Mediacheck

Budget Coverage Out of Balance

Sun treatment of the last two NDP budgets and the current Liberal effort was vastly different, despite some similar numbers.

By Donald Gutstein 21 Feb 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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The Vancouver Sun was blatantly biased towards the B.C. Liberals in its coverage of the recent Campbell government budget.

Such bias cannot be assessed by simply examining the Sun’s reporting on the start of the current legislative session, suggestive as that may be. A comparison is necessary and one is readily available in the Sun’s coverage of former NDP premier Ujjal Dosanjh’s 2000 and 2001 budgets.

The better comparison is the 2001 budget, which, like Campbell’s, was a pre-election affair. But because key budget documents were leaked to the media in advance of the throne speech, the process was truncated. The budget from a year earlier is included for a more accurate comparison.

The spending increases in Dosanjh’s 2001 budget and Campbell’s 2005 budget are comparable: $1.8 billion for Dosanjh, $1.5 billion for Campbell. And the surplus forecast in each budget is similar: more than $1 billion. Yet the Sun accused Dosanjh of creating a “reckless and unsustainable” budget, while Campbell’s budget “balances spending needs with meeting financial targets.” Go figure.

It’s not just the obvious bias on the editorial pages that should concern us but, more crucially, what is reported in the news section. News is supposed to be fair and balanced because it provides us with the information we need to make responsible electoral choices.

Who is spinning what?

We expect the newspaper’s owner and his agents on the editorial board to express the paper’s opinions in the unsigned editorials. And they do, in spades.

After the NDP government’s throne speech in March 2000, the Sun editorialized that while Premier Ujjal Dosanjh wanted “to put a new face on the old government” there was little in the speech “that made a real break with the past.” To break with the past, the Sun offered its own ideological prescription. Dosanjh must “set out major tax relief and spending restrictions to help resurrect the B.C. economy.”

Because he wasn’t likely to do this, the Sun accused Dosanjh of “trying to ‘spin’ his way out of political trouble.”

But isn’t that what Gordon Campbell did in his 2005 throne speech? Didn’t he attempt to spin away all the angry feelings about his government’s tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for everyone else by promising a “golden decade?”

No, says the Sun.

Asymmetrical adjectives

Its editorial begins by parroting the throne speech’s key message: “The way forward is the road we are travelling.” The Sun considers this a “laudable goal” and peppers its editorial with positive phrases like “sound fiscal management” and “praiseworthy emphasis.”

The editorial on the Dosanjh throne speech, in contrast, contained phrases like “basing tax policy on ideology,” “questionable uses of taxpayers’ dollars,” and “class warfare rhetoric.” Presumably the Sun believes that tax cuts for the rich is not class warfare but sound fiscal and economic policy.

For Dosanjh’s last budget in 2001, the Sun didn’t even wait for the throne speech to lambaste him for being “likely to opt for spending instead of prudence.” It didn’t need the speech or the budget to know that Dosanjh would spend “more tax dollars on his favourite projects in his last-ditch attempt to curry favour with voters.”

Isn’t that precisely what Campbell’s budget delivers? Spending more tax dollars to curry favour with voters? But the Sun didn’t say that. Instead it vaguely apologizes for the Liberals for having to produce a “political document” in order to get re-elected. “The primary mission of this session will be to ensure the re-election of the Liberal government,” the Sun alerts us the day after the throne speech.

If the Campbell government has to curry favour in a one-time only budget that is friendly to lower- and middle-class voters so it can get re-elected and then bring in more tax cuts and spending cuts for the next three years, then so be it. The Sun will go along with this because Campbell is currying favour for a good cause – the well-being of the already well-off – while Dosanjh’s currying activities will help only the poor and middle class.

We expect the paper to play favourites editorially and it’s no surprise who the favourite is. But if this editorial bias creeps into the news section, then the democratic process itself can suffer.

James’s voice is muted

Campbell’s throne speech received special treatment in the Sun. “Liberals vow golden decade,” blares the prominent front-page headline, over a picture of the Israeli Prime Minister and Palestinian President shaking hands. A feel-good co-incidence to be sure; one wonders how a photo of a major B.C. train wreck would have been played.

