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Goldenberg, Susan.

Toronto, Methuen, c1984. 260pp, cloth, $24.95, ISBN 0-458-98210-5. CIP

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by John Jepson

Volume 13 Number 1
1985 January

After years of reviewing for the socialist weekly, Tribune, George Orwell once lamented that he was finding it harder and harder to summon up enthusiasm for books he relished not. In the recent tradition of tomes on our national financial establishments and dynasties, yet another, slimmer book concerns Canada's richest man, Kenneth Thomson. Thomson's personal net worth at about two billion dollars outweighs the Hearsts' and matches John Paul Getty's, with whom he holds shares in North Sea oil interests. Kenneth's father, Sir Roy Thomson, built an empire for his son in about forty years. Newspapers and magazines, built from scratch beginning with a North Bay radio station and then a Timmins newspaper in the Great Depression, are still the backbone of a part of the Thomson Empire. There are surprising profits to be made from advertising even in small newspapers, where there is no competition, no matter how much the quality of the papers may be reviled. Its ventures into book publishing have caused the Thomson organization many headaches, although professional books, which often need no retailing and sell by subscription, are a steady source of profit.

Twenty per cent profit is the stipulated bottom line for established Thomson companies. This requirement binds the scores of enterprises within the overall holding companies of this vast empire, much of whose success is attributed to decentralized management.

In twenty years of working his financial magic in Britain before his death in 1976, Roy Thomson increased his former Canadian fortune fivefold, to about three hundred million dollars. He gave up his Canadian citizenship to become Lord Thomson of Fleet. (Fleet Street, of newspaper fame and notoriety in London, partly overlies a muddy tributary of the Thames, the Fleet, which is of course of no great depth!)

Kenneth Thomson, a resident of Rosedale in Toronto, inherited his father's empire, if not his entrepreneurial audacity. Sir Roy arranged the line of succession in his will, and Kenneth's children shall follow on. Thomson Travel is now both European and North American. North Sea Oil, financed by banks confident in Sir Roy's ability, is the biggest money maker; the old man certainly had wonderful luck under that grey, cold water.

While the parsimony of the Thomsons makes for amusing reading, less so their attitude to unions so necessary to raising the paltry salaries paid, especially to newspaper employees. Huge sums have been expended to parachute management and labour into local newspapers when a strike has been called or pro-union employees locked out. One feels quite delighted that the unions representing workers of the Times and Sunday Times of London took Kenneth to the cleaners before he washed his hands of these two prestigious papers that were so dear to his position-conscious dad.

No less than six appendices offer a deluge of data about holdings, companies, officials, publications, circulations, and a chronology. Writer Goldenberg certainly did a thorough job with the Thomson Empire. However, these emperors seem to lack substance; they seem not so much naked as hollow. Despite Toronto's magnificent Roy Thomson Hall, only partly paid for by the Thomson family, there is a northern Canadian greyness about them.

It is pretty certain how little Orwell would have found to praise in this libretto of power, finely produced as it is. One cannot help but feel some of the emptiness of democracy, when so much wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of company overlords such as Thomson and others previously referred to. Perhaps the winds of socialism do not seem so stale after all! Recommended for senior students and adults interested in practical economics and business, especially macro-management.

John Jepson, Highland J.H.S., North York, Ont.
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