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Tracing the remarkable career of a real newsman

Tracing the remarkable career of a real newsman

Yesterday’s obituary marking the passing of former Journalist Gerry McAuliffe touched on his journalism career with the comment “While he lacked any formal education, he became an award-winning investigative journalist in print, television and radio. Particularly passionate about investigating injustices and exposing police misconduct, his writing and reporting provoked many public inquiries and policy changes.”

And indeed, he did. Gerry worked for the Hamilton Spectator in the 1960’s and early 1970’s when that paper had a newsroom with 200 reporters and had investigative teams featuring the likes of Gerry, Jim Travers, Peter Moon, Phil Gibson and others. Former colleagues remember Gerry as not fitting the mould of the hard-drinking reporter, but in every other way a determined journalist who saw the craft as a means to writing wrongs and rooting out dishonesty.

He was part of the investigative team that unveiled the story of George Clinton Duke, a Burlington lawn equipment dealer with a criminal past, who had cozy relationships with high-ranking OPP officials and members of the mafia at the same time. A public inquiry into the matter was called and Gerry gave testimony, but true to his professional code would not reveal the names of his sources even though he was threatened with being jailed for contempt. It used to be said that no journalist worth his or her salt had never been named in a libel suit, and Gerry was sued in 1970 by one of the OPP chiefs.

In 1973, now with the Globe and Mail, McAuliffe co-authored a story abut the lavish  annual party that was given by one of the Province’s biggest developers, who eventually developed Glen Abbey, for 350 provincial and municipal politicians, officials and their wives at Toronto’s swanky Old Mill. The best quote in the story comes from the then Metro Planning Commissioner who told McAuliffe he had been attending the party for the past 15 years and asked, apparently seriously, “what possible conflict could there be?”

In 1974 Gerry wrote articles investigating Ontario’s Workmen’s Compensation Board, that led to a parliamentary inquiry and the removal of the Board’s Chairman. In a column the same year, legendary columnist Scott Young reminded his readers that Gerry had written an article in 1969 that had revealed some significant real estate holdings and possible conflicts by a prominent Ontario Cabinet minister. McAuliffe’s name was in the news also in 1974 in connection with the enquiry into criminal activity in Ontario’s construction unions that was triggered by a series of investigative stories written by Gerry.

In 1975 Gerry left the Globe to join CBC where he could practice his brand of journalism without worrying about offending advertisers. He told a reporter that he had nothing but praise for the CBC because “they let him do what he wants to do.”

Always pursuing worthy causes, McAuliffe lent his name to an open letter signed by the elite of Canada’s media, supporting the unionization of the Canadian Press. Globe and Mail society maven Zena Cherry published a news item in 1976 that had Gerry taking part in a Toronto Press Club debate, the title of which was “Resolved that the public is inadequately served by the media.”

A 1980 Globe columnist decrying a lack of boldness in journalism wrote, “where once journalists like Gerry McAuliffe collected libel actions as a kind of badge of honour, there is an increasing feeling among publishers, if not among writers, that very few provocative statements are worth going to the wall for.” At a panel discussion the same year, Gerry argued against special “shield laws” to protect journalists saying, “even if such laws led to greater investigative efforts by reporters, the chances of getting such stories in newspapers would be zero. Publishers don’t give a damn about freedom of expression.”

In a 1986 profile, McAuliffe credits his wife Bonnie for getting him into the news business. “I had a hang-up because I only went to grade 8 and I didn’t think I could make it without an education. She told me I could be as good or better than any other reporter in the country.” Later that year he won the Norman DePoe award for Investigative reporting for a series of CBC reports he did into the condition of Ontario’s court houses.

In 1988 Gerry was back in the news, this time railing against the Journalism awards and prizes that were, at that time, sponsored by corporations. “My position is that the news industry in Canada has sufficient funds to write out a cheque to fund a proper national competition to reward journalistic excellence without commercial sponsorship.” A week later he told the Centre for Investigative Journalism “Prize money is a form of graft and we shouldn’t be taking it.”

In 1989 we find Gerry McAuliffe, much as at the beginning, defending himself against revealing his sources, this time in a judicial enquiry into the Niagara Regional police.

Former Hamilton Spectator managing editor Alex Beer who worked with the reporter when he was at the Spectator summed up Gerry McAuliffe as “one of the best pure journalists I know. He was a very moral man who always knew the right side from the wrong side.”

When he was fired by President Harry Truman for insubordination, US General Douglas McArthur noted, “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Scanning the stories that chronicled Gerry McAuliffe’s career you see in addition to Gerry’s, the bylines of his contemporaries—legends themselves like Michael Valpy, Scott Young, Zena Cherry. William French, Ross McLean and a young Andre Picard. Let’s hope that the memories of them, and a principled journalist like Gerry McAuliffe don’t completely fade away.

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  • I want to say thanks to John Best personally for capturing Gerry McAuliffe’s life and career in this profile. I was Gerry’s investigative teammate during his career at The Hamilton Spectator. As a recent journalism school graduate, working with Gerry, understanding his methods, his drive and his deeply held convictions for a couple of years in the early Seventies shaped my own career. We remained in touch for five decades, until we spoke for the last time in July. It has been a bond that helped to guide me throughout a lifetime. It ‘s reassuring to know there are younger people out there who recognize the standard of journalism that Gerry set.
    For reasons I don’t understand, I am neither able to save or print this article nor communicate by e-mail with the writer. Anything you can suggest would be welcome.
    Phil Gibson

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