The Media and the Unity Issue
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 3 Mar 1997, p. 459-469


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Landry, Roger, Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
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A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada, The Canadian Club of Toronto and The Canadian Journalism Foundation.
Only one public debate currently under way that is a direct threat to the unity of Canada: the debate over Quebec. Differences of opinion as the very foundation of the democratic system. The development of democracy; the development of the news media. The speaker prepared to admit that the media are at least part of the unity problem. The natural and human tendency of journalists to single out sensational remarks. A story to illustrate this tendency. The factors of the physical constraints of space or airtime. For television, a picture that often adds to the sensationalism. The major role played by news directors, editors-in-chief and assignment editors. The real problem that the media put all their efforts and resources into covering the very people who accentuate the divisions between Canadians: the politicians. The speaker's belief that in general, we are wrong to concentrate our efforts on parliaments instead of on our country and Canadians. New ways to report on events across Canada chosen by La Presse by sending journalists to different parts of the country to write in-depth articles. A closer look at the responsibility of the media with respect to the debate on the unity issue; both the Quebec media and the media in the other provinces. The speaker's conviction that the media can again be part of the solution if they are provided with the opportunity to do so. The referenda of 1980 and 1995. The speaker's belief that if Canadians are willing to demonstrate a little sensitivity and open-mindedness, it is possible to settle this dispute; his conviction that most French-speaking Quebeckers do not want to break up Canada, a country they still consider their own. What we can do to avoid the worst-case scenario. Change as the real solution to the Quebec-Canada impasse. A desire by the media in Quebec and across the country to act in a responsible and ethical manner with respect to the unity issue. High time we settled this question. The speaker's fear that a third referendum would have the French-speaking federalists voting YES, for better or for worse, to settle the matter once and for all.
Date of Original:
3 Mar 1997
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
Roger Landry, President and Publisher, La Presse
THE MEDIA AND THE UNITY ISSUE
Chairman: Julie Hannaford, President, The Empire club of Canada

Head Table Guests

John H. Tory, President and CEO, Rogers Multi-Media and Second Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; Rev. Cameron Brett, Senior Minister, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church; John Honderich, Publisher, The Toronto Star; Erhard Buchholz, President and CEO, Canada Lands Company Limited; Donna Logan, Executive Director of Media Accountability, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Vancouver); Dr. F.L.R.(Eric) Jackman, Chairman, Jackman Foundation and a Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Jennifer Reynolds, Fourth-Year Journalism Student, Ryerson Polytechnic University; Roger Parkinson, Publisher and CEO, The Globe and Mail; Knowlton Nash, Broadcaster, Author and Chairman, The Canadian Journalism Foundation; and Stanley H. Hartt, President, The Canadian Club of Toronto and Chairman, Salomon Brothers Canada.

Introduction by Julie Hannaford

This year, The Canadian Club of Toronto celebrates its centennial, with its series of addresses by Canadian prime ministers that marks 100 years of service by The Canadian Club to the Canadian public, in providing a forum in which debates over issues of national and international significance are offered to the Canadian public. In the year 2003, The Empire Club of Canada shall also celebrate its centennial and will do so with a series of events dedicated to The Empire Club's century of providing a forum for the presentation of and debate amongst leaders in the national and international community.

If these two clubs and these two mandates sound similar it is because they are, and yet within each of the two societies represented by The Empire Club and The Canadian Club run histories that make us distinct (albeit more often to ourselves than to others). It is important to note that our two clubs have also shared an important tradition which in many ways has maintained the strength of our individual joint enterprises: that is, at regular intervals throughout our year, our joint clubs combine and offer joint platforms for the debate and discussion of issues that are of particularly important interest to the constituencies of both the Canadian and Empire Clubs.

This year, the joint ventures between The Canadian Club and The Empire Club have expanded to include a tripartite venture, in which The Empire Club and The Canadian Club are joined by The Canadian Journalism Foundation in offering a series devoted to and exploration of the media and its role in the unity debate, the workings of justice, and concentration of ownership.

