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Hyman Solomon Award

The Public Policy Forum Hyman Solomon Award for Excellence in Public Policy Journalism celebrates the journalistic standards and intellectual integrity of the late Hyman Solomon who, as Ottawa Bureau Chief of the Financial Post, covered the complex interplay of the public and private sectors, and the intricacies of national decision-making. The award is presented each year to a journalist whose work, in either official language, provides insights into the policy-making process in Canada, and explains to Canadians how changes in public policy affect their individual well-being and collective economic progress.

James Travers won the award in 2003. Here is his acceptance speech.

Knowing the affinity columnists have for words, the Forum is wisely restricting me to five minutes or so.

Before I exhaust my time talking about the connection between journalism and policy, I would like to thank the Solomon family, the selection committee and the Forum for this award.

It is one coveted by journalist for the connection it makes between our craft and the public interest. I am delighted to accept it and very grateful.

Without slipping towards parody of the Academy Awards, I would also like to thank my wife Joan.

Like so many other vocations, many of them represented here tonight, journalism is careless about families and their watershed events. A long and happy newspaper career is simply not possible without the patience, understanding and encouragement of someone who cares deeply about what you are doing.

Finally, I would like to tip my bowler to Conrad Black. If he hadn’t swerved the Ottawa Citizen from the center-left lane into the Libertarian lane over my dead body, I wouldn’t be here resurrected as a writer.

Unlike many on the long list of distinguished previous winners of this award, I never worked with Hy Solomon. The closest I came was sharing elevators and distant office space with him in Ottawa in the early ‘80s.

Even so, he was both a model and icon.

Those things that are synonymous with journalism at its best – fairness, curiosity and a deep desire to advance public debate are also synonymous with Hy and his exemplary work. It is those values, Hy’s values, that make this award such an honor.

As you know, journalism is not always practiced in the Solomon tradition.

Fox television recently asked me to explain Canada’s position on the Iraq war and to provide a national perspective on tensions with the United States.

The interview never aired.

During the usual preparations with the network for the interview, I told a very surprised producer just what Canada had done for the U.S. after Sept 11.

How homes had been opened to stranded travelers.

How Canadians fought and died in Afghanistan in the war on terror.

How Canadians are guarding the U.S. fleet in the gulf.

The producer then made an executive decision: I was too moderate. They would use Jack Layton instead.

Journalism that chooses to inflame rather than inform is more than destructive: it misses the point.

Thoughtful public policy discussion is not just for wonks. How we think and talk about issues shapes more than what we decide or how we act; it determines who we are.

Fox is far from alone in figuring that the safest route to a solid bottom line detours through controversy, not complexity.

The threat of tabloid television and the pressure to dumb down the news are just as real in Canada.

In this country, a unique level of media concentration is the unintended consequence of well-intentioned tax law protecting newspapers from foreign ownership. The implications of that concentration are profound.

At a time when there is so much to discuss domestically, so much to understand internationally, fewer voices and even fewer viewpoints are being heard in some of the country’s largest newspaper markets.

That may be in the short-term interest of the bottom line. It is not in the long-term interest of a vibrant, deliberative, democracy.

With the exception of Star and Globe readers, much of the Canadian newspaper audience gets its Middle East news from a converged media conglomerate that no longer bothers to maintain a permanent bureau in the region or, for that matter, bureaus around the world.

The result is that issues critical to Canadians often arrive by stealth and that choices as difficult as war or peace are being made on the strength of narrow, sometimes superficial, coverage. That is a flaw that can only be hidden, not fixed, by dispatching even the finest reporters to cover crisis that are beyond the bounds of their expertise.

Difficult choices are not limited to the Iraq war.

No one in this room need be reminded that Ottawa’s critical relationship with Washington is being redefined. That the realities of a world now revolving around the single pole of the United States will change national priorities. Or that bold new strategies will be needed to secure Canada’s success in a global, knowledge-based economy.

There is an historic place in that decision-making process for media.

But the future of that role as well as the success of the process itself depends on a commitment to excellence.

I’m happy to report that my own paper is responding to that challenge. It allows columnists, and I am only one of many, the unfettered freedom to pursue important issues and ideas.

Along with its deep, century-old involvement in this city, it continues to fund foreign and national bureaus. Most significantly, it is investing heavily in young journalists through an intern program that is the industry standard.

There are costs attached to those things. But they are modest compared to the cost of failing to deliver the depth of information readers require and democracies demand.

Meeting that demand is not an option.

For journalists it is a personal privilege.

For media companies, it is a public responsibility.

Thank you.