Category Archives: Opinion

Posted in Opinion, TV

Election night projections the networks got wrong

Rigueur, rigueur, rigueur.

Those words were uttered by TVA’s Pierre Bruneau on election night in 2007, after Radio-Canada had earlier incorrectly projected that Liberal leader Jean Charest had lost his seat in the election that swept the Action démocratique du Québec to official opposition status and ended the political career of André Boisclair. TVA held off on calling the race for that seat, and reaped the benefits.

The TV networks make big deals of their “decision desk” teams, the computers, political analysts and experts who wait until they’re absolutely sure that a race can be called before making a decision. That care is counteracted by the race to be the first to declare the result of the election.

But surely the chance of being embarrassed, as Radio-Canada’s Bernard Derome was in 2007, by calling even a single seat wrong would be enough to ensure that they always get it right.

Not so much.

On Monday night, all three local English TV stations with elections specials made more than one incorrect call. And, to their shame, I caught them on my PVR.

8:33: CBC calls Lévis for Liberals

CBC Lévis

Simon Turmel was one of a few Liberals to steal seats away from the CAQ in the Quebec City region. Or at least that’s what CBC seemed to think, announcing the gain with Turmel sitting in a seemingly comfortable lead of more than 1,100 votes.

But not quite. When the night was over, the CAQ’s Christian Dubé won the riding by 1,943 votes.

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Posted in Opinion

Strategic voters’ guide to the Quebec 2014 election

The Parti Québécois posted this video ad on Friday, featuring former voters of Québec solidaire and Option nationale who have decided to vote for the Parti Québécois this time. The message is simple and explicit: Don’t split the vote by voting for the other left-wing sovereignist parties.

The ad bugged me. Not because it’s a PQ ad, or because it’s trying to discourage people from voting for other parties. Or even because it’s a two-minute ad that has 27 seconds of another party’s campaign video.

No, it bugged me because if the PQ’s strategy is really anyone-but-Couillard don’t-split-the-vote, then it should have told 34 of its candidates to withdraw from the race and endorse another candidate.

Based off these riding-by-riding projections from Too Close To Call, which I use only because there isn’t any better way to project what the likely numbers are where, there are 29 ridings where the Coalition avenir Québec candidate is ahead of the PQ candidate, and another five where the Québec solidaire candidate is ahead of the PQ candidate. But in all these cases, the PQ candidate is still in the race (though perhaps keeping quiet). Only in one riding has the PQ decided not to run in order not to split the vote: La Pinière, where former Liberal Fatima Houda Pepin, who left the party over disagreements about the PQ charter of values, is running as an independent.

But whatever, it wouldn’t be the first time a desperate party threw up a bucket of hypocrisy at the end of a campaign.

So if the PQ wants people to vote strategically, how would you do it? Not just anyone-but-Liberals, but anyone-but-party-X?

Here, Québec solidaire is right, if exaggerated. It is actually complicated in any riding where more than two parties have a chance. And there are a lot of those. The TCTC projection shows seven ridings where three parties have a 10% or more chance of winning, and 20 ridings total where there’s a reasonable chance that any of three parties could win.

Based on that projection, I’ve created the chart below. It’s a chart with numbers to use to determine how to vote strategically. The first five columns give the riding-by-riding projections (the fifth is for independents, but the only one worth noting is Houda Pepin). There are no ridings where Option nationale, the Green party or others make any sense to vote for strategically, so I’ve excluded them.

The next four columns are the anybody-but-X columns telling you who to vote for based on who you have decided is the embodiment of pure evil. Generally, it means voting for the party most likely to win the seat, unless that’s your anybody-but party, in which case you vote for the next-most-likely candidate.

The final two columns assume your sole issue is sovereignty, and would either be fine with one of the two sovereignist parties, or fine with either the Liberals or CAQ. (If you don’t think the CAQ is federalist enough, then your only strategic choice is to vote for the Liberals.) Again, neither ON nor the Greens have enough support to be worth considering in any riding.

There are five cases where one of the four main parties isn’t running a candidate. Besides the aforementioned case where the PQ isn’t running a candidate in La Pinière, there were three CAQ candidates and one Québec solidaire candidate (all in Montreal-area Liberal strongholds) whose nomination papers were rejected. Those cases are marked N/C or “no candidate” since there’s no reason to vote against a candidate who doesn’t exist.

Feel free to complain that the polls are wrong, or the projections are wrong, because your gut feeling tells you otherwise. You can repeat the exercise with numbers from ThreeHundredEight.com or your back-alley pollster or party strategist of choice.

And if you think this whole strategic voting thing is nonsense, you could vote for a party that supports some form of proportional representation or alternative voting method. Unfortunately, none of that is in the PQ’s platform.

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Posted in Opinion, Sports

It’s time to get serious about women’s hockey

It was one of the great highlights of the Sochi Olympics: Down 2-0 with three and a half minutes remaining in the gold-medal game, Canada’s women’s hockey team mounts an improbable comeback, with a goal by Brianne Jenner and another with less than a minute left from Marie-Philip Poulin to send the game to overtime, where Poulin would strike again to make Canada the Olympic champion once again.

It was no Miracle On Ice. The Canada-U.S. final was given before the tournament even started, and Canada had won the gold in the three previous winter Olympics. But in terms of sheer excitement and the holy-crap-did-that-just-happen feeling, it was hard to beat.

Now, with the Olympics over, the male players return to their professional teams in the NHL, KHL or other leagues. The women, meanwhile, return to relative obscurity.

It’s unfortunate that while the NHL gets all the attention, the women’s hockey players that created such a spectacle at the Olympics get so little three years out of every four. The Canadiens sell out the Bell Centre for 41 games a year even though tickets cost $100 to $400 apiece, the concessions are wildly overpriced, the team is often mediocre and the players don’t speak French.

Meanwhile, at the Étienne Desmarteau arena, the Montreal Stars team of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League struggles to fill seats 12 games a year with $10 ticket prices, incredibly cheap food, players that are mostly from here and who always stay after games to give autographs to anyone who wants them.

And they’re also good. How good? Going into this weekend’s games, the Stars are riding a 20-game unbeaten streak in regulation. The only game they lost in 60 minutes was the season opener in Boston. Their record this season is a ridiculous 18-1-2, their record at home is a perfect 10-0-0, and they have more than twice as many goals for as goals against (91 vs. 40). All four of the top points leaders in the league play for this team.

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Posted in My articles, Opinion, Radio, TV

Why is CBC refusing ads from radio stations?

It sounded like the kind of story that even Sun News Network couldn’t make up: The CBC saying no to money from private industry for the sole reason that it wants to compete with it.

A complaint has been filed with the CRTC by Leclerc Communication, the company that bought Quebec City stations CKOI (CFEL-FM) and WKND (CJEC-FM) when Cogeco was told it couldn’t keep them after its purchase of Corus Quebec. The complaint alleges that the stations have been trying to book advertisements on Radio-Canada’s television station in Quebec City to promote the stations, and that Radio-Canada has issued a blanket refusal because it has a policy not to accept ads from competitors.

This would seem to go against a very clear CRTC policy that says that media companies can’t give themselves preference over their competitors in things like this.

Convinced there must have been a misunderstanding, I contacted the CBC and asked the public broadcaster about the allegation.

Radio-Canada actually confirmed it. CBC and Radio-Canada don’t accept ads from commercial radio stations because they compete with CBC services. And they don’t see anything wrong with that.

I explain the positions of Leclerc and Radio-Canada in this story at Cartt.ca. In short, Leclerc wants to advertise on RadCan because it finds that the demographics of RadCan viewers match the listeners it’s trying to target. And Radio-Canada refuses because its advertising policy prevents it from accepting ads for competitors.

