The Media and the Prospect for Leadership
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 28 Jan 1993, p. 185-193
Segal, Brian, Speaker
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The problem of the breakdown in public confidence in our nation's political, business, labour and media leadership. Proof that Canadians have lost faith in their political leaders and their ability to understand and tackle our prime concerns: examples from the Maclean's-CTV year-end poll. Results of the poll. A variety of analyses and opinions about the results of the poll. The speaker's own conclusions about the results of the poll. What Canadians want, expect, and can afford from their government, their institutions, and the media. Challenges to the media, the government, and the public.
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28 Jan 1993
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Full Text
Brian Segal, Publisher, Maclean's Magazine
Chairman: Frederic L. R. Jackman
Second Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada


Many of you know that last year Dr. Brian Segal left the presidency of the University of Guelph, where he was known for his academic brilliance and administrative acumen, to become an unknown quantity in the world of magazine publishing--as Publisher of Maclean's Magazine. Many of you may have wondered why.

I did. This is a radical switch for a man who studied hard at McGill, at Ysehiva University in New York earning an MSW, and at Pittsburgh University, earning an MSc as well as a PhD degree specializing in public health.

He has lived his life in ivory towers, writing books and articles on social welfare, manpower planning and telecommunications. He took a break from academia by sitting on the boards of IBM, Union Gas, J. M. Schneider and the Sun Life Trust as well as chairing a variety of provincial and national commissions.

Here is an educated man, a doctor of philosophy who had spent years as a professor teaching students at Florida State, Carleton, Ryerson (where he was also president from 1980 to 1988) before reaching Guelph. He lived the good life in that quaint Germanic town of Guelph with his wife Bunny and their two sons and their daughter.

So, one might wonder why a person with such profound accomplishments in education would seemingly abandon the field for a career in publishing. Well, we all know that professors have to "publish or perish," but Dr. Segal, surely publishing Maclean's is not quite what your Board of Governors had in mind.

From 1988 to 1992, when he was president of Guelph, the best his university could do in the annual Maclean's overall ranking of Canadian universities was sixth. Not bad, but perhaps not good enough.

You will remember the uproar that shook both the academic community and Maclean's when it first published the ranking of Canada's universities in 1991. Almost every university president in Canada found reason to object. All feared, of course, that every prospective student would be banging at the doors of only the No. 1 institution. And so Dr. Segal, despite many years of trying to create academic excellence at Guelph, determined that--if he could only take over Maclean's--he could "cook" the ratings.

I share this now--so that when Guelph spurts to the top of the list in the 1993 survey of universities, one should not attribute the university's success to the retirement of Dr. Segal from the presidency of Guelph, but rather to his attainment of the position of Publisher of Maclean's.

There was another reason. Yes, it is true that Hugh Segal, who works in the Prime Minister's office, is Brian's younger brother. But there is probably little truth to the rumours that Hugh really wanted Brian to get control of Canada's most influential weekly magazine as preparation for the next federal election.

More seriously, though, I believe Dr. Segal's long-term interest in public health has led him to recognize the power of journalism to influence the public's attitude in positive and negative ways. People do learn from our media and our media do contribute to our public health.

Concerns about the quality of our media are evidenced almost daily. The growth of public cynicism toward Canadian leadership, particularly those holding public office, may, in part, be due to the influence of media coverage. Media abuse of people in public office--including royalty if you will--may discourage Canadians from stepping forward to provide the leadership the country needs.

Dr. Segal's interest in the media is broad. He has recently become a Governor of the Canadian Journalism Foundation, an organization founded in 1990 whose mission is to enhance the quality of Canadian journalism--in short, to create the best journalism in the world.

And so, we look forward to your address, The Media and the Prospect for Leadership. Ladies and gentlemen, would you please join me in welcoming Dr. Brian Segal.

Brian Segal

You have come out today for one of three reasons. The first is that you are a loyal member of The Empire Club and come to all lunches no matter who is speaking (and for that I am grateful). The second is that the topic appears stimulating and you pray that the speaker will be up to the challenge. The third is that you got the Segals mixed up and you thought today's talk on leadership meant a major political announcement.

I am going to talk for a few minutes about what I see as a major problem facing our country today. I'm not referring to the economy, or to the Constitution, although I think they're both important, and I'll make reference to each in my remarks.

The problem I'm talking about is the breakdown in public confidence in our nation's political, business, labour and media leadership. It is a profound rejection of elites accompanied by few hints as to what kind of leadership would be acceptable or desired by Canadians. What will it take for people to suspend their cynicism and develop trust in leaders?

What we are witnessing today isn't the healthy scepticism that people in a democracy should have concerning their leaders. It's a sour cynicism about our elites that, in my view, sadly alienates all too many of our citizens from participation in a creative debate about Canada's future.

