The provincial government started its campaign to gain control of the political agenda on Thursday with its announcement that it would appoint someone to do something sometime in the future.
The conventional media outlets didn’t report Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s announcement that way. The Telegram, for example, called it an “independent” review but acknowledged in the second sentence of its brief story that Dunderdale “doesn't know the shape or scope of the review”.
CBC went farther in its online story, saying that the “independent review” would “look at the current electrical system in Newfoundland and Labrador; how it operates, how it is managed, and how it is regulated as the province moves from an isolated system to an interconnected system.”
But really, all of that is just an unsubstantiated claim, given that the news release includes these words in a quote attributed to the Premier:
…over the next six weeks my government will work to draft terms of reference and identify an independent body to conduct a review.
What you’ve got here more than anything else in the media reports is an example of how reporters will take words from a news release in the heat of the moment and repeat them verbatim, without question. Government communications people count on that sort of thing to help them shape the public opinion environment in what is already a heated battle that, among other things, threatens both the government’s pet project at Muskrat Falls and public support for the government itself.
Shaping the battle space
One of the ways the government communications team can influence news reporting of this announcement is with repetition. The official Dunderstani government news release calls the review “independent” in its headline. The word “independent” appears seven times in the release to describe the review or the unidentified “body” that will conduct it. That total includes two uses in a section at the end of the release called “Quick Facts”, even though the facts aren’t actually factual; they are just claims or statements.
So it is that major news agencies in the province called the review “independent” of government as their own description of the review. They implicitly endorsed the review’s independence without knowing anything more than that the word is in the news release a bunch of times.
And they implicitly endorsed the review’s independence despite the recent experience with a series of consultants’ reports on Muskrat Falls established with limits carefully set by government to determine their conclusion.
Another word that appears frequently in the release is “confidence”. It’s there four times. Two of the uses are in reference to the confidence Dunderdale or the government generally has in the electricity supply in the province. Another is about the expectation that the review would restore public confidence.
Shifting the focus
Then there’s the reference to the public utilities board review:
The PUB, through their review, will provide clarity on what happened over the last week and the events leading up to that. I have every confidence in the board fulfilling their duty.
Dunderdale doesn’t stop there:
However, what I have heard from Newfoundlanders and Labradorians is they have bigger questions and we want to answer those questions and restore confidence.
Since no one appears to have been publicly raising those “big” question people might rightly wonder what the Premier was on about. In fact, the board just started its inquiries. It has not made any statement about the scope of their review, even though under both the Public Utilities Act and the Electrical Power Control Act, they could be far-reaching.
The news release was obviously put together in haste: it lacked any details and therefore any real news. Put that together with the observations just made and it certainly looks like Kathy Dunderdale and the Conservatives are trying to seize control of the political agenda arising from the recent electricity supply crisis. Billions of dollars and political power are at stake. Just as the Premier’s talking points before now avoided placing any responsibility for the crisis on Nalcor, so too is this review likely a huge part of government’s efforts to manage the fall-out from it.
Politically, the government appears to be trying to outflank the public utilities board so that the government-controlled review can attract as much or more attention than whatever the public utilities board does. The government could also be trying to settle an old score, given that Dunderdale and her administration are still sore over the board’s refusal to play along with the Muskrat Falls set-up review. Shifting blame for the crisis from Nalcor to the PUB would be an integral part of that agenda. Watch and see if government-aligned or affiliated commentators start to raise questions about the PUB. There is more going on here than meets the eye.
The Nalcor Flank
On another flank in the campaign, Nalcor started a damage-control offensive of its own on Thursday. Again, it’s no accident that Nalcor boss Ed Martin was doing the rounds of all the major media on Thursday. The day before he and his officials had met with the PUB.
Nalcor released a few slides that comprised part of Nalcor’s presentation to the PUB meeting. The information in it, even without all the explanation that went with it, will only raise more questions about Nalcor’s management of electricity generation in the province.
A key part of Nalcor’s new messaging about the crisis was regret. “We apologize for having it happen,” said Martin in a CBC online story. “We really do.” For that new line, Martin still repeated old ones. For example, in an interview with the St. John’s (CBC) Morning Show, he claimed that electricity demand was higher than the average for the previous five years, even though that is at best misleading.
The electricity supply crisis isn’t over and the chill of winter looks like it is about to disappear in front of a political hot war that got hotter on Thursday.