Saturday, March 31, 2007

Part 2: Media coverage of current events

Dr. Wade Locke is an economist who has conducted considerable research into the failed Hebron project. He says the precise benefits from the development, had it proceeded, would be hard to measure, due to the various factors involved (such as oil prices) and the lack of precise information on the deal that was almost reached. But he does feel that there are consequences associated with the failure of Hebron.

“The significance of it being gone forever are different from the significance of it being delayed for a period of time,” Dr. Locke said in an interview. “If it’s delayed a year or two that has consequences but not as severe as if it’s delayed indefinitely.”

I probed Dr. Locke on a subject that he rarely discusses: public perceptions, and the role media play in shaping them. Dr. Locke agreed that the true significance of the loss of Hebron, and its potential benefits, is lost on some people. Part of the problem was timing, he said.

“The first time we rolled out anything of any significance was during the NOIA conference (of 2006). Some interesting numbers came out at that point in time. But what happened at the same time was, the spending scandal started… and the Minister of Natural Resources resigned. So (our message) got lost in the pandemonium and excitement.”

While he has no specific complaints with media coverage in the ensuing months, Dr. Locke is concerned about the level of emotion that has entered the public debate.

“The perspective that somehow we’re having somebody stand up for us because we’ve been done wrong all these years has good currency in this particular province,” he said. “The unfortunate part of this stuff is that we go on emotion, so emotion dictates how we react to stuff. If we sat back and thought about the logic or what’s the incremental benefit versus the incremental cost to these kinds of things, we might not behave in certain kinds of ways. We’re all emotional beings. Emotion is a good thing; it defines our character as people. There is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you want to step back from emotion and say ‘Is this really what I want to be doing? Is it really in my interests to do that?” And that I think is the step that we’ve missed here.”

Locke said that the real issue is the need to create an environment that encourages growth and development in the oil and gas industry. “We want the companies here, we want success, and we want (projects) going forward… I don’t think we have that now, in part because of what happened with Hebron and the ongoing disputes between the provincial government and oil and gas sector. Those are not positive in terms of creating an environment for enhancing economic development.”

Locke said no one disputes the need to develop the industry, and that it is in the best interest of all parties – the government, oil companies and people of Newfoundland and Labrador – to make it happen. However, he says that clearer heads must prevail.

“To me, at this point in time, it’s not clear that we’ve sat down and done the calculus; for example, to figure out exactly what’s in our interest. I know we’ve done the emotional calculations. So we’re happy enough that we are standing up for our rights and all these patriotic kinds of things. I’m not sure we’ve sat down and done the real economic calculations to find out what’s in our interest. That to me is unfortunate… So I think it may not be fully appreciated, the significance or the consequence of our particular position on oil and gas. And that may turn out to have long term consequence for us in terms of how fast the industry progresses, and whether or not it progresses to its full potential. But that’s the unfortunate part about this stuff.”

Locke is talking specifically about Hebron, but I think the emotion to which he refers is connected intrinsically to the anger and outrage that surrounds the equalization issue. I don’t think anyone will disagree that this anger is fueled more by a collective, cumulative sense of victimhood, and less by fact and rational thought. A great number of people are spouting arguments that are red-hot with rage but cool on facts (for an extreme example, see Wallace Ryan’s comments in the Westcott speech post). I think this is cause for concern. A bit of information is good, but a lot of information is better. And cooler heads should always prevail when important decisions must be made (on equalization, Hebron and any other major issue).

Are people getting that information? As noted above, they are certainly getting some. But I do think the media have contributed, mostly in a benign way, to the near hysterical tone to which public debate has risen. (As noted, strong reporting is also happening, such as David Cochrane's Hebron anniversary piece, which you can view here.)

Firstly, I think media need to work a little harder. As I explained in an archived post, all news stories are driven by conflict (yes, there are other elements to a story, but conflict is the essential binding agent). It is easy, then, for a reporter to compile a story that contains comment from both sides – charged with rhetoric and bombast – and consider it a balanced piece. And on the surface it is.

But reporters need to think a little deeper and work a little harder; to not pull up short when they’ve bagged the hot quote. Above all, they should push more aggressively in their questioning. For example, I would like to see a story that says: “When pushed, the premier did agree that…” The keyword is pushed. If he bridges from a tough question about impacts over to the “no more giveaways” line, pull him back. Keep asking the question, even if the giveaway stuff makes for a great quote (they should use that too, of course, it being part of the story).

Secondly, reporting on the premier’s ongoing battles has been linear and narrow. Media have been diligently reporting on the day’s events in Newfoundland, Ottawa and elsewhere, repeating what was said, gathering the obligatory reaction quotes, and so on. They should also be taking time out as often as possible to explore new angles and bring in new perspectives. They could start simply by bringing more voices into the mix; seeking out feedback from the wider strata of Newfoundland and Labrador society. This would extend beyond the occasional quote from a political scientist at MUN, to include economists (such as Dr. Locke), historians, union leaders, business people, Newfoundland nationalists, students, artists and other ‘opinion leaders’ (as well as the person in the street).

For example, an intrepid reporter could start by parsing Liam O’Brien's contention (in comments section to part 1 of this post) that Stephen Harper did not lie about equalization. Liam has studied a lot of documents and is adamant about this, and has posted numerous links to support his argument. (While it may be that the promise can’t be found if you mine into speeches, policy and platform documents, I still find it difficult to get past the ‘No small print. No excuses. No caps.’ line. Still, Liam’s position warrants closer scrutiny. If my emotional reaction to that line is actually unfounded, I want to know this.)

Finally, there are a number of soft and hard nationalists among the local media community, just as there are among the general public. They have every right to their opinion, but I would hope that this bias does not creep into the editorial decision-making process. We, the public, can’t make good decisions unless the information is presented fully and without bias.

UPDATE: An editorial in today's Telegram (Saturday) attempts to explain the equalization issue in simple terms and still finds Harper guilty of deception. I congratulate the paper on taking this initiative, and wonder what Liam O'Brien thinks of its conclusions.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Part 1: Media coverage of current events

This province stands at a pivotal point in its history. Critical decisions are being made and actions taken by the provincial government that will have repercussions for generations to come. And the news media often fail to bring clarity to some complicated, critically important issues.

I am talking, of course, about the direction that Premier Danny Williams is taking this province. Is he leading us to the promised land… or toward disaster?

Premier Williams has approval ratings in the stratosphere. But how aware is the public about the many issues that are on the table? Is their approval fueled more by emotion than rational thought? Is the media bringing clarity to complex issues? Are they connecting the dots and showing the cause and effect between various issues?

Yes, there is some good work happening right now. Last night’s political panel on CBC Here & Now was the most enlightening and honest discussion about current events that I have seen in many months. Mike Rossiter of CBC Radio News has also been doing some good work, as has Jeff Gilhooly of the CBC Radio Morning Show. Moira Baird and Rob Antle of The Telegram have also been filing solid stories. (There are no doubt others – I may have missed some things too.)

However, an astonishing amount of coverage and commentary is still obsessing over whether or not Prime Minister Harper lied, and tracking the obvious fall-out.

It is abundantly clear to even the most passive observer that Harper deceived us. This has been demonstrated and proven beyond a doubt. And the denials from Harper, Flaherty, Hearn and Manning have been too cute by half. A lie is a lie.

More to the point, an election promise was broken; a first, I am sure, in the history of politics in this country and province.

