January 31, 2012 – On Friday, Premier Kathy Dunderdale had a conniption at The Telegram, for its editorial entitled “Closed Doors”.
You can read the full editorial, and watch footage of Dunderdale’s media scrum, at this link: http://www.thetelegram.com/Opinion/Editorial/2012-01-27/article-2877788/Closed-doors/1
I won’t talk too much about the editorial itself, except to say that it was not far off base at all. The premier was ticked off about the reference to a “slush fund.”
Actually, The Tely editorial said this: “Could it be that nothing like $5 billion was ever spent, and that the massive infrastructure claims were a sham? Could it be that, like federal G8 funding, cabinet ministers had their fingers in the pie and were choosing pet projects in their own districts? Was the money some kind of political slush fund?”
After all, the Auditor General was looking for information on how the spending was prioritized. For example, if most money was doled out to good Tory districts, then that is indeed a political slush fund. The AG asked to see how it was prioritized; government refused.
In the absence of reliable information, speculation will rush in to fill the vacuum.
The Telegram offered its side of the story the next day, in Saturday’s paper:
“What we pointed out in the editorial was that the (acting) auditor general was seeking information on how projects were being approved, and that the auditor general was rebuffed by the Department of Justice. The auditor himself pointed out that the government’s actions were ‘precedent-setting,’” said editorial page editor Russell Wangersky. “The purpose of the editorial was to point out that when a government chooses to withhold information from its own auditor, that action has the potential to raise questions in people’s minds, questions that tend to be unpleasant.”
You can read the full story here: http://www.thetelegram.com/News/Local/2012-01-28/article-2878872/Premier-takes-Telegram-to-task-on-editorial/1
However, there was one accusation from the premier that was not addressed in The Telegram’s story. During her rant, Premier Dunderdale made this allegation:
“Every time I have done any kind of a correction on The Telegram, I get pilloried on a daily basis for the next couple of weeks. So I’m going to fasten my seat belt now. But I’m going to tell you, anybody who thinks taking me on on a daily basis in that kind of way is going to silence me, when something that’s being said is so clearly wrong, then I’ve got news for them. Not happening.”
Did you catch that? The premier says, in effect, that any time she corrects an error in The Telegram, the paper gets it back up and spends the next two weeks trying to get back at her, presumably with intentionally negative coverage.
That’s quite a nasty accusation. I wanted to know more. I wrote a note over the weekend to one of the premier’s communications staff, asking for an interview with the premier. This is the reply I received:
“The Premier doesn't wish to comment any further, she has said all that she has to say on this matter. She spoke at some length at the scrum. I imagine you’ve watched her full comments, last time I looked the scrum was on the CBC website.”
I can be relentless, sometimes. I dashed off a rather insistent reply to that note, copied below:
“The premier is accusing The Telegram of being biased; of actually being out to get her if she tries to correct an error. That is an incredibly charged accusation. It's pretty much the worst thing you can say against a media organization. Can the premier give some specifics of 1) when she offered a correction, and 2) how she was subsequently ‘pilloried’ for it.
Such a vendetta against the premier would require the collusion of several people in the newsroom, and, being a former journalist, I find it hard to accept that a) trained journalists and editors would conspire to make this happen, and b) the rest of the newsroom would sit on their hands and let it happen.
I need examples. Specific details. Can the premier give me that?”
On Monday afternoon, I received the following response: “The Premier won't be adding anything further to her comments.”
Well now, that’s a fine situation, isn’t it? The premier fires a broadside at The Telegram, accusing it of harbouring a vendetta and questioning the paper’s integrity, then refuses to back it up.
Let’s assume for a moment that The Telegram is out to get Dunderdale. In order for that to happen, you need the collusion of the managing editor, the desk editor, and the handful of editors who edit the copy, write headlines, and so on. You also have to involve the reporters, who would participate in the conspiracy by writing stories with an agenda, or sitting quietly by while their stories get changed. You need the buy-in of the editorial page editor, and the staff columnists who frequently write about politics.
No, The Telegram is not a single, thin-skinned entity that engages in hostilities over a dig from a politician. Like any newsroom, it is a group of professional journalists and editors who care very much about the quality of their work and the integrity of their product.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the premier “won’t be adding any further” to her remarks because there is nothing more to say. She won’t give examples to back up her accusation because she can't back it up. I think the premier made this up.
Why would she do that? I’m just speculating here, but it could be a pre-emptive strike; a tactical way to dismiss future “negative” coverage before it appears. For example, when The Telegram breaks a story about her government, or an editorial or columnist is critical, Dunderdale can say, “See? I told you they had it in for me. I’m getting pilloried again. This has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with attacking the good work of this government.”
Far fetched, you say? I don’t think so.
But I hope I am wrong.