What proof have we that Canadians have lost faith in their political leaders and their ability to understand and tackle our prime concerns? Let me give you a couple of examples from the Maclean's-CTV year-end poll.

Asked to choose their favourite political leader from a list of six, 30 per cent of those surveyed insisted on "none of the above," an option that was not even included on the questionnaire. Another 14 per cent chose U.S. president-elect Bill Clinton ahead of the Canadians on the list.

Taken just weeks after the referendum on our Constitution, the poll indicated that only five per cent of those surveyed thought that national unity or the Constitution is the most important problem facing the country. For that matter, none of the issues that have dominated our political landscape lately are of prime concern to our fellow Canadians. Not free trade, not the GST, not deficit reduction.

The issue that lies in the forefront of the respondents' minds, by nearly six times more than any other, is the economy and employment. But a full 73 per cent said that their faith in politicians to serve the public interest has decreased either significantly or somewhat in the last few years.

About twice as many respondents look to business to serve their economic interests than look to government. Now that may not be all bad, indeed, I expect many of you would like to see even more reliance on business, but it is yet another indication of alienation from the political process.

But the business elite is not held in the highest esteem, either. The sensational and massive recent failures may have something to do with it. But business executives were ranked in the poll as fourth out of seven professions for their honesty and integrity. Sadly, at least from my viewpoint, journalists ranked fifth, ahead of only lawyers and politicians. The erosion of public confidence is clearly widespread.

In its post-referendum issue, Maclean's called the outcome of the referendum campaign the most sweeping rebuff to elected politicians in the country's 125-year history. We also suggested that it indicated another heartfelt rejection: of such other perceived elites as business leaders, organized interest groups, and anyone asking for special treatment.

That's all very well and good, you may say, it's concrete proof of what we've sensed for some time, but what does all this have to do with the media? There is growing evidence that the anger, disgust and cynicism many express results from a sense of being unimportant in the processes of self-government.

People feel dislodged from the political debate by an inward-looking clique of professional politicians, lobbyists, special interests, journalists, and pundits. Much of the public affairs programming we see on TV involves journalists talking to journalists or pundits, and very little of journalists facilitating average Canadians to express their analysis of problems and their ideas about improvements that will work.

They also feel that these elites, who define what issues should matter to the rest of us, are out of touch with the common experiences, problems and aspirations of ordinary folks. What people see is a closed loop of opinion shapers. These people choose what and who is important and then dramatize the issues and people selected. In the process they help suppress the robust debate we should all be having about our future.

There is no place in this elite daisy-chain for individual needs and aspirations to shape public opinion about what is important and what should be done. Opinion shapers have too often become controlling intermediaries between citizens, with their pressing needs, and the governing elite, with their political and special-interest agendas.

Recently we've seen some cracks in the walls the elites have built to insulate decision-makers from their constituents. A combination of collective exasperation and the application of new technology have hinted at the end of the pundits' era, both here and in the United States.

The referendum vote in Canada showed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Canadians will take the time to study complex issues. And when they did: surprise! They found that a yes vote didn't give them what they wanted. They made up their own minds and registered votes that flew in the face of the expensive and near-universal urging of elites.

It wasn't the slick Yes ads that captured Canadians' feelings and shaped their attitudes. It was the rather primitive and folksy people-oriented ads that found resonance in their values and aspirations. They just weren't prepared to succumb to what they saw as manipulation.

In effect, they told the pundits and political elite that they were out to lunch. And I don't think they had in mind the kind of lunch we've had here today. In Jerry Brown's term, they wanted to take back their politics.

Jon Katz, in a recent article in Rolling Stone, skilfully analyzed a remarkable change in U.S. presidential politics: Ross Perot revolutionized the presidential campaign. He ignored the Washington press corps and went directly to the people.

By using the likes of Larry King Live and Donahue, Perot used commercial and cable talk shows to answer voters' questions directly. He gave millions of citizens the sense that they were an integral part of the election. He led tens of millions of viewers and, incidentally, the other candidates away from conventional media outlets.

Katz went on to say that by airing primitively produced half-hour spots that out-drew prime time network entertainment programs, Perot showed that slick and nasty advertising is not the most effective way to reach the electorate. No wonder that Advertising Age, the main trade magazine of the advertising industry in the U.S., chose Perot as Adman of the Year.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the U.S. election and our own referendum is how intent voters were in demonstrating their feelings about things that are important to their lives. It's a sad fact that Canadians don't think their political leaders share those feelings.

