Monday, June 17

Rex Murphy, a Dominant Pundit on the Right in Canada, Dies at 77

Rex Murphy, a Canadian newspaper, radio and television commentator who delighted his country’s conservatives with sharp attacks on environmentalists, liberal politicians and what he called their “woke politics,” died on May 9 in Toronto. He was 77.

His death, from cancer, was announced on the front page of The National Post, the widely read daily newspaper for which he wrote a column, one of several he had over the years in Canadian papers, including The Globe and Mail in Toronto. His editor at The National Post, Kevin Libin, said Mr. Murphy died in a hospital.

In his heyday, in the 1990s, Mr. Murphy was the rare political commentator who commanded a countrywide audience, skewering Canada’s elites as well as its sometimes fragile sense of nationhood. His roots in Canada’s youngest province, and one of its most rugged, Newfoundland, informed a combative patriotism and an affinity for the country’s working class.

For 21 years, from 1994 to 2015, he was the host of “Cross Country Checkup,” a popular weekly radio call-in show aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He would listen patiently as cranky listeners aired their views, then delivered his own back, pointedly. For much of that period he gave a weekly segment of commentary on the CBC’s main nightly TV news program, “The National.”

“For a very long time, he was Canada’s premier provocateur,” said Tim Powers, a former CBC colleague and friend.

In a 1996 profile, the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s wrote of Mr. Murphy: “He has become the unlikeliest of Canadian celebrities — a quirkily untelegenic presence who has defied the canons of conventional programming wisdom to etch himself upon the country’s consciousness.”

With his long rolling sentences, regional accent and Rhodes Scholar vocabulary, Mr. Murphy was something new in Canadian broadcast journalism.

He professed a modest view of his own contribution. “You can kind of stir the pot a tiny little bit, but it’s really conversational stuff,” he told a CBC interviewer in 1995.

His hold on a conservative national audience was unquestioned, however. “In a country where people are more likely to take a ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ approach,” Mr. Libin said, “Rex did nothing of the sort. He had full clarity on what he meant to say.”

Mr. Murphy’s sharp political turn to the right — from commenting for centrist outlets like the CBC and The Globe and Mail, where he had a regular column until 2010, to the right-wing views he espoused at The National Post — had its roots in his own working-class background, in the view of those who knew him.

The National Post, founded by the media mogul Conrad Black — who was convicted of fraud in the United States in 2007 and pardoned in 2019 by President Donald J. Trump, about whom Mr. Black had written admiringly — turned out to be a congenial forum for Mr. Murphy.

He echoed, for instance, the standard U.S. conservative media defenses of Mr. Trump. The real story, he asserted in a 2021 column, “was the F.B.I. leadership trying to set up Trump by using the now infamous Steele dossier,” a reference to the material compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele detailing unproved claims of links between Mr. Trump and Russia.

Mr. Murphy’s rightward journey could be traced through his commentaries. He went from mocking O.J. Simpson’s “platoon of Rolex lawyers” on the CBC in 1995 to a 2004 Globe and Mail column deriding what he called “Bush-haters” — critics of President George W. Bush at the time — and then to tirades in The National Post against what he called “the climate alarmist,” a person concerned about climate change.

He regularly took on what he deemed the sins of “woke” politics and “wokeism.” In a February 2023 column, he wrote: “I have finally fixed upon the definition of progressivism. It means the dismissal of everything that counts, unconcern with what makes life hard for most, and a scorn for the realities of day to day; instead shepherding to very particular political interest groups.”

In his final days there were diatribes against critics of Israel during its war with Hamas and against the liberalism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In his last column, this month, he called Mr. Trudeau “clumsy, incompetent and amateur” and asserted that Canada “is diminished on the world stage.”

Mr. Murphy was animated, Mr. Libin said, by “the sense that we were being governed by people who looked down on us.”

Still, for all his professed dislike of what Mr. Libin called “elitist politics,” Mr. Murphy was a defender of some of the country’s economic elites, especially the oil industry. In 2014, he came under fire from CBC viewers and listeners for giving paid speeches to the industry’s executives. He left the network three years later.

Robert Rex Rafael Murphy was born in March 1947 in Carbonear, in what was then the British Dominion of Newfoundland. (The 1996 Maclean’s profile said “his birth date is the subject of dispute.” Mr. Murphy himself was chary in interviews about answering questions about his background.)

He was the second of five children of Harry and Marie Murphy. His father was a cook at the American military base in Newfoundland’s port city of Argentia, and Rex attended schools in nearby Freshwater. He entered Memorial University in Newfoundland at 15 and graduated with a degree in English at 19. Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, he studied law for a year at the University of Oxford in 1968.

After returning from Oxford, he worked in local radio and television in Newfoundland and three times ran unsuccessfully for the province’s House of Assembly in the 1970s and ’80s, twice as a Liberal. Stints on a satirical CBC television program, “Up Canada!” brought him to national attention, and when he began hosting “Cross Country Checkup” in 1994, he became a national celebrity.

Mr. Murphy made several documentaries for the CBC as well, including about his native Newfoundland.

He was briefly married to Jennifer Davis Guy, with whom he had a daughter, and had long been divorced, Mr. Powers said. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

Throughout his career, Mr. Murphy set great store by verbal expression. His fans and his critics agreed that his distinctive, sometimes high-flown use of English was what set him apart from his country’s other journalists. Profiles noted that he was as devoted to the works of John Milton as he was to “The Simpsons.”

“I’ve always considered that style was more important than substance,” he told the CBC in 1995. “If you’re sloppy, slangy, vulgar, blasphemous,” he said, “then your thoughts are the same.”