Rideau Hall, Thursday, May 24, 2001
This ceremony – the presentation of the Michener Awards for Journalism and the Michener-Deacon Fellowship – is one which I always look forward to.
First of all, it is an honour to present awards initiated by my predecessor, the third Canadian Governor General, the Right Honourable Roland Michener. Roland Michener’s outstanding career as a public servant and an enthusiastic Canadian lends lustre to this prize, which was named in honour of his daughter, the late Wendy Michener, herself a prominent journalist who died prematurely.
I am very fortunate to have known Wendy Michener and Mr. and Mrs. Michener. The Micheners were a family, exemplary in their devotion to public life and to learning. Nora Michener, Roland Michener’s wife, was a brilliant intellectual who wrote her doctorate on the French moral philosopher, Jacques Maritain, at the Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto while her husband was pursuing his political career. The combination of intellect and commitment to Canada which this family represents is something we should all be proud of.
The Michener Awards, interestingly enough and quite understandably when you realize they were founded by the Michener family, basically honour news organizations for public service journalism. In other words, the organizations nominated for this year’s Award have put their resources – human and financial – into stories that were disinterested and in the public service. Ultimately, these awards are about the public’s benefit from excellent journalism.
It’s interesting that this should be stated so clearly as criteria for the Michener Awards – disinterested public benefit. It would seem to many that all journalism should be of disinterested public benefit. But of course, we’re all grown up now and we know that this is not so. It is good to be reminded of journalism’s true and real purpose, journalism’s glory. We will hear shortly from the journalists who got the story and gave it to us, the public, because we have the right to know. It is their passionate commitment that gives these awards their meaning.
If we consider the nominees tonight, we see what they have done to awaken interest and to pursue with purpose. We see stories about unforeseen consequences, hoodwinked clients, abuse of institutional power, and exploitation of medical ignorance.
Often in straight news stories what seems to be important is expanding on what is known publicly or privately. That is, finding something out, with the idea, however grandiose it might seem to be, of getting to the ultimate truth. In the case of the Michener Awards for Journalism, what is important is that the public will benefit by being told.
One of the first things a journalist learns to ask is who stands to benefit from the story. What the Michener Awards do, is put that benefit into the larger context of what the public has the right to know, what the public must know.
This is the important role of the press in a democratic society. It goes beyond afflicting the comfortable and scourging the wicked. With the ideals established and upheld by the Michener Awards, we honour those organizations who willingly commit to lengthy and costly investigations of issues that, frequently, the public did not realize it needed to know.
And this, of course, is the key to the matter because most people live their lives going to work, eating, sleeping, seeing friends, relating to families. And we know that, in Canada, a number of them take up some time to do volunteer activities – in fact, fully a quarter of our population, which is the highest rate in the world for any country. And even with all this activity, most Canadians are never fully aware of what is happening around them, so it is the duty of the press to inform them.
When the press not only informs them, but also helps to bring about a change in public policy, then we know that the system is functioning in a healthy and balanced manner. If a government changes its way of dealing with the public, or a commission is held to inquire into facts, or the public is simply made more aware of injustice, prejudice or victimization, we know we live in a society that is sane and equitable.
The Michener Awards are not about who is the villain and who is the hero. They are about trying to make sure that the public is served. Of course, these stories must be well written and well researched, for there’s no story if nobody reads it. It’s like a tree falling in the forest when there is nobody around: does it make a noise? The whole point about the press is that it should be free and that people should have fullest access to it. Not only because there are acres of newsprint or videotape used on it, but also because it’s about the examination of life.
Examining lives. We are talking about the people’s right to know, and their right to examine their lives and the lives of others. There may often be strong interests which would like the public not to know for all sorts of reasons, not all of them positively malevolent, although sometimes it can be hard to believe that. But it is the citizen’s right to inquire and to be informed in our society. Because this will help her or him to live the truly human life.
Plato says in the “Apologia” that Socrates said to one of his enquirers: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. This statement about the examined life, I’ve always felt, is not a justification for only intense self-scrutiny. Rather, I have always taken it as an indication that life is not lived solely on an individual basis, but is attached at every point to others’ lives, if we are to be a truly human society.
You journalists in these news organizations have pursued enquiries that have led to the public knowing and changes that further the public good. You are the ones who have led the way towards the examined life.
And it is this total examination which makes all our lives worth living. It is this examination which the Michener Awards for Journalism honours tonight.
Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall, Ottawa
May 24, 2001