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Speaking of Speeches...

Categories: Business, Canada, Community, Journalism, Politics


By Peter Mansbridge
I give about 20 speeches a year. They happen in different communities across the country. All in response to requests from various organizations, associations, fundraising groups, towns and cities. I enjoy doing them, and those in attendance usually say they enjoy hearing them. I wish I could do more, but my time and my primary responsibilities force me to say "no" to at least as many as I say "yes" to. There are also speech requests I turn down because they would be inappropriate for me to do.

Many of the appearances, about half on average, I do with no fee involved. They are charities or journalism schools. The rest are handled by my speech agency, the same one that handles requests for many other journalists in this country and in the United States. In those cases a fee is negotiated between the agency and the group who want me to appear at their function. In some of those cases I donate part of the fee to a local charity; in some others I donate all the fee. And in still others I keep my share of what the agency has negotiated. Giving speeches involves preparation and in many cases, because of travel back and forth across the country, it also means giving up substantial family time.

So when I speak, what do I talk about? Well first let me tell you what I don't talk about. I don't offer my opinion on matters of public policy or on certain divisive issues that often dominate the news. Ever. No matter whom I'm speaking to. A resource industry, a food bank, a financial services group, a teacher's association, nurses, lawyers, doctors, police officers, environmental organizations, judges and the list goes on. If I leave a speech and those in attendance think they know where I stand on any controversial issue, then they're guessing. Because they won't find it in the words I've spoken.

So, again, what do I talk about? I make it clear to all those who ask me to speak, whether it's for a charity or not, that I will stick to what I know best - journalism. I don't pretend to be an expert on anything else and I make that clear not only to the organizers but to the audience. Therefore my speeches draw heavily on my journalistic background and experiences. I talk about the evolution in the country during my time covering it. I talk about the way in which information is assembled, how stories are told, the fundamentals of how journalistic storytelling works in modern Canada. In laying out these observations, I draw on anecdotes from decades of experience covering the news. I talk about Canada, how others in the world see us and how we see ourselves in our constant search for an identity. My talks are usually about promoting Canada, not for any one side, but as a sum of all the country's parts.

I do not give advice on how those I speak to should advocate. I do not weigh in on matters of current sensitivity, and I go out of my way to make clear that the nature of being a "news" journalist is about being there to assemble information and tell an honest story, no matter who it pleases or who it offends. And let me be clear about something else: I would not, do not, and have not, given a speech either promoting oil sands development or opposing it.

What does the CBC think about all this? Ever since I first started giving speeches, back in the mid-1980s and at the corporation's request, senior management has approved who I speak to and are aware when I receive a fee and when I do not. Bottom line - I follow the rules and the policies the CBC has instituted governing journalists making public appearances.

I am a journalist and a public broadcaster but that doesn't mean I'm not entitled to activities in my private life. Public speaking is one of those activities. I have never hidden the fact that I'm giving a speech. Often it's to hundreds, sometimes thousands of people at a time. How do you hide that even if you wanted to? Occasionally I tweet about it, and often so do the people in attendance. The suggestion that I've done appearances surreptitiously is ludicrous.

I'm proud of the speeches I've given and I hope there continue to be people who want to hear them.

Peter Mansbridge is the chief correspondent of CBC News and host of The National.

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