Murder by slander?

The Toronto Daily Star’s headline of April 4, 1957 leveled a blunt accusation: “‘Murder’ – MP”. The Canadian ambassador to Egypt and Lebanon, Herbert Norman, had committed suicide that morning in Cairo. In Ottawa, members of parliament vied with one another to articulate the outrage felt throughout Canada. The Star's headline repeated a charge by Alistair Stewart, MP for Winnipeg North: Norman had been “murdered by slander just as surely as if someone had stuck a knife in his back.” The Star left no doubt about whom that “someone” was. A photo below the headline portrayed Robert Morris, the counsel for the United States Senate Sub-committee on Internal Security, over the caption “Said Norman Was Communist.” The next day the headlines were no less inflammatory. “Wave of Anger Sweeps Ottawa Over Norman’s Suicide in Cairo,” proclaimed the front page of the conservative Globe and Mail.

But the wave of indignation soon dissolved, as did the certainty about not only what had happened on that Cairo spring morning but why it had happened. Before his death, had Norman given any explanation for his fatal decision? According to press reports, he had left several suicide notes. The Globe and Mail on April 5 printed what were purportedly two of them. In fact, neither was accurate. On April 18, the New York Daily News reprinted what it claimed was the complete text of Norman’s two suicide notes, one of them to the Swedish ambassador, from whose building Norman had stepped. They declared that he could not bring himself to tell the true reasons for his suicide. These notes, too, were fanciful.

Astonishingly, the Canadian Department of External Affairs contributed to the rampant speculation by holding back Norman’s actual last words. Intended to protect the privacy of Norman’s widow, Irene, the media blackout only served to increase the circulation of rumours and innuendo. Soon the media hunt for reds had expanded to include Lester Pearson, the Minister of External Affairs. Two weeks after Norman’s death, Pearson was forced to write a letter to the Montreal Gazette defending himself. Had he misled Canadians about Norman’s political background? Did the U.S. subcommittee’s accusations – just days ago dismissed as unsubstantiated slander – have some grain of truth?

The outcome of this speculation, claim and counter-claim was that most press readers must, within days of Norman’s suicide, have felt utter confusion as to why Norman had killed himself. And their uncertainty reinforced the persistent idea that perhaps Norman did indeed have something to hide.


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