Norman Spector (Profile)

He was once the consummate political insider - the steely head of the Prime Minister's Office under Brian Mulroney, a key architect of the failed Meech Lake accord, the man who cut 25 per cent of the civil service under premier Bill Bennett in British Columbia in the 1980s.

Spector, Norman (Profile) (Nov97 Updates)

He was once the consummate political insider - the steely head of the Prime Minister's Office under Brian Mulroney, a key architect of the failed Meech Lake accord, the man who cut 25 per cent of the civil service under premier Bill Bennett in British Columbia in the 1980s. More recently, he served as Canada's ambassador to Israel. But until last May, when he became publisher of Conrad Black's Jerusalem Post, the closest Norman Spector had come to the newspaper business was a Montreal paper route when he was 12. Now, at 48, Spector is finally having fun.

It shows as he strides into the Post boardroom on a warm autumn morning, papers fluttering in his wake. Spector enthuses about the Post's new "personal edition," which will deliver the venerable English-language daily in a hip new format to the personal computers of its subscribers each morning. "We're the first newspaper in the world to do this," Spector announces proudly. "It's exciting. Really exciting." The verve also showed in early October when Spector spoke out after Israeli agents were caught using forged Canadian passports in a botched assassination attempt on a militant Palestinian leader in Jordan. In interviews with Canadian media and in a column in The Globe and Mail, the former ambassador suggested that the Canadian government may have known about the use of its passports by Mossad, the Israeli spy agency. And he infuriated Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy by claiming that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service undertakes joint operations with Mossad. Denying those charges, Axworthy called them irresponsible and dangerous.

Sipping a latte last week in Jerusalem's Second Cup coffee shop (the only one outside Canada), Spector appeared bemused by the outrage over his comments. He told Maclean's he had no agenda in questioning Ottawa's involvement, but merely wanted to encourage public debate about CSIS activity, using some of the wealth of "insider knowledge" he picked up over the years. But it was clearly something he enjoyed. "I have developed strong views after 25 years in government, views I was never able to express," he said. "Now I'm in the news business. And writing is very liberating. It all just gushes out."

Spector took over top job at the Post, 100 per cent owned by Black's Hollinger Inc., after spending less than a year at Imperial Tobacco in Montreal. That jump into the private sector followed an unhappy year as the head of the federal government's Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. He left in 1996, he says, when he "came under heavy pressure to pork-barrel and approve projects that were not economically beneficial."

But if he was new to newspapers, Spector was no stranger to Israel. Critics yelled patronage when Mulroney appointed him Canada's ambassador in 1992, the year before the Oslo accords on Israeli-Palestinian peace were signed. As the first Jewish person to hold the job, his appointment initially raised eyebrows in the Arab world. But throughout his three-year stint, he impressed both Palestinians and Israelis with his objectivity and his thorough grasp of the complex politics of the region. Never one for the diplomatic cocktail party circuit, Spector is remembered more for his dogged hunt for the best bowl of hummus in the country, and for calling up radio phone-in shows in Tel Aviv to correct Israelis, in excellent Hebrew, on details of their national history. "He was one of the smartest Western diplomats, he really stood out above the rest," says David Makovsky, a former diplomatic correspondent for the Post who left just before Spector took over. "He was on top of the situation, and deeply analytical."

Spector speaks fluent French and Hebrew, and some Arabic and Russian. Born and raised in Montreal, he earned three university degrees by the age of 23, and later got a doctorate in political science from Columbia University in New York City. "Smart" is the word used most often to describe him. He needs to be smart - because the newspaper novice has taken over the Post just as it faces some of the most serious trouble of its 65-year history.

The paper was deeply in debt when Hollinger bought it in 1989 from Israel's Histadrut labor federation. Weeks later, amid a messy dispute over the paper's political line, managing editor David Landau walked out and took a third of the staff with him. Black had installed his longtime right-hand man, David Radler, as chairman and, either through "ruthless asset stripping" (as former Post employees claim) or good management (says Spector) the paper has been profitable ever since. But it also declined in both size and quality, and lost much of its international reputation by swinging sharply to the right on issues of peace and security.

