I have been a bit miffed with the Vancouver Sun for their oversight in not running either an obituary or a memorial piece on the March 6 death of Vancouver choreographer Lola Maclaughlin. You can imagine my anger on seeing a full page obituary on the Sun lawyer and media law expert Barry Gibson in the Saturday Sun. Why would we care?
I was wrong. I noticed that the obituary writer was David Baines (left). I then read and was fascinated since many of the people mentioned in the piece crossed my path, too. The one page obituary is a fascinating history of important events in Vancouver’s past. Barry Gibson as described by Baines was a gem. We have lost an important personality who in many ways, by defending the Vancouver Sun (and other papers and magazines) from libel law suits and to gain information blocked by judges, has helped us in knowing the truth on events that have shaped our city. This obituary deserves wider dissemination. Read it here.
After reading this fine obituary which mentioned that Barry Gibson inherited the beat from that other expert libel lawyer, Peter Butler I remembered a story that I heard from both sides (writers Lyndon Grove and Ben Metcalfe) that involved libel, the media and Peter Butler.
In the early 70s the previous incarnation to Malcolm Parry's Vancouver Magazine was Vancouver Life which was published by Dick MacLean. I met Dick MacLean and his son while renting cars for Tilden Rent-A-Car on Alberni Street because his son washed cars for us. By then Dick Maclean was publishing something called Dick Maclean's Guide which listed events and restaurants in our city. But Vancouver Life was not a bad city magazine. A couple of writers I subsequently worked for, Lyndon Grove and Ray Torresan worked for Dick Maclean's Vancouver Life. Lyndon Grove (who was also a most competent radio announcer with a voice just like Walter Cronkite's) was assigned to write a feature story on Vancouver critics. Grove wrote the piece and submitted it to MacLean. Between submission and the magazine going to press some changes and additions were made to Grove's article without Grove knowing about it. The article asserted that CBC theatre critic Ben Metcalfe, top, right, had the habit of reviewing plays that he had not personally attended. The magazine went to press and the next day Dick MacLean was served a scary document signed by one called Peter Butler. Few knew then or now that Butler was Metcalfe's brother-in-law.
Ben Metcalf died in 2003. Yesterday I called his widow, Dorothy for some sort of corroboration of the story. Grove had told me that he had not written the offending sentence and that his editor had an ax to grind with Metcalfe. Dorothy Metcalfe told me on the phone, "Did you call me to rile me up, Alex?" The writer should have demanded a retraction by the magazine (I do not know if a retraction was made). Writers have to defend their honour and sense of ethics. As she told me I thought of one occasion (and there were others) when an editor of Western Living trashed a story I had written in its entirety and published something he/she wrote but still kept my name. I attempted to defend my honour by calling the editor and saying, "Thank you so very much. You made me sound like Shakespeare." The answer to my cynical remark was a pleasant, "You are welcome." I was unable to make Dorothy Metcalfe understand that loud complaining can blackball a freelance writer and photographer so that work will be impossible to obtain.
Dorothy Metcalfe told me that the direct result of Butler's libel document was, "They settled at the steps of the law courts."
I worked with Ben Metcalf on many stories for what became the next incarnation of Vancouver Life. Vancouver Magazine was published by Ron Stern and edited by Malcolm Parry.
Ben Metcalfe told me many stories. One of them happened when he was a reporter for the Province which at the time was published by Thomson and competed with the Vancouver Sun which was part of the Southam empire. It seems that a group of Mafioso that Metcalf wrote about kidnapped him and kept him for several weeks. I have forgotten how Metcalf escaped his predicament. In another story he told me, "There was this short funny girl who came to pick up my copy at my desk at the paper. Her name was Pat Carney."
Many years later Malcolm Parry assigned writer Mark Budgen to write a profile on MP Pat Carney. In a show of ethics that would have brought a smile on Dorothy Metcalfe's face, Budgen told Parry that he (Budgen) did not agree with the policies of Carney and of her party and that he was not accepting the assignment. Parry then assigned the story to Metcalfe's partner in Greenpeace, Robert Hunter and I took the picture.
Another player in my libel memories was Allan Fotheringham, left, a man I photographed many times. It happened in 1986. I remember that it all happened in an Air Canada jet and that Fotheringham was sitting behind two lawyers and overheard their conversation. He lost the much publicized libel suit. In a 1984 Macleans column he'd stated that the two Vancouver lawyers, both associates of Liberal leader John Turner, were "cementing their connections through the tennis club circuits and the wife-swapping brigades". Despite two printed apologies, the court awarded the lawyers $10,000 each in damages. One of my favourite moments with Dr Foth, as Fotherigham was affectionately called, happened in the 1986 Socred Convention in Whistler that was ultimately won by Bill Vander Zalm. It was nine in the morning and I spied Fotheringham enter with a large brown bag under his arm. I followed him up some stairs. He sat down at his cubicle and pulled a case of beer. He took out a can and opened it. As he began to sip it I took my photo. Alas the colour transparency is not currently in my Fotheringham file!
The last time I photographed him was for a profile in Toronto Life. I was dispatched to some nearby island (Bowen, I believe) and he kindly posed with a martini and his perfectly nude mistress behind him.
