BC Liberal Email Adds Grease to Sliding Trust in News Media

But the way journalism gets made is too complex for simple conspiracy theories.

By Shannon Rupp 31 Jul 2017 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

For media watchers, the recent revelations published on The Tyee about the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster, which came through a freedom of information request, also came with a bonus: the glimpse of an apparently cozy relationship between government, the energy industry, and then Global TV reporter, who is now a BC Liberal MLA.

The evidence lies in an internal email then-premier Christy Clark’s communications chief sent after news broke of the collapse of the Mount Polley tailings pond dam. Ben Chin refers casually to “Jas” seemingly giving them a “heads up.”

“He tells me the pictures at 6 will be very graphic. Imperial [Metals, the mining company] should get out in front,” Chin wrote.

Jas almost certainly refers to Jas Johal, who so far has neither confirmed nor denied it’s him.

We’ll never know if Johal’s personal sympathies had any impact on Global’s coverage of the Mount Polley disaster. My bet is they didn’t; but I’ve no doubt they’ll lose some viewers over it.

The public tends to believe the worst of corporate media (with some justification), so I’m calling this incident just another little nail in big media’s coffin. And that is bad news for everyone, but I’ll get to that later.

Back to Chin’s email. The tone suggests that his BC Liberal colleagues take it for granted they have a Global TV reporter eager to help them.

Then again, it might have just been Chin subtly bragging to his own boss about his close relationship with a reporter at a major outlet.

But it’s also a fact that Johal did decamp for a PR gig at the BC LNG Alliance shortly after that mine disaster. And he is the new BC Liberal MLA for Richmond-Queensborough and mulling a run for the party leadership.

Now, I can just see the conspiracy theorists who love to rant about the “MSM” busily adding another layer to their tinfoil hats. Not least because this isn’t the first time emails have suggested a Global reporter might be too cozy with the BC Liberals. In 2011 emails revealed that reporter Catherine Urquhart was a fan of the BC Liberal MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview, Kash Heed.

Or maybe she was just sweet-talking her contacts and got a little carried away? Contrary to what you see in bad movies about journalism, good interviewers don’t bark accusations at people. As the late, great, CBC radio host Peter Gzowski advised young reporters: “You get more flies with honey.”

But the fact that most of us leap to the conclusion that there’s some orchestrated corruption afoot reflects something found in some recent international research about the declining trust in news media. Canada is one of the countries where the decline is sharpest.

News outlets aren’t just selling news; they’re selling trust. And in Canada, legacy media have spent a good three decades squandering that trust.

‘End of the world’

I could count all the ways news media have driven off their readers, viewers and listeners since the 1970s, and treated them in a shabby fashion, just because they could. In the case of newspapers, their virtual monopoly with advertisers kept their profits up to astonishing highs of 30 to 40 per cent, so they didn’t have to think much about hooking and holding readers. As for TV — which newspapers whined were stealing their audience while relying on their reporters — it was known as “the licence to print money.”

But I’d say the turning point for the public’s trust in news media came in 2001, shortly after Canwest, the broadcasting company owned by Winnipeg’s Asper family, added the Southam chain of newspapers to its media empire — including the Vancouver Sun, the Province, and the Victoria Times-Colonist. The company announced the head office would produce editorials for the chain, expressing the Aspers’ point of view on a variety of issues. Then they began limiting what journalists could say when it ran contrary to the official company line.

Articles at the time describe the newsroom reaction as “mutiny.” Reporters at the Montreal Gazette even pulled their bylines in protest.

“I can say to our critics and especially to the bleeding hearts in the journalist community that it’s the end of the world as they know it — and I feel fine,” David Asper bragged in a well-reported speech he gave in January 2002, to an audience of Oakville, Ontario business leaders.

Journalists all watched slack-jawed. Had Asper really just told the world that he was planning to turn his newspapers into something resembling a Canwest company newsletter? What possible appeal could that have for the average reader?

For much of the 20th century, the newspaper-of-record model was predicated on the notion that editorial independence had economic value and you served the business best by serving the readers well. If you can’t attract an audience, you have nothing to sell to advertisers.

I’ve dubbed that “The Myth of Woodstein,” because it’s a marketing strategy as often as it’s a fact. Journalism was a competitive business in the post-war era, and newspapers in particular sold themselves as the champions of the average citizen. They were “the watchdog of society” and claimed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Sometimes it was even true. But really, this is what the advertising world means when they say you sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Turning sizzle to fizzle

In the space of about 20 minutes, Asper had managed to undo decades of smart marketing and devalue his own product by announcing the sizzle was an illusion. Because Canwest owned so much of Canadian media at the time, he managed to rob everyone else of sizzle too.

In retrospect, it may be that Asper was so used to having a monopoly that he didn’t realize the arrival of broadband Internet meant that he was now operating in a competitive climate — his readers had somewhere else to go. And his advertisers followed them. Later, the company backtracked on the editorial plan, but it was too late. No one was surprised when it began bankruptcy proceedings in 2009.

But after that little speech, every conspiracy theorist could cite evidence that Canadian news media were run by powerful people who were furthering their own ideological agendas at the expense of their readers.

And you can see why someone might think that. Still, at the same time, I saw a lot of reporters who worked under their mastheads doing some exceptional news stories. Despite what the owner said, the institutions were predisposed to doing journalism and they carried on as well as they could, in spite of interference and cutbacks.

The Times it is a changin’

But soon cynical citizens may be right about news outlets all being untrustworthy, as the institutional safeguards for fair and accurate reporting are breaking down everywhere. Even in big city papers-of-record, like the New York Times.

Last month’s decision at the Times to cut the copy editors — that small army of unsung heroes who edit the writers and maintain professional journalism standards — made international news and led to a reporter protest. They warned management keen on a “reorganization” that it will lead to a decline in the quality and value of the paper. And the Times reported it. (See what I mean about institutions?)

So, despite the “Jas” mentioned in Chin’s “heads up” email, I’d wager that Global’s reporting on the Mount Polley disaster was reasonably accurate because of the institution. All journalism is a team sport, but that is particularly true in the complicated TV business. There are producers, video editors and directors behind the scenes, assigning stories and looking at what the news crews bring in. In TV it’s arguable that the person behind the camera is the real reporter, since pictures dictate the story. And if they are unfair or inaccurate, viewers have the option of complaining to the CRTC, another institution.

But I don’t think Canadians are in the mood to hear that. And I don’t think that mood will change until the legacy news outlets make a big effort to show that they’re back in the business of serving their customers at least as often as they serve themselves.  [Tyee]

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