The policy is CBC Programming Policy 1.3.11: Unacceptable advertising. It bans tobacco ads, ads for religious viewpoints, “any advertisement that could place the CBC/Radio-Canada at the centre of a controversy or public debate” and “advertisements for services considered competitive with CBC/Radio-Canada services.”

Now, we can argue whether two Quebec City music stations with personalities like Les Justiciers masqués are competitive with Première and Espace Musique. But even if they were, so what? These are television ads, first of all, not radio ads, and if Leclerc wants to spend money this way, why should the public broadcaster say no?

More importantly, can it even do so legally?

The television broadcasting regulations, which Radio-Canada and all other television broadcasters have to abide by, says a licensee may not “give an undue preference to any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue disadvantage.”

A similar provision exists for TV distribution, which is why Videotron can’t give Quebecor-owned channels advantages over their competitors unless it can find a good reason to back it up.

But the CBC doesn’t quite see it that way. It argues that it’s not giving anyone an undue advantage, because it’s not accepting ads from anyone. Everyone’s being treated equally, so there’s no advantage.

Leclerc points out, though, that Radio-Canada’s radio services get plenty of advertisement on its television network. And giving free ads to its own radio stations and refusing ads from all competitors is pretty well exactly what this rule was meant to prevent.

Radio-Canada confirmed that the programming policy is set by the CBC board of directors, not by legislation or CRTC condition of licence. So logic would suggest that CRTC regulations take precedence over internal rules at the CBC.

The CBC rule becomes all the more absurd when you consider it in context. The CBC is facing a major cash crunch, seeing government funding tightened and now losing the rights to NHL games. CBC’s president is talking about “dark clouds on the horizon” because of lower revenue. So why say no to what is practically free money?

It would be one thing if this was a big corporate player wanting to buy airtime on the CBC to encourage people not to listen to Radio One or something. But this is a small independent broadcaster that just wants to expose his radio stations to Radio-Canada’s audience in Quebec City.

The CBC is going to have to come up with some real good justification for shutting the door to competitors. Bell or Shaw or Rogers would never be allowed to get away with something like this, and I don’t see why the CBC should be able to.

And if the CBC doesn’t come up with a good reason to refuse these ads, they should expect to be told to shut up and take Leclerc’s money.

Leclerc’s complaint letter can be read here. The full file is on the CRTC’s website in this .zip file. The CRTC is accepting comments on this complaint until March 6. You can submit comments here. Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.

(So far, only the Journal de Québec has covered this story aside from myself. We’ll see if others pick it up before the deadline.)

Posted in Media, Opinion

Anglos hate Quebec, says SSJB report condemning malicious generalizations of linguistic groups

Examples of francophobia on social media collected and published in a report by the SSJB.

Examples of “francophobia” on social media collected and published in a report by the SSJB.

I really don’t want to write this. I hate wading into language issues, because I know nobody’s mind is ever changed in those debates. And I hate giving attention to something so unworthy of it yet so desperate to get it.

But a manifesto published by a group assembled by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste that condemns “francophobia” by, among other things, anglophone media in Canada, is way off the mark, and predictable sarcastic responses by people like Don Macpherson will do little to enlighten anyone.

The thing is, there is Quebec-bashing out there, and attention does need to be paid to it. But a factually-incorrect manifesto that has the focus and self-criticism of a blog post comment thread will just lead the other solitude to conclude that the problem does not exist.

So let’s delve into the document that purports to give an update on “recent” examples of francophobia (Mordecai Richler is mentioned three times even though he’s been dead for 12 years).

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Posted in Opinion, Public transit

The real problem with Philippe Schnobb and the STM board

STM board of directors: politicians and failed politicians

STM board of directors: politicians and failed politicians

When news came out that Denis Coderre planned to appoint Philippe Schnobb as chair of the STM, there was some controversy. Projet Montréal councillors objected to the fact that Schnobb, a former Radio-Canada journalist, has no experience in public transit and no experience managing a large corporation. The fact that this was a patronage appointment — Schnobb ran for Coderre, losing to Richard Bergeron — just made it worse.

But one thing that hasn’t gotten as much attention (though it was mentioned at the city council meeting) is the nature of Schnobb’s appointment as the transit users’ representative on the STM board.

The STM board has 10 members, of whom six are Montreal city councillors, one represents a demerged municipality within the STM’s territory, and three represent transit users (of them, one represents paratransit users and another, recently added, represents users under age 35).

But these three positions are not elected by the transit users. Instead, they’re appointed by the agglomeration council, with no requirement to consult transit users first. And that opens the door to political patronage.

In 2005, Brenda Paris ran for a city council seat for Gérald Tremblay’s Montreal Island Citizens’ Union party. She lost to Line Hamel of Vision Montreal. She had already been on the STM’s board as the transit users’ representative. She was kept in that position even though she was effectively a politician, eventually becoming the president of the party. In 2009, I said this was an inappropriate use of this post.

In 2009, Michel Labrecque ran for the Plateau borough mayor’s job for Tremblay’s Union Montreal with the understanding that he would continue to head the STM, a job he had for less than a year while a city councillor. He lost to Luc Ferrandez of Projet Montréal. But Tremblay kept him on anyway, making him the transit users’ representative in addition to chair of the STM board. (Paris also lost in this election, but by then she had switched parties.) Again, I wrote that this was inappropriate. I like Labrecque, and believe he actually did a good job as STM chair, but that doesn’t make it less wrong that he was taking a seat meant for someone else.

In 2013, Philippe Schnobb ran for a city council seat for Denis Coderre’s team. He lost to Richard Bergeron. But Coderre did what had been done for Brenda Paris and Michel Labrecque, using the transit users’ representative post as a loophole to get Schnobb on the STM board.

Schnobb’s appointment raises a lot of questions. Was he promised this job as a failsafe if he didn’t get elected? (Returning to journalism is hard after running in a political campaign.) What, other than loyalty to a party, convinced Coderre that Schnobb was a good choice? Is this yet another indication that Coderre has no interest in changing the way politics are run at Montreal city hall?

I don’t object to Schnobb sitting on the STM board. That board has had plenty of people with questionable qualifications and lacklustre interest in public transit. He might even do a great job. But if this position on the board is going to be filled only with failed politicians as patronage appointments, then let’s cut the bullshit and just call it the failed politicians’ representative.

The issue isn’t just a semantic one. As great as Labrecque was as a chairperson, and as patient and inviting as he was during question period at STM board meetings, or with individual users he ran into on the bus or metro, Labrecque never really comported himself as a spokesperson for transit users, or a link between them and the STM. He was the STM. He never made any formal effort to consult with the people he was supposed to be representing, outside of the same internal methods that all STM board members use. If that system was broken, there’s no way he’d ever know. His contact information was never published on the STM’s website — not even an email address. Actual transit users had no way to get in touch with him directly unless they went to a meeting or ran into him on the street.

I also believe that the nature of Labrecque’s appointment, and Paris’s before him, resulted in a lack of transparency on the STM board. In all the meetings I’ve attended, never once has anyone cast a vote opposing a motion. Never once as anyone debated a motion. Never once has a vote even been called. Everything is approved unanimously, without discussion. Everything, without exception, is rubber-stamped.

Take the last STM board meeting. After some announcements and a question period, the formal meeting begins. It lasts exactly five minutes and 45 seconds, the time it takes to read, occasionally explain, and approve 20 motions. That works out to about 17 seconds each.

This is typical of the STM board. And is a symptom of the groupthink that pervades the organization’s administration.

Another symptom is the STM’s formal transparency issues. The complete lack of discussion about motions proposed at board meetings is reflected in the list of motions that’s published sometimes only hours before a meeting, and which provide very little information. After a meeting once, I approached the secretary to ask for a document that was passed at the meeting, a change to a bus route. I was told that I had to file a formal access-to-information request. (At the time, those requests could only be filed by written letter or by fax.)

