When visiting Britain and Australia last November, I discovered that the mayor of Toronto, Robert Ford, is now the world’s best-known Canadian. He has acknowledged the occasional use of cocaine and, overall, the response to his foibles has been welcome. The world has been astounded to learn that not all English-speaking Canadians are whey-faced, monosyllabic Americans-on-Prozac. They might also learn that the contiguous metropolitan area of Toronto — now home to about seven million — has a very high standard of living and a low crime rate and is one of the world’s more impressive modern cities. The mayor is an ample and florid man who describes himself as ‘350 pounds of fun’, but he departed from Canadian tradition with his candour. Not so unprecedented, he has been clearly intoxicated and incoherent on several public occasions.
Canadians are less philosophical about such lapses than some nationalities, and elements of the local press hyped the story then attempted to shame Mayor Ford into resigning in mid-term because of his perceived unsuitability as a role model for children (as if municipal officials were ever role models for anything; dare we remember Ken Livingstone?). The chief of Toronto’s (quite good) police force told a press conference that he was ‘personally disappointed’ in the mayor (his boss). The mayor has allowed that the chief’s lack of enthusiasm for him is fully requited.
Under considerable pressure from his local opponents, the mayor announced his renunciation of drugs and alcohol and his self-launch into a fitness campaign. The media outlet leading the frenzied assault on the mayor’s rather trivial shortcomings was the Toronto Star, which whipped up a tornado of fatuous outrage. It gave me the opportunity to assist the mayor in frustrating its attempted putsch; several people sent me copies of letters the Star had sent to 70 civic leaders asking why they weren’t demanding the mayor’s immediate resignation and threatening to expose them as moral outcasts if they did not join the lynch mob. I revealed this absurd effort at blackmail in my column in another newspaper and my television programme. I pointed out that the mayor had trimmed city expenses by $638 million over his term, that there were apparently no grounds to lay a charge against him. And, most importantly, that electors would determine the identity of the mayor — not a newspaper. The controversy has subsided in Toronto, though ripples of it seem still to be lapping distant shores. The mayoral election is in October, and Ford may well be re-elected.
On the television programme I just mentioned, I interview people — and spoke to several when in London a few weeks ago, including Boris Johnson and Princess Michael of Kent. The Mayor Ford controversy was at its height and I asked Boris if he had any advice for his Toronto counterpart. I started off saying that he had not been my candidate, because he once accused a political opponent of having ‘other fish to fry besides feathering his own nest’. The malapropism alarmed me. The Mayor of London replied that Ford was ‘obviously thinking of the famous Australian feathered porcupine fish, a great delicacy’.
Princess Michael gave me a charming interview. I asked about the royal family, the Cambridges, Princess Diana, and she was very discreet. She said, ‘The people love to see happy young people and I think the older generation are a bit boring for most people.’ There was not a hint of the slightest lack of respect for any of her in-laws. She said of Diana that she had been ‘very fond of her, very attached to her. She had an enormous amount of goodness in her … she did not have a mother to bring her up and did not have much education.’ The Daily Mail then billed this as ‘an astonishing outburst by Pushy Princess Michael’ and accused her of calling Diana an idiot. Two royal biographers were dragooned in to say that Princess Michael had called Prince Philip a bore and had insulted the Queen. This shows how the lower echelons of the British media can exploit the royal family’s policy of not generating responses to their malicious and often brutal insults.
The newspapers insulted me too, but this is not the place to reply. That is on www.thezoomertv.com. Please watch it (Paul Dacre will love it, as I love him). Here, I will only tell you that I am enjoying the $5 million I won in my libel settlement from my accusers, after every count thrown at me by the corrupt American prosecution service was abandoned, rejected by jurors, or unanimously vacated by the Supreme Court of the United States. I miss Britain and Barbara and I will be back soon, but it all reminds me of how little I miss the British media.
Conrad Black is a former proprietor of this magazine who is now, among other things, the host of a chat show, The Zoomer, on Canadian cable television.