But we haven’t gotten past the anger. The real question is, what do we do now? The media are reporting diligently on the Premier’s national ad campaign, but not pushing him on strategy.

For example: What do we hope to achieve through revenge, by turfing out the three provincial Conservatives in the next election? What if Harper wins a majority? Will he take vengeance by vetoing Marystown’s chances to win a major naval supply ship contract? What about federal loan guarantees on the Lower Churchill? How about these other provincial plans, which are all contingent on federal provincial cooperation? There is certainly an air of foreboding in this story. What we have here, according to David Cochrane from last night’s Political Panel, is “a complete detonation of federal/provincial relations.”

Should the media be content collecting saliva on their microphones, or should they be digging deeper and really pushing on these critically important questions?

The media could also be doing a better job connecting the dots between various issues; to put things in context and help us understand the confluence of events that have brought us to where we are today.

One example: There was much wringing of hands in the media about the people who stood in their thousands last November, outside the Capital Hotel, looking for work in western Canada. But I don’t think any media outlet made the connection between that spectacle and the failure of the Hebron negotiations. Yet, that is why most people were there that day.

Another example: Premier Williams' most frequent response, when pushed on issues of economic impact, is to bridge to a different answer: “There will be no more giveaways.” Most of the time, the media accepts that answer and rolls over to the next question.

Well, here’s the thing. The Hebron project was not a giveaway. It was, in fact, a tremendously good deal no matter how you look at it. Had it proceeded, we would not be worrying today about sheltering our transfer payments from our earned income. The day would be fast approaching when we could stand on our own bloody feet and say to hell with handouts from Canada.

The full details of the tentative deal were not released publicly, but we do know that Hebron would have been worth about $10 billion in royalties and taxes to provincial coffers, at an oil price of $50 per barrel. We know that prices will likely average higher, thus increasing provincial revenue by another billion or two. And this doesn’t include the $5 billion investment in construction and $6 billion to drill the development wells, which would have created thousands of jobs, stimulated business growth and sustained industry momentum. This in turn would fuel further exploration and possible new discoveries.

Had it proceeded, Hebron would have given us the capacity to pay down – totally eliminate – our provincial debt of $12 billion, the highest per capita debt in the country. Provincial budgets would no longer be saddled with those enormous debt servicing charges. Think about that: a single project would have made us a ‘have’ province.

How many people are aware of this? How many reporters are even aware of this? I don’t expect media to be cheerleaders for Premier Williams or the oil companies. But I would like to see them dig a little deeper, ask tough questions and insist on real answers.

There is a lot of heat right now, but very little light.

And there is so much at stake...

Coming soon, part 2: An economist’s viewpoint.

Westcott's speech draws record traffic

Yesterday's post of the full text of Craig Westcott's speech to NOIA has drawn record traffic to this site. Thanks to Liam O'Brien, Craig Welsh, Ed Hollett, John Gushue, Mark Watton, Simon Lono and the others who linked to this site. The post also drew considerable attention from the mainland, including a link from Paul Wells of Macleans magazine. More than 1,100 unique visitors have stopped by since 3:00 pm Thursday, which is much, much more than usual. As of 7:00 am this morning, there are more than 400 unique visitors, which doubles my usual daily traffic. I hope some of you come back! I am working on a new item, in which a prominent local economist weighs in on the lost opportunities of Hebron, and offers an interesting view about the public's grasp of this issue.

Oh, and if you posted a comment below and are wondering why it was deleted, it's because anonymous entries are not permitted. Please sign your name to your comments.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Weighing the cost of lost opportunities

Craig Westcott, owner and editor of The Business Post, loves to raise a little hell. A former reporter with The Sunday Express, The Telegram and CBC Radio news, and a former managing editor of The Newfoundland Herald, Westcott is one of the province's best known - and most controversial - media personalities. His weekly commentaries on the CBC Radio Morning Show (every Monday) always stimulate discussion and feedback from callers. But Craig is not provocative for its own sake; his opinions, contentious though they may be, are always carefully considered and difficult to dismiss. He is one of the few journalists in the province to openly challenge the confrontational style of Premier Danny Williams. Westcott was the keynote speaker at a NOIA luncheon today, at the Delta. He has kindly agreed to make the complete text of his speech available here.

Weighing the Cost of Lost Opportunities
Luncheon Address by Craig Westcott
To the Newfoundland Ocean Industries Ocean
March 29, St. John's

Thank you to the NOIA committee for inviting me here today.

When Harry Pride and the other NOIA committee members asked for a title to today's speech, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind: Weighing the cost of lost opportunities.

I could have subtitled it: 'Stuck in the middle with you.'

As Jeff noted in his introduction, I publish a business newspaper called The Business Post.

I started this venture last June. On the very day in fact, when Premier Danny Williams said he was feeling "annoy-yed" by NOIA.

You'll remember he uttered those remarkable words right in the middle of the annual offshore petroleum conference.

During that same conference, the premier chose to go on province wide television to announce he was firing his minister of Natural Resources, Ed Byrne.

He actually scheduled his press conference so that it would be carried live on the supper hour news.

Given the circumstances of Byrne's constituency allowances, we all know now that he had to step aside.

But you've got to wonder about the timing.

During that same convention last year, it seemed to me, in covering it, that Williams did his best to avoid attending any of the functions.

I think he actually showed up at one.

Here was the world's oil industry in town to talk about our oil and gas prospects, the very resources that are driving the economy and giving our government the kind of revenues and balanced budgets we haven't seen in years, and the premier stayed home.

Well actually it was worse than that.

He didn't just snub the industry.

He insulted the people in it, particularly the members of NOIA.

Just before that, at the OTC, Williams had done the same thing.

This was just after the breakdown in talks over Hebron.

If there was ever a time when we needed our top guy at the world's biggest oil show working the rooms and making our case, that was it.

But Williams stayed home.

Even during some of the lowest years for the oil industry in Newfoundland, the premier of the day usually went to Houston for the OTC. Because that's where relationships are made and business gets done.

We're getting ready now for NOIA's 2007 offshore conference here in St. John's.

And we already know that this coming one is going to be missing a major element.

Earlier this week, DMG Media announced it was pulling the plug on the annual international trade show that accompanies the offshore conference.

For the first time in nearly two decades, there will be no trade show during the conference.

I'm told that many companies, from the operators down to many of the local suppliers, didn't think it was worth their while to allocate money and staff to a booth.

The work just isn't here to justify it.

How's that for illustrating the title of today's talk. Weighing the cost of lost opportunities.

Like many of you in this room, I too am dependent on the local oil industry for my living.

I've published 14 issues so far of The Business Post.

One of the very best ones, revenue wise, was number eight, which was distributed to every business in this region just before Christmas.

It was our first Top 50 issue.

A look at the Top 50 players in our oil patch.

People who have invested their money, and their time and their energy, their precious life energy, into building a new industry for Newfoundland.

An industry that pays better than average salaries.

An industry that provides government with better than average revenues to pave roads, and fix schools and buy equipment for hospitals.

An industry that means a bright future for thousands of young Newfoundlanders who want the choice of staying at home for work instead of having to leave their parents and friends to move away.

And not just young Newfoundlanders. But people my age and older too, who find themselves commuting to Alberta, or moving North for work in increasing numbers, now that Danny Williams has all but killed the near and medium term prospects of this industry.

