07 May 2015

The Fourth Party #nlpoli

A Telegram editorial on Wednesday contained a curious comment.  

The subject was news that broke this week about the provincial government;s energy corporation.  Two senior corporate officials are refusing to testify in a court case in Quebec over contending interpretations of the 1969 power contract between Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation and Hydro-Quebec.

Nalcor is refusing to respond to the Quebec court’s order, insisting that the order must come from a court in this province.  Now the entire court case is extremely important because it is crucial to Nalcor’s entire scheme for Muskrat Falls.  The fact that Nalcor is thumbing its nose to a legal process that it is a party to, through its majority ownership of CFLCo is both troublesome and needlessly offensive.

But that’s not the curious point from the editorial.  Whoever wrote the commentary added this bit toward the end:
It’s possible they are simply mirroring the intransigence of their Quebec counterparts to co-operate with actions in this province — as, for example, Hydro-QuĂ©bec did in refusing to participate in PUB hearings on the water management agreement.
The problem with the statement is that it simply is not true.
The editorial was rightly critical of Nalcor. The actions by the corporation were “alarming.”  The refusal to comply with the request to provide evidence “does little to instil confidence.”

But the editorialist couldn’t let the condemnation stand.  He or she had to soften it  by offering an excuse. Perhaps they are just acting like the crowd at Hydro-Quebec – spit on the floor – as if that would somehow justify Nalcor’s action. 

It’s a bit like the comment of a former politician who was commenting on an accusation of criminal bribery against a provincial cabinet minister.  Even if it was true, the fellow offered on province-wide television, sure we’re nowhere near as corrupt as that crowd over in Nova Scotia.  The investigation into the alleged criminal bribery came to an end when the fellow who made the accusation couldn’t produce evidence he claimed to have.  No reasonable grounds to lay a charge was the official conclusion.

Regardless of the details, you can see the pattern of trying to excuse even alleged misbehaviour as being somehow less important when compared to what happened somewhere else.

The editorial writer got it wrong, just for good measure.  Hydro-Quebec chose not to participate in the water rights hearing before the public utilities board because they did not need to. Their rights were secured in provincial legislation passed by the House of Assembly in 2007 by the same provincial administration that later spat on Hydro-Quebec at every chance it got. 

There’s a default bias in Newfoundland and Labrador society generally that accepts anything official as true, legitimate,and justified until proven otherwise.  The same thing turns up in an especially strong way in the local media.

Cast your mind back a short while ago to the news that the province’s education minister at the time had stuck her nose into the search for a new president at Memorial University. The story had been swirling all over town for months.  There were plenty of people talking about it.  But no newsroom in the province would touch the story with a 10 foot pole.  The most the Telegram was prepared to do was run a column by one of the editors.

Every local newsroom waited until a mainland newspaper broke the story.  They could cover it then as something someone else had told first.  None of them wanted to go first and face the angry telephone calls from the Premier’s Office at a story the government was denying.

So the newsrooms raised the bar very high for the standard of sourcing they wanted. This was, after all, an accusation of meddling by the cabinet.  Officially, the cabinet minister involved gave a very cutely worded response that – as it turned out -  was somewhat less than truthful when Telegram editor Pam Frampton inquired about it.  But still, with the denial, there was no story.  They accepted Joan Burke’s word as gospel.

The standard the newsrooms used for this story about cabinet  was  higher than the national newspaper and frankly it was higher than the newsrooms would use about a story about anyone else. They didn’t run the story as a news item.  But once the story was out there the locals had no trouble going at it.

When you ask reporters about this sort of thing, they have a response that is fairly convincing on the face of it.  Unless there is absolutely irrefutable proof that what they are being told is a lie, they will run with what they got officially.  Anything else would be biased and unfair.

What that means, in practice, is that a cabinet minister could say the sky was bright pink and the local reporter would report that Minister so-and-so today said the sky was pink.  The fact it was blue and everyone knew it was blue wouldn’t enter into the story.

Lest you think that is an absurd example consider the events of one November evening when local reporters were called to come quickly to meet with the Premier.  I’ve just been told today,  Danny Williams said,  that the province will not be receiving Equalization payments this year.  Finance minister Jerome Kennedy was in Ottawa for meetings and his federal counterpart had told Kennedy and his officials it looked like the province would make too much money to receive Equalization.

Minor problem.  The provincial government had a choice to make, usually in January.  They could pick which of a couple of ways they could calculate Equalization.  The federal government had decided, quite some time ago, to let some provinces make that choice so they could get as much extra cash as possible.

One reporter asked Williams if the province had made its election yet.  No, said Williams, we won’t be doing that until March.  Williams statement was true.  The reporter knew it.  Williams knew it.
But the next day,  every newsroom in town carried the glorious news that we were now a “have” province.  Williams started talking about a party.  They spent time and money planning the celebration. 

Three months later they all reported that Williams had lost his mind when he found out the province would not be receiving Equalization.  They never reminded anyone of Williams’ earlier statements and, unless your humble e-scribbler missed it, none of the conventional media outlets have ever explained what Williams and his cabinet colleagues had actually be up to.  (SRBP did.)