The Canadian Journalism Foundation is devoted to three goals: professional development broadly defined; recognition of outstanding contributions and lifetime achievement; and research to build a more solid academic underpinning to the profession of journalism and to develop a better understanding of how we are influenced by and learn from the media.

We begin our series with the issue of the media and national unity, and we do so at a time of relative media silence on this issue. It is, therefore, auspicious that our guest addresses our joint clubs in the eye of the media hurricane. Too often, in the thick of an issue, we as consumers of media having been fed a diet of dramatic sound bites, prefer and indeed demand the heat of conflict, confrontation, and controversy, rather than the cool reason of debate, reflection and context. While we are quick to blame the media for elevating controversy over reasoned historicism, at the same time we as a nation are too often the first to reach for the ubiquitous remote control, to avoid that reasoned debate in favour of the action served up elsewhere.

Our guest today approaches the issue of the media and unity from the perspective of a career devoted to the role of the press, the publisher and the individual in society today.

Mr. Landry was appointed President and Publisher of La Presse in 1980. He serves on the Board of Directors of Les Quotidiens du Quebec Inc., of The Canadian Press and of the Board of the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association. He has worked in the cultural, charitable, and social sector as General Chairman of the 1986 Centraide programme, as well as for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and for Les Juenesses Musicales du Canada.

In 1987 Mr. Landry took part in the organisation of the Governor General's Study Conference as Chairman of the Communications Committee and member of the Management Committee. In 1989 and 1990, Mr. Landry participated in Quebec's task force on the fight against drug abuse. He was a member of the Consultative Committee of the Order of Canada, of which he has been a Companion since January, 1997. In November, 1995, the B'Nai Brith Canada Foundation distinguished Mr. Landry with its Award of Merit, an honour conferred every two years in recognition of an exceptional contribution to society.

On behalf of The Canadian Club of Toronto, The Canadian Journalism Foundation, and The Empire Club of Canada, it gives me great pleasure to ask you to join me in welcoming Mr. Roger Landry to open our journalism series today.

Roger Landry

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to be able to speak to you today here at one of Canada's most prestigious public forums. Your invitation has given me the opportunity to visit Toronto once again and to remark, as I always do, just how much is happening here. I must confess that as a citizen of Montreal, a city deeply affected by political uncertainty, I am somewhat envious of you.

The fact that I, a French-speaking Quebecker, have been asked to speak about the media and the unity issue, suggests immediately how I am expected to define that issue. It is clear that among all the public debates currently under way, there is only one that is a direct threat to the unity of our country: the debate over Quebec.

Arguments are a fact of life for any self-respecting family. I would not go so far as to say that arguments keep a family together, but they do perhaps make it possible to maintain some balance between family members. In the same way, differences of opinion are the very foundation of the democratic system that we cherish so dearly. In totalitarian countries and dictatorships dissent does not exist. You pick up a newspaper and all you read is good news. Everything is rosy!

The ancient Greeks, or more specifically the Athenians, are said to have invented democracy. Like most Mediterranean peoples, they enjoyed open-air public discussions. The citizens of Athens gathered regularly in the public square, or the agora, to debate the problems facing the city-state.

In today's modern democracies, citizens have relinquished much of their right to speak out to politicians, whom we might define as professional, full-time debaters. The lion's share of the action takes place in a small, enclosed agora-parliament--a word derived from the French verb parler, to speak.

During the eighteenth century, the news media developed alongside the revolutionary ideas that gave rise to parliamentary democracy. It was the media that gave the ordinary citizen a window on the nation's debates. When you think about it, the media is nothing but a huge virtual agora, where the actors on the political stage-career politicians, lobby groups, the establishment and ordinary citizens--can debate the problems of the country and how to solve them.

According to this theory, it is not the media that create the disputes. The media are only, as we often hear, a reflection of society itself. For my part, contrary to what you might expect from a newspaperman, I am prepared to admit that the media are at least part of the unity problem.