Where did it all go wrong?

Before I try to answer that, let me make one thing clear.

I am not aligned with any particular party.

Over the years, I've voted for all of them at one time or another.

I even published a short-lived, official PC Party newspaper when Loyola Sullivan was leader.

So what I'm about to say is not partisan and it's not meant to be personal or negative towards Danny Williams.

But it's impossible to avoid being negative about a leader who is so negative himself, especially about his critics and some of the people who try to do business in this province.

Getting back to where things went wrong, I would argue that it all started nearly four years ago with the election of a new government.

Those of us who live here will remember that four years ago, the consortium of oil companies that have the development rights to Hebron were just getting ready to tee-up Newfoundland's fourth big oil project.

This was two years after 9-11 in the 'States.

The Americans were at war.

Oil prices were inflating as a result of all the growing risk in the world.

The United States government itself was looking for more secure energy supplies.

The time was never better to start a new oil project offshore Newfoundland.

Then Danny Williams came to office.

He was full of dreams to make Newfoundland prosperous and to, as he put it, "end the giveaways."

Laudable goals.

Then last spring, after months of negotiation, Williams called reporters together to say there would be no deal on Hebron.

Only one side was negotiating in good faith, said the premier.

And that was the government.

For their part, the consortium maintained that never before had a group of oil companies offered as valuable a package of revenues and benefits to Newfoundland for the privilege of developing one of its oil fields.

Clearly, there was a communication breakdown between the two parties.

They couldn't even agree on what they had disagreed about.

Stuck in the middle were the rest of us. Many of whom had spent thousands and in some cases millions of dollars and precious time getting ready to bid for work on Hebron.

To this day, neither the premier, nor the oil companies, have revealed exactly what happened during those talks.

But what happened afterwards is plain to see.

The premier has made a campaign of attacking what he calls, "Big Oil."

Big Oil is out to get us, if you believe Danny Williams. To take advantage of us, to put one over on us like Hydro Quebec did at Churchill Falls.

If you believe Danny Williams, Big Oil is the Bogeyman hiding under our beds, waiting for us to fall asleep, so that it can sneak out on the Grand Banks and rob all the oil.

Now I'm no expert on high stakes negotiations.

But it seems to me, a common principle of business, whether you're selling hot dogs out of a cart on George Street or trying to get a major oil company to develop your resources, is that you treat your prospective partners and customers with respect.

It's not uncommon for negotiations to fail.

Negotiations often fail.

A good deal, as we all know, should be a win-win situation for everybody.

Sometimes that's not always possible.

But when you don't reach a deal, how wise it is to publicly vilify the people you were negotiating with?

It would be like me going into Hickman Motors or Penny Mazda and after looking at all the cars and haggling over the prices, deciding not to buy. For the moment.

I say for the moment, because at some point, I'm going to have to get a new car.

So how sensible would it be for Bert Hickman or Dan Penney to call a news conference and say, 'We couldn't reach a deal with that guy Westcott. He was negotiating in bad faith. He didn't want to pay a fair price for our car. But we decided there would be no more giveaways."

What are the chances of me returning to either one of those car lots if something like that happened? Is that the way to do business?

We all know what's happened since then.

Chevron, the lead operator on Hebron, has all but pulled out of Newfoundland.

ExxonMobil, one of the other partners, has shuffled its checklist of projects, tucking Hebron/Ben Nevis back to 2010 or 2011 before it gets another look.

Hibernia South is on hold.

Even worse, grassroots exploration is at a near standstill.

We need millions of dollars worth of seismic work and exploration drilling every year to find the next big oil field, but we're getting diddly.

It looks like Big Oil has given up on Newfoundland, at least for the time

It appears the oil companies, which have projects all around the world they can chase and advance, are content to wait Williams out.

And if you look at our recent past history, that may seem like it makes sense.

Most premiers don't last all that long.

Brian Tobin lasted four years. Roger Grimes two. Even Clyde Wells, the man of iron will who stared down the country over Meech Lake lasted just over six years.

Most premiers don't last very long. The job burns you out.

But Danny Williams isn't like most premiers.

I've covered politics in this province for 20 years.

I was in the boardroom on the eighth floor of Confederation Building when an exhausted and frazzled Brian Peckford was on the verge of getting out.

I covered Clyde Wells during the hydro debate and the fight over Meech Lake.

I had the pleasure of watching Brian Tobin run to a waiting car to get away from me so that he couldn't face any more questions.

All those guys liked power, but power wore them out.

Danny Williams is a different kettle of fish.

Danny Williams loves power.

He lives for it. He revels in it. He likes to show everyone he's the boss.

All those other premiers I mentioned had their brown nosers and their sycophants.

It was comical after Clyde Wells came to power, how many of his cabinet members waltzed around using the word unconscionable, which was Clyde's favourite phase.

When Tobin was in office, his people were always busy "ramping up" for great things that were going to happen "at the end of the day."

The brown nosers have a way of taking on their leader's mannerisms and pet phrases.

And so it is with this crowd.

Everybody in the PC Party today is "drilling down."

I don't know where they are drilling towards exactly, but I think a lot of the time it's towards the latest phone to call VOCM Open Line.

The Minister of Business, Kevin O'Brien, and the Member for Terra Nova, Paul Oram, seem to have been assigned to monitor the open line shows religiously and to call up whenever anyone utters a bad word about the premier.

Maybe that's what drilling down means.

But you know, most good leaders are sensible enough to know that along with the flatterers and opportunists who inevitably jump onto their coat-tails, they need other leaders with them to share the load.

People who are not afraid to argue a point, or tell them things they don't want to hear.

Frank Moores had John Crosbie.

Brian Peckford had Bill Marshall.

Clyde Wells went and recruited Ed Roberts back from private life and drafted him into his cabinet as an un-elected minister, because he knew the value of wise counsel.

What has Danny Williams done?

He's done just the opposite.

Anyone who is as strong or as smart as he is has been isolated, or forced out.

He expelled Elizabeth Marshall from his cabinet three years ago because she had the audacity to object when he interfered in her department without telling her.

The woman had been Auditor General of this province for 10 years.

She was a deputy minister before that. And a chartered accountant. Nobody in his caucus is more respected, or knows government better.

But none of that matters, because she stood up to Danny Williams and now he won't have anything to do with her.

It's been three years since their spat and she is still on the backbenches.

Most of us know that Loyola Sullivan was a pretty bright fellow.

If you believe the inside accounts of what happened during the Atlantic Accord negotiations, it's clear it was Sullivan who presented the key arguments and had all his facts and numbers in line.

Yet, when Sullivan resigned as finance minister at the end of last year he got absolutely no credit for it from Danny Williams.

'Loyola was a good minister,' Williams told reporters. 'When I was negotiating the Atlantic Accord, he always did what I told him.'

Folks, Danny Williams loves power.

He feeds on it.

He's addicted to it.

And like most people who love power that much, he'll do anything to keep it.

And do you know what the really scary thing is?

He has a lot of people fooled.

He loves their adulation, whether it's deserved or not.

The fishery is dying.

The forestry industry is struggling.

Rural Newfoundland is shrinking by the day.

And he's all but killed the economy's real breadwinner, the oil industry.

And what is Danny Williams doing this week?

He's campaigning against the Prime Minister in a federal election that hasn't even been called yet.

And why?

Because he's got people fooled into thinking that he is fighting for them.

