The Empire Strikes Back

By Jamie Bradburn, originally published July 28, 2010

Nineteenth-century Conservatives launch newspaper to deliver party propaganda

Nineteenth-century Toronto journalism was often a war field of conflicting political outlooks. Some newspaper proprietors, such as George Brown of the Globe, had deep ties with the parties of the day but (usually) kept their publications separate from the official party apparatus. Not so with the Empire, whose operations were maintained by the federal Conservatives. For just under a decade, the Empire provided morning readers with the news as filtered by the Prime Minister and his associates. But, as reporter Hector Charlesworth noted in his memoirs, “a newspaper established and conducted primarily by an official partisan junta has in its system the seed of death from the outset.”

Starting in 1872, the Conservatives used their sway with the proprietors of the Mail to present Torontonians with viewpoints that fell in step with their party. By the mid-1880s, the Mail’s editorials expressed opinions on topics like commercial union with the United States that angered the Tories. When the Mail declared its editorial independence from any party, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and other Tory leaders looked for a means to get their message across without any questions. While there were other Conservative-leaning papers based in Toronto, such as the Evening Telegram, their proprietors were too independent-minded to ever follow party requests to the letter. The solution: the party would run its own newspaper.

When the Empire debuted on December 27, 1887, its premiere editorial made no attempt to hide its political ties:

There can be no misunderstanding the wishes and intentions of the owners and management of THE EMPIRE. It is proposed to strengthen by all legitimate means the hands of the Party and the Government that have controlled the politics of the Dominion (with the exception of a term of five years) ever since the foundations of Confederation were laid. Believing that the public affairs of Canada have been, on the whole, wisely and ably administered under the premiership of Sir John A. Macdonald and holding that the remarkable progress of our country has been due in large measure to his far-sighted and patriotic administration, THE EMPIRE will extend to the Leader and his Government its fullest confidence and heartiest support.

Credit: Toronto Called Back From 1892 to 1847 by Conyngham Crawford Taylor; Toronto: William Briggs, 1892

Content-wise, the Empire focused on pushing key Conservative platforms, such as the National Policy. Foreign items and agricultural news took up more space than local news and lifestyle items that may have mattered little to the paper’s audience of die-hard Tories outside of the city. Rival papers were quick to pounce on the Empire, though some, like Saturday Night, expressed not venom but pity for the pressures the paper’s editorial staff had to work under (even jokes in the Empire had to be carefully vetted before publication so that they wouldn’t offend party hacks).

How much of a guiding force Macdonald provided the paper was proven when the Old Chieftain fell fatally ill during the spring of 1891. The paper’s coverage of his fight against the Grim Reaper was best summed up by Douglas Feitherling in The Rise of the Canadian Newspaper: “The Empire behaved with the special lack of dignity reserved for distant relations, eager to emphasize their membership in the family.” While other Toronto papers counted down the minutes to Macdonald’s death, the Empire acted as if his “amazing vitality” would carry him through the severe strokes he had suffered. Hints were also dropped that dastardly Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier, by pursuing “disloyal and degrading” pro-American policies, caused Sir John to over-exert himself in the name of protecting Canadian independence. Headlines screamed “A RAY OF HOPE!” when every other paper indicated the opposite was true. For a week after Macdonald died, the Empire displayed its grief by printing thick black bars around every column and interviewed every human being who had ever had contact with the Prime Minister.

The Empire, June 8, 1891

The pitfalls of working for a party-run organ were always apparent to the Empire’s employees. As the Conservatives fell into disarray and turned over leaders rapidly in the wake of Macdonald’s death, no member of the paper’s staff was safe from incurring the wrath of any disgruntled politician who felt his prominence within the party gave him free reign to interfere in editorial content. Important stories without any political relevance could be suppressed by the whims of party officials. The situation was, in the words of Hector Charlesworth, “like trying to conduct a Sunday school picnic in a jungle.” In his thirteen months as an Empire reporter, Charlesworth saw at least two city editors pass through. He was himself dismissed for three weeks in the fall of 1894 to placate an incensed politician, was rehired, then decided he’d had enough and went back to his previous employer, the Toronto World.

By 1895, party officials had mended fences with the Mail and determined there was no good reason to keep the Empire alive in a market overflowing with morning papers. New Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell had a reputation for letting floundering projects sink (he had favoured killing the Canadian Pacific Railway at one point) and losses of up to $150,000 a year at the Empire could not have impressed him.

Rumours of the paper’s fate swirled around newspaper circles until the announcement was made that as of February 7, the Mail and Empire would merge.The Empire’s farewell editorial on February 6 was brief – it stated the merger, told creditors their payments were still due, and that subscribers would receive the new paper, for which “there is every assurance will faithfully maintain the policy in political matters hitherto advocated by the Empire.”

The Empire’s employees came out on the losing end of the merger, as their faith in the Conservative party went unrewarded. While the Mail’s staff, whose paper had faced liquidation before the merger, were guaranteed their jobs, workers at the Empire were left to fend for themselves. Bowell refused to offer temporary clerkships in Ottawa during the upcoming session of the House of Commons, which lead to one of the paper’s enemies, Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat, finding jobs at Queen’s Park for the displaced employees.

Ironically, the Empire’s last major gesture was to reach out to its ideological polar opposite. When a fire destroyed the offices of the Globe in January 1895, the Empire cleared space in its building for the Liberal-leaning paper to continue publishing without missing an issue. When the Empire published its final edition, the Globe used the first column of the front page to bestow condolences on those being tossed out of work in light of the “exceedingly pleasant relations between the staffs of the two journals” after the fire.

Those “pleasant relations” were long in the past when the Globe caused the Empire name to fade from Toronto’s newsstands for good. A month after buying the Globe in 1936, George McCullagh consolidated Toronto’s morning paper market by purchasing the Mail and Empire. When the merged paper debuted on November 23, the Mail achieved its ultimate victory as its name remained in the masthead, while the Empire’s was consigned to the trash heap.

Additional material from Candid Chronicles: Leaves from the Note Book of a Canadian Journalist by Hector Charlesworth (Toronto: Macmillan, 1925), The Rise of the Canadian Newspaper by Douglas Fetherling (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990) and the following newspapers: the December 27, 1887, June 5, 1891, and February 6, 1895 editions of the Empire; the February 6, 1895 edition of the Globe; and the December 31, 1887 edition of Saturday Night.


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