Welcome to Rideau Hall.
Perhaps some of you were at the Press Gallery dinner Saturday night. ln spite of what I said there, I really don’t mind being seen with journalists. Of course, those of us now retired from journalism must recognize, with regret, that the new generation can never quite equal our skill and dedication.
Nevertheless, I am very glad to welcome journalists to this house: both old friends and others I hope to meet, so I’ll be able to put a face to a name.
As a journalist, I never wrote newspaper editorials or became a media pundit. But today I’ll take a risk and raise a question or two about journalism, especially electronic journalism. And they are questions which the journalists we honour today can help to answer.
Some three decades ago, a friend of mine coined the phrase that the television camera was an electronic cannon. Its power comes not only from disseminating images far and wide at the speed of light, but from its inhuman ability of ceaseless observation. The camera is probing, it is invasive, and it is ruthless.
I started as a journalist covering magistrate’s court in New Brunswick, where most of the problems were ones of over-drinking, or quarrels between neighbours, or sometimes matrimonial disputes. I can still see the anguished, frightened faces of simple, ordinary citizens when they were called to be cross-examined, in a different world far from their daily lives.
After that experience, I have never been able to convince myself that direct, instantaneous television should be used in court, where the momentary scared look of an honest man can become an image that follows him all his life. The electronic cannon shoots without thinking. At least the print journalist can apply some human judgement.
I realize that my view is far from universal. But i find refuge in the rather presumptuous phrase of the French writer, Paul Claudel, “that truth has nothing to do with the number of people who believe in it.”
All of us draw some of our ideas and impressions from our friends, from books, and from the other institutions of society. But more and more we live in a media theatre which has no exit, surrounded by a never-ending montage of fragmentary, hypnotic headlines and images.
At my installation speech a year ago, I called on the media to give good news a chance. You might think that today I’m doing the opposite, in questioning a profession I love. But it is because of my love for journalism that I am stepping a bit out of bounds.
It is always healthy to remember the media’s great power, which is like a hospital laser able to do great good or harm. And journalists and their organizations must undergo the same scrutiny that they give to others.
I imagine many of you have read the American commentator, James Fallows. He says in effect that journalists have abandoned the political issues to concentrate on the political game, and almost prefer to report on spin rather than substance. According to Fallows, positioning and perceptions have taken on more news value than the truth itself.
If he is right, the search for turning points or so-called “defining moments” may simply define our own superficiality. One flag-stomping incident in Brockville can almost outweigh the proof of good will shown by the hundreds of thousands of Canadians studying a second official language. Through constant repetition, political myths and distortions of history can take on a virtual reality.
Any of you could formulate your own list of media puzzles. But to all the abstract questions about journalism, those we honour today have given a human answer.
There is just no arguing with a story that has hit the mark. There is no questioning the satisfaction it brings to the reader, to the reporter, and to the organization. You just know you have created something worthy. You know you have made a difference.
Today we will recognize distinguished journalism with a very high honour. But all the finalists for the Michener Awards have already won an inward honour, a pride and satisfaction you can take with you to the grave.
The Michener Awards recognize not only excellence, but public benefit. And perhaps they recognize something else: such old-fashioned qualities as integrity, determination, and concern for others.
So, before we honour the fellowship winners, and the finalists and the winner of the Michener Award, I do want to express my pride in the Canadian media; my admiration for those we are to honour; and my gratitude for the benefits you have brought to our society.
Thank you very much. Merci beaucoup.
His Excellency, the Right Honourable Roméo LeBlanc
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall, Ottawa
May 6, 1996.