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How Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke brought the stodgy newspaper back to life

Michael Cooke, the Toronto Star’s tabloid-minded editor, is on a mission to expose the corruption and crookedness of the city’s secretive establishment. Every week brings a new target: the premier’s office, Marineland, the College of Physicians, and always Ford, Ford, Ford

Michael Cooke: The Paper Warrior

It was early December of 2011, and Kevin Donovan was hellbent on publishing an exposé of Ornge, Ontario’s $150-million-a-year air ambulance service. Donovan, who runs the Toronto Star’s investigative team, had already spent two years sniffing around the company. Though he didn’t yet have the facts to back up his hunch, he was convinced something was amiss. He decided to take a chance and write a story about precisely what he didn’t know: how much Chris Mazza, the doctor who created and ran the publicly funded agency, and his vice-presidents were being paid. It was a Sunday, typically a slow news day, so Donovan figured the piece was a shoo-in for a front-page ­placement the next day.

Michael Cooke, the Star’s editor, wasn’t certain how the story would play, but his contempt for institutional secrecy emboldened him. He ran it, as Donovan had predicted, on A1, with the headline: “Executive Pay Kept Secret at Airlift Service.” By noon that day, Donovan received at least 1,000 emails and several phone calls from pilots, paramedics and other insiders, some offering tips, others encouraging the Star to dig deeper.

Cooke was breaking a few rules. “I can’t imagine the New York Times running a front-page investigative story full of holes in the hope that someone would phone them up,” he told me. “But when you print what you haven’t got, sometimes people actually give it to you.” A few weeks later, he was at a dinner with ­Dalton McGuinty and other government officials, and one of his dining companions quietly promised to divulge Mazza’s salary. Cooke published the figure—$1.4 million a year—on December 23, above the fold, in large type. It turned out Mazza was the highest-paid public official in Ontario, and as a result of the Star’s work, he would be fired, his agency investigated by the OPP and audited by the province, and the Liberal government pilloried.

This was exactly what Cooke, a swashbuckling Brit who had edited tabloids in New York and Chicago, had hoped would ­happen. Before he took over in 2009, the Star was stale and predictable. These days, it routinely takes on power, whether in a Mafioso’s condo or the mayor’s office. The Star has become a publication that delights in telling the public who the bad guys are, and even more in holding their feet to the fire.

Cooke is 60 years old and still has the build, though somewhat softened, of the rugby player he used to be. He favours dark suits and white shirts, no tie, the top buttons undone. His hair has thinned to a greying archipelago. He resembles what I imagine the actor Colin Farrell will look like as he nears senior citizenry—impish, with eyes that twinkle more mischievously than most. He is the last of a dying breed—the chest-thumping, street-savvy daily newspaper editor. Cooke grew up in an age when newspapers had widespread influence, and he’s never been shy about wielding that influence. Journalism, for him, is a blood sport. When he speaks of his role models, he might be describing himself: “They’re tough. They’ll punch you in the balls to win.” Raised in the tiny village of Nether Kellet, in Lancashire, he imagined he’d become a sailor in the navy, like his father. But he started writing for the local paper when he was 17 and became addicted to the thrill of the journalistic chase. (His first byline was attached to a story about a fox hunt; the metaphors write themselves.) Even then, he had a knack for getting a story. “I learned how to knock on a door where a kid has been killed in a car accident,” he says, “and how to work your way into a house and get people talking. People don’t talk in their living rooms, they talk in their kitchens, so you get into their kitchen and an hour later you leave with a photograph of the dead kid.” He headed to Fleet Street, where he jobbed at the Daily Mail and The Sun. In 1974, while on vacation in Toronto, he was recruited by the Star. “Canada was exotic at the time,” he says. “I felt free of England’s class system and racial prejudice.” He loved sitting in his high-rise apartment, watching summer storms roll in across Lake Ontario.

Colin MacKenzie, the Star’s former national editor, recalls that Cooke possessed an uncommon brashness. At the time, MacKenzie shared an apartment with John Honderich, whose legen­dary father, Beland, ran the paper’s parent company, Torstar, and who was then the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief. From his Toronto desk, Cooke called their place at 5 in the morning and demanded—his grasp of Canadian parliamentary procedure still a bit shaky—that Honderich ask Pierre Trudeau some question or other during Question Period. “He knew he was pulling the boss’s son’s beard,” MacKenzie says.

Over the next 20 years, Cooke moved across the country to various jobs at different papers—from the Star to the Montreal Gazette to the Edmonton Journal—and, with each promotion, further established his reputation as a provocateur. He describes his own politics as “fiscally centre-right, socially centre-left.” In 1995, when he was hired as editor-in-chief of the right-wing Vancouver Province, he was accused of making it even more conservative and of trying to bust the union.