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Let Us Honour the Example of Roy Jacques

He belonged to a fierce group of BC news lions. Who roars now?

Rafe Mair 31 Aug

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Read previous columns by Rafe Mair here. He also acts as a spokesperson for the Save Our Rivers Society.

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Roy Jacques died at the age of 93.

I don't like talking about the "old days." I try to look at the past for lessons only and look at the world and its future through the eyes of my 29-year-old grandson. However I must talk about the past today for the death last week of Roy Jacques, newsman and commentator non pareil should give us all pause for retrospection.

There was a time in B.C. politics when the "establishment" and the government that represented it (the "establishment" is of the left as much as the right) had to face tough journalists who were experts at holding feet to the fire. These men and women considered that to be part of a journalist's duty.

Roy Jacques was one of the band of hard nosed commentators that made the '60s through to quite recently a period where the public could really see what was going on. He was a scourge to politicians and to those in authority generally. I like to believe that I was part of that band until 2005, but that's for others to say. What I can attest to as a former politician and B.C. cabinet minister is that in days of yore politicians knew that they were under the magnifying glass at all times. (Not on private matters -- a politician's private life was his/her own unless in interfered with duties to be performed.)

I didn't know Roy that well, though we knew each others' work and had spilled a drink together on occasion. He did, however, enroll me and pay for my membership in the International Order of Old Bastards -- high praise indeed (I think.)

Roy was well known for his no-nonsense approach to his craft and his long association with McIver's Appliances and Services, Limited. I especially remember Roy's calling W.A.C. Bennett "the ironmonger" referring to his days as owner of a hardware chain.

A fire that needs to be rekindled

There was a time when free speech prevailed in our province. Look at the sorry state it's now in.

There has always been self-censorship amongst writers and broadcasters. But it's always been wrong. Now it's so pervasive that the B.C. media can be called, with little exaggeration, the government organ. One need only compare the media's monstrous lack of attention to the fish farm and rivers issues to what the media of the past did to Premier Glen Clark's fast ferries fiasco. One columnist, Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun was like a dog with a bone as he exposed the ferries issue. But on the fish farms and rivers issues, to say the coverage has been spotty is to overstate badly. The only mainstream exception is the Globe and Mail's Mark Hume.

Permit me to digress. When I see Global BC TV using flashbacks to Jack Webster as part of their self-promotion I want to throw up. Jack couldn't have worked a moment for today's pitiful facsimile of a TV network even if he ran out of money for whiskey. This is not the BCTV of Keith Bradbury and Cameron Bell, leather tough producers -- its newscasts are about as exciting as a cooking show or the Golf Channel.

Were those the "good old days"?

They were if you opposed the government, not so good if you were the government or a supporter. The essence of those times was that politicians in power -- indeed the establishment -- were accountable. It's true there was no Freedom of Information law but that law is only of benefit if the politician has to face the music, and is not able to hide behind the censor's blackout. In short, Freedom of Information ought to be part of solid journalism, not instead of it.

But was journalism back in that period fair? Did these journalists always get it right?

Not all the time by any means but they were tough and accurate much more often than not and they were true to themselves and the public they served.

Did politicians like what they said and reported?

Did I like the way they bad-mouthed me?

Of course not, but they we weren't supposed to. Moreover, it made better ministers of us if only because apart from the opposition and the press, all cabinet ministers mostly hear is fawning flattery. We sure as hell didn't get that from the media.

Where are the brave owners?

The fault is media ownership. Owners have a vested interest in not displeasing the government that issues and renews their radio and TV licenses. When I watch a "journalist" in the national media lobbing the soft pitches at politicians I try to imagine Jack Webster in the same spot. The contrast is stark. As one who has seen Jack work and Central Canada press types lob slow pitches I can tell you that given an opportunity he would have grabbed the mic and yell "give that to me, you dumb bugger, and let me show you how it's done."

For most (but not all) of my radio career I was fortunate to have my contracts with CKNW as owned by Frank Griffiths. There were attempts to muzzle from the station from time to time (perhaps a half-dozen) during my time but I could stand my ground because management always knew that Mr. Griffiths would back the broadcaster.

Example: Back in the Vander Zalm years in the '80s, George Garrett and I would watch this dazzling ongoing display of mediocrity and report and comment. The Zalmoids, as we called the premier's supporters, would take up hours of management's time complaining about George and me. One day some sales people went to manager Ron Bremner complaining that if Mair didn't stop picking on the government they would not be able to sell advertising.

They had gone to the wrong manager as "Brem" told them that if they couldn't sell ads with Rafe's ratings, they should get into another line of work. He followed that with an essay on free speech that would have made John Wilkes and Tom Paine blush with pride and had it posted throughout the station.

The price we pay

Free speech is often hurtful and invariably uncomfortable. But as they say about being alive, it sure as hell beats the alternative.

Never in my lifetime has the public been so ill-served by the media and we pay for it with government for the few at the expense of the many, with government that is unchallenged thus autocratic. In fact I don't believe that it's a stretch to say we live in an elected autocracy.

Roy Jacques, rest in peace and when you meet that oatmeal savage Webster, don't tell him what's happened since he left -- let him rest in peace too.  [Tyee]

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