FROM THE ARCHIVES: Frankly, do you give a damn?

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Frankly, do you give a damn?

Frank Magazine returns today in an online subscription format. The site is set to launch in a few hours with a bonus gift for the first hundred subscribers—a belly bobble Rob Ford doll. Follow for updates. From our Winter 2012 archives, here is a column on notable incidents in the history of the publication.

By Fateema Sayani

Pollster. Incentivise. Pop-up.

Then there’s the use of “full disclosure” to reveal irrelevant information. That’s my short list of annoyances when it comes to the tired language that’s used in media. That list is the kind of thing that would appear in Cliché-o-Matic, one of Frank magazine’s beloved features, along with the well-read Remedial Media section, which was full of insider newsroom gossip and juicy stories of inglorious mess-ups.

Politicians were also great fodder for the magazine, which was founded in 1987 in Halifax (and the Ottawa edition in 1989) by three ex-pat Brits who took their lampooning cues from the U.K. mag Private Eye. Byron Muldoon and Jean Crouton (Canada’s 18th and 20th prime ministers in Frank-speak) were favourite targets. The Ottawa edition folded in 2004, and its web edition shut down in 2008, likely a relief to Stephen Harper, who mostly escaped the low-level photoshopping and sophomoric name-calling that were Frank trademarks.

Marlen Cowpland was a favourite target
Marlen Cowpland was a favourite target of Frank Magazine, which recently returned as an online publication.

Harper has been spending time in the North, so maybe he’ll get the pet name Stevie Harpoon in a revived Frank. It’s the kind of nickname that reeks of imperial irony and makes people uncomfortable and titillated — the same factors that jolted sales of the irreverent twice-monthly publication, which sold 20,000 copies of each edition at its peak.

We hear tell that Frank magazine will return as a paid-subscription website in 2013. When asked, Michael Bate — who ran Frank in its various formats since 1989 — would say only, “It’s premature to be saying much,” though he has been meeting with his former co-conspirators and going over the back-end files of, the magazine’s former site. It was created in Flash Player, a format that’s fussy and problematic with today’s Apple devices.

When Bate killed the web edition of Frank four years ago, he sent a letter to subscribers saying that he couldn’t reach profitability. Besides, the web wasn’t enough of a lure for Bate. “The idea of working 12- to 15-hour days on a glorified blog didn’t appeal to me,” he told the Toronto Star at the time.

But in the few short years since Bate shut it all down, the authority and credibility of web reporting have changed — as have its methods (think of Wikileaks and Vikileaks). The tools have changed too. Data journalism allows for faster analysis of mass amounts of records — and there is no one in Canada who regularly covers the media scene in the gutter-sniping, Gawker-style language so loved by the very people being mocked. When first launched, a subscription cost $9.95 per month — and Bate needed 2,500 subscribers to break even. Whether people will pay $120 a year this time around remains to be seen — though the lure of cheap smarm and choice gossip will probably never go away.

What people were buying was access to a web of well-connected — but unnamed — tattlers, backbiters, and axe grinders who would provide tips on the travails of “fart-catchers,” reports of corruption and waste, or of big shots and their misguided “leg-overs.” They were also accessing a gutsy team of reporters seemingly unaffected by libel chill. The magazine’s report-first-and-apologize-later tactic cost hundreds of thousands in legal fees, but that was considered to be a by-product of trying to shake information loose.

The approach yielded quite a few big scoops. Regular Frank readers may recall the story of Art Eggleton giving a contract to his former flame, of Pierre Trudeau fathering a baby with Deborah Coyne, or of former DND contractor Paul Champagne, who defrauded taxpayers of $100 million and was later sentenced to seven years in jail.

But there were plenty of misfires too. The 1991 campaign challenging Tories to “deflower Caroline Mulroney” was a new low and prompted the then prime minister to say on CBC TV that he would like to head down to the Frank offices with a gun. A letter to the editor in the Citizen at the time put it in straight terms: “Let’s call the ‘deflowering’ of a teenager against her will for what it is: gang rape.” You had to know that Frank was to be read with one eyebrow raised, because it was wholly regressive. Powerful women were almost always portrayed as archetypical ball-busters, bimbos, or lesbians.

The magazine advanced a few causes  through its Frank Pranks. In 2004, it exposed flaws in the capital when two reporters used their press passes to access the Hill for a story on security. The resulting piece, called “Terrorist Guide to Parliament Hill,” showed a hooded man lounging in MPs’ offices, in the grand ballroom of the West Block, and in the parliamentary dining room. It was classic public-interest satire that should have been lauded — but Ottawa is officious and unfunny. The press gallery suspended Frank’s media credentials for that stunt.

A revived Frank could do well publishing the untold stories other media won’t touch — like developer influence. The responsible journalism defence may even save Bate lawyers’ fees. In 2009, the Canadian Supreme Court rewrote the country’s libel laws to protect reporters who can prove that their stories were written in the interest of the public. However, judges consider the tone of an article in making a decision. In other words, referring to Mike Duffy as The Puffster or Conrad Black as Tubby likely won’t gain you any esteem in the eyes of the court.

A satirical mag doesn’t want to be in the good graces of the establishment anyway. There is value in being distanced from all the hobnobbery while being connected enough to get tips. Frank’s detractors — and naturally there were many — often suggested that a fact-checking process would give the magazine credibility, but it’s not such a cut-and-dried argument. Fact-checking is an art, and proof of your points can come in many forms, from documents to first-person accounts. After all, not everyone owns up to everything when confronted by a reporter. To wit: when we were researching this story, Michael Bate told Ottawa Magazine that it was early days yet and could we please bugger off until further notice. So we asked other people. All the sources for this story are well-placed.