhaps out of professional courtesy, Black made no mention of Newman’s worst literary sin of all, but his dirty little secret was whispered about for decades in journalism circles and sometimes even referred to vaguely in print. John R. Colombo called him a “footpad” in a 2011 review, which is Olde English slang for a type of thief. “There is something a little sneaky about Newman’s writing,” he wrote, quickly adding in parentheses: “By all accounts he is an honourable, thoughtful and positive person.” His review of Newman’s books Heroes and Mavericks detected a certain sameness to his writing over the previous 50 years. “Probably a better overall title would be People I Have Profiled in the Past and Recycled for the Present and the Future.”
Sandra Gwyn had sniffed out Newman’s tendency to recycle in a 1998 review of Titans when she read his description of Winnipeg as “the Vienna of Canada, a city-state without an empire,” which she recalled reading 17 years earlier in The Acquisitors. “Call it lazy writing. Call it self-indulgence,” she wrote. “It's one thing to recycle the occasional well-turned phrase (which writer hasn't done it, if a bit guiltily?). It's another to elevate auto-plagiarism into a modus operandi.”
But Newman was much more than just an auto-plagiarist. He was an outright thief, as I learned to my dismay in reading his 2008 book Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul. I had recently authored Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company, so I was familiar with just about everything that had ever been written about the late founder of Canwest Global Communications. Much of Izzy rang familiar. Some, it seemed, I had even written myself. Then I began to check Newman’s book against my own. Sure enough he had imported one passage of more than 100 words almost verbatim from my book, omitting a mention of Asper’s father being an alcoholic.
Here is the passage on page 357 of Izzy:
Greenspon, later the Globe’s editor-in-chief, was enthralled by the gregarious Winnipegger, whom he described as “overloaded with energy, charm and brains.” Trevor Cole labeled him “a work of entrepreneurial art” and commented on his pitiless work ethic: “He will work until the dark and corrugated lids of his eyes leave slits to see through and his voice seems to rise from the centre of the earth.”
Here is the paragraph on page 9 of my book:
Greenspon was obviously turned on by the gregarious Winnipeger. He described him in a magazine cover story the next year as “overloaded with energy, charm and brains.” Trevor Cole labeled him “a work of entrepreneurial art” in 1991. “When Izzy fixes on a goal, he is like a four-year olds’ windup toy racer, moving relentlessly forward, bouncing off obstacles and roaring back, until he achieves it.” According to Cole, Asper was “driven by the legacy of a workaholic father…who was never satisfied with himself or his sons.” The result was a “pitiless” work ethic. “He will work until the dark and corrugated lids of his eyes leave him slits to see through and his voice seems to rise from the centre of the earth,” wrote Cole. ‘Then he’ll sleep for a day or more.”
One sentence on the same pages was even reproduced word for word.
Gordon Pitts portrayed him in his 2002 book Kings of Convergence as a man of contradiction—worldly yet firmly grounded by his Manitoba roots: ‘He is very smart but defensive, carrying a two-by-four on his shoulder about being a Westerner and, some say, a Jewish outsider.”
Newman’s book was also sprinkled with interesting anecdotes I had seen reported elsewhere, but he didn’t bother to mention the original authors while I had carefully cited them. One lengthy anecdote was lifted from a National Post profile of Asper written in 2000 by Rod McQueen. That was bad enough, but I then read the same quote in a Maclean’s article Newman wrote in 2009 as Canwest was facing bankruptcy. He claimed it was something Asper “told me when I was researching a book about him.” Another quote, Newman claimed, was something Asper had “emphasized in a later interview.” Instead, it was even older, coming from a 1995 Canadian Business feature by David Berman with the last two words simply reversed.
My old reporter instincts began to kick in and I dove down another rabbit hole when I read Newman’s mention in his Acknowledgements that he had received a “research grant” from the charitable Asper Foundation, the terms of which he declared confidential. I went to the website of the Canada Revenue Agency, where the annual reports of charitable foundations can be found. While Newman was not listed as a grant recipient in the Asper Foundation reports, since he was not a registered charity, its expenditures for “professional and consulting fees” rose from $646,472 in 2004 to $1,484,729 in 2005, when Newman said he started working on Izzy, for an increase of $838,257.
The hypocrisy was off the scale, since Newman’s agent had denied that he would ever do an authorized biography. “Let’s be really, really clear about that,” Michael Levine told the Globe and Mail in 2006. I contacted my late mentor David Spencer, who was then book review editor for J-source, the online publication of the Canadian Journalism Project created by journalism schools. He encouraged me to write up what I had found, which I did, but then we hit a roadblock. J-source editor-in-chief Ivor Shapiro would not let me use the p-word, nor allow in my review the data from the Asper Foundation. I could run the plagiarized passages side by side with my original, but I could not call it plagiarism. My review ran under the headline “Aspers got value for money in commissioned bio,” but it is no longer available on the J-source website, again likely a result of redesign. I posted on my blog of the day the parts that Shapiro wouldn’t allow in my review, but that was before social media, so nobody noticed.
It was an object lesson in Canadian journalism, where even incontrovertible evidence was not enough to indict an icon. I doubt that many journalists would be able to get away with such larceny today. But wait, the story doesn’t end there. I was again prevented from blowing the whistle on Newman and his plagiarism in 2016.
When New Star Books publisher Rolf Maurer approached me to do a book called The News We Deserve (PDF), the idea was to make it a collection of my media criticism articles over the years with a new Introduction that focused on Postmedia Network’s shenanigans in advance of the federal election the previous fall. There would also be a concluding chapter with more recent developments, such as the Heritage ministry hearings into Media and Local Communities, which I had prompted with an outraged visit to Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry’s constituency office in early 2016 after Postmedia merged the newsrooms of its duopoly dailies in four of Canada’s six largest cities. That chapter would also include some ideas I had for helping to improve local news provision in Canada, which would be excerpted in The Tyee, for which I had been writing about media since 2006 before falling out of favour for reasons unknown to me.
Most of the articles would be from academic journals, such as my very first in 2002, “The Press We Deserve,” from which the book took its title, my 2004 demolition of journalism education in Canada, and my 2011 takedown of convergence and the disastrous the effect it had on news media here. Also included would be my exposé in the Canadian Journal of Communication of the CRTC’s mis-named “public benefits” program and my cover story “Can Canada’s Media Be Fixed?” in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives magazine The Monitor, where I am also persona non grata for reasons I can better grasp. (*cough* Unifor *cough*)
I also wanted to include my 2009 blog entry exposing Newman as a plagiarist, but Rolf understandably balked, not wishing to invite a legal action that might have derailed our project. I have thus had to wait until now to tell this story under the principle “dead men can’t sue.” It was almost worth the wait as a way of kicking off my new Substack in style.
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