They reported what they had been told officially. 

That’s the rule.

That’s the same rule that you’ve seen in media coverage of the provincial budget.  Officially, it’s an austerity budget with lots of job cuts and other nastiness.  That’s what everyone has reported even though the budget calls for a 12% increase in spending.  Since none of the politicians or other officially approved sources for comment are saying differently,  no news outlet in the province will take a contrary position.

They’ll try to get someone to say we are in a recession. They will report that Ross Wiseman won’t say we are in a recession. None of that challenges the official line that we have a massive financial problem that government is dealing with.

Another official line that’s turned up in local media is the idea that the opposition Liberals are supposed to provide a detailed alternate budget. CBC’s David Cochrane has reported it as the Conservative strategy:  they’d lay down a budget and then challenge the Liberals to provide alternatives. 

CBC’s Peter Cowan wrote an opinion column before the budget that went further. Under a headline that insisted the ‘Liberal’s budget wishes are practically impossible to achieve”, Cowan concluded that “Ball will face a big test this week. If he wants to be taken seriously as premier-in-waiting, he will have to present a credible alternative to the budget.”

Not be outdone,  the Telegram’s James McLeod devoted an entire story in Saturday’s edition on the success of  the Conservative line. 

But it was the Monday attrition announcement that really paid off politically for the Tories, as Liberal finance critic Cathy Bennett struggled to respond after the news conference.
When pressed by journalists, Bennett reached for the Liberals’ go-to non-answer on budget issues. The Liberals claim they have exactly enough information to criticize the government’s mistakes, but not enough information to offer a clear alternative plan.
“I haven’t seen the books, and until I see the books and understand the complexity, I think it’s really inappropriate for me to comment on what parts of the entire government public service we’d look at eliminating,” Bennett said.
What’s interesting about the Cowan/McLeod angle is not just that they have carried on with the official “austerity” line even after seeing the budget documents for themselves.  It’s that they have accepted – and repeated as true – a completely ridiculous proposition.

The Conservatives who are pushing this line are only interested in scoring political points.  Cowan and McLeod presumably aren’t.   A few local reporters in 2003 used their election coverage as job applications with the Conservatives but these guys aren’t doing that. They are – however - willing to accept and repeat an official position even if it is ludicrous.

Anyone vaguely familiar with the budget process would understand that the provincial government has access to detailed information about the provincial government’s finances.  They have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of public servants to produce the budget.,  The government hires consultants to produce forecasts of all sorts.

And they keep all the information to themselves right up to the point they lock the doors on the politicians and reporters on budget day.  This year was no different than in past years.  The government pre-budget dog and pony show relied on information about last year’s budget to give people and online toy to play at working out budget options. 

The opposition parties in Newfoundland and Labrador have nothing that comes even close to the government’s resources They can’t even get access to the government’s expertise.  No opposition of any political stripe ever has had those kinds of resources. Whatever forecasting the Tories, Liberals or New Democrats have had in opposition has usually been through nothing more grand than a magic eight ball with some of the blue water drained out.

The government doesn’t opposition parties enough money to hire the kind of expertise they’d need to meet the Conservative demand for an alternative budget. of course, now it’s not just the Conservative demand.  Thanks to their editorial decisions, it’s also the CBC and Telegram demand despite the fact that any reasonable, impartial assessment would have dismissed the Conservative line for the impossible feat, the utter nonsense it is.

In the local media mind, though, they haven’t really done anything that wasn’t fair or balanced. Cowan’s column was an opinion piece.  There’s considerable latitude in opinion pieces and well there should be. 

That won’t stop lots of people from accusing the reporters of bias, though.  They aren’t biased, at least not in the sense of being partisan.  What you are seeing is an editorial policy that accepts an official frame for a story and carries it along until the official frame changes.

You have to look at their pieces though, in the wider context of news reporting in the province.  The frame for their coverage was set by the official lines taken over the past six months or more. The details of the budget contradict that frame of restraint and austerity but that simple truth is completely irrelevant.

What McLeod cavalierly dismissed as the Liberals’ go-to position  - they don’t have enough information – is the only honest response to the media demand for detailed alternatives to what is in the budget.   But that’s irrelevant too because it doesn’t fit the easy frame handed out by the Conservatives.

Now that doesn’t mean that other factors don’t influence coverage.  The competition between CBC and VOCM since Fred Hutton moved to VO has undoubtedly influenced the way both outlets cover political stories. Individual reporters and editors have their own views and opinions.  It all goes into the mix that winds up on your computer screen or television or coming out of your radio.

It’s just that the media reverence for official frames in Newfoundland and Labrador means that local news media are susceptible to becoming part of the way the government manages information.  That will look like bias to a whole lot of people. And to political people,  that perceived bias  may well mean that political parties that aren’t in power will look at news media differently than the way they have traditionally. They may start regarding reporters less as impartial observers who treat all players in the political game equally and more like players themselves.