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.