John Fraser, Author and Journalist
PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE MEDIA
Chairman: John A. Campion
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests
Montague Larkin, C.A., Honorary Director, The Empire Club of Canada; The Very Rev. Douglas Stoute, newly appointed Dean, St. James Cathedral; Ramsey Fraser, Chartered Accountant (retired); Prof. Ann Saddlemyer, Professor of English and Drama, University of Toronto and Master, Massey College; John McKellar, Q.C., Chairman, Weir & Foulds, member of the Board, the Canada Council and President, The Arts and Letters Club; Avie Bennett, Chairman and President, McClelland & Stewart; Douglas Todgham, President, Aldido Associates and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Chama Mwansa, Grade 13 student, Bloor Collegiate Institute; Dr. Priscilla Winn-Barlow, Principal, Havergal College; and Kenneth Whyte, Editor, Saturday Night Magazine.
Introduction by John Campion
Murder and Sex in Latin
In 1813, newspapers were minor instruments, with a limited readership. Most were written for a small group of educated people. The London Times continued to print details of atrocious murders or sex crimes, in Latin. The printing was done manually by hand-run printing presses and the labour was so exhausting that the stoutest constitutions fell a sacrifice to it in a few years.
But the confluence of "hot air" and profit was soon to transform newspapers from by-products of the literary and political set to a new estate in society--The Fourth Estate--a name given to the British Parliamentary Press Gallery by MacCauley in the 1820s.
The transition for journalists and writers of contemporary events, from an upper- and middle-class fringe to a full participant in our society, had its beginnings in technology. In 1813, John Walter of The London Times, bought the first double presses, worked by steam--hence the hot air and the profit.
Like Rupert Murdock in the 1980s, Walter had to avoid the hostility of the hand press operators who were his employees. He made his plans in secret, smuggled the machine parts into Printing House Square and assembled them furtively. After two years of careful preparation, he announced to the hand press operators at 6:00 a.m. on the 29th of November, 1814, almost 180 years ago to the day, that The Times was already printed by steam, that their wages would be paid and that an armed force waited outside to suppress any violence.
From this dramatic beginning, newspapers and journals made their way into the centre stage of Western political, social and intellectual life. By the end of the 1820s, a popular press had emerged from the technical advances of the Industrial Revolution and from the minds and pens of a new group of commentators who took the name, journalists.
An early tendency of journalists was to lean towards radicalism and against the established order--whatever it might be. This tendency became a criteria for legitimacy. Early attempts to defy the press failed. Edmund Burke concluded early in this development that the press would soon become as important as Parliament itself.
As the 1820s turned into the 1830s, journalists had become wellpaid in France, Britain and America and had assumed an increasingly important social status. In the French Revolution of the 1830s, journalists even went as far as to form a majority of the French Cabinet.
Journalists today are the direct inheritors of this spectacular growth of the power of print and electronic media; from the shadows of an elite to the centre of the story of everyday news itself.
John Fraser, is an accomplished descendant from the early days of journalists. As a newspaper man, he has written for The Toronto Telegram, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, The New Republic, Harper's, The Times of London, The Guardian, The Spectator, Paris Match, and on it goes.
He is an author of five books, including two on ballet, a book on the Chinese (which became an international bestseller in eight languages), a book entitled Telling Tales, dealing with portraits of leading Canadian personalities, and finally, his most recent book, Saturday Night Lives from a collection of his diary columns from his time as editor of Canada's most prestigious magazine, Saturday Night.
His accomplishments and participation elsewhere in the community include fund-raising for Massey College, of which he is now a Senior Resident Fellow, Memorial University and a teacher at St. Clements Anglican Church.
Normally, I would have ended the introduction here. However, it would be unfair not to make a personal note about Mr. Fraser's most recent book. The articles reflect the man. They are eclectic in that they deal with domestic politics, church matters, scholarship, international affairs, art, love, passion, the Fourth Estate, music, China and a host of other topics. They are written with a scintillating mixture of occasional brilliance, wit and whimsy. They tell tales and give gossip, provide insight and reach across disciplines with stories of witches, rogues, angels and ideals.
Who but John Fraser and a few other journalists around the world could, in a story on German reunification, credibly include Hitler, the rights of spring, the Holocaust, Boris Becker's tennis accomplishments and a description of Ermgart K., a friend of Mr. Fraser, whose passions included English literature and German music, all in six pages?
Good afternoon and thank you for this warm welcome. You should know that I am feeling more than unusually nervous today, as I look around this splendid room and spot a few too many familiar faces. If you think it's an easy task to get up in front of your father, your priest, your publisher, your successor, your godson, and even the great lady I have learned to call "Master," then you do not know what naked fear is. Add to this the fact that your president is my pew-mate at church and your immediate past-president is my neighbour at Georgian Bay. And add to that a fair smattering of former school mates, other friends from church, and colleagues from work, and you will appreciate why I begged my wife not to come. A fellow has to be left with at least a few secrets in this world. On the other hand, I'm happy to be surrounded by so many of the people that I love and admire, people who know most of my flaws and yet still turn up to show support.