Let me repeat that: In order to find out what the STM board had just approved before me minutes before, I had to formally file an access to information request. Just to find out what the nature was of a bus route change, I had to write a letter and perhaps wait weeks for a response.

As far as I’m aware, this policy remains. None of the documents approved at the latest meeting are available on the STM website, nor are they available for reading if you go to the meetings in person.

And I can’t ask my transit users’ representative what he just voted to approve, because he’s also the chair of the STM, and politically tied to the government in power.

I honestly believe that if there was someone sitting on the STM’s board that was there to seriously represent transit users, these issues would have been resolved long ago.

Again, I think Labrecque did a good job as the STM’s chair, except on the issue of transparency. (And maybe their awful media relations, but that’s a bit of inside baseball.) And if the agglomeration of Montreal wants to replace one of those city councillor seats with an open seat they can fill with political losers, be my guest.

But giving the title “transit users’ representative” to someone who citizens didn’t even want sitting on city council, and then on top of that making that person the chair of the board despite a glaring lack of qualifications… It’s just wrong.

When Labrecque was appointed, I referred to it as a “giant ‘fuck you’ to users.” I was really tempted to use the same vulgar language here. Philippe Schnobb does not represent me any more than Marvin Rotrand or Richard Bergeron (either of whom by the way would have made much better choices for STM chair). And experience with Schnobb’s predecessors has shown me that he’s unlikely to make an effort to try to care about my interests.

It’s unfortunate that one of Coderre’s first acts as mayor has been to repeat a political manoeuvre of his predecessor, and to put the needs of his political team first, at the expense of the people he’s supposed to be serving.

UPDATE: The STM’s executive puts out a statement praising Labrecque and the accomplishments the corporation has made over his tenure.

Meanwhile, La Presse has an interview with Labrecque, and Radio-Canada talks to Schnobb, who says he’s willing to publish his personal email address to increase communication with transit users.

Posted in Montreal, Opinion

They’re all good and bad, but Montrealers have choices for mayor

It’s a day before Voting Day, and I still don’t know who to vote for.

I’ve watched the debates, I’ve seen the posters, I know the main talking points of each of the parties’ platforms, but nothing has come out and grabbed me yet. It’s not so much because I think all the choices are bad. It’s that I like each of the four main candidates for mayor, for different reasons, and I’m also keenly aware of their faults.

Denis Coderre

There’s Denis Coderre, the front-runner (though we haven’t seen a poll in two weeks, so who knows, really). He’s a veteran politician who has been criticized for being more about shaking hands than building policy, and for adopting so many former Union Montreal councillors that he’s seen as its de facto successor.

Those are valid concerns. But Coderre hasn’t given any reason to doubt his personal integrity (then again, neither did Gérald Tremblay). Coderre’s point about avoiding guilt by association is a valid one. He was in the Liberal party, but had no connection to the sponsorship scandal. And while he has many people from Union Montreal on his team, it’s because those people are well respected by their local constituents, and I suspect most of them will be re-elected.

I like Coderre. It’s hard to fake the kind of sincerity he has when he meets people. Yes, he’s a politician, but he doesn’t think that alone should condemn him.

On the flip side, there’s his ego. Even while he was just a Liberal MP, he seemed to have an addiction to the media. He’d rarely turn down an interview or media appearance, and it always seemed more about wanting to see his face on TV than wanting to put forth an idea. His party is literally just his name, as if “Denis Coderre” is the only thing it stands for.

I don’t know if his populist, “proche des gens” attitude is fake. I suspect he really believes it, either way.

But my big question is about loyalty. If he finds out about something embarrassing in his administration (whether it’s illegal or not), will he come right out and expose it, or will he do like almost any other politician, and weigh his options first?

In short, where does Coderre’s loyalty lie: In the city, or in his party and his political career? The party carries his name, so for better or for worse he’s married to it.

Marcel Côté

There’s Marcel Côté, the administrator whose poor on-stage presence and ties with Vision Montreal (and Louise Harel in particular) have left him in last place in the latest poll (though that poll is more than two weeks old).

Côté should be the ideal candidate. He’s not a politician. He’s an administrator. He’s not the leader of a party, he’s the leader of a coalition made up of Vision Montreal and some Union Montreal councillors like Marvin Rotrand and Bernard Blanchet and even some former Projet Montréal councillors like Carl Boileau and Piper Huggins. His party has united former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Louise Harel with former Liberal MNA Russell Copeman.

If Montrealers are interested in someone who cares more about getting things working again than being in the political spotlight, Côté will be our next mayor.

But here’s the secret that nobody wants to admit: Style is, in fact, more important than substance to voters. Côté has failed miserably to get his message across. And that’s why he’s doing so poorly, and why his party members are trying to campaign around him now.

And style is important. A mayor isn’t just an administrator. He’s not a guy who sits at a desk all day making decisions. A mayor is a leader, who has to rally the troops, whether it’s the city council, or municipal employees, or the population at large, to make things work. Someone who has to convince other levels of government to go along with ideas. If Côté can’t communicate with us effectively during an election campaign, how can we believe he’ll communicate with anyone well when he’s in office?

I’d love for Côté to be part of the next city administration, in a senior management position. But as mayor, I’m left with the impression that he’d be a lame duck before he even took the oath of office.

Richard Bergeron

There’s Richard Bergeron, the guy who’s perceived as — and let’s not sugar-coat this — the crazy 9/11-truther leader of the party that hates cars and is obsessed with wasting our money on a tramway.

If there’s any election that Projet Montréal should have a chance at actually winning, it’s this one. The alternatives are unappealing, and Bergeron is the only candidate for mayor with actual city council experience (with the advantage that he’s not tainted by the corruption scandal). It’s the only party that hasn’t had a candidate withdraw or be forced out due to a scandal. The party is currently running two boroughs, and despite complaints about reversing the flow of one-way streets or installing parking meters, they actually haven’t been doing that bad a job.

But Projet’s popularity has an upper limit. There are those in the city who are attached to their cars, want highways to be bigger, not smaller, and want downtown turned into a giant parking lot. These people are never going to vote for Projet. And there are those that are scared of what an organization based on ideology will do if handed the keys to the city.

Projet Montréal is the only party with a serious, detailed platform, while the other parties are criticized for having plans that are either obvious or vague. If actual promises were what mattered, the party would be coasting to victory.

But they’re not. Because specific promises don’t make for good politics. People can dislike specific promises. They can’t dislike general, vague ones like making government more transparent or saving money by ending corruption.

Take the tramway. Many people have oversimplified Projet’s platform as being obsessed with this project, that has been highly criticized. It’s more expensive and less flexible than buses, and it’s slower than the metro. My main problem with it, and with a similar project proposed by the Tremblay administration, is inflexibility. Both projects included a route going through Old Montreal, from Peel to Berri, along the route of the 715 bus. But when that bus was put into service (as the 515), it turned out to be way less popular than expected. The buses went around empty, and service was eventually reduced and the route changed. That’s much easier to do with a bus line than with a tramway.

On the flip side, no one can argue that service along roads like Côte des Neiges and Parc Ave. would be unpopular. And while everyone criticizes the tramway, nobody running for office seems to be terribly opposed to the much more expensive metro extension project whose usefulness is far from proven.

Projet could also point to its administration of the Plateau borough as reasons to vote it into office. After the 2009 election, it became clear that this borough would be a testing ground for the party’s ideas, and that people across the city would judge them based on their performance here.