He lives to hear himself praised.

I suspect he listens to the open line as much as Kevin O'Brien does.

I know he follows what people are saying about him on the blogs. He has even threatened to sue some of them!

He's making time for that apparently, during his busy day.

Danny Williams is another Joey Smallwood.

Whenever things were going terrible for Joey on the home front, when the factories he imported weren't working, or some minister was involved in a scandal, Joey would look for an enemy from the outside.

Like island populations everywhere, Newfoundlanders rally when they perceive a threat from the outside.

For Joey it was John Diefenbaker or H. Landon Ladd of the I-W-A.

For Danny it's Big Oil and Abitibi and Stephen Harper and whoever else happens to stand up to him.

Nothing is being done at home to develop this economy, because Danny has all guns now trained on Ottawa.

I'm too young to have been in business when Joey Smallwood was premier.

But I am told by people who know and whom I respect, that Joey was a vindictive man.

That you had to be a friend of Joey to get a contract with government, or even to get a job in the civil service.

You had to be Joey approved.

Well, it's been 36 years since Joey left office.

We've had reforms such as the Public Tendering Act, implemented, directly as an effort to rectify those kind of abuses.

But if you ask me, Joey is back in power.

I happen to coach two minor hockey teams.

So I spend a lot of time in hockey rinks throughout this region.

I spoke with a man one day, a consultant, I won't say who, because I don't want the wrath of the premier coming down on him.

But he said to me that that people in his business are growing increasingly nervous about bidding on government work.

There is a real fear that things might reach the point where you could spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours preparing a bid on a government job that might all be in vain if you are deemed unfriendly to Danny.

People are afraid that the quality of their work, or the price they submit may not count when they look for business with government.

Some people are genuinely afraid that the real deciding factor might soon be whether they are seen to be a friend or foe of Danny.

You see, with politicians like Danny Williams, you're one of two things: You are a friend, or you are an enemy.

He doesn't allow you the luxury of being independent or unaligned.

I know this from personal experience.

As I've said, I've been covering politics in Newfoundland for 20 years.

I've covered seven premiers.

I've written things about Roger Grimes, for instance, that were truly hurtful.

No doubt I made him angry.

No doubt, like other pundits, I wounded his pride.

But he was always professional.

Danny Williams isn't.

Danny Williams can't take criticism.

A week after I wrote a column about his handling of the F-P-I debate in the provincial legislature, his press secretary informed me that I was being cut off from all future interviews with the premier.

She said I was unfairly critical. That I should have checked with the premier before running my column.

She has since phoned a number of the publications I write for to tell them the premier's office has nothing to do with me.

Telling them, in other words, you shouldn't do business with this guy, if you want to continue to have access to the premier.

Likewise, the business I started last June.

The Business Post is mailed to every business on the Northeast Avalon.

Every issue, I pay Canada Post to mail a copy of the paper to every business in St. John's, Mount Pearl, Conception Bay South, Paradise, Torbay, Portugal Cove-St. Philips and the Goulds.

The paper is distributed at most major business events in the city as well as at trade shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and this coming May in Houston.

In other words, The Business Post is hitting the target audience of anyone who wants to reach a business clientele.

And yet, the paper has not received one ad, not one ad, from the provincial Department of Business, or the Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development.

And it's not from lack of asking.

These two departments advertise their business funding and assistance programs all the time in other publications.

But they won't advertise with me.


Because I have dared to criticize the Great Leader.

Under the regime of Danny Williams, you pay a price for being independent.

And it doesn't matter if you're as big as ExxonMobil or Bell Aliant, or as
small as the local media outlet.

You've got to watch your Ps and Qs, stroke his ego, be careful that you don't go afoul of the premier.

Folks, that's not democracy. That's dictatorship.

Why would anyone, whether it's an oil company or anyone else want to invest in this province if the ground rules are everything has to please Danny Williams?

That you've got to do everything his way.

Where anyone who holds a different view is deemed to be unpatriotic or out to get Newfoundland?

How can you do business fairly and safely in a place like that?

And so I ask you, what is the cost of all this fighting with Ottawa and big business?

What is the cost to Newfoundland?

To the people who need a prosperous economy to pay for their roads, and schools and hospitals?

Who need productive companies and employers, so that their children can find work at home?

What is the cost to you, the business leaders of this province, who watch as the oil companies close their offices and pull out of town leaving you behind with all your investments and hard work going down the drain?

What is that cost?

It is the cost of lost opportunity.

It is the cost of a resource-rich province that will forever be dependent upon hand-outs from Ottawa, because the man who leads us is unable to negotiate, or take sensible advice.

It is the cost of lost hope, cast in the eyes of every father who kisses his little boy goodbye at St. John's Airport as he boards the plane for Alberta.

That is the cost.

What we have to ask ourselves is, is that a cost worth paying?

I say it is not.

And if it is not, what do we do about it?

Well, the first thing we have to do is try putting this guy in his place.

Because Danny Williams is not going away.

Trying to wait him out is not an option.

Not when he is at 74 per cent in the polls and is addicted to power.

Even when the public does wake up years from now and realizes what he has done to them, he still won't go easily.

He pretends now and then that he's fed up and ready to leave.

But that's just to get people's pity.

No, like Joey Smallwood, Danny Williams is going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming from office.

He'll be digging his fingernails into the desk trying to hold on.

For a man like that, power is everything.

So it falls to us to somehow circumscribe that power.

To limit it, to blunt it, to lessen the damage of his reign.

I'm not telling you to vote or campaign against him, or to fund other political parties.

But I think you shouldn't be afraid of telling Williams how you feel about the job he is doing so far.

Neither should you hold back from letting the clique of yes men around him know how you feel.

Most of all though, you have to educate your friends and neighbours. The people who think Danny can do no wrong.

Let them know what he is doing to your business and your industry.

Tell him how their future is threatened, because of this guy's inability to put his province ahead of his own ego.

And let me add one thing.

You also have a duty to talk to Big Oil.

To let the leaders of the oil companies know that you care about this industry.

And that they should care about it too.

That Newfoundland is a good place to do business.

That their future prosperity depends in part on developing high class fields like Hibernia and Terra Nova and White Rose, in what is perhaps the safest place in the world.

Unfortunately, Big Oil often makes it really hard for people to like them.

Because when they put projects like Hibernia South on hold, and do things like challenging the Supreme Court ruling on how much they should spend here on R & D, they're not punishing Danny Williams.

They're punishing the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

And it's the people of Newfoundland and Labrador who give Danny Williams his power.

So what Big Oil should be doing is making its case directly to them.

Telling its side of things.

Showing Newfoundlanders that they value our resources.

And if Big Oil does that. And if you do your part to educate your fellow Newfoundlanders, maybe we can get things back on track.

Maybe Newfoundlanders will look twice at Danny Williams.

And nothing is scarier to a man who is obsessed with power than an electorate that thinks for itself.

And that, my friends, is an opportunity that is too good to pass up.

Thank you.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What do reporters think of the 'media table'?

If you attend a lot of business luncheons and conferences, I'm sure you've seen it.

If you're a journalist, you've been told to sit there.

I'm talking about the Media Table; the half-empty stall in the corner where a cluster of journalists do their best to make small talk, having sat in the same company on numerous previous occasions. Heck, they may have just spent the morning together, at a news conference.