For some reasons that I will not go into here I can point out that Fotheringham and Metcalfe did not like each other. Sometime in the early 80s, in his Georgia Straight column, Metcalfe hinted that Fotheringham was having a homosexual affair with the scion of the Southam publishing fortune, Harvey Southam who at the time had started a business magazine called Equity. Southam's office was not far from Malcolm Parry's as they shared a publisher, Ron Stern. Equity quickly became a much better business magazine than BC Business which to my mind featured questionable edtorial content.
One day, a few months after Metcalfe's offensive Straight column, I was returning with Harvey Southam in his white Mercedes from a trip to Whistler. We had gone there to interview (and for me to photograph) Peter Brown, below, who had recently purchased a restaurant there. We were munching chocolate covered expresson beans (not a good snack when navigating tight curves with only one working headlight.
We were chatting about magazines and I decided that I would give Southam a suggestion. "Harvey, I think you should hire some literary writers to write about manly things for your magazine. I would think that Ben Metcalfe would be a good beginning." With a kind smile on his face Southam looked at me and said, "I really admire Ben's writing and his literary capabilities. At this moment, I think I will pass on your suggestion." And that was it. Southam had class and seemed to harbour no animosity to the man. I was impressed. I learned to love the man and we had a fond business relationship.
After Harvey Southam left Equity (in the questionable hands of Mike Campbell, the Premier's brother) Equity ran several covers that would not have passed muster in our more careful times. I wonder what Barry Gibson would have said of a cover (the most infamous of them all) that featured Premier Mike Harcourt and his Finance Minister Glen Clark dressed (courtesy of Photoshop) in Nazi brown shirt uniforms? I know that Harvey Southam would have never allowed it.
Addendum by Lyndon Grove on October 18, 2009
The addendum was preceded by Grove's e-mail
The other evening I stumbled upon one of your blog entries recounting
the tale of the Ben Metcalfe libel suit. Ben is now, I believe, pleading
his case in a higher court. Entertaining story--at this remove--but not
entirely accurate. If you'd like what I believe (Rashomon like) to be
the true story, send an e-message.
Incidentally, I have recently, as a form of cerebral exercise, launched
a blog of my own: here
Trust this finds you enjoying a pot of tea and some mellow jazz.
Regarding the Metcalfe/Grove libel case:
The magazine involved was not Dick MacLean's Vancouver Guide (to which I had contributed the odd piece, and I remember with fondness MacLean's very attractive wife at the time, Carole Stewart, whom I had known at CHQM and later as public relations director at the Hyatt Regency--but that, of course, is not the story).
No, the magazine was Vancouver Life & About Town, launched into life by the flamboyant former Vancouver Sun publisher Don Cromie (who later purchased Palm Springs Life and set into motion Toronto Life). And, in this period, I served as editor (number two or three out of an ultimate six).
The article at the centre of the case was titled "Gentlemen, This Time the Heat's On You." It was intended to be a criticism of Vancouver's reigning critics in all areas of the arts. Through the efforts of Nelles Hamilton, then assistant editor, we were able to draw all of the critics into a studio and photograph them gathered around a stepladder, the significance of which is lost to memory.
To write the article, we commissioned the urbane Bill Phillips, and he turned in the story as required. And that's when the problems began. Some of us felt the piece needed more zip, and, as I had Bill's notes, I began adding material from them to the story, without consulting the writer. Serious error. Among his notes was a comment from Malcolm Black, then artistic director of the Playhouse Theatre Company, who was said to have said something like this: How can Vancouver Life criticize critics when its own critic reviews a play without even seeing it?
I thought this was a charming bit, and threw it into the mix. Ben Metcalfe was then Vancouver Life's theatre critic, and if I had been more than six years old, I would have called him, too. But I didn't. Instead, his lawyer called us. And he wasn't alone. We had a call as well from a lawyer representing Jonathan Baker, a sometime music critic for The Province, a flautist, and a civic official. Both Metcalfe and Baker sued. Metcalfe's case was helped by Black's denial of the words attributed to him. I cannot remember Baker's complaint. In any event, his suit was minor, and Cromie said, "Pay him his two dollars and fifty cents and let him go."
The Metcalfe suit reached the trial stage, and the magazine's eminent and enormously skillful lawyer George Murray, who, like a great football player, could work both offence and defence, was convinced Vancouver Life could win. Indeed, Metcalfe's lawyer, Peter Butler, had approached Murray with a settlement offer. But it happened that a pro-am golf tournament was about to take place at Point Grey, and Cromie had a chance to play on a foursome that could include Palmer or Nicklaus. "How long would I have to be here?" he asked. "A day or two," said Murray. "Well, I can't miss the game. Let's give him the money and go."
And that's what happened. Phillips and I went to Sir Walter Raleigh and had a lunch that lasted the entire afternoon, as Ruben Kopp continued to pour Slivovitz.
I must confess, that almost fifty years later, I have some nervousness in telling this story, worrying that some complainant and his lawyer may leap up out of the past and launch another libel suit. In which case, I say this: this is entirely fiction.
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