The borough has changed. One-way streets have been reversed as a traffic-calming measure, annoying drivers and (law-abiding) cyclists alike. Areas have been greened, parks have been improved, more bike lanes have been painted, the budget has been brought under control, and the administration is more transparent than its neighbours. Some decisions have hardly been unanimous, but you can’t fault them for lack of creativity.

But Projet’s record in the Plateau isn’t all good. Businesses have complained that measures put forth by the administration have hurt them. Mayor Luc Ferrandez has been criticized as being stubborn, unwilling to consult with people before making a major decision that affects them.

The problem with a party based on ideology is that ideologies don’t change.

Ferrandez, of course, disagrees, as does his party. And I think his critics have exaggerated their positions. But perception is what gets to voters. And the perception is that Projet Montréal is on the radical left, when there are plenty of other alternatives that are more moderate left.

Voters might want to give Projet Montréal another mandate in the Plateau and/or other boroughs before trusting the party with the big chair at city hall.

Mélanie Joly

There’s Mélanie Joly. She’s new, she’s hip, she’s different. She has no experience in politics and she thinks that’s great.

Joly’s candidacy was dismissed at first as non-serious. She wasn’t invited to the first English debate (which preceded the first poll) because it was thought she wouldn’t have a chance. Then the polls showed her support rising rapidly, and everyone started to take notice.

Joly wouldn’t be the first candidate to jump into politics as a fresh face and go right to the top. She’s been compared to Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose political career also began with a mayoral campaign that relied a lot on social media, or Régis Labeaume, who became Quebec City mayor in 2007 on a wave of popularity.

But other than being pretty and new, what is Joly? Her platform is short on many details, though it includes some ideas like a bus rapid transit network, open data and amnesty for construction companies that clean up and pay back. Would she even know what to do in office when she gets there?

And there’s her team. (Can you name five of its members? Three? Even one?) When the Bibiane Bovet scandal became all she could talk about, she finally admitted that Bovet’s candidacy was last-minute and she didn’t have time to vet her properly about her bizarre economic views. This hardly inspires confidence, and points toward Joly being more of a politics-as-usual person than a hopey-changey candidate.

But as embarrassing as the Bovet situation was for Joly, this is hardly the first time a party with a sudden surge in popularity has been left with untested candidates. Regime change has been rife with examples, from the Progressive Conservatives in 1984 to the Reformers and Bloc in 1993 to Ruth Ellen Brosseau and the Quebec NDP MPs in 2011. (And Brosseau hasn’t been nearly the kind of embarrassment in office as some had suspected.)

The surge in popularity for Joly (I’ve heard too many anecdotal stories about surprisingly large support for her to believe it’s more than a coincidence) should be both a message that Montrealers want change from the politics of old, and a warning that image is more important than substance in local politics. Joly is basically a “none-of-the-above” candidate, and many would rather take a gamble on a blank slate that could be filled with anything than with parties whose plans are easy to understand.

Michel Brûlé and the independents

Michel Brûlé’s campaign has gotten some coverage, but he isn’t being treated seriously, and with good reason. His “100% français” program based on hatred of anglophones (he refuses to even give interviews in English) is a joke.

The remaining candidates are all independents, and we know nothing about them. That’s unfortunate. I would have liked to see more attention given to each of them, even if it was only a story or two in each media. Most are running on a platform focused on corruption, and while I don’t doubt their sincerity, I can’t imagine administrations so weak could ever take on organized or even disorganized white-collar crime.

Where does my X go?

Having written all that, I still don’t know where my vote for mayor is going to go. I may be making my final decision while standing at the ballot box, pencil in hand. But I know I’ll be voting.

And you should too. For all the criticism against these candidates for mayor, I wouldn’t pack up and leave if any of them won. I could live with an administration by any of them. (And with all the borough-level parties running, it’s unlikely any of them will have a majority on council anyway.)

The only thing that’s clear is that there are choices, and that nothing is predetermined. If you want a strong populist leader who will shake your hand and sit in back rooms with politicians in Quebec and Ottawa, vote for Coderre. If you want an administrator who’s going to shake up the civil service and run it like a business, vote for Côté. If you want a grand vision, a transportation revolution and a leader who isn’t afraid to make decisions that are unpopular that he believes are right, vote for Bergeron. If you want someone young who will use high-tech ideas to try to make Montreal cool, vote for Joly. And if you want to drive anglos into the St. Lawrence, vote for Brûlé.

But vote. I know it’s cliché, but this is your chance to make a difference, and you can’t complain if you sit at home and abdicate that chance.

Polls are open from 10am to 8pm Sunday.

Posted in Opinion, Radio

What happened to TTP Media?

From left: Paul Tietolman, Nicolas Tétrault and Rajiv Pancholy, partners in 7954689 Canada Inc., aka Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media

From left: Paul Tietolman, Nicolas Tétrault and Rajiv Pancholy, partners in 7954689 Canada Inc., aka Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media

Over the past few months, one of the questions I’ve been asked a lot is what is going on with the group known as TTP Media. The group, composed of businessmen Paul Tietolman, Nicolas Tétrault and Rajiv Pancholy, has licences for three AM radio stations in Montreal, none of which has launched yet. And none of them has said anything publicly for months.

Some of those inquiries have come from people looking for jobs at these new stations, which have promised to invest heavily in local programming and local news. Others have come from radio watchers excited about having something else to listen to. And some are from people who have a beef with CJAD and want to see competition as soon as possible.

Since May, I have been trying to get answers from all three of them. And it has been proving strangely difficult. Tietolman, who had previously been very talkative about the new station, without giving away any secrets, clammed up, asking me to speak with Pancholy, who is the managing partner.

Pancholy told me he didn’t have anything to say at the moment, but that I could expect an announcement in the next four to six weeks that would answer most of my questions.

That was May 23. Despite repeated phone calls, I haven’t spoken to Pancholy since. (That’s 20 weeks ago, in case you’re counting.)

Tétrault, for his part, has at least been getting back to me. “Our group is very much alive and hard at work,” he wrote me in an email on Aug. 20. “However, we do not want to announce anything till we are fully ready. I hope you understand. We will contact you when the time comes.”

On Oct. 3, in response to another request for information as the deadline to launch the first of those three stations approaches, Tétrault said “we do not like to talk about our plans” but that he’d make an exception to tell me this:

In the current business environment, it makes business sense to launch multiple radio stations as close to each other as possible. Consequently, we had requested that our implementation deadline be extended. The CRTC has recently responded favorably to our request.

We do not have any other comments at the moment.

Tietolman had told me something similar the last time I saw him in person, during the Bell/Astral CRTC merger hearings in May. The group wants to launch its English and French news-talk stations at the same time. (The three have gone back and forth on this plan a bit, first saying they would launch simultaneously, then saying they wouldn’t have to do that, and now saying they want to do that again.)

News of this extension will no doubt fuel more rumours out there about why this group has disappeared from the public radar.

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Posted in Montreal, Opinion, Public transit

Numbers — not politics — is why the metro should extend toward the east first

When the PQ government made a big-splash announcement that the blue line of Montreal’s metro would be extended toward the east, plenty of anglophones took the opportunity to once again complain that there’s no extension toward the west.

To them, the reason was simple: politics. The PQ is more interested in francophone voters in St-Léonard than anglophones in the West Island, they argue, and so the West Island will never get improved transit service as long as the PQ is in power.

The problem is that the logic doesn’t hold up.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of politics involved in high-cost consumer-oriented projects like this. And there’s plenty of politics involved in this particular announcement. But let’s set a few things straight before we come to incorrect conclusions:

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Posted in Media, Navel-gazing, Opinion

More departures at The Gazette, but it still matters

Bernard Perusse's empty desk in the Gazette office

Bernard Perusse’s empty desk in the Gazette office

There’s been a bit of buzz in the media-navel-gazing sphere this week about the latest set of buyouts at The Gazette. J-Source had a piece on it. A bunch of others tweeted about it or retweeted my list of names. Some expressed disappointment that some big names were leaving. Others saw it as part of some larger trend.