Journalists who report on politics do not reflect the debate from a completely neutral perspective. They single out the most sensational remarks. That's only natural: they can't always just report the same old platitudes. Since they don't always have time to double-check everything, mistakes sometimes slip through. And--let's be honest--they are influenced by their own opinions and interests. Yes, even journalists are human.

In the 1970s parliamentary reporters in Quebec City came up with a story to illustrate this universal tendency. Had Premier Rene Levesque one day miraculously walked across the St. Lawrence, they claimed the headline in La Presse would have read: "Levesque a marche sur les eaux (Levesque walks on water)" while in The Gazette, the headline would have been "Levesque can't swim!"

The physical constraints of space or airtime are also very important. In radio and television news reports, where the average story lasts less than a minute, reporters have no choice but to limit themselves to "sound bites"--short, punchy statements clipped from the comments of politicians. On television, the picture often adds to the sensationalism.

News directors, editors-in-chief and assignment editors also play a major role since they decide on the content of the newspaper or the news broadcast. They choose not only what news stories to cover but also the relative importance of each story. They have dozens of decisions to make in a day, and little time to think about them. And they too are not immune to making mistakes.

At a newspaper there are editorial writers, columnists and commentators who each analyze the same news stories, put them in perspective and try to interpret the meaning behind the vast range of opinions and points of view. For their part the electronic media use public affairs programmes that take the time to explore the same subjects in greater depth.

And that's the real problem. The media put all their efforts and resources into covering the very people who accentuate the divisions between Canadians: the politicians. They invest little energy in reporting on Canadians themselves, beyond the everyday political squabbling.

In general, we are wrong to concentrate our efforts on parliaments instead of on our country and Canadians. At La Presse, we have chosen new ways to report on events across Canada by sending our journalists to different parts of the country to write in-depth articles, rather than dispatching full-time reporters to cover parliamentary proceedings in other provinces.

I would now like to look more closely at the responsibility of the media with respect to the debate on the unity issue, both the Quebec media and the media in the other provinces.

Whether here in Toronto or elsewhere in the nation, it is normal to feel aversion towards those who are bent on destroying our country, Canada. This is only natural. But there is no doubt that these feelings have a powerful impact on the tone and content of your media, which are inevitably, pro-Canada. I know of no media in English Canada going out of their way to be fair and equitable to the Pequistes. And that's O.K. It's understandable.

However, the situation is completely different for the mass media in Quebec, where a democratically elected government has made separation its goal and where the voters split 50-50 on whether to stay in Canada or to separate. This situation forces Quebec media to demonstrate a more neutral attitude to the various people in the news and to aim for objectivity as best they can in their coverage.

During the most recent referendum campaign, Quebec media, as a whole, tried to present a balanced view of the two options. It was first and foremost a question of journalistic ethics, as well as respect for a deeply divided population.

According to a study by Denis Moniere, a political science professor at the University of Montreal--and a separatist, by the way--the two main French-language television networks in Quebec (Radio-Canada and TVA) provided "remarkably balanced" coverage. Radio-Canada's news reports apparently featured 285 YES supporters and 284 NO supporters. The average length of time devoted to the two sides was identical, differing by only two seconds. This balanced coverage of the referendum was no accident. It was practically an obsession among the media involved.

I must point out that this was exceptional. Things don't normally happen this way. Coverage is never as polarised and media attention is determined by the changing tides of current events and the unpredictable nature of the profession.

The overwhelming majority of Quebec newspapers that run editorials came out in favour of maintaining federal ties during the referendum campaign. Nonetheless, editorials had to take great care to qualify their position. We at La Presse urged our readers to vote NO to separation, but in our minds this did not mean we were recommending the status quo, far from it.