In commenting on the Maclean's poll, Allan Gregg said: You get the sense that the political system is running for the political elite. And the reaction is: 'You don't understand what we're going through. You don't listen to us, and you don't seem to be prepared to do things on our behalf."' According to Gregg, the poll indicates that Canadians reject the recent radical conservative political philosophy that has been the hallmark of the past decade or so. But they also reject the view that governments, acting on their own, can solve long-standing social problems. He said:

"The political pendulum may be swinging back, but it isn't swinging back on exactly the same path."

Ross Laver's analysis of the Maclean's-CTV poll results is that many Canadians are troubled by the continuing erosion of the country's position in the global economy. As a result, they are looking to governments for practical and effective measures that would protect and improve their standard of living. He went on to say:

"But at the same time, they have little confidence that their political representatives are up to the challenge. Perhaps only when Canadians see evidence that their political leaders understand and empathize with their economic fears will they suspend their cynicism and distrust towards the political process."

It seems to me that there are two clear conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence. The first is that the political and governing elites need to behave differently and become more responsive to the needs and priorities of citizens. And they need to make this change apparent to the general public.

The second conclusion, and one of equal importance, is that Canadians need to become more self-reliant, more prepared to understand and handle facts, and more willing to face up to difficult realities. We also need to be more focussed on understanding the complexity of the issues that challenge our country.

Leadership cannot be restored from the top down. Bernard Shaw declared: "People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them."

The context for understanding what will be acceptable leadership rests with each individual. Our expectations become the platform for political promises. The more informed and realistic are our expectations for change, and the more prepared we are to face and overcome harsh realities, the more likely we are to nurture leadership that is forthright and trusting.

Daniel Bell described the dilemma for the modem democratic state "as not only having to provide for public needs but it has also become, inescapably, the arena for the fulfilment of private and group wants; and here inevitably, the demands cannot be matched by the revenues or by knowledge adequate to these demands."

If we expect our leaders to be capable of inspiring us to make the necessary reforms, we shall have to make clearer distinctions between self-interest and the public interest, and between individual and group wants. Indeed, we shall have to make a clearer distinction between our wants and our genuine needs. If we hope to secure leadership that acts in our best interests, we need to be much clearer and much more practical about just what our best interests are.

The Maclean's-CTV poll suggests that Canadians are coming to understand that there are real limits to what governments and other public institutions can be expected to achieve. According to Gregg:

"The notion that we have a problem so we need a new Crown corporation or more government doesn't cut it any more. Clinton taps into that when he says he's going to give people a hand up, not a handout."

We are over-governed and can no longer afford it. As I see it, during the 90s the challenge for Canadians is to look closely into ourselves, and into our communities and the institutions that are close to us to define what it is we want to become, and what is absolutely essential to get us there.

It is our responsibility, working with our institutions, to find more effective and less costly solutions to our problems and to shape our expectations accordingly. If we demand billion-dollar solutions we'll get billion-dollar promises--whether affordable or not.

The challenge for the media is to provide a channel of direct communication between the people and the leadership, between viewer and ruler, between leader and reader. Maclean's, if I'm permitted a plug, did this effectively when we brought together a panel of average Canadians to work through a solution to the constitutional problem and let these folks talk to other Canadians about their concerns and solutions through the magazine.

The media must become more discerning and do a better job of uncovering the underlying truths behind issues. The proliferation of special interests has led to a parallel explosion in the number of skilled professionals whose job it is to attract media attention.

They understand how to make campaigns colourful and noisy and often receive lavish and uncritical media coverage on their claims, without analysis of how widespread the support for their cause is, whether their demands are truly needs or just wants, or who else in society would benefit or lose if their demands were implemented; reporting and commentary also should reflect the realities and constraints under which those expected to respond have to operate.

We can no longer rely on the closed loop of opinion makers to shape our destiny. We have shown a readiness to educate ourselves about complex issues and are more prepared than ever to face those issues free of polarization and political hyperbole. We are a proud and prosperous country.

We have faced many challenges and threats in our 125 years--we never backed away from overcoming adversity and we won't begin to do that now. The internal and external economic forces confronting Canada will result in a greater resolve to succeed. It is within this context that the next generation of leadership will emerge. And, as always, their integrity will be a reflection of ours.

Stay tuned--our beliefs about leadership will change--and you will see it all unfold in Maclean's. Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by John F. Bankes, President, Nova Bancorp Group, and a Past President, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Media and the Prospect for Leadership

The problem of the breakdown in public confidence in our nation's political, business, labour and media leadership. Proof that Canadians have lost faith in their political leaders and their ability to understand and tackle our prime concerns: examples from the Maclean's-CTV year-end poll. Results of the poll. A variety of analyses and opinions about the results of the poll. The speaker's own conclusions about the results of the poll. What Canadians want, expect, and can afford from their government, their institutions, and the media. Challenges to the media, the government, and the public.