Rideau Hall, Thursday, April 15, 2004
It’s always a pleasure to welcome you to Rideau Hall for the presentation of the Michener Award for public service journalism, as well as the Michener-Deacon Fellowship.
Just before this ceremony, the Michener Foundation received its official heraldic badge. Its coat of arms includes a maple leaf, a laurel wreath for journalistic excellence, and a quill and lightning bolt to symbolize written and electronic communication. Its motto is “Veritas Ancilla Libertatis” – Truth in the Service of Freedom.
The Michener Award carries the name of our third Canadian Governor General, the Right Honourable Roland Michener. His daughter Wendy was a fine journalist herself, and the family instituted this award in her name in 1970 after her sudden death at a young age. A number of us in this room were privileged to have known her during her working career, and remember the strength of her character and her commitment to freedom of speech and fair reporting.
The Michener Award centres upon the public benefit generated by journalistic work, and its genius rests in two factors. First, journalism is not a cool and clinical recitation of facts or, at the other extreme, an indulgence in colourful and self-interested opinions, no matter how well-written. Journalism, from the perspective of the Michener Foundation, does not tell us what we would like to hear, but informs us about things we weren’t even aware that we didn’t know. The Award recognizes that journalism can lead to an enriched improved social conscience and, often, the righting of wrongs.
The second important thing is that it is given to an organization. No journalist in print or electronic media can take the needed length of time to carry out a good investigation without the commitment of resources and the editorial backing of the newspaper or network. Athletic and artistic groups know the truth of this motto: “The main ingredient in stardom is the rest of the team”. This is why the Michener Awards have this focus on the dedication and achievements of the ensemble.
Cyril Connelly, a superb essayist and journalist, wrote that “journalism is the art of writing something that only needs to be read once; literature is the art of writing something which must be read more than once.” Connelly didn’t mean that journalism was superficial, but that it should be clear and direct. Literature frees the imagination, raises uncertainties, and questions the very basis of human ideas. Journalism seeks to clarify, to explain and, at times, to provoke. We need both journalism and literature to function as an aware, alert, imaginative society. We need both to play with a full deck.
To do this, journalists need the liberty to write or broadcast what they discover. Freedom of speech is very important to remember at an occasion like this. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Howe, the newspaper editor whose 1835 libel defence was a milestone in the development of a free press in Canada. Such freedom is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy, where there are many points of view and all the necessary tools for simple fact-finding and for in-depth analysis. However, freedom of speech is also an honourable right, and journalism uses it as something more than a licence to defame others or advance selfish interests.
The responsibility that goes with freedom of speech must be cherished in a country like ours, where it is nearly unassailable. We can become lazy, and ignore the warning of Soren Kierkegaard, who said that “people hardly ever make use of the freedom they have, for example, freedom of thought; instead they demand freedom of speech as a compensation.” We must ensure that freedom of speech is not a substitute for genuine thought, allowing us to settle for narrow ideologies or partisan analysis.
Many challenges face journalism in an age where information assails our consciousness. At its best, as we can see this evening, journalism gives a voice to the powerless, brings those who are marginalized into the wider conversation, and often leads to the righting of social wrongs.
All of this year’s nominated organizations have taken deep and engaged looks at Canadian situations they felt merited public attention, understanding, and sometimes, indignation: the flaws in a criminal trial that convicted a Winnipeg man to life imprisonment in 1991; the neglect and outright abuse in care facilities for the elderly in the Montreal area; dismal living conditions in low-income housing in Toronto, despite rising rents; weaknesses and excesses in the governance of some of our prominent corporations; risks and irregularities faced by investors in new forms of trusts; the exclusion of thousands of widows of Second World War veterans from benefits; the unjust and callous treatment of Aboriginal people by a city police force.
All of these demonstrate the capacity of journalism not only to expose injustice, carelessness and abuse, but also to promote positive social change. In all of these cases, authorities were inspired or compelled to re-examine the situations and to actively address the problems that had been uncovered. You will hear shortly from the journalists themselves.
I have spoken before of the necessity for journalism to reflect the true diversity of our population – where it comes from, how it is adapting, what the challenges are. We recently went to two areas of Toronto – Regent Park and Malvern – for a day each, talking to young people about the exciting educational initiatives they are part of, and trying to get to the root of how and why their communities are portrayed so negatively. Looking out at 1,200 students in the auditorium of Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute in Malvern, I could see what diversity really means in this country – perhaps five percent of the faces were white.
Accepting 250,000 immigrants a year means that Canada must be international in its outlook. We must not examine matters through an outdated or parochial lens. We have to have our eyes opened to the wider world and understand it, even if only for the sake of properly viewing our own communities. If we are aware of what is happening in Iraq, and know the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites, we will not just have interesting information, but also some comprehension of Iraq’s significance in the Middle East, its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example. All of these, and other Islamic nationalities, are knit deeply into our Canadian fabric.
Locally, what steps can we take toward a more sophisticated understanding? To avoid labelling entire groups as potential thugs because of isolated crimes, a simple solution is for newspapers and broadcasters to invite people from these communities to an editorial board meeting or story conference. Why meet only with business leaders, cabinet ministers, or with the Governor General, for that matter? Surely journalistic organizations should be interested in knowing from the people themselves how they actually live, what their differences are, how they perceive themselves. This would begin to address the fundamental gap between the powerful and the powerless. As news organizations you are strong players in the power structure in obvious ways. I challenge you to bring people into that structure so that their voices can be heard. Then you will not just be reporting about them in remote or in condescending ways. You will quote them and portray them, of course, but their voices should be part of the background before the stories are started, quotes are taken, and the colourful image is shot.
This, of course, means more complexity. In France, people berate themselves with a wonderful expression: “Pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué.” / “You must never do simple things when you can make them complicated.” Maybe it is a fault in relationships, or in daily duties, to over-complicate matters. But when your responsibility is to disseminate information, promote understanding and contribute to the public good of a complex society, nuance and sophistication are essential. Simple dualities – heroes and villains, the “battle of the sexes”, or Christianity versus Islam – are always insufficient and often harmful.
Before an audience like this one, I take it as a given that we do want to contribute to the public good; that we do want injustices to be corrected; that we do want to create a compassionate society.
My predecessor, Jules Léger, also began his career as a journalist, as did Roméo LeBlanc and Jeanne Sauvé. Mr. Léger said: “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.” Such a balance – the eternal Canadian quest – is what the Michener Award, and this year’s remarkable nominees, remind us of. Journalism has a noble purpose when the Canadian public’s right to know is combined with its compassionate interest in the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the poor and the weak.
I congratulate this year’s winner of the Michener-Deacon Fellowship, Cecil Rosner from CBC Television in Manitoba, and wish him well in his plan to write a history of investigative journalism in Canada. I commend the six finalists who have been selected from among the 57 large and small organizations that were nominated. All of them are adding to the proud history that Mr. Rosner will examine. Through all the hidden stories that journalists tell and have told, we learn. We also become part of a larger narrative – the story of our own country.
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Governor General of Canada
April 15, 2004