The very close outcome of this second referendum on Quebec sovereignty was also interpreted by the vast majority of editorialists, both in Quebec and in the other provinces, as a desire for change. A study by CARMA International, an American firm specialising in computer-assisted media analysis, found that over two-thirds of the editorials in 26 dailies across the country had concluded that there was a need for fundamental change. I'm jumping ahead a little here to the second half of my address, but I have the impression that some politicians in Ottawa are among the only ones who didn't get the message.

So, in Quebec we have media that generally try to provide neutral coverage and ensure objectivity, while the media in the rest of the country share the legitimate fear of their fellow citizens about the nation breaking up. Of course, when I refer to the Quebec media, you have to disregard Le Devoir, which has a hard-line sovereignist stance, and The Gazette, which is now totally devoted to the defence of the English-speaking minority in our province. In both of these newspapers, Canada-bashing and Quebec-bashing are given free rein.

I remain convinced that the media can again be part of the solution if they are provided with the opportunity to do so. It seems that some federal politicians are not taking advantage of the opportunity that is being provided by the forthcoming federal election to include on their campaign agenda proposals for change that would deal with the single most important threat to the existence of our country. It would be unfortunate if politicians did not seize such an opportunity, particularly when the present government of Quebec has promised another referendum before the year 2000.

I have nothing against the so-called Plan B. It has the merit of getting sovereignists all worked up by attacking the shaky foundations of their platform and evoking the possibility of partitioning Quebec in the same way that Quebec could be separated from the rest of Canada. I see a certain usefulness in Plan B, provided we never have to resort to it. For that to happen, we have to keep the sovereignists busy worrying about Plan B while we work hard on Plan A. In the same way that the federal government has finally got around to managing our financial crisis, it now needs to manage the political crisis, and come up with Plan A.

I am the publisher of a newspaper whose news policy is to strive to be neutral and objective, and whose editorial orientation is federalist. This is not always popular in a province where nearly 50 per cent voted YES to separation. At the next federal election, I would like to be able to present our readers with something encouraging about the future of Canada.

A friend of mine, who took part in the big unity rally on October 27, 1995 in downtown Montreal, just three days before the referendum, told me about the strange feeling he had as he walked down the middle of the street in the biting wind, elbow to elbow with thousands of other federalists. Fifteen years after the 1980 referendum, he mused, our politicians still haven't managed to settle this problem and here we are again, in 1995, in this dreadful situation where the very existence of our country is at stake. If we win on October 30, 1995 we will have to take matters in hand to make sure there will be no third referendum.

Many others who demonstrated on October 27, 1995 must have had the same feeling, since this huge event spawned a host of small citizens' movements to pick up the slack from politicians who don't know how to deal with the crisis.

I hope I am wrong in thinking that politicians in Ottawa have an easy time avoiding this debate because Canadian opinion leaders outside Quebec have given up. We too often see people in other provinces, including leading intellectuals and think-tanks, throw up their hands and say they're fed up with Quebec's griping, separation is inevitable and, by George, if Quebec separates Canada can get by without it.

We all know that is not true. Every part of Canada makes it the great country that it is. Be it B.C., the Territories or the Prairies, be it Ontario or the Atlantic Provinces, be it Quebec.

Unfortunately, apart from the occasional group or individual who publicly quits, there are thousands more who sit back, arms crossed, silently waiting for the die to be cast. It's hard to know to what extent this feeling of resignation is shared by English-Canadian opinion leaders. I sincerely hope it's just a passing phase.

I admit that, like many other federalist Quebeckers, I feel terribly isolated at this point in the debate, trapped between the sovereignists who continue to spread their propaganda, and their opponents who want to carve up Quebec or simply give up in the face of radicalism. Since the referendum, very few voices have been raised in the Canadian agora to sing the praises of federalism and to promote Canadian unity.

However, being an eternal optimist, I am hopeful that the elite in English Canada will soon return to Plan A. In fact, the only realistic solution to the unity issue lies in a revitalised federalism that eliminates the raison d'etre of the Parti Quebecois.