And then there were the haters. Those who never hesitate to say The Gazette is a piece of garbage, that print media is solely responsible for its own fate, and that this is just another example of a money-grubbing fat cat gleefully cutting important jobs so they can get rich by publishing cat videos or something. Those who say The Gazette isn’t worth anything and they’re happy to get their news from Google, the radio, Metro or even blogs and Twitter.

As someone who works there, who goes through dozens of stories a week crafted by its remaining journalists, those comments are painful to read. They’re insulting to those who still come into the office and write, or take photos, or edit stories or design pages or do all sorts of other jobs there, many working very hard every shift because they believe in producing a quality product.

It’s funny because, in the office, on the copy desk when most managers have gone home for the night, or at a bar during (now less frequent) office parties or post-shift drinks, there’s no hesitation to criticize, sometimes sharply, the decisions that have been made that we disagree with, those we feel unnecessarily harm the future of the paper. I’ve been in many conversations with coworkers that look back on the old days with fondness, and on the present with frustration that the quality that was once there has been chiselled away.

Sometimes I’ve sat back and thought to myself whether it was still worth it, whether the paper had cut so far that it has lost that critical mass that makes it worth the paper it’s printed on.

And then I see an investigative report by Linda Gyulai, or a heartbreaking medical story by Charlie Fidelman, or a story about Quebec’s culture by Brendan Kelly that wouldn’t get noticed elsewhere by anglophone media, or another scoop or feature about the Alouettes from Herb Zurkowsky, or some fascinating and useful information about taxes and business dug up and elegantly explained by Paul Delean. Or I see the dozens of pages of coverage that the paper gave to the Lac-Mégantic disaster, which involved practically setting up a bureau there overnight and keeping it staffed every day for weeks. And I remember that despite everything, despite how frustrating it is to see yet another round of cuts, that this newsroom I work for still produces stuff that matters.

It might not be as thorough as papers with bigger budgets like La Presse, the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star, but there are so many stories it publishes on a weekly basis that would never see the light of day if it wasn’t for this paper.

The truth is that while at last report The Gazette makes money, its parent company is still struggling, as is the entire print industry. I suppose you could argue that almost every single print publication in North America has made the exact same mistakes, or that they have copied the worst mistakes off each other, but I think the simple fact that technology has revolutionized media is the biggest cause of the industry’s crisis. Everyone is trying their hardest to adapt, but adapting can be a very painful process, and one filled with trial and error.

And while this latest round of cuts might seem bad, it’s small compared to the much larger purge that happened a year ago, which saw many copy editors, picture editors, support staff and other less high-profile positions be eliminated. And while there have been many waves of cuts, management at The Gazette have consistently done their best to protect the jobs that really matter, the core of journalists who go out and find stories every day.

So by all means, criticize, but when you suggest that The Gazette is worthless, you’re saying that to the dozens of writers, photographers, editors, designers, managers and support staff who work there and are trying their best to put out something worth reading. Including me.

Six more off into the sunset

Anyway, back to the news: Six people, including two managers, are leaving The Gazette this week. They’re all leaving voluntarily, and while it’s nobody’s business but theirs whether they’re taking buyouts, it’s pretty clear that that’s what’s going on, at least for the non-managers.

They are:

Raymond Brassard, Executive Editor: Brassard, who was the managing editor under Andrew Phillips when I started at The Gazette, has been the most senior manager in the newsroom since Phillips left (even though Alan Allnutt took over the title of editor in chief). Soft spoken with a thick Boston accent, Brassard was enough levels of management above me that I couldn’t tell you much about his day-to-day activities, except through all the calls from irate readers that were routed to his office. Brassard, like most managers, had the uncomfortable position of sitting between a newsroom they tried their best to protect and the upper management at Canwest and Postmedia that wanted things to be as lean as possible. He said earlier this summer that, having just turned 65, he would be retiring. He stayed to fill the gap until Lucinda Chodan, our new editor in chief, took her post, replacing Alan Allnutt who will be managing Postmedia’s western papers. A note to readers explains the two moves.

Dave Bist, Senior Editor: Known as the “night editor” on the desk, Bist’s job for the entire time I’ve worked at The Gazette was to manage the paper during the evening, until it was actually typeset. A decade ago, that meant looking over pages and handling any serious decisions. As the desk got smaller, the job meant putting together the front page, including the little things like the index and quote of the day. Bist started in August 1966, he covered things like the John and Yoko bed-in, and otherwise distinguished himself enough to win a Juno Award (!) and get a Wikipedia page. His last night on the job was Thursday. and he wrote on Facebook that he’s been “incredibly lucky” to have the career that he’s had. Though technically a manager, Bist was a strong advocate for the newsroom staff, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone more deserving of respect from his peers.

Henry Aubin, regional affairs columnist: Aubin has been at The Gazette for 40 years, he recounts in his final column. His opinion columns about municipal affairs have always been thought-provoking, even when I thoroughly disagreed with him. While some columnists fill their columns with “I think that” and knee-jerk reactions to already-reported news events, Aubin’s best columns would often include things like charts, and a good deal of original research. He would take contrarian opinions, or explain how conventional wisdom is actually wrong. He was a bit stubborn about some things, but it was hard to argue with his facts. Aubin says in his column that, after a break, he’ll continue writing a column on a weekly freelance basis for The Gazette.

Janet Bagnall, education reporter: Probably better known for her left-leaning columns, particularly about women’s issues, when she was in the opinion department, Bagnall moved to the city desk to take up education reporting in the past year. Her voice on the editorial board, which she’d been on since 1997, gave it a much-needed perspective. Though editorials are unsigned, many were written by her when she was there, earning her a National Newspaper Award nomination.

Bernard Perusse, music columnist: Perusse’s goodbye column appears in Saturday’s Gazette, explaining that while he’s retiring at 59, he’s not ready for the old folks’ home yet. Perusse took over the music columnist gig after T’Cha Dunlevy moved to film reviewing. But he had been writing about music ever since The Gazette disbanded its Gazette Probe consumer rights column, a decision I thought was unfortunate even though it happened before my time. He suggested that he will continue to write freelance.

Stephanie Myles, editor: At least one person asked me if the paper’s former Expos beat writer and tennis expert had disappeared off the face of the Earth. No, she still works full-time there. A year ago she left the tennis beat and put an end to her blog (which was consistently the paper’s most popular by far, mainly because of the large amount of work she put into it), and moved to the copy desk to compensate for the drastic staff reduction. She has been posting stories working mainly weeknights since then. She’s still pretty young, but she hasn’t mentioned jumping into another career yet.

I can’t pretend these cuts won’t hurt, badly. These are some quality people leaving us. But we’ll move on, try our best to adapt by having fewer people do more work, or cutting out work that is not as essential. It’s what we always do. Because that’s the only thing we can do.

Posted in Media, Opinion

Sophie Durocher and the “entente secrète” obsession

Sophie Durocher's 2011 column found to have libelled Gesca, was online until after the decision last week.

Sophie Durocher’s 2011 column found to have libelled Gesca, was online until after the decision last week.

When it pulled out of the Quebec Press Council, Quebecor’s Journal de Montréal made it clear that it would let only two forces judge it on its content: the free market power of its readership, and the legal power of the courts.

The latter struck against the paper last week when it issued a decision ordering owner Sun Media, its Canoe Inc. division and columnist Sophie Durocher to pay $10,000 to Gesca over a column she wrote that was defamatory toward the rival newspaper publisher.