There may be some wisdom in segregating media to a table of their own. If there is, I’d like to hear it. Because I think it’s a mistake to do so.

Last year, I handled media relations for a conference of local business leaders. I had confirmation from two or three reporters, so, when the organizers asked how many would be sitting at the media table, I told them none. They were surprised when I said there wouldn’t be a media table, and that reporters would sit with the rest of the guests.

The reason? First, I think reporters are bored of seeing so much of each other. It’s also awkward when there is an unpleasant vibe between competing outlets and/or individual personalities.

Second, I think it’s healthy for reporters to mix with the rest of humanity. They hear what other people are saying about the issues and may even get some decent story ideas.

Third, I think the invited guests also welcome the opportunity to meet reporters, who have a higher public profile and thus a certain air of ‘celebrity’. Many people would be eager to bend the ear of a reporter with their opinions and story ideas, if given the opportunity.

The only potential downside, of course, is the chance that an off-the-cuff remark or revelation could end up on the evening’s news. To mitigate this, you need to make sure everyone at the table knows a reporter is present (most reporters are quick to introduce themselves for this reason).

At the conference referenced above, I actually sat with one of the media people, the editor of a local magazine. One of the conference presenters joined us, and the conversation was animated and interesting. The editor contributed extensively to the discussion, and took away a great deal as well.

Several weeks later, the many threads of that discussion formed the fabric of the Editor’s column at the front of the magazine. And a good column it was! That wouldn’t have happened if media had been consigned to a lonely table at the back of the room.

What do other reporters think about this? Do you prefer to gather at the media table, or would you rather blend into the crowd and sit where you please? If you have an opinion, please post a comment.

Most frequent search subject: Father Wayne Dohey

I have a visitor counter on this page which offers information about visiting traffic. Especially useful is the “Referring URL” feature, which tells me what site visitors came from before visiting mine. If they found this blog through a search engine, I can actually click on the subject of their search and the results it generated. For quite a while, the most frequent search subject was David Cochrane’s speech on patriotic correctness. However, that has changed over the last two weeks. For a while, fully 30 percent of all hits to my site came from a search for ‘Father Wayne Dohey’, which brings them to my post of March 13 (‘We should think about the victim first’). Almost all have come from other points in North America, with only a few local inquiries. The number has dropped to about 20 percent now, but it is still the single most popular search subject.

This intrigues me. Why would so many people, in places as far flung as California, Texas and New York, have an interest in this story? Are they expatriate Newfoundlanders? Are they church leaders, lawyers or law enforcement officials? If you just landed here as a result of a Wayne Dohey search, please drop me a note (geoff_meeker[at] explaining your interest in the subject. I’d love to hear from you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A candid exchange between journalists

Today, an open and frank look at how journalists express themselves when one of their own is under the gun.

The following exchange is copied directly from the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) ListServ, an online bulletin board operated by the CAJ. Its purpose “is to provide a forum for Canadian journalists on issues pertaining to all facets of journalism, including: trade craft, standards, ethics, media and related issues.”

In these posts from late February, journalist Peter Evans in the UK opens a thread of discussion about criminal harassment charges against CBC reporter Paul Piggot in Labrador. Piggot is a friend of Evans, who is clearly upset with the RCMP’s prosecution of the case and CBC’s reporting of it.

Evans’ post is followed by a reply from Canadian journalist James Bell, who brings a voice of reason to the discussion.

I think Peter Evans is perhaps a little distraught at the prosecution of his friend, and is speaking in anger. I do not think the RCMP had a vendetta in their prosecution. If the RCMP went after every reporter who broke a bad story about the force, we would have seen a pattern by now. And there have been worse stories broken about the RCMP than the one referenced here. Either way, Evans’ comments are tempered nicely by Bell’s reply.

I thought twice about posting this, due to the personal nature and tone of Evans’ post. However, I think it provides a revealing, starkly honest reflection of the kind of debate that goes on among journalists (I remember having similar heated discussions with my colleagues at The Sunday Express, especially while debating coverage of the Mount Cashel scandal). Furthermore, the ListServ rules make it clear that all posts are considered part of the public record. “Keep in mind that 600 - 800 of your colleagues, publishers, students and editors - and assorted others - are reading,” the rules state. “The CAJ-L is open, public and all on the record.”

We begin with the post that started the thread:

Peter Evans wrote:
“On Friday, CBC St. John's radio and TV (Here & Now) carried stories based on releases served up by RCMP Goose Bay, announcing that a Goose Bay CBC radio reporter had been charged with criminal harassment. The reporter is a close friend of mine, as is his wife. In fact, I was in their wedding party. I'm deeply saddened by the demise of their relationship, but these things happen to us all. However, I'm furious at the actions of the Mounties and CBC staffers, actions which, in lazy concert with one another, may have ruined this reporter's career, forever damaged his family and social networks, and destroyed his personal reputation in the community. This all might have been avoided if CBC staffers had removed their heads from their navels.

“Link to CBC radio story:

“This story was featured prominently for several days on the CBC website, and included in their automatic email digests. It featured near the top of Here & Now's broadcast on the same day (not archived), accompanied by one of the two headshots which have recently featured on CBC's website alongside the reporter's work; naturally, they chose the haggard one that best illustrates the charges. All of these reports were essentially rewrites of RCMP PR pap, lacking craft, art, or meaning.

“(CBC's local competitor VOCM did not run the story. I'm told that the Evening Telly ran it, but it was not posted to their website.)

“What the CBC reports failed to mention is that the reporter is a notorious thorn in the side of the local constabulary. The reporter has humiliated Goose Bay RCMP several times in the last few months, most recently with typically aggressive reporting on the treatment of a female Inuit prisoner who was held naked in a cell for two days. (The reporter was later thrown into an adjoining cell – an irony that could not have been lost on the Mounties, if they have the capacity for such things.)


“This work resulted in the extraordinary measure that one of the small group of officers had to fly to Nain to apologize to the woman. Just one of a number of incidents involving the RCMP and this reporter's excellent, ballsy journalism.

“So how did CBC staffers at St. John's decide that this press release, concerning an award-winning employee with nearly ten years of service to Labrador and the Corp. was an issue of public interest? Was it fear that their competitors would run the press release, making the CBC look bad by omission? If so, why is the reputation of the Corporation more important than the reputation of a flesh-and-blood human being – not just any human being, but a loyal and hard-working employee?

“Have journalists fallen so deeply in love with PR hacks in yellow-striped trousers that the possibility that the RCMP might be paying particular attention to this reporter did not even cross their minds? Might it not have warranted even a passing mention to the public? Did the reporters even contact the RCMP before running it, beyond the switchboard, did they ask any questions of the RCMP's handling of this case – especially its promotion as a public matter – at all? Why did CBC not attempt to contact the reporter for an interview?

“He most certainly would have given one – and he might have alerted them to this obvious possibility.

“Did the RCMP follow its normal policy and procedures in handling this case from the beginning, or did they rise too quickly to the possibility of getting a reporter they might hold some ill-will toward? Do they send out press releases on all similar charges (nearly a full week after the charge was laid)? If they do, they must have very sore fingers.

“It is amazing that, after all we have learned in the last few years about the many ways in which the RCMP-Press relationship is animated by little acts of vengeance, exploitation, co-dependence, and sloth, that these things are still happening.

“I urge the CAJ and the Canadian Media Guild to keep an eye on this event as it develops and works itself out.

