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Former premier takes issue with coverage

August 27, 2012 - Roger Grimes has a bone to pick with local media.

The former Liberal premier of Newfoundland and Labrador thinks the media are failing the province in their coverage of the Muskrat Falls project.

His issue is not with the amount of coverage, so much as the quality of it.

“They seem to be willing to just cover and carry the government’s spin on it, without delving into any real questions or probing,” Grimes said, in an interview. “There’s no real investigative journalism going on. They’re just willing to take at face value the answer.”

On this, I have to agree. It’s been a concern of mine for months now. If you tune in to talk radio, read the letters to the editor, follow online comments or just listen to the chatter down at Tim Horton’s, it is abundantly clear that there is mass public confusion about Muskrat Falls.

And if the media have done any investigative work to uncover the truth of it, one way or the other, they sure aren’t telling us.

Yes, the media are asking tough questions of the premier, the resources minister and the boss at Nalcor. They are also giving generous coverage to the many high profile critics of this deal – including the news headline above, from a recent Telegram article. CBC’s “On Point” has done a good job of posing challenging, probing questions to various players in this issue. Other media do much the same thing, dutifully reporting both sides of the issue.

And that’s where they pull up short. The questions raised in these interviews should be the starting point for some journalistic research – not a mere sound bite in an interview. There is an opportunity – no, an obligation – to delve into the claims made by both sides of this debate, to separate facts from spin and truth from lies.

On this, Roger Grimes is in total agreement.

“Any serious attempt at independent, probing, investigative type of analysis has been sorely lacking,” he said, despite the easy access they seem to enjoy to Nalcor’s Ed Martin.

“I think some of the media have been co-opted a bit. It’s unusual for open line hosts, editorial boards and others to go in and have a session with Ed Martin, and let him indoctrinate them or influence their thinking, by taking Nalcor’s spiel. My thought always was that the media should reflect what’s available to the public at large that is reading your content or following it on the newscast. Because they (the public) don’t have all this other detailed information. There is only so much available in the public realm, so that’s what the ordinary person has to base their opinion on, what’s available publicly. But you’ve got all these others … who have actually had their private sessions with Ed Martin – and we don’t know what they’ve said. We don’t know what the questions have been or what the detail was.”

That may sound counter-intuitive. After all, what’s wrong with open media access? But I know what Grimes is getting at. Last year, when I expressed my skepticism about the deal to a journalist, that person’s advice was “Get a briefing from Ed Martin.”

I thought about that, but decided against it. Yes, it is Nalcor’s responsibility to present a clear, cohesive case for Muskrat Falls. But they should be doing that to the media, who in turn should relay it to the public. If Nalcor has presented that evidence, then the media have failed in passing it on to us.

On the other hand, not everyone who asks for a briefing gets one anyway. You can ask Grimes about that.

“I asked Ed Martin a year and a half ago, as a former premier and former energy minister, if I could have a briefing. I never heard back from him.”

Grimes said he also wrote to Kathy Dunderdale, who was deputy premier and energy minister at the time, with a list of questions about the deal.

“I never even got the courtesy of a reply, neither as a constituent nor as a former premier. I prefaced it by saying that I had some strong reservations about it but I liked the concept of developing the Lower Churchill, I’ve always believed in that, and maybe if you could show me where I’m wrong, in my areas of concern, then I can be one of your champions. I guess they never believed that I would be, and that’s where the politics comes in, I guess.”

Grimes also thinks it is unusual that Ed Martin has such a high profile in this debate. After all, it is not Nalcor who is building the project – it is the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“That’s one of the things that’s extraordinary and strange about this … This is supposedly a government-led initiative. The people, through the government, own Nalcor. Nalcor is not a private company like Emera. Nalcor is OUR public utility. It’s just a bigger, fancier version of Newfoundland Hydro. We own it. It’s ours. It’s not traded on the stock exchange and it doesn’t have a limited number of wealthy shareholders. And the government is the sole director. They own it, for us. Historically, all through the years, whenever Hydro has done (a development), it would be the premier and minister responsible who would be doing all the speaking. Because they own the company. Ed Martin doesn’t own the company. He is a senior executive, employed by government on behalf of us.”

Grimes did offer a backhanded compliment to the province for the way it has framed the Muskrat Falls debate.

“I’ll give the government credit for this. If you want to push something through you have to design a strategy to try and make it work. They had some success in narrowing the discussion, when Jerome Kennedy came on and said, ‘We don’t need to talk about all the rest of it. We only need to talk about two things: do we need the power, and what is the least cost alternative?’ Well, in fact there’s a whole lot of other issues. But they just cut it off. And people fell for it. People stopped discussing all the other issues.”

I agree with Grimes on some of this. In my next entry, a former journalist offers his point of view.

