Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Once again, it’s time for Ottawa’s favourite non-televised news event, the Vice-Regal version of “Meet the Press”. This is an evening that I enjoy. Of course, officially, I enjoy every evening but the Michener Awards night is something that I look forward to both officially and unofficially.
We are here to honour some of the best of today’s journalists and in so doing, to remember one of the best of yesterday’s Governors General. This evening, we celebrate the foresight of Roland Michener in establishing the annual award that bears his name. We celebrate, as well, the consistent excellence of Canadian journalism.
Events such as this, however, are not totally joyous experiences. For you in the Fourth Estate there is the anxiety of wondering which entry will win. You must sit and quietly bite your finger nails while I add the formal touch this event demands by making these official remarks.
You have my sympathies. Nothing is worse than the last five or ten minutes of a long wait. But this is a difficult time for me as well. Like you entrants, I too feel that I am being judged. You are being compared to each other and I fear that I am being compared to Roland Michener.
To be perfectly frank, the thought makes me a little uncomfortable. Another year has come and gone and, despite all my good intentions, I have failed to renew that great Michener tradition — the daily five mile run. I bought the Nikes and I’ve mapped out the track that Rolly used to pound around the grounds but I haven’t taken that last step. By which I suppose I mean to say, I haven’t taken that first step.
But, I want the record to show that I have not been completely idle. I have taken to walking to work. Admittedly, the two flights of stairs and the corridor between the living and working quarters in this place hardly constitute an Olympic event, but it is a start.
Enough about my anxieties, it is the anxiety of this year’s entrants that has brought us together this evening. Let us turn our attention to journalism.
What makes the Michener award special is that it is given each year to a news organization, not to a particular journalist. The idea is to highlight the support of the desk, of management and of the boardroom because the commitment of the entire organization is what makes public interest journalism possible.
The hand holding the microphone or the pen must be controlled by a first class reporter. But no matter how bright, how sensitive or how energetic, even the best journalist cannot break stories without support. Everyone from the boardroom on down, must be dedicated to excellence and public service. This year’s finalists are eloquent testimony to that fact.
Out of fifty good entries, the judges have narrowed the field to a short list of four. All are daily newspapers and all share a common characteristic. Each entry tells a story that certain interests would have been far happier to conceal. In all four cases the issues investigated and the facts exposed, were as painful to some as they were beneficial to all. In 1992, in Canada, journalism was not a profession for the weak-kneed or the faint-hearted.
The Edmonton Journal explored the complicated, convoluted and contentious area of courtroom evidence. With the line between guilt and innocence so fine in so many criminal cases, the Journal exposed the inadequacies of the way psychiatric evidence, so vital to establishing the absence or presence of a guilty mind, is presented to judges and jurors.
The Toronto Globe and Mail assigned its investigative team to help readers make sense of the explosive “tainted blood” issue. With as many as 1000 Canadians killed by HIV-infected blood, questions like how many more? and who let this happen? required answers. The Globe dug them out.
The Toronto Star dedicated its resources to a four-month long inquiry into conflict of interest and negligence in the operation of Ontario’s air ambulance service. This was the classic case of the tiny story that grew. The decision to follow up on an anguished phone call to the Star’s desk was the first small step down a twisted and difficult trail that led to an inquest, a government inquiry and the firing of one official.
The Winnipeg Free Press entry was inspired by that incredibly powerful little word – WHY? Why was no one charged following the abuse-related deaths of a number of Manitoba children? Ruth Teichroeb, who bas been at these awards as often as I have, spear-headed the search for answers. By the time the Free Press was finished, charges were laid and concrete action was taken to better ensure that such scandalous oversights cannot happen again.
Canada’s investigative journalists earned their pay in 1992. Tonight, we hope to provide them with a little of the glamour they deserve for doing their jobs well. God knows, despite what the movies would like us to believe, there is not much glamour in the news business on a day-to-day basis.
It’s hard slogging. Memories are too often selective, facts get lost or buried, pressures come from all sides. This is the age of the lobbyist, of the spin doctor and of the skillfully crafted and too often manipulative press line. Libel chill has put a new and terrifying question on every editor’s blotter: “Who can we afford to anger?” Or, more brutally stated, “How much truth can we afford to uncover?”
But the products of your profession and craft are the very foundation stones of a free and democratic society. Those products are truth and accountability. If we allow them to be eroded and to disappear, we will inevitably lose everything. We must as a nation reward those who stand up to vested interests, who question the status quo, who are courageous enough to ask “WHY?” and “WHY NOT?”
In 1907, as a retirement statement of journalistic policy, the great American publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, said this about the role of a newspaper. His words are equally applicable to our modem electronic-media voices. Pulitzer said:
“…it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare; never be satisfied with merely printing news; always be drastically independent; never afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”
Eighty-five years after Pulitzer penned that code of conduct, it remains appropriate; not easy, never easy, but appropriate, relevant and laudable.
All of us know journalists who meet Pulitzer’s tough standards. Unfortunately, we know others who don’t but this is a night for celebration. Let us not dwell on failure.
This is a time for honouring organizations, not individuals, but with us, this evening, is one newsman who so embodies the sort of individual all good journalists aspire to become, that I hope you will forgive me for making an exception.
I refer, of course, to Bill MacPherson. MacP was born in Saskatchewan, which explains a lot, but made his name in journalism over a thirty year career with the Ottawa Citizen. His integrity, his ability, his energy, his insight and his professionalism have set the standard, today, much as Pulitzer’s retiring words set the goals at the turn of the century.
Without MacP, there would have been no Michener Award, for it was Bill who convinced Roland Michener to lend his name to this recognition of investigative journalism as a vital team sport.
Bill, we know you have been through a rough patch, but though people who say this can rarely prove it, I am confident that I am right when I say, I speak for everyone here in saying, thank you and God bless.
Now, it is time to end the anxiety and to put some names to tonight’s winners. I think you are all winners. I am proud to be associated with this event and I feel secure about Canada and its potential, knowing that you are keeping an eye on things. I wish you all good luck and happy hunting and I look forward to seeing you back here, again and again, over the years.
His Excellency Ramon John Hnatyshyn
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall, Ottawa
May 4, 1993.