Rideau Hall, Tuesday, April 30, 2002
When I came to Rideau Hall two years ago I was determined that we would welcome these awards back to Rideau Hall in a big way. For one thing, I come out of this world myself, and I am grateful to it for giving me the equipment and the background to do the job I now have.
For another, the awards were started by the Right Honourable Roland Michener, Governor General from 1967 to 1974. The Michener family founded this award to commemorate their daughter Wendy, a journalist whom a number of you in this room know and remember, and who died suddenly and prematurely at the height of her career.
So tonight we present the Michener Award for Journalism and the Michener-Deacon Fellowship.
The Michener Awards are distinguished from other media awards, because they emphasize the arms-length public benefit that is generated by journalistic work. We have many awards in this country for journalistic excellence. But it is this emphasis on the public good that is a very important part of the Michener Award. Moreover, the award goes to a news organization – newspapers, broadcasting stations and networks, news agencies and periodicals – rather than individuals, although, of course, the latter get their share of the recognition as well. And it includes large and small organizations.
This emphasis on news organizations is a very important distinction. For it recognizes that reporters who have the ability to tell the stories which are going to benefit the public still need the backing of the organizations that they work for. Anybody who knows anything about how things are run in journalistic organizations knows that the writer or the reporter is by no means working alone in a vacuum. Not only does she find the story, shape it, craft it and produce it, she must also be always in tune with the larger structure of the organization for which she works.
The individual journalist knows that she’s got to be courageous and she’s got to be daring. Courageous in taking her chance on her own judgement of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad. And daring enough to convince her editor that this story will work and people will want to read it.
The reason I like these awards so much is that they emphasize the complexity of the way in which we inform the public about things. When I was in television, people would often think that I did everything myself. My dry cleaner once said to me: “How did you get back from Ireland so fast and manage to write that story and present it last night-” having seen a report just the night before. It showed me that the general public, even when somewhat informed, has no idea of the size of the organizational iceberg on which the story and its creator rest.
I’m also delighted that a couple of my predecessors as Governor General had their beginnings in the journalistic world as well. Roméo LeBlanc was known to me, when I was young and starting out in 1965, as the respected correspondent for Radio-Canada in London. Jeanne Sauvé began her career at Radio-Canada. Jules Léger, who later became a diplomat, began his career right here as a newspaper man at Le Droit.
To Canadian journalists almost thirty years ago, when he was Governor General, Jules Léger said: “But who should be the judge of the information to be disseminated? In a democratic society there can be only one answer to this question: all members of the press from the owner of a chain of newspapers to the free-lance journalist. Every level of the profession must be aware of its responsibilities, if the balance of the whole is to be maintained.”
Clark Davey, a legend from his time at the Globe and the Citizen, and who was very much involved with the Michener Foundation in its beginnings, said that what makes a good reporter is a good city editor. What makes a good newspaper, a good broadcaster, a good agency is the quality of its leadership. Journalists simply cannot operate by struggling against ignorance or inadequacy in their own organization, while at the same time trying to tell a story which is often unpleasant and which the public doesn’t seem ready to accept.
No matter how large their egos – and I dare say that many journalists, even young ones, have sizeable egos – a story can get told only if the backing of the organization is there. All journalists need to know that behind them is an organization with integrity, with a desire to say things for the record, with an ability to stick by their story, even in the face of powerful external opposition.
Of course, one hopes that we have come a long way in our ability to tell a story with honesty, integrity and truth, even if we’ve had to clutch at certain rocks down the rapids along the way. Pierre Berton, referring to journalistic practices of the 1940s, once noted: “As long as you quoted your source, you could publish the most outrageous hokum. News was not truth; it was what somebody claimed was truth, even though the phrases that somebody uttered were clearly balderdash. If it made a good story it went into print without qualification.”
We have moved beyond what used to be called “yellow journalism”. Although we often decry our newspapers and television sources, I think we do have a better intent than we used to. Our problem is to guide and guard that intent, so that it actually tells people not what they want to know but what they should know. And to keep our perspectives clear and balanced, free from hysteria, and based on a deep knowledge of history.
Tonight, we have a special treat, because we have among us some of the greatest journalists and writers of the last fifty years in this room with us. These people have contributed so much to the history of Canadian journalism that it is hard to even measure. By their writing, by their editing, by their mentoring, they have made us what we are as a nation today.
Our special guests tonight, apart from the nominees, are writers and journalists who have helped to shape our country and helped to shape us into the kind of people we are. Pierre Berton, Doris Anderson, Farley Mowat, June Callwood, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Trent Frayne are my special guests. I have asked them to join us, because I felt that the younger journalists – the aspiring writers – would benefit from meeting them and just being in their presence.
Dalton Camp should have been here. He had accepted to be here. We had a long chat about it when we were getting this organized two months ago, and he said: “I’ll be there.” Then he had his stroke. After a week, I heard that he was alright and that I could call him. So I did, and he said: “Don’t worry, I’ll get better for it.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be so. And we think of Dalton and the wonderful columnist that he was and the public good that he always had in his mind when he wrote his column.
It makes you realize that few of you could be doing what you do today if these predecessors had not risked and written what they did. They are icons to us now. But they wrote things in their time which drew the wrath of the comfortable down upon their heads. Perhaps that is why their heads can be held so high. The wrath of the comfortable simply melts and drips off. In the name of telling the truth, they have been libelled, banned from the United States, and even arrested. All of them know that morality is not respectability. None of them is really respectable – I know them really, really well and I can say that – but that’s why we love them. And they’re here tonight so that we can pay tribute to them.
The Michener Awards recognize the superb quality of reporting on domestic issues and stories. But I want us all to remember that foreign and domestic go hand in hand. We exist as a country in a world. And unless we can take our place in that world with our own values, with our own hopes, we will be very reduced as a country and as a force for good.
Our citizens have to realize, too, that they have a responsibility to demand information, the best information that they can get. And we need the kind of reporting which will help us to understand the meaning of events. That is why we must decry the cutting back of foreign bureaus for our news organizations. We need a Canadian point of view on foreign affairs. There’s no such thing as a non-national view of the world. As long as we are a sovereign country, we have to be told by our own people what’s happening in the world, in order to understand its implications for us, in order for us to make comparisons with our own society. The quality of our domestic life is thrown into relief by how we operate in the world at large and how we understand the world at large.
I’m very pleased tonight to see the superb quality of reporting on domestic issues represented by our nominees. They have produced multi-part series or full-length reports and have taken the space necessary to get to the heart of the story. In this sense, they help us, in Thoreau’s words: “Not simply to be good but to be good for something.” They have helped us to maintain what Jules Léger referred to as “the balance of the whole”.
And, as importantly, they have served their fellow Canadians as good citizens. They perform that public service which we expect of them and which we should all expect of each other.
Congratulations to Pierre Duchesne for being named the winner of the Michener-Deacon Fellowship and to all the finalists of the Michener Award for Journalism.
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Governor General of Canada
April 30, 2002