This gets very close to the only remaining definition I seem to have of what it means to belong--to belong to a community, or, for that matter, to belong to a country. It's something to do with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote nearly two centuries ago. Coleridge saw the network of ordinary personal affections as the strongest single link in human civility and decent behaviour. Such affections, he wrote in his Lectures on Revealed Religion, expand "like circles in a lake--the love of our friends, parents, and neighbours leads us to the love of country, to the love of all mankind."
Heaven knows, we all need something to latch on to these days. We are living through a monumental era of transition and, often, brutal change. We are almost beyond surprise or shock at anything that happens. My profession--journalism--has assisted this apathy by knee-jerking us all into a kind of stupefied cynicism. We are now systematically programmed to see and read about terrible atrocities and catastrophic events--at home and all around the world--with hardened hearts. This is partly because we simply can't take in the sheer volume of it all any more. It's also partly because our messengers and information services seem somehow to have lost an ability to evaluate the worth and weight of news. Often we don't know whether we're at a tragedy or at a circus in our front row seats at the glorious global village information theatre. Slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda, trouble in the Royal Family, corruption in government, Michael Jackson's agony, the Aids plague, the demise of the cod fishery in Newfoundland, cult deaths in Quebec and Switzerland, the unending threats to the unity of Canada--all these things bombard us daily with such relentlessness that they have adversely affected not only our individual and collective ability to act constructively, but even our ability simply to react normally.
Of course there have been good stories too. The collapse of totalitarian communism in the former Soviet Union, the heroic success of Nelson Mandella in South Africa, the emergence of the United Nations as a legitimate player in global affairs--and hey!--even the revival of Saturday Night magazine. But the good and the bad exist today in a kind of morally indifferent bazaar of mindless, unattended priorities and values. If you think this is an exaggeration, go channel hopping and tell me the qualitative sensory difference between the O.J. Simpson trial and The Young and the Restless, or between any of the "victim-as-hero" interviews on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the latest Prime Time update on the Princess of Wales.
The media, of itself, is not to blame for this state of affairs. In the unfolding drama of The Fall of the House of Windsor, for example, it is true that the low end of the print media in Great Britain has always been mischievous, but the current crisis is primarily due to the dysfunctionalism of some of the younger and more restless members of the royal family who actually tried to manipulate the media--always a dangerous game. Generally, the media is too lazy to start trouble, but--boy!--we sure know how to fan the flames.
Consumers are also partly to blame. The media has become so powerful in setting a public agenda of shock, inflated trivia and cynicism precisely because it sells so well. The moment it doesn't sell, let me tell you, changes will come swiftly.
A study of the successful Clinton presidential campaign revealed that relatively small numbers of organised local Clinton supporters around the United States were trained to pounce on newspapers and television stations the moment they perceived their man wasn't getting a fair shake. The strategy took the form of blitzing editors and station managers with irate and time-concentrated telephone calls. Experience taught the Clinton organisers an interesting rule of thumb: on average, it took just eight phone calls to plant all the necessary seeds of doubt and anxiety in an editor's mind--but only five phone calls to fix the station manager. At Saturday Night, I was much braver: I didn't start quaking in my boots till at least 121etters arrived! My God, if this actually helped to put a bottom feeder like Bill Clinton into the White House, think of the possibilities of constructively adjusting the editorial agenda of all our newspapers and magazines.
Now this leads me to the main point I wanted to make today, which is about personal responsibility and the media--the personal responsibility of both the purveyor and the consumer. It's true that I have been ranting on a bit too much lately about the current state of the media. That's because I think it is proper for the actual practitioners of journalism to scrutinise their own craft openly--especially when you consider how traditionally adept we are at dismissing complaints from outside the business.
In this light, I was really pleased to see the appearance of George Bain's new book--called Gotcha! How the Media Distort the News--because it is full of eye-opening specifics, as well as suggestions for sensible, pragmatic correctives. I think George Bain is absolutely right in pointing out that as professionals these days, journalists are often confused about whom exactly they are and what they are supposed to be doing. We've lost our bearings, and at the same time we have embraced so much of the distrust and cynicism we ourselves have helped to engender, that we don't know were to turn for help, or how to find the fortitude to stop playing it safe and following the pack.
In my own career, it was something I didn't bother to think about very much until, by a fluke I guess, I was dispatched to the People's Republic of China in 1977 by the Globe and Mail. That experience touched me to the very core of my being and I hope it will continue to hound me right to the grave. Bear with me as I struggle to explain this a little, because it is at the root of whatever positive understanding I have today of what it means to be a journalist--both personally and for society. That's because China taught me the only way I know how, as an individual journalist, I can do something to improve the situation. I don't have a master plan, or anything like that. I do, however, have a fair knowledge of my craft and a rueful remembrance of some of my own transgressions and misconceptions.
