Rideau Hall, Thursday, April 10, 2003
This is now the fourth time I’ve had the occasion to welcome all of you to the Michener Award for Journalism and the presentation of the Michener-Deacon Fellowship. And I’m pleased to welcome you to Rideau Hall, especially as these awards are so closely tied to the Office of the Governor General.
Roland and Nora Michener inaugurated this award in 1970 in commemoration of their daughter, Wendy, after her sudden and premature death. A number of us were fortunate enough to have known her during her highly successful career as a journalist. Even though she was still in her thirties, she had already made her mark as a remarkable journalistic force.
And it is also fitting that the Michener Award should be given for the public benefit that is generated by journalistic work. This award is about public service – it’s about public service in journalism, just as the Order of Canada is about public service generally to the nation and the Bravery Awards are about outstanding acts selflessly done. In addition, the Michener Award recognizes the newspapers, magazines and networks that, through their support of the articles and series being honoured tonight, have shown their commitment to the public good. Without these organizations, it is doubtful whether much of the journalistic effort could have been pursued, let alone appear in public.
Anyone who has worked for a journalistic organization knows that there cannot be simply a writing of an article and its production without a host of other people in the background: first of all, the assignment editor, then the managing editor, then the editor. They all become involved, particularly if the stories are long committed ones taking up resources as well as many, many column inches.
All of the stories that we are honouring tonight have this in common – the commitment of an organization and everyone working for it to allow the journalists to tell a story. A story that, in every case, has created change for the better. Whether it’s a story about the failings of a child welfare system on an Aboriginal reserve or about straightforward political corruption, or the spiralling cost of drugs, or the shame of homelessness, or the injustices of racial profiling – the sustained ability to stick with these stories is what has made them effective and ultimately agents of change.
All the six finalists tonight represent investigative journalism. Usually in teams, they have uncovered the proverbial cans of worms oozing into our bureaucracies or into the fabric of our society as a whole. All six finalists have every right tonight to be nominated for the Michener Award. Having read their work, I can say that they show the finest levels of integrity and hard work and doggedness. They show us how freedom of speech really matters to us and how that freedom commits editors and publishers to public service.
No one reading these contributions could possibly be anything but proud of the journalistic tradition that is carried on in this country. It has helped to expand our realm of information, of developing possibilities for our differing views of human affairs, and therefore, most importantly, of enhancing the participation of citizens in our society and our democracy.
Uncovering wrongs is a very important part of our journalistic tradition. It is the first step in righting those wrongs, so that we become a better place, a better society. It also helps us to be more aware and on the look-out the next time something bad happens.
But public service in journalism should be broader. It should also include, for instance, the way in which elections are covered. Are the electors informed in such a way that they can make their decisions freely knowing many options? We are deluged with information, particularly at times of elections, and we must have the kind of reporting which leads towards our being able to understand where lies the public interest. What I’m saying is that, ideally, every kind of information on whatever subject can lead to helping people understand what their world is like, what their place is in it, and how they would like to see things organized.
Journalism can help us understand what our position is in our community, in our country and our world. As we see from the stories of the finalists, journalism in itself will not bring about the reforms; but it will be the impetus for the reforms to happen. We’ve been doing this kind of thing very well, and our Michener laureates have shown us that path for a number of years.
But I think it is important for us all to understand that our own country is changing quickly. We have decided to be a welcoming haven for 250,000 immigrants a year. Therefore, we cannot have the same kind of attitude or background to situations as we had even five years ago. We will not be able to help people understand what the public good is if the information we get is based upon an old idea of Canada with its middle-class values, some historical memory, and fully functioning in at least one of the official languages. It is perhaps not that useful anymore to see our audience made in the same image as ourselves, with the same goals, more or less affluent, and rather committed to a status quo. The Canadian audience is changing; so it is important that the media’s image of this audience also changes.
I’ll just give you one small example of what I mean. I was briefly in India in January – in fact only for one day – and of course I read all the newspapers avidly. And every newspaper was filled with the story of how 4,000 persons of Indian origin – “PIOs”, as they’re referred to – had been invited by the ruling party of India, the BVP, and Mr. Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, to participate in a congress to talk about being Indian in the Diaspora.
In fact, what it was leading up to was the offer of dual citizenship to persons of Indian origin. Many prominent Indians from all over the world were part of this congress – including the former Premier of British Columbia; the expert on race relations, Lord Bhiku Parekh from Britain; and the former Secretary- General of the Commonwealth, Sridath Ramphal. So, too, were Silicon Valley billionaires and Nobel Prize winning writers – all persons of Indian origin.
Considering how many people there are of East Indian origin in Canada who contribute enormously to our life, why was there not a word of analysis of this congress in any of our newspapers? Surely, this kind of congress is of interest to people in Canada. As our society becomes more complex, more diverse, we must be interested in everything possible that can happen to any of our groups.
We must also get beyond the idea that we know the multicultural nature of our society by eating tandoori chicken or egg foo yung. The decorative elements of the ethnic richness of our society should not be the only elements that we absorb. It is vital to us to understand what the goals, dreams and purposes are of people who come from extremely complicated backgrounds. And in the Middle East, it is vital that we understand more than just what people there think of conflict or where they are placed in that conflict, or which side they are on. We need to know about how they actually live their lives and of the choices they make in order to live decently and with goals in mind.
Without this kind of focus, we need to worry whether we frequently condescend to different groups in our society or relegate their life to the anecdotal. We work very hard in this country to make sure that everyone is a first-class citizen, that there is only one level of citizenship, and that everyone can participate in all our democratic processes. A great deal of the responsibility of journalism is, I believe, to make sure that people are given the right tools to understand the new system that they’ve come to, the Canadian system. But also to make sure that these new members of our society be understood as people in all their complexity – with their individual pasts, their different histories, their different religions and customs.
As Canadians, let’s not be dependent only on wonderful journals of record emanating from the United States or Great Britain. This of course will demand that we have journalists who understand and can interpret a foreign situation. It will demand resources for foreign bureaux and it will require an intense education of journalists to really understand different political systems within the context of where they have evolved.
We must not be simplistic in our approach to foreign matters. There is a lamentable trend in reporting foreign elections in terms of who has won and who has lost. There is an increasing tendency not to tell us what the percentage of votes were, how many seats were gained by the winning party, or even the most elemental information. Of course, we can glean all of that if we turn to some foreign publication usually published weekly. But that’s not right. The Canadian public needs more than that. We have to be able to evaluate the impact of such events from abroad on our own society, on our own culture.
Arthur Miller says that ”the good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” For us to talk to ourselves, we have to have the continued commitment of all of you who are involved in the journalistic profession; to reflect our society as it really is today, to alert and warn us about what may be coming; and to provide a texture and description of the lives that we cannot live but know are lived around us.
Our six nominees tonight have helped us in all of those three areas. And for this we should be enormously grateful. You have served your fellow Canadians as good citizens and this is what we have expected of all those who are in the media as reporters, editors and publishers. In fact, it’s what we should all expect of each other.
Congratulations to Margaret Munro for being named the winner of the Michener-Deacon Fellowship, which will enable her to do interesting research into the ties between Canadian universities and the pharmaceutical industry.
And congratulations to all the finalists for the Michener Award for Journalism.
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Governor General of Canada
April 10, 2003