In the domestic Israeli media market, the Post, with its small circulation of 25,000 daily and 50,000 on Fridays, is simply not a player. It survived because of its English-language monopoly, selling to tourists, anglophone immigrants and Jews outside Israel. More important - and what attracted Black and Spector to its dingy corridors - the Post is read by the international diplomatic community in Israel and by Middle East policy-makers in Washington and around the world. "Spector is very remote from the Israeli public," says Uzi Bin Zaman, who monitors the media for the Israel Democracy Institute. "But maybe it's not the Israeli public they're concerned about."

The Post no longer enjoys a monopoly: in September, Ha'aretz, Israel's most respected newspaper, started an English edition in conjunction with the Paris-based International Herald Tribune. The new paper is known to Israeli journalists as "Landau's Revenge," since its editor is the man who left the Post after the Hollinger takeover. The competition could prove tough. Ha'aretz has more than 50 reporters covering daily news, compared with the Post's 10; unhappy Post staffers say Hollinger has done little to replace the staff who walked out with Landau seven years ago. "We're scared," admits one veteran Post reporter who asked not to be identified. "Spector hasn't done anything so far to make us think we are going to have jobs in a year." The new publisher counters that, in fact, there have been many changes since he took over: the paper has grown from 12 pages to 20, added reviews of the Hebrew and Palestinian press, and attracted new columnists. "We have picked up 1,000 new subscribers since September, just when Ha'aretz started," Spector says, peering over his fashionable gold-rimmed glasses. "I'm very hopeful. We can compete."

The most important change may be moving the Post's editorial line back to middle ground. Where a year ago the paper was largely an apologist for Israel's Likud government, these days there are editorials that criticize Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "I think we're in the centre now, reflecting the breadth of opinions in the country," says Spector, who sits on the paper's editorial board. It is a change that Post staff and readers have been watching closely: Spector had a reputation as a moderate during his time as ambassador, and he describes himself as "sympathetic to nationalism, which extends to Palestinian nationalism." Yet Hollinger's Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel, a columnist for Maclean's and The Daily Telegraph, are known for their hawkish positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Spector says that while he is sure Black and Amiel read the paper carefully, they don't interfere with its editorial line. "I don't think I've talked to them more than two or three times since I got here." Black has suggested that Spector's column in the Globe, which is not a Hollinger paper, might better appear in the group's own dailies, which include the Southam chain. Spector replied that he would write for Hollinger when it could give him an audience like the Globe's.

But while Spector may be having fun, many Post staffers are less enthusiastic. Take the issue of the dog - Spector has an extremely large black canine called Gal, part Great Dane and part "something big." He is devoted to Gal, and brings him to the office every day. But Israelis do not share the Canadian fondness for dogs, and Gal intimidates the staff. Many point to the big beast at the office door as a sign that Spector is not interested in accessibility. "He's a Hollinger man, out to protect their bottom line, and everybody is clear about what side he's on," says one long-time employee, who still sees a sharp split between staff and the Hollinger management.

Spector says he got the job when Radler, who knew him from his days in the B.C. government, took him out for a drink and "popped the question." Spector said yes immediately. He believes he was chosen for his management skills, his knowledge of the area and his language ability. Others note his strong connections with prominent Israelis and overseas policy-makers. People who worked with him in Canada describe him as shrewd, strategic and methodical.

Unmarried, and a self-described workaholic, Spector lives in a quiet downtown area of Jerusalem, a city he says he missed when he was back in Canada. But he says he has no intention of emigrating. He has a house and a 16-year-old Fiat Spider sports car waiting back home in Victoria. For now, he is obviously relishing the power he has found in publishing. "For someone who cares about issues, it's a dream job," says Montreal-based communications consultant L. Ian MacDonald, a former speechwriter for Mulroney and good friend of Spector's. "He is happier than I've ever seen him." Whether fighting an Israeli newspaper war - or jumping into a Canadian controversy - Spector can now be counted one of Canada's most influential overseas citizens.

Maclean's November 3, 1997