11 December 2017

Don't blame me (-dia) #nlpoli

Now that Muskrat Falls is officially a boondoggle,  all sorts of people are rushing forward to criticise it.

Others are also rushing forward to ensure we all know that they were on the side of the angels back in the day and so, as Brian Jones pleads this weekend in the Telegram, we shouldn’t “blame the media for Muskrat Falls.”

For the past year and a half,  Brian tells us,  people whom he calls “trolls” have been writing and calling him to ask why the local media did not reveal all the details about Muskrat Falls as the thing was unfolding.

“I always point out a basic fact,”  Brian says,  that “ the Newfoundland media, not just The Telegram, have covered every aspect of Muskrat Falls since at least 2010.”

Wonderful if it was a fact, but no.

Not a fact.

The best example of the media’s approach is a piece from the Telegram in August of 2010.  This was after the federal environmental panel had issued its preliminary finding on the Lower Churchill project and highlighted all of the deficiencies it would highlight later on. Lack of justification in terms of markets domestically or outside the province,  environmental issues,  and so on.

“Nalcor weighs risk and reward”  was the headline on the story dated August 21, 2010.  Nalcor, the writer told us, “has laid out a possible development scenario for the Lower Churchill.”

As the SRBP post at the time noted, though, that wasn’t news, “even though the most important idea is supposed to go right at the start of a news story.”
The development scenario and the rest of the stuff at the front and in the middle of the article is exactly the same stuff that’s been talked about by NALCOR and its predecessor dating back to the 1990s.  It’s the development scenario laid out in the original environmental submission this time around. The complete document record of the review is available online. 
You have to read all the way to the end of the Telegram article, though, to find any reference to the environmental panel’s January decision.  And even then the fact the panel told NALCOR their work was fundamentally lacking is presented as if it were merely the innocent stimulus to further action by the glorious team at NALCOR:
“Timelines associated with the joint federal-provincial environmental assessment panel have dragged on longer than expected. 
The panel said Nalcor’s previous filings were lacking.”
A pesky inconvenience at worst. 
But as a result of this little setback, NALCOR did all this wonderful work, which the Telegram has now told us all about.  Now the panel will “now assess those filings before deciding how to proceed.” 

Nothing in the story cast any doubt on Nalcor’s media line nor even hinted that the project was in the sort of deep trouble described by that  January filing by the joint review panel.

In November,  when Danny Williams announced his retirement plan, there was not so much as a squeak about the delayed process.  Not on your life.

The Telegram’s November 2010 editorial on Muskrat Falls [ it still available online??] gushed: "Build it and they will come."  Muskrat Falls "seems to be the gamble. And it’s a big one.  But you can’t play [the energy game] unless you roll the dice."

And just to emphasise the extent to which the Telegram was right in line with popular sentiment in official quarters,  here’s what the Williams retirement editorial said:
In stepping down from office Thursday, Williams is leaving at the top of his game. Only a week ago, he announced terms of a partnership with Nova Scotia’s Emera Inc. to build a generating station at Muskrat Falls to transmit power from Labrador to the island and across the Gulf to the Maritimes.
It’s not the megaproject everyone envisioned, but it represents a long-time goal few believed Williams could ever achieve: Lower Churchill power without Quebec.
The thing is, though, that in April 2009,  the Telegram reported faithfully and accurately what Danny Williams had said then, when he announced a deal to sell Churchill Falls power to Emera in New York through Quebec.  The stranglehold is broken, Williams said.

Strangleholds don’t get broken for the first time twice, but the local media reported them twice, just as the government claimed it twice.

What’s more,  the line about building the Lower Churchill without Quebec is precisely the Premier’s own media line about the project.  Yet, as Kathy Dunderdale had blurted out in 2009, the provincial government had been trying for five years to get Hydro-Quebec to take an equity position in the Lower Churchill, without redress.  The fuss in the latter part of the year was as much about Williams’ frustration over HQ’s refusal to play as anything else.  All of that was absolutely ignored by the conventional media and still is.

So “covered every aspect” of Muskrat Falls?


And certainly not back to November 2010 and absolutely not before that.

You see, if the Telegram and other conventional had reported everything,  they’d have quickly run afoul of a Premier who liked to throw his weight around.  He had lots of friends who also threw their weight around, including their advertising weight.  And if that wasn’t enough, there were folks in newsrooms across the province who openly and actively supported the provincial government’s imaginary war with Quebec.  It fit their own biases and prejudices.

In other words, the local media fit into the local market in so many ways. They reflected the community in which they worked.  That’s understandable.  The folks in the newsrooms had lots of company in that same spot.  They weren’t really sceptical in many cases and if they were,  there were plenty of societal pressures to keep them in line.

Blame the media?  Well, no, for the most part.  Blame isn’t necessary.  It is unproductive because there is plenty of blame to go around for a project endorsed by – at peak - 71 percent of the population.  Forty percent *still* think it is a great idea.

Understanding what happened, not just with Muskrat Falls but throughout the period between 2003 and 2012-ish, should be the goal.  Knowing how we got into the mess will help figure out how not to get there again.

We need to understand how so many people ignored evidence in plain sight that Muskrat Falls was troubled, had problems, was just plain wrong, and yet they either endorsed it or kept silent.

We need to understand how the local media works.  Plenty of people imagine it is the relentless bulldog digging and scratching for truth, no matter what.  Heck,  plenty of people working in newsrooms think that.

But is it true?

Understanding what happened takes the kind of examination that clearly makes folks like Brian Jones so incredibly uncomfortable that he has to start out a column on the issue by labelling all sorts of people as “trolls.”  Understanding what happened requires a subtle, nuanced, and (self-)critical approach that is entirely absent from Jones’ column(s). 

Someone who insists he was right and perfect all along – very Danny-like – and who insists every who thinks otherwise is a troll – as Danny used to label his critics – isn’t up to the task.