The dispute was over a column, published in the Journal de Montréal on June 17, 2011, that alleged that during the previous federal election campaign, Radio-Canada had tried to negotiate for Gesca’s Cyberpresse.ca to have free online streaming rights to the leaders’ debate.

Actually, Quebecor disputes that interpretation, so I’ll just have you read her in her own words (bolding is mine):

Lors des dernières élections fédérales, avant le débat des chefs, le consortium des radiodiffuseurs (CBC et Radio-Canada, CTV, Global, TVA) s’est réuni à plusieurs reprises. En effet, de nombreux médias veulent avoir accès à la diffusion en direct du débat et il fallait établir une grille tarifaire pour leur vendre ces images.

Des représentants de chaque diffuseur discutaient des demandes des radios, des journaux ou des sites Internet qui voulaient avoir accès à la transmission en direct du débat.

Or, j’ai appris qu’un des représentants de Radio-Canada a demandé si la transmission du débat pouvait être DONNÉE à Cyberpresse, le site Internet des journaux de Gesca!

Autrement dit, le représentant de Radio-Canada négociait au profit de Gesca, comme on le ferait pour aider un ami. Comme s’il était leur porte-parole auprès des autres diffuseurs.

As it turns out, this wasn’t true, the judge ruled. La Presse vice-president of news Eric Trottier denied it, the leader of the consortium, Troy Reeb of Global News, denied it, and former general manager of news for Radio-Canada, Alain Saulnier, denied it. Pierre Tourangeau, who was Radio-Canada’s other representative on the consortium board, also denied it. All four testified as such in front of the judge: Nothing like this happened. Had she spoken with all of them, at least one probably would have told her that. (She tried to contact both Saulnier and Tourangeau, but couldn’t get comments before publication.) Instead she went with information she got from one or more anonymous sources and rushed it to publication.

There was an actual source who testified to corroborate Durocher’s story. Marc Gilbert, who was a member on the consortium board representing … oh, I’ll let you guess which TV network he was representing. He said he heard during a conference call, possibly during an informal discussion, someone from Radio-Canada (he couldn’t say who) asking about giving broadcast rights to Gesca. Though he said it wasn’t a negotiation, it wasn’t shot down by CTV, TVA or Global but rather someone from CBC, and he said he wasn’t Durocher’s source.

Getting burned by sources happens. It’s happened to me a few times, usually because the source is misinformed and presents information as being more reliable than it is. It’s hard to keep a really juicy piece of information under your hat until you verify it, especially if it’s one of those things people don’t want to talk about publicly, or if you can’t reach the person who can confirm it. It’s embarrassing to be caught on it, but you apologize profusely, correct the misinformation and try to reassure people you won’t do it again.

But that’s not what Sophie Durocher did. Instead, she stood her ground, refused to retract or correct the article (it remained online for two years without correction), and when the case finally got to court she and Quebecor presented some ridiculous defences. Among them:

  • She never said anything about giving broadcast rights away for free (apparently redefining what the verb “donner” means).
  • Gesca has no standing to sue because the article isn’t about it (even though the word “Gesca” appears in the column eight times).
  • The court is unfamiliar with rules of journalistic practice and so can’t determine if she followed them
  • Sophie Durocher is not a journalist, but a columnist, and so has the right to express her views, even if they’re false

The judge saw through all of these arguments, and ordered damages of $10,000. Gesca had asked for $75,000, but without any evidence of actual harm done to Gesca’s reputation, it’s getting a fraction of that. The judge also ordered a public apology be issued.

It’s unsurprising to learn that Quebecor plans to appeal. It said as much in a series of tweets, and in a letter from the editor published in the Journal de Montréal on Tuesday.

Malice

In cases such as these, motive plays a big part. The court heard that Durocher was essentially responding to an article that had appeared in La Presse the previous day from Marc Cassivi, criticizing Durocher specifically for harping on a “secret agreement” between Gesca and Radio-Canada. She worked on her column until the wee hours of the morning, rushing to get it done using information she had been given weeks before but had only that day tried to confirm. The judge found that she had no real reason to rush this to publication and could have waited to confirm the information before publishing.

In the end, the judge found that there was malice, but not bad faith, in Durocher’s actions. She believed what she was reporting (sorry, opining, because she’s not a journalist) was true, but she was negligent in her duties due to an emotional reaction to Cassivi’s column that robbed her of her objectivity.

Her loss of objectivity didn’t start with Cassivi’s column. It has unfortunately been present for a long time, as it has with many of her colleagues at Sun Media.

The “entente secrète” is a perfect demonstration of this. For one thing, it wasn’t a secret. It was announced in a press release in 2001 (in both languages). And the agreement is no longer valid, having ended without renewal in 2003. And the agreement primarily concerns non-journalistic resources.

Durocher and others have a point about the informal relationship between these two organizations, but choose to attribute it to some conspiracy instead of investigating the real causes.

I spoke to people at La Presse and Radio-Canada after Durocher’s 2010 “Ici Radio-Gesca” column, in which she complains that Radio-Canada too often has La Presse journalists and columnists as guests and freelancers on its shows. The people I talked to explained the situation with these points:

  • Durocher is exaggerating. The shows she cites regularly invite journalists from Le Devoir and other media
  • La Presse has more journalists than other media, particularly those who specialize in specific beats
  • Quebecor prevents many of its personalities from appearing as guests on Radio-Canada shows, or those personalities simply refuse to appear because they work for TVA or Quebecor
  • There is a tendency, mostly out of laziness, to use La Presse journalists (and journalists from other media) as guests, and Radio-Canada should be doing more to find people with first-hand stories

But Durocher continues to insist on the “entente secrète”, to the point where Quebecor tried to enter agreements between Gesca and Radio-Canada into evidence, only to have the judge rule that they were irrelevant to the case.

I hope that Durocher, the Journal de Montréal’s media columnist, steps back and takes this as a sign that she needs to take a more dispassionate approach to her paper’s primary competitors. We need people to keep Gesca and Radio-Canada on their toes, and to criticize them when they do wrong. But as it is what she writes can’t be trusted because it so transparently comes from a place of bitter resentment.

Whether she’s a journalist or columnist, this isn’t helpful for anyone.

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Posted in Opinion, TV

CRTC’s compromise on Sun News is a positive step forward

Sun News Network lives. And you won’t be forced to pay for it through a mandatory tax.

On Thursday, the CRTC issued a series of decisions about applications for mandatory distribution on basic cable and satellite TV services. Most of the new applications were denied, including that of Sun News Network, which argued it should be placed on basic cable across the country so it can get the same regulatory boost that its competitors CBC News Network and CTV News Channel once enjoyed themselves. (They don’t anymore, though CBC News Network is mandatory in French-language markets and both are on most large providers’ basic packages.)

The reason was simple: Sun News is not exceptional, and hence does not qualify for an exception. Though it is certainly different from the other Canadian all-news channels, it is not significantly more Canadian nor does it serve a goal of the Broadcasting Act that the other services don’t.

It said it couldn’t continue to operate at seven-figure losses without the distribution order. But with the announcement of the new proceeding, it says it will keep operating.

This denial was predictable. It was only in 2009 that the CRTC officially opened the genre of mainstream news channels to direct competition, allowing all of them to be treated equally and allowing the free market to dictate carriage and pricing. To then turn around four years later and start re-regulating this genre makes no sense.

But Sun News had some important and valid points to make in its favour. It argued it was being treated unfairly by competing distributors (notably Bell, which owns CTV News Channel). It said it couldn’t come to deals with certain distributors, and that as a channel that provides 100% Canadian content and more than 90 hours a week of original programming, it should be treated better than channels that air reruns of Lois & Clark.

So the CRTC did what it usually does with controversial issues: It struck a compromise. No mandatory carriage, but it is proposing that all digital television distributors be required to offer all Canadian news channels to their subscribers, that they be required to group Canadian news channels together on their channel lineups, and that they be required to package Canadian news channels together.

