Peter Worthingon, who has just died, was one of the bravest and most accomplished journalists in postwar Canada or, indeed, in any other country. His war reports sound like a roll-call of the most dangerous and remote appointments to which a foreign correspondent might be sent: Algeria, Angola, the Middle East, the Himalayas, etc., etc. He covered the ”Prague Spring” in 1968, and he was present at the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. (Peter is one of the people instinctively wincing back as Ruby shoots in the famous photograph.) He seemed to crop up everywhere — or, rather, everywhere a major story was breaking or about to break.
Conrad Black (of this parish), a friend and occasional competitor of Peter’s — they both founded national newspapers — has written a full tribute to him in Canada’s National Post here.
Conrad describes Peter as, among other things, a “contrarian.” As a principled Cold Warrior, he needed to be contrarian in a postwar Canada, detentiste before detente, that was so reluctant to reveal its successes in counter-intelligence that it sued Peter and his publisher, Douglas Creighton, for revealing the names of KGB recruits in the country. Both men were acquitted, but as Conrad tells the story, Peter was such a controversialist that Creighton, asked to comment, said that he personally was relieved but that “Mr. Worthington will probably appeal.” Peter’s anti-Communism was firm, well-informed, and (as Conrad notes) protective. He was there to help anti-Communists such as the Soviet defector, Igor Gouzenko, and the journalist Lubor Zink when they fell on hard times or came under attack.
When a Canadian paper he was working on folded, he and two other colleagues put together their redundancy payments to found a new national paper, the tabloid Toronto Sun, which is now a string of tabloids across Canada and a television station. In the liberal (and Liberal) Canada of that time, it was the first breach in a suffocatingly progressive media consensus. Peter edited the paper for some years — to the great delight of both staff and conservative readers — and he continued writing a regular column for it until very shortly before his death.
We had breakfast together in Toronto less than two months ago. He mentioned that he was fighting illness, and he gave me no false optimism about its course, but he was in great form, full of good humor and shrewd observations on Canadian politics, and he left to go to his office to write that day’s column. When his illness got to the point that his kidneys failed, he chose not to use extreme artificial methods to keep himself going a little longer. Instead, he said goodbye to his friends and family and waited quietly for death.
Peter’s achievements were many, and one of the best was that he persuaded the beautiful Yvonne Crittenden to marry him and unite their families into a single very happy one. Danielle Crittenden, his step-daughter, subsequently married David Frum, and though two such argumentative people as Peter and David must have sometimes disagreed, Peter was proud of his son-in-law’s success south of the border and also of his leadership in “uniting the Right” in Canada. David has written a short memoir of Peter here that captures his personality in a way that formal obituaries can rarely do.
Peter was, finally, a great raconteur. One of his best stories concerned the famous photograph of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. An hour or two before this, Peter had been waiting for a vacant telephone booth in order to telephone his paper’s office in Canada. In the booth a British reporter for Independent Television News was talking to his news desk when an incident began to happen. Peter continued in the voice of the British reporter:
“Hang on, something seems to be happening down the hall . . . oh, my goodness, some criminal defendants have seized witnesses . . . they have guns . . . the police are following them at a distance . . . they’re coming in this direction . . . one of the hostages is a pregnant woman . . . oh, my goodness, this is terrible . . . the shock of the kidnapping and so on is bringing on the birth . . . no, this is really happening . . . I am not drunk . . . for goodness sake, it’s about ten in the morning . . . I’m telling you the exact truth . . . listen, you bloody fool, this is America . . . any bloody impossible thing can happen here.”
An hour or so later, Peter concluded, the ITN reporter proved to be bang right.