“Peter Evans, Cambridge, UK”

James Bell wrote:
“This is very sad news, Peter. I've known Paul Piggot for a long time. He's a great person and an outstanding journalist, a beacon of competence and dedication within an organization that's stuffed with mediocrities and time-servers.

“I believe, however, that you may be jumping to conclusions that are not supported by evidence. You're suggesting that CBC St. John's conspired with the RCMP to blacken the reputation of a reporter whose recent work created embarrassment for the RCMP. That's a very serious allegation.

“Criminal charges like this are usually laid because someone goes to the police to make a complaint. Once they take the complainant's statement, the police, perhaps after seeking advice from the Crown, usually have no choice but to lay a charge. In most jurisdictions it's now standard protocol for a charge to be laid automatically if the complainant is a woman seeking protection from a spousal partner. So I think it's likely that Paul's work with CBC was irrelevant to the RCMP's decision. It's likely they would have processed this charge against just about anybody, regardless of their position.

“The real question is whether the story is newsworthy.

“That's a tough call. A reporter is not a public figure in the same sense that an elected official is a public figure. But a reporter is usually well-known to the public, performs vital public functions and is supposed to conduct himself in a manner that inspires trust.

“On balance, I think CBC made the right decision. You suggest, Peter, that CBC St. John's committed a breach of ethics by reporting the charge in collusion with the RCMP. I think, though, that if they had not covered it they would have been guilty of an even greater ethical breach. And they would have created the impression that they were doing so to protect one of their own.

“I also don't think there are any relevant inferences to be drawn from the fact that VOCM did not cover the story.

“The news story is sloppy. It didn't mention Paul's employment status. Will he be suspended without pay pending the outcome of the case? Will he stay at work? The news story doesn't say. And it doesn't appear as if anyone bothered to go to the court house to dig up the information sheet for the charge, which would have listed when and where the incidents are alleged to have occurred, and other reportable information.

“So I agree with you that the news story on their web site is badly written. But bad writing is standard at CBC now, especially on their web sites. Many CBC staffers may be illiterate -- but that doesn't make them unethical.

“Remember, Peter, if Paul is not guilty, he will get a chance to defend himself against the allegations in court. If you have any concrete evidence that might suggest the RCMP are subjecting Paul to a vindictive prosecution, then I would suggest that you get in touch with Paul's lawyer ASAP...

“And if there's a trial, that's where CBC will face its biggest journalistic test...”

- end of post –

As a postscript, I emailed the regional director for CBC Newfoundland more than a week ago, trying to open a discussion on how the Piggot case was handled, but received no reply. (This topic is of genuine interest as I am sure there is intense internal debate over how such stories are handled.)

As well, the comment about writing quality at CBC web sites is unfair. I am reasonably certain that the web site content is transcribed directly from the radio news stories, which are well written. Furthermore, I know two reporters who work on the CBC site and you won’t find more literate journalists anywhere.

If anyone would like to add to this discussion, or takes exception to any of the remarks above, please post a comment.

Monday, March 26, 2007

An epitaph for The Express

Craig Welsh, former associate editor with The Express, has a nice obituary for that paper in his Townie Bastard blog. There's a touch of bitterness here and there, which is quite understandable, but Craig restrained himself admirably overall. I was expecting the written equivalent of the final scene in "Scarface", with bullets zinging everywhere, but no, Craig's tone is even and respectful.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Why we didn't see crucial videotaped evidence

Did you observe something odd in last week’s media coverage of the Nelson Hart trial?

Did you notice that there was an abundance of videotaped evidence presented, mainly from the early police interrogations of Hart? If so, then you may have noticed that the most climactic and important videotape – hidden camera footage of Hart’s re-enactment of the alleged crime – was not on TV at all. Instead, we had reporters describing what was on the tape.

I noticed. And made some calls to ask why. Turns out I was onto something.

There is a court order in place, preventing media from revealing details that could identify the undercover police officers involved in the sting operation. Last week, CBC Here & Now aired some videotape that, in the opinion of the RCMP, came close to violating the court order. The RCMP were not happy. As well, the RCMP weren’t pleased with some descriptive terms that appeared in a Telegram story.

The result? No more videotaped evidence for the media. Which is why you heard about – but didn’t see – that dramatic footage of Nelson Hart on the wharf in Gander Lake.

I placed a call to the regional director for CBC Newfoundland, asking if they felt aggrieved by this, but did not receive a reply prior to post time.

However, Russell Wangersky, Managing Editor of The Telegram, confirmed that the paper had received a warning from the RCMP lawyer around the same time. “They told us we were skirting close to contempt,” he said. “After dealing with our lawyers we felt we were on safe ground with the material and nothing has happened since.”

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Marketing your own company can be tricky

Please indulge me while I draw your attention to an article in the March issue of Progress magazine about yours truly (click the image to read the story). Yes, this does fall partly into the 'shameless self promotion' category, BUT it is a media article about a subject that is near and dear to me (Photo is by Paul Daly). And my experience in pitching this story to media on my own behalf - as opposed to a client - was eye-opening indeed.

Jellybean Row is a series of original, highly detailed home decor pieces celebrating our bright downtown row house imagery. They are rich in architectural detail, mass printed and then plaque mounted. You can mix and match from 10 different designs (as well as a Christmas series) to create your own Jellybean Row combination. They are available in two sizes; the standard 4.5" by 8" and the large 9" by 16".

In launching this product last year, I engaged in a fairly aggressive marketing public relations campaign, generating coverage in The Telegram, The Express, The Business Post, and on VOCM. The Progress article was secured last November, but glossy monthlies have very long lead times. The pitch - and it is a good one - is that Jellybean Row is the first product to elevate downtown heritage home imagery out of the craft category and into home decor. They are architecturally detailed, not loose and impressionistic. And they are targeted at a mass market comprising local people, tourists, convention goers, expat Newfoundlanders and others. My markets truly are global.

I perform media relations work on behalf of my clients almost every week, but doing this work on behalf of my own company has been enlightening.

For one thing, it is difficult to become detached from the product. When I pitch a story idea on behalf of a client, I am once removed and therefore able to "talk up" the selling points in a most unabashed way. However, when pitching my own product I was often self-conscious about blowing my own horn. I am not inclined to bragging, so I found it slightly awkward to tell people how great the product is.

Rejection was also difficult. When an editor turns down a story pitch I make on behalf of a client, that's simply a name crossed off a list. It's not good, but it can be processed on an intellectual level. However, when an editor rejected my pitch about Jellybean Row, it was hard not to take it personally. 'You mean... you don't like it? You don't think my baby is pretty?'

I did well in pitching the Jellybean Row story and generated considerable coverage, but, in looking back, I wonder if I might have done better had I hired a PR colleague to do the work on my behalf. Their objectivity might have been an advantage.

I know that this blog attracts readers from all around the world so, if you are interested in this elegant little piece of home (*blush), visit the Jellybean Row web site. The e-commerce piece is still under construction but you can place national and international orders through the site, with payment by regular post, for now.

Does it make us angry... or uncomfortable?

Here we go... Another columnist saying something nasty about us folks down here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Check this out:

"...all (Stephen) Harper stands to lose in Newfoundland is three seats, far fewer than the number he stands to gain by 'standing up' for Ontarians and the other hard working Canadians of the most populous provinces who are tired of having their pockets picked by their continuously begging poor cousins."