Before I first went to China, I studied fairly diligently to get as good a general knowledge of its people and politics as I could cram into a year's advance notice. Because I wasn't in any way an expert, and wasn't trying to be an expert, I went about this business rather humbly--or at least as humbly as a journalist can ever go about anything. I did, after all, eagerly accept the China posting directly after being a ballet and theatre critic, which suggests, at the very least, a blithe assumption of personal appropriateness.
What I learned from a mind-boggling plethora of media reports and academic studies was simply this: that China had a vastly different culture than our own. That it was the height of arrogance to impose Western cultural values--particularly our selfish cult of individuality--on a people which valued, above all, the collective. I should point out that this was another China than the one we have been observing most recently. My China had only just begun to emerge from the dead hand of Maoist tyranny and little was known of what ordinary Chinese people thought and believed.
When I finally came to live in China, and after Chinese friends took me in hand and re-educated me, I realised--with some pain--that everything I had been taught was exactly wrong. Somehow, we in the West had managed to transform the cultural uniqueness of Chinese civilisation into a denial of Chinese humanity. We did it at both ends of the ideological spectrum. The "right" lambasted the "army of brain-washed blue ants" who were poised to take over all of Asia--and then, presumably, the world. "The left"--in an equally racist perception--rejoiced in the horrible new Maoist world order in which "collective rights" superseded individual selfishness.
Even after I was plunked down on the hard roads of China, it took some time for me to figure all this out. I had my own cultural and professional myopia to overcome. It is so easy, for example, to fall into the vortex of the Chinese statistical nightmare that you can't see any facet of life in China without adding nine zeroes to everything. Chairman Mao once said that 95 per cent of the Chinese people were loyal patriots, even if they weren't members of the Chinese Communist Party. Only five per cent were bad, he added, and they required what he euphemistically called "supervision by the masses." When I first read that statement, I thought to myself: "This is jolly decent of the Great Helmsman." Then I did my arithmetic and realised that he had just provided the entire rationale for casting 50 million souls into the abyss of prison, labour camps, and a lifetime of grotesque victimisation.
In China, I had to learn the discipline of being a witness, r which is qualitatively different from being an observer or commentator. From this, I came to understand that for every generally accepted rule in the affairs of men and women, there were invariably exceptions of such importance that they illuminated the human condition with greater intensity--and I would say truth--than all the world's punditry put together. Often enough such exceptions were the main story, when the generally perceived main story was merely what we call a "side-bar."
And that's simply the beginning of a process that never stops. It's what Coleridge was talking about, and his definition of the interlocked connections between all people is as good a definition of the presiding prejudice a journalist should operate under as any. It is not a recipe for objectivity. It is not an alternative to probing and hard research. It probably won't protect you from some deceivers and charlatans. It may not even save you from a libel suit from my friend and former boss, Conrad Black.
On the other hand, if journalists began to cover news and write features not just for their 500,000 "demographically defined consumers" or their 3.2-million mass audience, or however many readers, but instead specifically wrote their stories for their fathers and mothers, for their spouses, for their children, for their friends and close colleagues, then they might well start something very close to a revolution.
I fear this will all sound simple-minded or naive, but my own experience has taught me that if you write directly to the people you love and respect and depend upon, then honesty, common sense and decency generally prevail. Curiously and pertinently, it has also been my experience that at the same time you are actually reaching out to the vast majority of your unknown readers. Great wisdom, like Coleridge's, is never complicated. It's just a challenge to live up to. There are rewards for the effort, however--like being able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning.
I think, perhaps, I'd better sign off here because I'm in danger of trying to usurp the Dean of Toronto's new pulpit, or an even worse danger. One of my favourite anecdotes from the long history of Saturday Night concerns the legendary B.K. Sandwell, the fifth editor of the magazine. After he had delivered what he himself described as "a masterly overview of the Canadian political agenda" to the Montreal chapter of the Canadian Club in 1936, an admirer came gushing up to him at the end. "Oh, Mr. Sandwell," she said, "I want to thank you very much for such a superfluous speech." I imagine that Sandwell must have had a wry smile on his face when he answered:
"Well, I hope you didn't find any of it extraneous." "Not at all," she replied. "You seemed very relaxed." She went on to ask if the speech would be published. Sandwell grew sombre. "Well, I hope only posthumously." he said.
"Oh good," she said. "Then we can all read it soon."
As a superfluous, extraneous and quite possibly posthumous editor, I want to thank you again for this very kind reception. Thank you very much.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Douglas Todgham, President, Aldido Associates and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada.