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COMMENTARY: Christie Blatchford’s passing is a great loss for journalism

Longtime newspaper columnist, author and firebrand Christie Blatchford, a hardnosed scribe known for deep-sourced scoops and biting opinion pieces, has died. She was 68.
Longtime newspaper columnist, author and firebrand Christie Blatchford, a hardnosed scribe known for deep-sourced scoops and biting opinion pieces, has died. She was 68. THE CANADIAN PRESS/National Post - Peter J. Thompson

Christie Blatchford knew how to sniff out a rat.

While other journalists knocked themselves out just trying to make a deadline, Christie had an unerring instinct for who had done what to whom and why and was already well into the next stage of a story, going for the jugular when necessary by parsing the words and dissecting the motivations of the innocent and the guilty.

Christie passed away Wednesday after a short, valiant battle against lung cancer. She would have turned 69 later this year and was still very much on top of her game as a newspaper columnist when she took time off in November to fight the disease.

READ MORE: Canadian journalist Christie Blatchford dead at 68

Christie’s passing is a great loss for Canadian journalism. She was one of a kind, an irreverent iconoclast who tilted at windmills and often made them topple. For many young reporters, she was a den mother, mentor and inspiration. But woe betide anyone who tried to interfere with what she was saying or doing, or tried to take advantage of those whose causes she championed.

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Christie had no time for fools or hypocrites and held respect for those in uniform — police officers, firefighters, soldiers. More than anything, Christie hated those with power who tried to take advantage of the rest of us and especially those who had been dealt a tough hand by life and were defenceless before the state or corporations. For the downtrodden and the afflicted, she had a bigger heart than anyone I know.

WATCH (Sept. 21, 2016): Christie Blatchford’s new book examines her ‘self-imposed life sentence’ reporting some of Canada’s biggest court cases

Christie Blatchford writes about her ‘Life Sentence’
Christie Blatchford writes about her ‘Life Sentence’

I first met Christie 39 years ago. Employed by the Toronto Star at the time, she was sitting in the stands at the Montreal Forum with a small group of sports reporters watching a Team Canada practice. She looked particularly comfortable that day, perhaps because she was in a hockey rink like the one she practically grew up in while her father was a Zamboni driver in Rouyn-Noranda, Que. Or perhaps because it gave her a rare chance to speak the colourful joual she had learned as an anglo kid navigating a French-Canadian milieu.

We hit it off right away and became fast friends when, soon after, she switched to the Sun for what turned out to be her longest straight run at any newspaper. In later years, Christie became well known for her writing in the Globe and Mail and the National Post.

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But I reckon Christie was happiest at and best suited for the rough-and-tumble of the Sun, which was proudly anti-establishment and did an unparalleled job of promoting its best writers and turning them into icons. She was custom-built, made for the red-top tabloid’s punchy style and thrived there because of the total freedom it gave its reporters and columnists.

Of course, not everybody loved Christie. Among those who didn’t were the legions whom she had skewered and some of the editors who had to handle her copy.

As I discovered from listening to her end of on-deadline telephone conversations with the copy desk, she was never shy about engaging in expletive-laced warfare with them over the length of her files or some of the precise wording. As senior editors and managers invariably backed her, Christie almost always got her way.

Unlike most journalists, Christie captured the body language of the players at centre stage and had that rare gift of being able to distil massive amounts of testimony into a few logical, compelling sentences. Some examples of her court reporting were so whip-smart that they were instant classics that should be taught in journalism schools.

Many columnists tend to write off the top of their heads and do little research. Christie’s commentaries were masterly because she brought an eye for the minutiae that explained the larger point that she wanted to make.

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Christie built up a huge following during the 46 years she spent ping-ponging between Toronto’s four daily newspapers. By the 21st century, most of her fans had migrated to the internet. Readers were as keen as ever to hear her take on the great events of the day, but they did not want to pay for that copy.

The financial struggle of newspapers was something that deeply vexed Christie. As good as she was, she told me a year or two ago that her number would eventually come up, too, and that she expected that she could be “retired” at almost any time.

To prepare for the inevitable day when she no longer had a job, she sold her pretty and beloved small house in downtown Toronto, pocketed some of the profit for her forced retirement and used the rest of it to move herself and her beloved bull terrier into a condominium a few miles to the north of the courtrooms and police stations that had been her bread and butter.

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The last time we were able to have a few long chats was during the 2016 Olympics in Rio. To unwind at the end of the day, we walked for several hours near Copacabana, talking about sports, the justice system, journalism and the days that we had both spent in Afghanistan. She loved the idea of being a war correspondent and made the most of her time there during Operation Medusa in 2006. She felt a special bond with and greatly admired the troops. It showed in her brilliantly reported book about her time with those heroes — Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army — that was published in 2008.

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I last saw Christie a couple of months ago in Toronto. She was as feisty as ever, decrying the health of our business, the state of the legal system and what she felt was the appalling treatment of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman by the Trudeau government, of which she was definitely not a fan. Indeed, that was the subject of her last column in the National Post and the Postmedia newspaper chain.

Christie looked well but was, as always, harried. She had long ago become a runner, given up smoking and begun to eat more sensibly after years of hard living that often seemed to be largely fuelled by cigarettes.

I shall miss Christie. So will her many friends in the business, the soldiers whose lives she chronicled in Kandahar and her ferociously devoted band of readers.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.