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Thursday 30 January 2014


When the media lavishes silence on an important public policy issue, is it any wonder the public are not tuned in?  That is what occurred regarding the NS UARB Decision on the Maritime Link, just before Christmas. 

The last push to secure the Federal Loan Guarantee demanded a large enhancement from Nalcor, called the Energy Access Agreement (EAA).  By then the media was bored with matters Muskrat; not that that issue had, at any time, stretched their capacities. The EAA may have gotten mere mention; but any explanations received neither reports nor analysis.    

I had promised comment on this state of affairs some weeks ago but the power black outs, though “not a crises”, coupled with the Premier’s resignation intervened.   The media still deserves a good lashing.

Likely they will finish this day much as they do any other; by 7pm the public airwaves will have been awash in traffic accidents, the most recent holdup, the weather and, multiple human interest pieces and, of course, that old reliable, the courts. 

Does it suffice that the “news”, to which it is nominally referred, is delivered without the least regard to important public policy issues?  Shouldn’t the detritus of daily life be the ‘filler’ rather than ‘the’ news? 

Shouldn’t the media’s role to inform and educate, provide perspective and analysis, supersede any responsibility it has to help us detour a supper hour traffic jam?    

To watch intelligent and trained journalists occupy themselves with ennui, the equivalent of coffee chatter, seems not just a waste of human resources but a disservice to the public.

Reporters rightfully went agog over Bill 29.  On Muskrat, media reports were frequent though they barely scratched the surface of that issue’s foundations and complexity.

Yet, since Confederation, no other public policy decision has exposed taxpayers to so much risk. 

When the news media, (the Editorial Department of The Telegram excepted) fails so miserably to report and to analyse important issues, shouldn’t it too, come under the spotlight of scrutiny along with the Government?

The media should never be a scapegoat when a group or individual is denied a particular public policy choice.  Indeed, it is irresponsible for anyone to express pique against a group not party to an issue or to the process that gives it light. 

But, the media is not just any group and Muskrat Falls is not just any issue.

They are the self-declared guardians of the public interest. 
Liberal democracy has evolved in such a way that the public and the institutions of Government, including the Courts, acknowledge their role as an essential bulwark against secrecy, injustice and excess of all kinds.

Society is enhanced when the media informs and educates.  Who would deny that respect for their skills is confirmed and reinforced when such instruction is enriched with details and explanations that are substantial and thoughtful? 

Our media outlets are not impoverished, lacking capital or resources.  They are large and financially successful; they have profited well from our economy.  The public broadcaster, the CBC, ever critical of shrinking budgets, is in lockstep with its competition.  Yet, like the others, it seeks breadth rather than depth. 

No one should assume that just because reporters are on the front lines it is they who solely make story choices or editorial decisions.  Often they do not.

More frequently, it is the editors and producers who fear losing listeners, losing ad space and being shut out of political access as, in some cases, corporate managers lurk in the background. 

Access is when reporters are refused interviews by the Premier and Cabinet Ministers on a one-to-one basis.  Danny had no problem punishing reporters whom he deemed unfair.

If a large and complex public policy issue, like Muskrat Falls, were a frequent occurrence causing strain on media resources, one might be prepared to cut them some slack.  But, thankfully, they are a rarity. 

Shouldn’t the public have an opportunity to understand what the cost might be if the Government’s analysis is wrong?  Isn’t media intervention more urgent when the Government openly eschews independent analysis?

The estimated $7.7 billion Project did not receive endorsement by the Federal/Provincial Environmental Panel.  It was ripped from the independent public reviewer, the PUB, after that Agency demanded more current information.  

The Project’s rationale changed repeatedly. The Government refused debate in the Legislature.  Diminutive Opposition Parties failed to warn an uninformed public.

Did not one of those clues suggest it was time the media stepped up to the plate? 

As U.S. President Ronald Regan once told a cranky Congress: “If not us, who?  If not now, when?” to which we might add: If not this, what?

On what issue might the media consider it appropriate to warn, to educate to be insightful and comprehensive?  When would they choose to be the guardians they claim? 

In an earlier time, I watched as a vigilant media hounded J.R. Smallwood about giving public funds to industrialist carpetbaggers, John C. Doyle and John Shaheen.  Their reports might just have restrained Smallwood’s recklessness.

During the Peckford Administration, the use of public money, for a cucumber farm in Mount Pearl, caused a media feeding frenzy almost daily. 

Is a mega project too complicated for modern media?  Does the process of ferretting out questionable analysis and information cause intellectual paralysis?  Or, is it that Government Press Releases represent easy pickings for indolent scribes?  

The UARB of Nova Scotia entertained not just one, but two, detailed analyses of Nalcor’s highly questionable deal with Emera in return for the Maritime Link.  They were open and transparent Hearings.  Yet, the Nova Scotia review did not register, even as a sideshow, with local reporters. 

The UARB made it clear (page 70) that the first Agreement was deficient by up to $1.422 billion.  Weren’t the media even curious as to how that deficit might be bridged by Nalcor?

Were any NL media present at the Hearings? If there were, they filed no reports.   

Did they even report from the UARB’s quickly prepared transcripts?  No. 

When the UARB approved the deal, did they explain why the Nova Scotia Government expressed unfettered satisfaction that it has gotten all the gravy of the Muskrat Falls Project?   Not a word. 

Do NLers now have any idea how much, for how long, or at what cost Nalcor committed so much power to Nova Scotia?  If they do, the local media is not the source.

The Energy Access Agreement is a prime example of the media’s failure to do its job; one more recent than Muskrat, the main issue, but still a very important one. 

In an earlier time, I witnessed Premier Frank Moores break out into a cold sweat in advance of driving down to CBC, not to be interviewed, but to be cross-examined by reporters Rex Murphy and Jennifer Davis, who would grill him mercilessly.

They did the right thing. They did their job.

Nowadays, the Premier and Ministers, at the end of an interview, are frequently asked “is there any final comment you would like to leave with us” which, I know, must really must make them quake in their boots!

Is it different with one broadcaster than another?  Alas, No.  Even the Telegram news section could have done far more to distill the issues for the public, even if its Editorial Section excelled.

Few reporters are as confident as the people they interview.

Nalcor CEO Ed Martin openly stated on the media, recently, that the legal challenge brought by Hydro Quebec will have no effect on the Water Management Agreement (WMA) whichever way the Quebec Superior Court decides.

Nalcor filed a small roomful of evidence with the PUB detailing how the lack of a WMA would seriously diminish the power capacity of Muskrat Falls. 

How is it possible that all that evidence miraculously became inconsequential just because Ed Martin said so? 

The legacy of the Government will be an unwise and possibly financially devastating Project. 

Our media will have a legacy, too.

It leaves a public fundamentally ignorant of a Project that may well shake the economic foundations of this Province.  When the public needed them most they demonstrated neither courage, motivation nor the ability to punch above their weight. 

It may well be that the issues were too hot to handle, too complicated, too fraught with the penalty of lost access, lost advertising or inadequate resources.  What other reason could it have been?  That Muskrat was deemed unsuitable for a public weaned on road kill and weather?

When, eventually, the Muskrat Falls Project, including the EAA, comes under a more judicious and I expect, a judicial spotlight, local media organizations should be required to sit right next to former Premier Dunderdale and Ed Martin, not to report, but to justify their own negligence.