In its call for comments on the proposal, it notes that, though older news channels don’t enjoy the kinds of regulatory perks they used to, their incumbency gives them an advantage:

Due to incumbency, non-Canadian services are distributed for the most part in packages that enjoy high penetration and therefore significant access to potential viewership by Canadians. These services have also secured more lucrative wholesale fees when compared to their Canadian counterparts. On average, non-Canadian news services receive a wholesale fee of $0.73 per subscriber per month, whereas English- and French-language Canadian news services receive on average a wholesale fee of $0.36 per subscriber per month.

Specifically, the proposed rules are as follows:

  • Distributors must make all licensed Canadian Category C national news channels available to subscribers. (Currently the only channels licensed under this category are CBCNN, RDI, CTVNC, LCN and Sun News.)
  • Distributors must place new and existing national news channels “in close proximity to one another (so as to create news neighbourhoods).”
  • Distributors must make Canadian national news channels available in a package and on a stand-alone basis, and require the inclusion of Canadian news services in packages that offer non-Canadian news services.
  • Distributors must make Canadian national news channels available in “the best available package consistent with their genre and programming” unless the channel agrees otherwise.
  • Distributors should file carriage agreements for Canadian national news channels and non-Canadian news channels with the CRTC within five days.
  • When a carriage agreement with a Canadian national news channel has not been renewed within 120 days of expiring (or agreed to within 120 days of launch for new channels), the agreement should go to the CRTC for dispute resolution unless the news channel no longer wants to be carried.
  • Wholesale rates for Canadian national news channels should be “based on fair market value”, considering previous rates, penetration rates, volume discounts, packaging, rates paid by unaffiliated distributors, rates paid for “services of similar value to consumers”, interest in the channel, and retail rates for packages or the channel by itself.

Note that these rules would apply to national news channels under Category C, not to regional news channels like CP24, or to news-like Category B channels like BNN or Argent.

As it stands now, Sun News is carried by most major television providers in Canada, including Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Videotron, Cogeco, Eastlink and Sasktel. The largest holdouts are Telus Optik TV and Manitoba’s MTS.

But getting an order requiring distribution would give Sun News a leg up on negotiations. It would no longer have to beg for a spot on the dial. And submitting the channels to automatic dispute resolution would give distributors (and Sun) additional incentive to come to a deal.

The packaging requirement would give Sun News its biggest boost, requiring distributors to distribute channels like Sun News in their most popular news packages, and possibly force people to subscribe to it if they want non-Canadian channels like CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.

The exact details of how that would work will probably be worked out through this process.

Sun News made a big deal about channel placement, and this proposal hopes to address that, but as I’ve written previously, that’s not such a huge issue for most distributors, which already place Sun News with other news channels. The exceptions are Shaw Cable and Rogers Cable (admittedly the most popular cable systems), which had Sun News as an outlier among Canadian news channels. The Rogers case was often cited because it put its own regional news channel CityNews on Channel 15 in SD. (That channel has since been shut down.)

One thing this won’t do, though, is put Sun News on analog cable, which is still used by about 20% of Canadian television subscribers. The CRTC says it made it very clear that it will not add new services to analog cable, and it won’t make an exception here. So despite Sun’s arguments that its competitors are on analog cable and its viewership skews toward older Canadians who are more likely to have analog cable, it won’t have access to them unless (or, likely, until) they upgrade to digital.

Expect this proposal to meet opposition, both from Sun News opponents and from distributors who oppose more rules about how they should package and number channels.

But though I have issues with forcing Sun News onto subscribers who might want CNN or MSNBC (assuming this is a result of this process), the proposal strikes a balance between the desire to encourage new Canadian news channels and the desire for consumer choice.

Remember that this policy would apply to all Canadian national news channels. If Global decided to launch one or expand its BC1 service nationally, or if a channel like BNN decided to convert to this category, it would have the same obligations and benefits.

Open to comments, but only on details

The CRTC is accepting comments on this proposal, and has not set it in stone yet. It has not called a hearing to discuss it, and generally proposed policies presented in this way have already been decided on and will be approved. It will be up to interveners (in this case, the cable and satellite distributors or other broadcasters) to bring up any issues the CRTC may not have considered and to recommend minor changes to the policy, but the commission is unlikely to be swayed to abandon it entirely.

The CRTC is accepting comments until 8pm ET Sept. 9, and those that file comments may reply to others’ comments by Sept. 24. After that, the commission will consider a decision, and the new rules could take effect within 90 days of a decision on a new policy. “The Commission intends to act swiftly on this matter,” it says.

Comments can be filed by clicking here. Note that all information provided, including contact information, is placed on the public record.

More coverage of Sun News decision:

Posted in Opinion, Public transit

Don’t blame STM employees for doing their jobs

STM bus En Transit

When I was younger, considering my options for a future career, I thought of being a bus driver. I enjoy public transit, and thought it would be fun to spend the day driving such a big vehicle around town, meeting a bunch of people, turning that giant horizontal wheel.

And having people spit in my face.

I didn’t imagine that last part, and thankfully it doesn’t happen too often, but there seems to be this mentality in this city that bus drivers and other employees of our mass transit system are scum of the earth, seen with disdain by the blowhards that seem to make themselves heard the loudest in our media (social or traditional).

For left-wing activists, there’s the expression “ACAB”, which stands for “all cops are bastards”. For the soccer moms and dads out there, it seems like “all bus drivers are bastards” is the common refrain.

It’s not just that this is a generalization based on an exaggeration, but the actions it’s based on are often simply the drivers doing exactly what they’re supposed to.

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Posted in Media, Opinion

In (partial) defence of Edward Burkhardt

Like most news junkies, I’ve been transfixed by the walking PR nightmare that is Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway and the public face of the company many blame for causing the deaths of up to 50 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

On Wednesday, four days after the disaster, Burkhardt finally arrived in the small town, and hounded by journalists, heckled by residents and maybe even snubbed by the mayor, he tried his best to explain himself. He spent almost 45 minutes straight answering journalists’ questions in a series of unplanned scrums. He finally stopped when the Sûreté du Québec pulled him away to meet with their investigators.

He tried to explain that his company had been present since the beginning, that he thought he was more useful coordinating efforts from his office in Chicago than walking around Lac-Mégantic on a cellphone. He tried to explain that he wasn’t trying to blame the Nantes fire department for the disaster by pointing out its shutdown of the locomotive that led to air brakes failing. He tried to explain that his company was taking responsibility for the disaster, that it appears hand brakes on the train were not properly set, and that he apologizes unreservedly to the population for what happened. And he tried to explain that there’s a lot of stuff he still doesn’t know.

But it all fell on deaf ears. Nobody was satisfied by his explanations. If anything, people got angrier.

Future textbook case

I’m glad I’m not a shareholder in Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway. (Well, actually, I kind of am. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec has a stake in it.) Not only has the disaster guaranteed a huge financial burden on the struggling company, and split its network in two so it can barely operate anymore, but Burkhardt’s actions since then have dug it even further. As unsatisfying as his assumption of responsibility was to the victims, it opened his company up to a huge legal liability. It doesn’t matter whether it was a mechanical problem with the trains, or the fault of the engineer who set the brakes, or the fault of the employee the train was left with after the fire was put out in Nantes. Responsibility rests with the company either way, and it will probably pay every last cent of its worth in damages and go out of business.

Burkhardt was asked by a journalist how much he is personally worth. He said he’s not a rich man, and said matter-of-factly that he’s worth a lot less than he was before the disaster. It was a heartless statement by a man with no apparent sense of what a proper emotional response is to events like this. But it was true. It’s his company, and he owns most of it. His ownership stake in it is probably about worthless now. When he said he worries about bankruptcy, it was just as heartless, but just as true.