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  • Norman Andrews
    September 08, 2012 - 10:19

    This may seem like a simple question; Why aren't the media trying to get some answers from Quebec authorities and then report them to us? The vice president of Nalcor, Gilbert Bennett during the Environmental Hearing in Happy Valley Goose Bay told me that Nalcor can send power through Quebec anytime time they like. Not gonna cost billions more to send hydro power through Quebec from Labrador instead of a an undersea cable to Nfld & Nova Scotia is it ? Is this all about a vendetta against Quebec for the deal they made on the Upper Churchill? Newfoundland doesn't really need any more power with operations closing down & people leaving in droves for Alberta & elsewhere. They are trying to make this Hoolyrood plant an escape goat for Muskrat.

  • Craig Westcott
    August 29, 2012 - 19:33

    Geoff, another great post. As someone who covered Roger Grimes as premier I can testify that nobody who has ever held that office suffered as many slings and arrows (many of them from me) as Mr. Grimes did and no one was as gentlemanly and as stoic about it. But to get to his main point. The mainstream political reporters covering the Muskrat Falls issue have given plenty ink and air time to "he said, she said" stuff, especially from government ministers, but have provided very little, if any analysis. The best analysis has been from informed commentators, such as Russell Wangersky, and concerned citizens in the Telegram's Letters to the Editor section. Take the central question of energy demand. I haven't seen or heard any analysis or even reporting of the actual energy demand history in this province in the mainstream media. An easy check of Nalcor's own operating reports for the last 27 years shows that energy demand is actually trending downwards, not upwards. For instance, in 1990, the total energy generated by Newfoundland Hydro for industrial and household use on the island was 5,698 gigawatt hours. In 1995, the demand had risen to 6,022 gWh. In the year 2000, it was 6025 gWh.By 2005, before the Grand Falls paper mill closed, throwing its now unused hydro resources into the system, the total island usage was 6134 gWh. Since then, thanks to a dwindling population, fewer industrial users and climate change, demand has been shrinking to 5574 gWh in 2006, 5176 gWh in 2009 and 5109 gWh in 2010. Last year, Nalcor generated some 5432 gWh of electricity, including hydroelectric and thermal, for use on the island. As a percentage of the total, the amount of electricity generated at Holyrood has declined from 37 per cent in 2002 to 16 per cent last year. Thank you, Craig Westcott Editor The Business Post

  • Brian Williams.
    August 29, 2012 - 11:03

    I was wondering if any of the media who attended that info-site visit-luncheon to MF on August 16-17 reported if they offered to pay the costs associated with that visit.

  • Gregory
    August 28, 2012 - 18:24

    Egos and arrogant attitudes shape much of what is reported on Muskrat Falls, in particular. I do not think it is all journalists here behaving this way, but there are some who seem to be more (self-)impressed and more about access and favour with politicians and their own "fame", rather than about doing a service to the people of this province by actually doing their jobs and objectively and thoroughly reporting on Muskrat Falls to the general public. It's a serious failing, but when egos run amok, what do you expect? Grimes is right on in his assessment of the poor job by the media in investigating and reporting on Muskrat Falls. It will go down in history, along with Muskrat Falls. It is a real shame and it is simply not acceptable. Some seem to prefer pontificating their opinions and dictating the frame of debate as they see it, rather than reporting the objective facts, as is their obligation, to the people.

  • Michael Hancock
    August 28, 2012 - 14:26

    Blame for confusion surrounding the Muskrat Falls deal falls squarely on the lap of this gov't imho. They've been dragging their heels on the release of information since day one. On day two, they started making a concerted effort to suppress information through the enactment of Bill29. I'm not convinced that the media have been doing a bad job, but merely haven't been getting the information they need to get the job done. That job is... informing the public on the costs & benefits of the Muskrat Falls deal (or lack of benefits, depending on your POV).

  • Debbie
    August 28, 2012 - 13:01

    Grimes couldn't do anything when he was Premier and now he professes to know it all. Roger we are a little smarter than that. If i had reservations about MF's i would think to take another look at it knowing Grimes is opposed. This is just another chance for Roger to take a shot at Danny. Get over it Grimes!

  • EDfromRED
    August 28, 2012 - 11:09

    I agree that the local media has not done a stellar job covering this story. NTV tv news seems to be 1 step ahead of a high school media club broadcast at the best of times. And local CBC tv news has been getting less substance filled in my opinion. There is usually stellar coverage of three or four stories, and the rest seems to be unending weather and fluff. Really, how much weather coverage on the news do we need when we have a 24/7 weather channel, smart phones, etc. I think a lack of competition local tv news causes us to get mostly superficial stories without nary an investigative piece to be seen. I think that there are enough stories not getting reported to fill a 24/7 local news report.

  • Pierre Neary
    August 27, 2012 - 17:17

    Roger Grimes has a right to ask questions. Former Premier Williams lambasted Former Premier Grimes about the Long Harbour deal. Everyone remembers the "mack truck". Just look at the Hebron deal. Exxon is going to build modules outside of the province. I guess the mack truck has barreled through that deal.