“British Columbia set its sights Tuesday on a golden decade in a throne speech that promised the province will lead the way in jobs, education and physical fitness in time for the 2010 Olympics,” the first paragraph runs. The Liberals get 25 paragraphs before NDP leader Carole James is given just one paragraph for rebuttal, although there is a picture of her on page two, adding nothing to her response to the speech.

Coverage of the throne speech extends to the second and third pages of the front section and pages B2 and B3 of the Westcoast news section. James is given half of the space here, balancing edited excerpts from the speech.

Dosanjh’s 2000 throne speech received very different treatment. It was headlined as follows: “B.C. childcare plan coming at ‘huge cost:’ The program is one of the few concrete proposals delivered in speech from the throne.”

Dosanjh received five paragraphs before Gordon Campbell got three paragraphs to knock down the idea of a childcare program and attack the government. There were no pictures and no further stories. The throne speech story was not even the lead story. It was surrounded on two sides by the major front-page story, about the Canadian Union of Public Employees vetoing a school meal plan over volunteers. This story was distorted too, but that’s for another day. The point is everyone knows about the close link between those union people and the NDP, and there they go again.

The impact of the throne speech was further muted the following day by a front-page story about a prankster who put a fast ferry up for sale on eBay. This story received more coverage and more prominent placement than the throne speech.

Strange focus on GM foods

There was little coverage of Dosanjh’s last throne speech in 2001 because budget papers were leaked before the speech. It did garner a page-five story and a picture of the lieutenant governor inspecting his honour guard. The story was odd, though. It focused on a minor detail in the speech, a promise that consumers would be consulted about genetically modified foods.

Dosanjh received 11 paragraphs in the story to Campbell’s eight, plus seven short paragraphs describing key measures in the speech. Meanwhile, just below this story was one of about equal length attacking the government’s plans to label genetically modified foods.

But it is the coverage of the budgets themselves where the greatest disparities occur.

The Sun’s report on the Campbell budget was overkill: the first six pages of the A Section. Front page headlines ran: “B.C. budget 2005,” “More money in your pocket,” “Budget benefits needy the most.” These are notions that have been difficult to apply to the Liberals, but The Sun is certainly lending Campbell a helping hand framing his election campaign.

The front page also provides information purporting to prove that lower-income British Columbians will benefit the most from the budget.

The lead story gives Finance Minister Colin Hansen 34 paragraphs and Carole James three, as if she has little to add. There’s a picture of Hansen delivering the budget on page 2.

The Sun’s coverage of Dosanjh’s pre-election budget was spread over two days, the day the budget papers were leaked and the next day.

NDP leaks and ‘sprees’

On Day One, the front page featured a picture of a tieless and dishevelled Dosanjh, in a deer-in-the-headlight pose. Placed immediately beside his head was the headline “Budget papers leaked: Premature news release details a pre-election spending spree.” The story is short, with prominent criticism from Liberal finance critic Gary Farrell-Collins.

Major coverage of the budget came the following day under the headline “The books are cooked – again: Liberals.” The story was about a Liberal allegation that the New Democrats were asking B.C. Hydro to raise its estimate of the financial contribution it would make to the government. NDP Finance Minister Paul Ramsey denied the allegations, but this was buried in the story.

On the two pages dedicated to the budget, the headlines told us: “Forecast on high side, economists warn,” “Liberals vow to match health spending,” “Experts criticize lack of tax cuts.” And the paper’s editorial conclusion? “NDP presents fudge-it budget (II).”

Meanwhile, the headlines in the Campbell budget love-in were: “Debt paydown a record,” “Special-needs kids gain $134m,” “Post-secondary seats to jump by 4,200 in ’06,” “Liberals stake out traditional NDP turf,” “Health gets $1.5-billion boost over three years.” Sounds a lot like a spending spree, but that phrase cannot be found in the coverage. The verbs are instructive: gain, jump, boost, stake out. Conclusion? This is a government with energy. And the editorial judgment? “B.C. budget balances spending needs with meeting financial targets.” No spending spree here. No currying favour with voters.

Two very similar budgets. Two very dissimilar treatments.

Donald Gutstein is a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.  [Tyee]

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