Mark Lisac's Insight Into Government newsletter was always worth reading.
This retro-style, subscription-only publication -- which was emphatically not available online -- was nevertheless distinguished by its author's elegant prose and its ability to live up to its name as an insightful source of commentary on Alberta's politics. As befits quality material, subscriptions to IIG were not inexpensive.
Because he was consistently fair to the people he wrote about, Lisac's newsletter -- which was distributed to subscribers via email in PDF format -- was rarely controversial. It had an influential readership thanks to the care the author took to painstakingly research his commentary. He had many contacts throughout the Alberta government and an earlier career as a respected Edmonton Journal columnist who was the author of a well-reviewed biography of Ralph Klein.
Lisac could be counted on to cover areas nowadays largely ignored by the mainstream media -- among them, labour relations, the daily conduct of the provincial civil service and the policy implications of political posturing.
Now, alas, Lisac -- who like the author of this blog is no spring chicken -- has retired after eight years at the helm of the newsletter and departed from the task of writing thoughtful weekly commentary for his exclusive audience.
This happened swiftly and with little fanfare. A "farewell edition" of IIG was sent to readers on June 28. An email to subscribers followed, saying the phone had been turned off. A little later there was another email, noting with apparent relief that after 27 years under Lisac and his well-regarded predecessor Rich Vivone, who founded the publication in 1986, a "credible buyer" had stepped forward.
And so, on Tuesday, Lisac emailed subscribers again to announce "the new publisher and editor will be Ric Dolphin, a veteran Alberta journalist with significant experience in legislature and political affairs, including the publishing of a national government affairs newsletter."
The same day, subscribers received an email from Dolphin promising that "I look forward to continuing the quality, accuracy and reliability that you have come to expect under Mark’s excellent tutelage."
However, if readers are anticipating the same kind of commentary provided by Lisac from Dolphin, they are likely in for a big surprise. For Dolphin, based on his past activities, is a different kettle of fish entirely!
Dolphin's new official biography, which has appeared on the IIG website, describes the new proprietor as “a veteran journalist who got his start reporting from the tobacco fields of southwestern Ontario, but came to Edmonton in the early 1980s to cover politics and other matters for Alberta Report, where he rose to executive editor, before moving on to senior writing and editing positions with Maclean's magazine in Toronto and the Globe and Mail in Vancouver."
But that brief squib hardly tells the whole story of Dolphin's often-controversial career in Alberta, which raises hackles in certain quarters, and his very colourful prose, which has often seemed designed to act like the proverbial red flag waved in the face of many of his readers.
This befits a writer who has had a long association with the string of publications and enterprises associated with the Byfield Family and their acolytes that began with Alberta Report magazine in the early 1970s.
The Byfield Clan's beloved market spoke loudly about the commercial potential of the far-right nostrums they peddled in Alberta Report, and the magazine folded in 2003. But their efforts have nevertheless been influential, churning out dedicated journalistic apostles of unfettered markets who have founded other similarly themed publications and occupied senior positions in some of the most influential Canadian journals.
In this regard, Dolphin can be fairly seen as a charter member of the influential ideological network described by blogger Dave Cournoyer in his exhaustive and valuable post yesterday evening about who is driving the Conservative agenda in Canada.
In addition to working directly for the Byfields, Dolphin was employed for a time by the Western Standard, a controversial publication founded by former Byfield employee Ezra Levant, where he got in hot water for a statement about Colleen Klein, then-premier Ralph Klein’s wife, that was widely interpreted as a racial slur. "Once she stops being the premier's wife," Dolphin shockingly quoted an unnamed "fishing buddy" of the late premier, "she goes back to being just another Indian."
He was also involved in some of the Byfield Clan's loonier ideological projects -- for example, serving as an editor of the Byfields' The Christians, Their First 2,000 Years, which sounds like a Monty Python production but was apparently intended as a serious intellectual proposition.
I first really became aware of Dolphin -- who nowadays tweets under the handle @wienersandbeans -- when he wrote the notorious Velvet Coffin story for the National Post in 1999, a broadside against the Calgary Herald strikers (of whom I was one) commissioned by the newspaper founded by both publications' then proprietor, Conrad Black. It was viewed at the time by supporters of the strike as little more than an effort to undermine the strikers' morale.
Later, in 2003, Dolphin's prose was censured and the Herald rebuked by the Alberta Press Council for a column that portrayed life on Western Canadian First Nations reserves as, among other things, "the road to hell . . . and a society in shambles."
In its ruling, the Press Council, which has since been cut loose by the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, said of the article: "Dolphin's assertions in the columns relied heavily upon nameless sources, including a cab driver, a waitress and a medic who were credited with profound insights and observations about the entire Native community. The columns in question lacked balance, credibility and crossed the boundaries of fair comment."
About the same time, Dolphin published a piece on Nelson, British Columbia, that flayed the community for its supposed friendliness to unions and pot-smoking hippies and concluded, in part, "this place is more than a town, it's a disease. No, that's not quite right either. It's diseased. It has been invaded by a virus." Needless to say, many Nelsonites were not favourably impressed.
A few days after the Press Council ruling, Dolphin left the Herald's staff, next cropping up on my personal radar screen as the publisher of a short-lived IIG-style newsletter called Provincial & Territorial Report.
More recently, he summarized the results of the March 2007 Quebec election thusly: "Effete Continental lefties rejected the blandishments of the coke-sniffing homoséxuel in the Italian suit, and not only didn't make André Boisclair, 40, premier, but emasculated -- if that can be the word -- his separatist Parti Québécois, shoving 'em from official Opposition to who gives-a-fig rump."
Since then, of course, the PQ under a different leader has forced a reassessment of its status and potential as a political movement.
All this proves that Dolphin possesses the power to annoy, and occasionally even outrage, readers like me. That said, IIG will probably be livelier with his hand on the tiller.
But whether he can produce the kind of reporting and commentary that will favourably impress Lisac's loyal subscribers is another question entirely, and one that will have to be answered by Dolphin and not by me.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.