Rideau Hall, Monday, April 10, 2000
I can’t tell you how happy I am to welcome you to Rideau Hall on the occasion of the presentation of the Michener Award for outstanding disinterested public service in journalism.
Those words, “disinterested” and “public service” are words which describe journalism at its very best, and it is very fitting that it bears the name of Roland Michener, my predecessor as Governor General, whose life was devoted to public service as a politician, an ambassador and then Governor General. Supported by his brilliant wife Norah, who had written her PhD thesis on the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, Michener devoted his energies to his public life.
He contributed to Canada his exceptional vigour, simplicity, intelligence and humour. In his eighties, in retirement in Toronto, we frequently saw him at the market on Saturday mornings (by then he was a widower) carrying white plastic bags full of fresh produce, smiling and greeting everyone warmly.
He presented the first Michener award in 1970 to the Financial Post/CBC as a joint entry. As an award that considers all media in which journalism is expressed, it is unique in its recognition of the organizations that nurture the idea of the public interest. And I would like to thank everyone involved with the Michener Awards Foundation and the jury members for their dedication to this award. The ideals of detachment and excellence which the Michener Award recognizes are wonderful in a society in which self-interest and mediocrity are frequently what we accept with grumpy resignation, even if it enrages us as citizens dependent on the media for information.
We Canadians are well-educated. We have a high standard of living and a huge amount of space in which to live, yet injustices occur here as do abuses of our systems and structures. So we need the press in all its forms to alert us to our situation, to awaken our indignation, and to keep us uncomfortable. The recounting of greed, negligence, indifference, corruption and callous carelessness renders us psychically itchy, and perhaps, although that is not the journalists’ responsibility, we will have to scratch.
As a society that basically wants to redress wrongs, it’s good to be reminded of what Swedish writer Carl-Henning Vikjmark wrote: “The sign of authentic values is that they can resist evil.”
The tenacity to find the story and stick with it through deep research and shifting contradictions was taught to me by such exemplars as Ron Haggart, Philip Matthias, Gerry McAuliffe, to name only three, when I was at The Fifth Estate. They were dogged, obsessed and tough but they cared about telling the story, and telling it right. I learned that having a point of view can be different from being biased, from having an axe to grind.
And being a truly professional journalist lies in knowing that difference, knowing that telling the story is akin to a piece of ice dropped on a hot stove – you know it will melt, but you don’t know in what direction the water will run.
All good journalists know that you must ask questions to which you do not know the answer. The story may end up as a virtual indictment, but a good, disinterested story cannot start out as one. The readers/viewers/ listeners have to participate in the weighing of the evidence, the marshalling of fact in order to be won over; they have to feel that they understand and know, not that they are being dragged to a foregone conclusion.
We are honouring the broadcasters and newspapers tonight who, whatever the resources available to them, published and put on the air the stories which as fallible human beings, content in our own lives, we would really not have asked to know about. In afflicting us with truth, they make it impossible for us to turn away, and our lives, as citizens of Canada, are better for it.
The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall, Ottawa
Monday, April 10, 2000