How long will it take before the Open Lines go crazy on Monday morning, burning with the ire of a thousand offended callers? Actually, they won't light up at all. Because the comment was not made by a mainlander. It came from our own Craig Westcott, a true Newfoundlander and someone who is not afraid to call it as he sees it. It's an excerpt from an editorial in the latest edition of The Business Post (March 26).

It's strange how we won't stand for it when a mainlander writes something "insulting", but fall silent when one of our own makes a dig. What's that about?

It's easy to get angry at an outsider, but more difficult when an obviously intelligent local person says something that makes us uncomfortable - especially if it contains a kernel of truth.

Craig Westcott will appear as the Keynote Speaker for a NOIA luncheon event, March 29 at the Delta. The title of the address is 'Weighing the Cost of Lost Opportunities', so you can bet that Westcott will be rattling a few chains. For information on registering, click here.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Express has folded... it's gone

The Express newspaper is -30- . As the following release makes clear, it published its last issue yesterday. My condolences to editor Steve Bartlett, reporter Kim Kielley and the rest of the crew. I know how it feels to have a newspaper yanked out from beneath your feet. This raises questions about how The Express went from being a profitable paper (they made some fuss about this a few years ago) to what is now a money-losing operation. Looks like Craig Westcott, Ryan Cleary, Greg Locke, Craig Welsh - and others who predicted the paper's demise some time ago - were right on the money. I will have more on this later. Here's the news release:



St. John’s, NL, March 23, 2007 – the ex/ newspaper will cease publication effective today. The last issue was distributed on Thursday, March 22, 2007.
the ex/, a free distribution weekly, served over 40,000 households in the metro St. John’s, Mount Pearl area.

“This was an extremely difficult decision but the ex/ had been struggling financially for quite some time, well before it was purchased by Transcontinental Media in 2004,” said Mr. Miller Ayre, Group Publisher of Transcontinental Media’s NL newspapers. “Despite significant investments in the publication over the past two years – including a complete redesign of both the print and internet versions of the newspaper – efforts to turn the publication around unfortunately did not attract the expected advertising dollars.”

“We wish to thank all our readers and advertisers who encouraged and supported us through the years,” added Mr. Ayre.

While the publication employed ten people, it is expected that the maximum job loss will be four. Every effort will be made to secure positions for these displaced employees at other Transcontinental facilities where opportunities exist.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Anne Budgell skewers sloppy cartoonist

Bravo, Anne Budgell! The host of CBC Radio Noon neatly exposed Anthony Jenkins, an editorial cartoonist with The Globe and Mail, as too lazy to get his facts right.

The subject of the interview was a cartoon Jenkins did for the March 17 edition of The Globe. You can see the cartoon here.

In case the link goes down, the cartoon was split into two panels. The first was an image of Mars, with the heading: “2007: Euro space probe determines Martian south polar ice cap over 3 km thick.”

The next panel, also an image of Mars, reads: “2025: Joint Innu/Newfoundland space shuttle lands on ice cap to conduct feasibility study on clubbing to death young of life forms found there.” A word balloon pointing to the planet’s surface says, “She’s some thick here, St. John’s… ‘n’ Bardot-free d’jeez!”

Anne Budgell called the cartoonist and probed him about his knowledge of the hunt, pointing out that the Innu do not hunt seal. Jenkins was also unaware that we no longer club seals, referring to that old video from the 1980's as his source. His voice became shaky upon realizing that his lack of knowledge of the issue had been exposed, and he began muttering something about banana peel jokes. It’s a great interview and you can hear it by clicking here. You can also read more here (though you have to hear Budgell's interview - it's priceless).

Editorial cartoons are a form of journalism, so it is essential that cartoon writers get their facts right. In this case, Jenkins didn’t do his homework and was called on the carpet for it. The question now is, will he also get a rebuke from his bosses at The Globe and Mail?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Another take on the Mark Smith trial

Interested in learning more about the trial of former Current publisher Mark Smith, which I wrote about a few posts down? Then check out Greg Locke's site. He has posted an in-depth article by Roger Bill, Mark Smith's former business partner at Current. Bill has been attending the trial whilst taking some pretty detailed notes. For example, you can find out what I was talking about when I referred to "shaky testimony" from Kevin Breen. Bill makes a pretty persuasive case as to why the Crown has no case at all.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Stay tuned... more on the way!

I am about to go 'under' for a few days while I do the final push on meeting a client deadline.

Some colleagues have already asked me how I manage to update this blog each day, while doing client work. The truth is, my blog entries are written as a first draft the night before, then edited in the morning, over a cup of tea, and posted usually by 9 am. At that point, I am free to get on with my day of client work.

I am pulling together some interesting, perhaps controversial material that will start appearing early next week. Be sure to keep checking back for updates.

In the meantime, if you are looking for some interesting browsing, check out this list of the best magazines ever, as compiled by Good Magazine (with an insightful intro by Graydon Carter)... and thanks to John Gushue for this link. In fact, if you want some enjoyable surfing, spend some time at John's site. It's fabulous.

If you like to browse local photography online, check out Kim Goodyear's blog. Her model work is fine, but I am most impressed by her travel material. (The photo above is Kim's, of course.) I also enjoy Kim's written commentary on her craft; in particular the photojournalistic approach she takes to wedding photography. Be sure to dig through the archive... there is some great stuff in here (and if you look around, you will find the Brad Gushue & Krista Tibbo wedding, which I understand is getting a lot of traffic).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A few bad apples in the retail barrel

This morning, on the CBC Radio Morning Show, Dave D’Entremont of Long’s Hill Convenience said it was offensive to suggest that shopkeepers were pulling a fast one, and were anything other than honest, upstanding citizens.

Yesterday, in an interview on CBC Radio On the Go, Mike Randell of Atlantic Lottery Corporation said there was no proof that retail operators were somehow cheating prize winners out of their loot.

I beg to differ! And I am not suggesting that retail stores or their staff are all crooks. However, these are the facts: those who sell lottery tickets have won 10 times more often than the rest of us. Either these winners are exceptionally lucky, or they are cheating.

And I don’t believe they are lucky.

This is fresh on the heels of a CBC investigation into the Ontario lottery system, which found that storeowners repeatedly cheated ticket holders by advising them that winning tickets were worth a nominal amount when they were actually worth tens or even hundreds of thousands. So we have very good reason to be skeptical.

One point that Dave D’Entremont failed to make in his interview – and a point in his favour – is that the number of retail winners in this province is actually quite small (just 15). So D’Entremont is right: the vast majority of storekeepers are honest, even if there are a few bad apples.

That said, there is potential for shopkeepers and staff to win unfairly with the break-open tickets as well, and I am not certain if such cases would even be noticed by the corporation. In this scam, the shopkeeper keeps careful tabs on how many winning tickets are being sold in any particular set. Sometimes, there may be a small number of tickets left with a good booty of prizes still unclaimed, and I have heard of instances where shopkeepers bought all remaining tickets, knowing that they would hit the jackpot.

It is possible, then, that the cheating is more prevalent than we think. There is potential for a good investigative piece to be done on this subject…

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The new Current is drifting out to sea

The latest edition of Current – the first under new publisher James Baird – has hit the streets.

And I don’t see a lot to be excited about.

Right off the top, quality control is poor. The writing is spotty – good in some places, abysmal in others – and the editing is slipshod throughout, with an unacceptable number of typographical and punctuation errors.