I seriously wonder if Burkhardt has some sort of personality disorder. He seems completely incapable of showing empathy or emotion. It makes his statements seem insincere. And his body language is atrocious. He almost looks like he’s smirking when he’s talking about how devastated he is.

Burkhardt will soon be a chapter in what companies should not do from a public relations standpoint. He didn’t rush to the scene to get a photo op hugging victims. He was a unilingual anglophone trying to communicate with a French-language population, and even his company’s written statements at first were only in English. He doesn’t have a team of spin doctors working behind the scenes trying to implement public image damage control. He doesn’t have a team of lawyers making sure he doesn’t say anything that can be used against the company later. He’s just a guy who owns a small railway company muddling through a disaster that has been covered around the world.

Is being honest evil?

I won’t say that he hasn’t made mistakes. He’s made some big ones, not including the company policies that may have contributed to the disaster itself. He failed to communicate well with the population. He was too quick to speculate as to causes and blame others early on. He seems entirely disorganized. And he should have been on the scene earlier. Maybe not on the first day, if there were urgent matters to coordinate from his office. But by Sunday or Monday he should have been there, not Wednesday.

And there are some honest, useful aspects of public relations that his company has also failed at. It failed to communicate with the population in their language. It failed to properly explain what it is doing in response to this disaster. And Burkhardt’s choice of words has led to the impression that he’s constantly contradicting himself at a time when confusion is about the last thing you want.

But what gets me are those who lash out at him for being honest, for laying it out on the line. Here’s a Canadian Press story quoting a PR specialist saying Burkhardt shouldn’t have answered journalists’ questions for 45 minutes because doing so meant he “would be exposed to unflattering wind, hecklers and general distractions.”

Yes, as many as 50 people are dead, and we should blame the head of the railway company because he didn’t consider how unflattering the wind would be to his appearance during the press conference.

During stories abut Burkhardt’s visit, I see TV reporters doing stories saying that residents “want answers.” Burkhardt gave them. Honestly, matter-of-factly, without emotion. They were unpolished answers that didn’t go through the PR filter. And for some reason we consider that a bad thing.

Maybe it’s time we accept that in times of catastrophe, we don’t really want to hear the truth. We want to be comforted by PR professionals whose job it is to distort the truth before it gets to us.

Posted in Opinion, TV

The disaster sympathy photo op

I’ve never survived a major disaster. At least, not to the point of needing help from an organization like the Red Cross. The only thing that comes close is the ice storm of 1998, during which my home, like many others, lost power for an extended period. After the lack of power combined with the drop in temperature made our home inhabitable, my family moved in with an uncle in Laval who still had power. Others in the extended family did the same, so we had a sort of extended family reunion for a while. It only lasted a couple of days, and it was inconvenient more than it was scary. The only loss our family experienced from the event was the food that spoiled.

So I can’t really put myself in the shoes of the people of Lac Mégantic today, or those of southern Alberta in the past few weeks, or people in any other emergency situation in which lives have been lost, homes destroyed and other damage — physical, mental and economic — impossible to calculate.

Another thing I can’t see myself doing is dragging a camera behind me as I talk to people who have just lost loved ones, trying to show my best sympathetic face. It’s not that I think this is wrong, or that I don’t sincerely feel for these people, but it just feels fake, like it’s all being done for people’s entertainment, even if that might not be the case (and even if many people involved in the disaster actually really want to talk to the media and get their message out).

On Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Lac Mégantic. A press release sent out in the morning said there would be a “photo opportunity” for accredited media and then a press conference an hour later. I had already wondered about the usefulness of political leaders rushing to disaster sites, but the fact that his visit literally called for a photo op bugged me.

It’s not just Harper, though. Pauline Marois had been there the night before. Thomas Mulcair also went down, doing his best to remind us why we hate politicians. All three made themselves visible to the cameras.

Was there a purpose to this, other than political? Was it just to avoid the optics of not being there?

Not having survived a natural disaster (and not being in Lac Mégantic currently), I don’t know if it’s reassuring to the residents that political leaders come to town like this. I imagine it must at least be reassuring that they’re taking the situation seriously. Though that’s tempered when those politicians disappear just as quickly as they appeared.

And there’s the downside. The higher up you go in terms of political power, the more overhead is required for a visit like this. Everything from public relations to security. Could some of that effort be better used helping the community in a more tangible way? Or worse, could this all be disruptive to rescue and recovery efforts? Especially when the prime minister of Canada isn’t really coordinating anything directly relevant here?

I honestly don’t know what to think. I’m one of those people who believes that political leaders are as important for the power of their words as their intelligence or accounting skills. And I know that if I was a political leader, I would want to be where things are happening, if only to see what’s going on for myself, to inform any decisions I would make that would affect that community, and to offer whatever emotional help I could to people who have gone through so much.

But still, I can’t shake that feeling that this is all just for show. And it’s not just because of that press release for the photo op.

Sad, sympathetic anchors

It’s not just political leaders that have been putting on a show for the cameras in the wake of this disaster. The news media has been making a big splash of this as well, beyond just covering it like the big story that it is. On Monday, CTV and CBC both co-anchored their local newscasts from Lac Mégantic, with one anchor just outside the evacuation zone, presenting stories about the aftermath of the disaster (including interviews they did themselves), and another anchor in the Montreal studio handling the rest of the news. On Monday night, CTV National News will be anchored from Lac Mégantic.

I’ve never really understood this idea of anchoring newscasts on location. Does it help my understanding of the disaster to see that Lisa LaFlamme has travelled to rural Quebec instead of doing the news from her Toronto studio? Does being on location make her more connected to the story and better able to present it to us? Are the extra costs required to anchor a newscast on location worth the payoff, journalistically? Are the producers of the newscast as focused on presenting us the latest news in the best way possible when they’re distracted by the complicated technical setup? Does Paul Karwatsky and Debra Arbec talking with reporters standing right next to them instead of speaking to them through a double-box screen make them better able to juggle all the information that’s being presented on air?

I don’t know that either. But once again, this looks an awful lot like something put on for show, designed to make us emotionally connected to a story that shouldn’t need help to be dramatic. Like the special graphics they create, and the soft piano music they play when they show those graphics.

It feels like I’m seeing a performance masquerading as action.

I hope I’m wrong.

Journalists: Donate your overtime

I’ve never been one to rush to donate money in the wake of a disaster. Working in a newsroom has desensitized me to a lot of awful things that happen in the world. But I figure the least I could do is refuse to profit off of it.

In 2010, when an earthquake devastated Haiti, Montreal media sprung into action, and devoted extra resources to covering it. I was called in to do an extra shift on overtime, and donated an amount equivalent to that overtime pay to the Red Cross. Unable to travel to the disaster area and do tangible helpful things (I probably would have been a burden more than anything else anyway), I volunteered for them by doing the job that I love, and, as awful as this may sound, during a time when the job is at its most enjoyable, or at least the most rewarding.

On Sunday, I was already scheduled to work, but my boss asked me to stay an extra hour on overtime to better manage the load of stories. I stayed an hour and a half on overtime, which works out to about an extra $100. That money is now in the hands of the Red Cross.

As I did in 2010, I encourage other journalists and those in related professions to do the same. You don’t have to give from your regular salary. But if directly or indirectly you worked paid overtime or got other financial benefit from extra work because of this disaster, consider turning that unexpected extra work into a donation and giving that extra money to people who need it.

The Red Cross has a special fund set up for Lac Mégantic relief. You can donate easily here.

Then, at least, you can be sure that the show you helped put on did some tangible good. That the only people who truly profited from it are those who have suffered the most.