Ford gov­ern­ment’s me­dia tac­tics draw ire of jour­nal­ists and op­po­si­tion par­ties

The Western Star - - CANADA -

Doug Ford’s Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment has come un­der fire for the com­bat­ive tone it’s struck with jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing the On­tario leg­is­la­ture.

Ri­val politi­cians, mem­bers of the me­dia and in­dus­try watch­ers alike all say the ob­struc­tive tac­tics on dis­play from Ford and his cab­i­net min­is­ters go far be­yond the par­ti­san mes­sag­ing ex­pected in most po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ments.

Drown­ing out re­porters’ ques­tions with paid ap­plause and pro­duc­ing gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda in the guise of an in­de­pen­dent news story, they say, rep­re­sents a mis­use of tax­payer dol­lars and poses a threat to democ­racy.

The gov­ern­ment has said it uses funds from the cau­cus bud­get to fund so­cial me­dia ac­counts op­er­at­ing un­der the name On­tario News Now, which have de­liv­ered two videos so far pro­mot­ing party mes­sages.

Tories have also not de­nied that po­lit­i­cal staffers and oth­ers on the gov­ern­ment pay­roll have been brought into of­fi­cial news con­fer­ences to of­fer seem­ingly spon­ta­neous ap­plause, which has been used to pre­vent re­porters from ask­ing fol­low-up ques­tions.

Tory min­is­ters have shrugged off the cri­tiques and even dou­bled down on ef­forts to cast as­per­sions on the me­dia, all of which is sound­ing in­creas­ingly loud alarm bells for some pun­dits.

“All of these are moves to ob­struct demo­cratic ac­count­abil­ity, which un­der­mines good gov­ern­ment,’’ said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democ­racy Watch and a Uni­ver­sity of Ot­tawa pro­fes­sor of law and pol­i­tics. “It does noth­ing to clean up pol­i­tics as the Con­ser­va­tives have promised to do. In fact it makes dis­hon­est, un­eth­i­cal, se­cre­tive and waste­ful ac­tiv­i­ties more likely to hap­pen.’’

Conacher said there’s a dis­tinc­tion be­tween con­trol­ling a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage and de­lib­er­ately us­ing tax­payer money to pro­duce items that look like news sto­ries but have not been sub­jected to any stan­dards of in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism.

The first such video fea­tures one of Ford’s se­nior com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­vis­ers read­ing a tele­vi­sion-style script tout­ing the pre­mier’s sched­ule dur­ing his first 30 days in of­fice be­fore segue­ing to a clip of Ford enu­mer­at­ing his ac­com­plish­ments to date.

“Pre­mier Ford at­tended dozens of events in 30 days, and he man­aged to keep a few cam­paign prom­ises too,’’ Lyn­d­sey Van­stone reads shortly be­fore pro­vid­ing an of­fi­cial sig­noff in the style of a tele­vi­sion news re­port.

Health Min­is­ter Chris­tine El­liott con­firmed that On­tario News Now is paid for through the Con­ser­va­tive cau­cus bud­get, which is in turn funded by tax rev­enue.

Gov­ern­ments are barred from dis­tribut­ing pro­pa­ganda, ac­cord­ing to the On­tario Ad­ver­tis­ing Act, but Conacher said peo­ple can tech­ni­cally ar­gue that the cau­cus does not op­er­ate as a gov­ern­ment of­fice and can there­fore be ex­empt.

He dis­agreed with that in­ter­pre­ta­tion and called upon the prov­ince’s au­di­tor gen­eral to look into the mat­ter.

NDP Leader An­drea Hor­wath de­scribed On­tario News Now as in­ap­pro­pri­ate and dis­re­spect­ful.

“You’re not al­lowed to use pub­lic dol­lars for par­ti­san pur­poses,’’ Hor­wath said, de­fend­ing past NDP-pro­duced videos as neu­tral be­cause they rec­og­nize re­li­gious ob­ser­vances or touch on sim­i­larly non­par­ti­san top­ics. “So putting to­gether this par­ti­san ma­chine of pro­pa­ganda that the Con­ser­va­tives have’s against the rules.’’

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Tory cau­cus did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The rounds of ap­plause that have marked the end of re­cent news con­fer­ences, in­clud­ing one where Ford an­nounced con­tro­ver­sial changes to a hand­ful of mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments in the mid­dle of an elec­tion cam­paign, have an­gered many re­porters.

Some of them ex­pressed their frus­tra­tion when staffers ap­plauded com­mu­nity Safety Min­is­ter Lisa Ma­cLeod’s an­nounce­ment that the gov­ern­ment would be scrap­ping a ba­sic in­come pi­lot pro­gram and walk­ing back planned in­creases to so­cial as­sis­tance rates, drown­ing out fol­low-up ques­tions from jour­nal­ists and herald­ing the abrupt end to the news con­fer­ence.

“Can you please stop clap­ping,’’ snapped CTV re­porter Colin D’Mello. “This is a pro­fes­sional en­vi­ron­ment. Stop it. Take that into the leg­is­la­ture if you guys want to act like that.’’

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