On the death of a Canadian media Caesar

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The death of Ted Rogers earlier this month caused a bit of a stir in my adult education class.

Since my students are newcomers, one of our class routines is to review the day's headlines as a way of familiarizing them with what's making news in Toronto and across Canada. This usually produces nothing more than a few questions about English or quaint Canadian curiosities like, What's a Governor-General?

But when I read out the headline about Rogers and explained who he was, there was suddenly lots of interest, none of it sympathetic. They were all familiar with the name since it came on their cable or cell phone bills every month. There were angry mutterings in half a dozen languages, and when I asked for people to express themselves in English, words like 'lying' and 'stealing' came out.

One man kept jabbing his finger at one of my class handouts, using it as an imaginary bill: "Six hundred dollars they charge me - for nothing!" What really riled him was that even though the company admitted its mistake, they still expected him to pay the full amount, promising to compensate him later. (Not surprisingly, he didn't believe that promise, which later gave me the opportunity of teaching the idiom - once burnt, twice shy.)

There were lots of other stories like that - endless billing headaches, bad service, bureaucratic run-arounds. As it went on the accusations became more extreme: in one case, there was talk of a kickback scheme between landlords and the company to stop hi-rise tenants from getting satellite dishes as an alternative to cable. I was beginning to wonder how reality was giving way here to paranoia and so I decided it was time to change the channel, so to speak, from Ted Rogers to the delights of irregular past tense verbs.

After class I read through the obituaries for Rogers, and it was as if they were talking about a different man. The tributes from the corporate and political movers and shakers were glowing: Rogers was a "visionary", a great innovator and entrepreneur, who "touched the lives of countless Canadians through his generosity".

Generosity? This bit of hyperbole we owe to none other than Stephen Harper, not exactly a well-known practitioner of that virtue himself.

Only in the sports pages was there a discordant note, with one columnist remembering that Rogers's last public appearance before his death was at a news conference to promote NFL games at the Rogers Centre: it seems the "visionary" spent the conference making "fleece-the-suckers jokes" with a crony of his.

How to reconcile these two very different images? Clearly for the rich and powerful, what matters is that Rogers was a big success, and success never lacks for admirers: the golden calf always attracts the glitter of flattering platitudes. But for the millions of "suckers" like my students who feel that they are getting gouged to pay for that success, all the glowing tributes don't count for very much.

Rogers plastered his name on everything he owned: Rogers Cable, Rogers Communications, the Rogers Centre, the Rogers Cup. This seemed to be more than just about building a brand: it was hard to avoid the impression that it was also about gratifying an outsized ego and maybe also trying to buy some futures options on immortality. Could it be that the media mogul was trying to "fleece" the Grim Reaper, as it were?

In that regard some famous lines of Shakespeare come to mind, from his play "Julius Caesar": "The evil that men do lives after them,/The good is oft interred with their bones." Ironically this is said about Caesar himself, who has done rather well in the immortality sweepstakes.

But Shakespeare's point still holds when it comes to the fate of many other empire-builders, whether in politics or business. My students' reactions are, of course, only a very small sampling, but I don't think it's unreasonable to see them as representative of a much wider layer of opinion. If that is the case, the prospects for Rogers's long-term legacy aren't very good.



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