Farewell to a champion of public interest
Veteran journalist Bill MacPherson advised & worked with the Governor General to create the Michener Award for meritorious public service in journalism.
By Christopher Young – Ottawa Citizen correspondent – Friday, June 23, 1995
Six weeks before he died of leukemia, Bill MacPherson made a difficult and draining effort. He went out for dinner, and made it look easy. He wore a smart blue suit and his familiar friendly smile, both of which helped to disguise his gaunt frame and shrunken neck. He carried a small battery-operated electronic voice machine, which he had been using since cancer forced the removal of his larynx and esophagus more than two years ago. With characteristic determination, he had mastered the use of this device to converse in a monotone, replacing his natural voice.
This was no ordinary dinner, but an elegant banquet at Rideau Hall, hosted by Gov. Gen. Roméo LeBlanc, who made a point of paying tribute to MacPherson’s outstanding career and the spirit of positive public service he brought to it. The occasion was the annual presentation of the Michener Awards for journalism, an idea that MacPherson had proposed to former governor general Roland Michener on his departure from office in 1974. LeBlanc is the fifth governor general since Michener to present the awards in a ceremony at his official residence, and the first who was once a professional journalist himself.
Bill’s service to the Michener Awards Foundation had also been recognized two years earlier by Mr. LeBlanc’s predecessor at Government House, the Hon. Ray Hnatyshyn in these words:
“This is the time for honouring organizations, not individuals, but with us, this evening, is one newsman who so embodies the sort of individual all good journalists aspire to become, that I hope you will forgive me for making an exception. I refer, of course, to Bill MacPherson. MacP was born in Saskatchewan, which explains a lot, but made his name in journalism over a 30 year career with the Ottawa Citizen. His integrity, his ability, his energy, his insight and his professionalism have set the standard today, much as Pulitzer’s retiring words set the goals at the turn of the century. Without MacP, there would have been no Michener Award, for it was Bill who convinced Roland Michener to lend his name to this recognition of investigative journalism as a vital team sport.”
Unlike most other awards in the field, which are for individuals, the Michener Awards are given to organizations – newspapers, wire services, radio and television broadcasting units – for projects judged to have performed important services in the public interest. This was an area that MacPherson thought was lacking in public recognition and in need of greater encouragement. Notable as a team leader rather than an individual star, he was managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen at the time.
MacPherson was appointed secretary of the Michener Awards, a position he had held ever since, assisted by two former Ottawa bureau chiefs of The Canadian Press; Fraser MacDougall and Arch MacKenzie. (Suggestions of a Scottish conspiracy are denied.) MacPherson and his wife Jackie provided a room in their house as an office for dealing with the paperwork involved in soliciting and judging all the newspaper clippings and broadcast tapes that are entered each year.
“He was in effect the founder of it – the guy who went to see Michener about it,” MacDougall said when MacPherson retired from the Citizen’s staff at the end of 1992. That date marked three decades at the Citizen and a total of 44 years in newspaper work, beginning at the Moosomin World-Spectator, a small but ambitious paper in the Saskatchewan town where Colin William Evan MacPherson was born and raised. After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan, he worked as a reporter and editor for the Regina Leader-Post, the Medicine Hat News and the Winnipeg Tribune before his appointment as managing editor of the Citizen in 1962. He held that position for 14 years and was subsequently national editor, associate editor in charge of the editorial page, and ombudsman.
As managing editor, he eschewed the eruptions of fire and brimstone that tradition associates with that position. His style of leadership combined encouragement with constructive criticism. I worked with him in Winnipeg and Ottawa for many years and never saw him lose his temper. When he disagreed on a professional question, he liked to quote a line from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a satire on inept reporters and megalomaniac press lords. In the novel, this was as far as a Fleet Street underling dared to go in disagreement with his tyrannical chief: “Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.”
The pose was ironical. MacPherson’s own opinions were forceful, constructive and consistent; he just didn’t express them in a belligerent way.
His devotion to journalism also consumed his spare time. He had been president of the National Press Club, which he helped to found when its predecessor, the Ottawa Press Club, was judged by members to be inadequate for the capital city. He devoted many hours to writing witty songs for annual dinners of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and often sang them on stage himself.
His departure after 30 years at the Citizen was in accordance with the compulsory retirement age of 65, but, sadly, it coincided with the discovery of cancer in his larynx and esophagus. After two and a half years of therapy, including major surgery, he developed fatal leukemia.
For the many ways in which he enriched our lives, Bill MacPherson will be missed and mourned by his devoted wife Jackie; by his sisters, retired ambassador Marion MacPherson, of Ottawa, and Joan MacPherson, of Regina; by his four children; and by an incalculable list of friends inside and outside the world of newspapers and other media.
Christopher Young is a Southam News columnist who was a longtime friend and associate of Bill MacPherson.