When Alberta Premier, Ralph Klein, came to Montreal in February of last year, our Canadian unity specialist at La Presse, Gerald Leblanc, accompanied him to an Outremont restaurant where he met with ordinary citizens. Over lunch, one woman told him that "Quebec just wanted to be recognised and protected." Mr. Klein was so impressed by this little statement that he left feeling that he finally understood Quebec.

I sincerely believe that if Canadians are willing to demonstrate a little sensitivity and open-mindedness, it is possible to settle this dispute. It has already lasted far too long. I am convinced that most French-speaking Quebeckers do not want to break up Canada, a country they still consider their own.

So, what can we do to avoid the worst-case scenario? According to a report, Professor Charles Taylor, a political scientist with deep roots in Montreal, had this to say at a seminar organised by the Business Council on National Issues: "The political system is at a standstill. Ottawa reacts intermittently, and the provinces are afraid of mistrustful public opinion. Civil society must take up the fight and bring proposals to the political arena."

I share his point of view. I truly believe that citizens, starting with the elite, must now carry the torch of Canadian unity and put pressure on politicians to stop their long-winded discussions and dithering over the question. It is time to take action and create the necessary changes. The real solution to the Quebec-Canada impasse lies in change.

In general, despite their imperfections, the media in Quebec and across the country want to act in a responsible and ethical manner with respect to the unity issue. In the same way that the media are part of the problem today, they can also be part of the solution if they are presented with reconciliation projects. If ordinary citizens and the Canadian elite give the word to launch a movement for change in Canada, then I am convinced that the media will jump on board, because that's our role, to reflect the concerns of the communities we serve.

After nearly 40 years of futile and destructive bickering, it is high time we settled this question. If there were to be a third referendum, it would again be French-speaking Quebec federalists who would make the difference. At this time, French-speaking federalists are fed up with the chronic political instability that is so damaging to the economy of Quebec, particularly that of Montreal. I fear that if there are no substantial changes by the next referendum and if they have the distinct impression of having been abandoned, then many French-speaking federalists will be inclined to vote YES, for better or for worse, to settle the matter once and for all.

If that happens, history books of the future will justly assign to Canadians of our generation the title of "quitters"--if not of cowards.

Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Stanley H. Hartt, President, The Canadian Club of Toronto and Chairman, Salomon Brothers Canada.

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The Media and the Unity Issue


A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada, The Canadian Club of Toronto and The Canadian Journalism Foundation.
Only one public debate currently under way that is a direct threat to the unity of Canada: the debate over Quebec. Differences of opinion as the very foundation of the democratic system. The development of democracy; the development of the news media. The speaker prepared to admit that the media are at least part of the unity problem. The natural and human tendency of journalists to single out sensational remarks. A story to illustrate this tendency. The factors of the physical constraints of space or airtime. For television, a picture that often adds to the sensationalism. The major role played by news directors, editors-in-chief and assignment editors. The real problem that the media put all their efforts and resources into covering the very people who accentuate the divisions between Canadians: the politicians. The speaker's belief that in general, we are wrong to concentrate our efforts on parliaments instead of on our country and Canadians. New ways to report on events across Canada chosen by La Presse by sending journalists to different parts of the country to write in-depth articles. A closer look at the responsibility of the media with respect to the debate on the unity issue; both the Quebec media and the media in the other provinces. The speaker's conviction that the media can again be part of the solution if they are provided with the opportunity to do so. The referenda of 1980 and 1995. The speaker's belief that if Canadians are willing to demonstrate a little sensitivity and open-mindedness, it is possible to settle this dispute; his conviction that most French-speaking Quebeckers do not want to break up Canada, a country they still consider their own. What we can do to avoid the worst-case scenario. Change as the real solution to the Quebec-Canada impasse. A desire by the media in Quebec and across the country to act in a responsible and ethical manner with respect to the unity issue. High time we settled this question. The speaker's fear that a third referendum would have the French-speaking federalists voting YES, for better or for worse, to settle the matter once and for all.