First, the writing. There is a substantial list of contributors on page three, including some names I recognize. However, only a few have bylines, which is a glaring oversight. There are numerous articles and reviews written in the first person – plenty of “I” and “me” pronouns – but the writers are anonymous. In many cases, such as the cover story, music review, pub story and aikido article, this makes a certain amount of sense because they are poorly written hack pieces. However, the editors should be aware that nationally syndicated columnists like Josey Vogels expect to receive credit for their work.

The problem can probably be traced back to the editor, Baird himself, who had this line in his first editorial: “It will be said that I attempting to relive my youth, other will respond that I have never left it.” Two glaring errors in one sentence! Ouch. Editor, fire thyself. But seriously, a second set of seasoned editorial eyes is clearly what this publication needs.

The magazine has been redesigned, but the look is ho-hum; change for its own sake. The new sans-serif font (Helvetica, I believe) looks cheap and the point size is too large. The image area of each page is contained within a two-point border (even the advertising is contained in the larger box) which prevents photographic bleeds and inhibits creative layouts. As an example, ‘Clarkes Beach’, a new graphic feature by artist Robert Clarke-Davis, has some potential but right now it’s boxed, tiny and looking too much like an advertisement. Let it breathe, please! Alas, this conservative new design looks more like a low-budget newsletter than a provocative magazine.

Which brings up the real issue for me. Current is no longer provocative. Yes, it still contains the sex column by Josey Vogels, but that’s it. They’ve dropped the column on gay issues, presumably alienating 10 per cent of the readership, and sanitized the language. Meghan Beresford is still listed as a contributor, though I can’t see her byline or unabashedly frank – and highly entertaining – writing style.

Most importantly, there are no more controversial, funny or breaking news stories on page three. According to media interviews given by James Baird, the paper is moving away from that sort of coverage. There will be no more of the nastiness and controversy; a lot more arts and entertainment coverage.

That’s fine, if we are given penetrating and insightful arts coverage. Thus far, we haven’t seen that. For example, the cover story on the Ennis Sisters is lightweight filler that ignores the meat of the story. What about the relationship between the Ennis Sisters and their record company, which I hear is strained at times? Why is their new CD only available on the tour, but not in stores? These are questions that the old Current would have asked. (And I am not criticizing the Ennis Sisters in any way. I like them. That’s why I am interested in hearing the real story, not a fluff piece.) I am not even going to mention that odd, almost incomprehensible sidebar, in which the sisters offer quick answers to apparently random questions, such as this reply to 'How Deep is Your Love?':

“Karen’s is miss safety net one of empathic compassion with everyone at a distance, whereas Maureen is the drama queen where everything is an extreme it is either the absolute best or so bad.”

Am I coming down too hard on the paper? I don’t think so. Though some of the credited pieces are okay, there really isn’t anything here that I would offer as recommended reading, and much that made my brain hurt.

The previous publishers – at various times Tom Thorne, Mark Smith, Roger Bill and Greg Locke - worked hard to make Current a truly entertaining, probing and unpredictable read. I didn't always agree with everything they cranked out, but I respected what they were trying to achieve, which was a true Newfoundland and Labrador "alternative".

This is the legacy that James Baird bought into. He knew that everyone would be watching the next issue closely and that he couldn’t afford to come out with an inferior product. Yet, that is exactly what has transpired.

I am hoping for better, much better, in the next edition.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

We should think about the victim first

As one who watched the Mount Cashel scandal unfold, from a front row seat at The Sunday Express, I was a little disappointed by some of the reaction last week to sexual assault charges against Father Wayne Dohey.

A Roman Catholic priest in Placentia, Dohey was charged with one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual exploitation, for incidents that allegedly happened between 1996 and 2000. Dohey has been placed on administrative duties until the case has been tried.

Parishioner Ian Walsh of Placentia was interviewed by CBC News. He was “surprised, shocked” to learn of the charges, but did not approve of the decision to suspend Dohey, expressing concern that it might drive parishioners away from the church.

"I sincerely hope that they leave him here,” Walsh told CBC. “He's done a lot of good. I believe it would be a negative signal to the parishioners."

Details of the Father Jim Hickey case, as well as the Mount Cashel scandal, have been seared into my memory and Walsh’s comments have an eerie echo to those terrible days.

Back then, loyal parishioners seemed to lend a deaf ear to the many people who complained of sexual or other abuse. Instead, they stood behind the priests or brothers, saying they were “good men” and had done so much for the community.

I know that Father Dohey is innocent until proven guilty, and that the crimes for which he has been charged pale in comparison to the terrible deeds of Jim Hickey. However, they are serious and, until dealt with by the courts, Dohey should not have direct contact with potential future victims. The church’s response, in arranging counseling for Dohey when it became aware of the allegations in 2001, is questionable, since “counseling” – rather than justice – is also what the Christian Brothers at Mount Cashel received during the 1970s. The church had no choice but to remove Father Dohey from active duty, once the charges were finally laid.

Rather than worry about how these charges might impact the parish, Ian Walsh should consider the impact these alleged actions had on the complainant. He might ask himself how he would feel if the complainant was his own daughter.

That, to me, is the Christian thing to do.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Former Current publisher goes on trial

Whenever a magazine publisher goes on trial for a criminal offence, that’s big news. However, when the justice system goes to great lengths to try someone for one of the least serious offences in the criminal code, that’s bigger news again.

Last week saw the beginning of the mischief trial against Mark Smith, the former publisher of Current magazine (and, it should be disclosed, a former business partner of mine, though we haven’t stayed in touch).

Smith is charged with defacing the campaign signs belonging to Kevin Breen, during the municipal election of 2005. Someone had gone to great effort to produce labels that matched the colour and font of Breen’s slogan, changing it to read ‘A record of lying’ (photo by Greg Locke).

I understand that it cost Breen $160 to print new labels to cover up the offending word. Otherwise, no one was hurt by the crime. The police reaction is, therefore, a little out of proportion to the seriousness of the act itself.

I do not suggest that police ignore crimes involving damage to property. In fact, this is precisely my point. I have heard stories over the years about inadequate police response to crimes involving break and entry, theft and property damage. I am sure you’ve heard them too.

It happened to Mark Smith’s defence lawyer, Bob Buckingham, on the same weekend that the Breen signs were defaced. There was a rash of vandalism to property up and down his street, with considerable damage (certainly more than $160) including a sign that was torn from the front of his building.

“I picked up the sign and maintained it because I am familiar with fingerprint work,” Buckingham said in an interview. “But they wouldn’t take it for fingerprints because it was ‘exposed to the elements.’ Now they were wrong, but that was their line. Later on they got a suspect and I offered to give the sign to them in case the suspect had a record, but they still wouldn’t take it.”

Interestingly, the police did check the Breen sign for fingerprints that night, even though it had been exposed to the elements as well. “They did fingerprinting and nothing came up… so they sent it to the RCMP Latent Fingerprint Lab (in Ottawa) to check into it. They said this was common practice.”

The fact that they took fingerprints at all, for a crime with $160 in damage, is surprising to me. During their investigation, the police also followed Smith for some time. Please correct me if I am wrong on this, but I suspect that many more serious crimes involving theft and property damage do not get investigated as extensively as this. Buckingham said that, right from the start, the police threw themselves into the investigation “with great gung ho-ness”.

“You had the police officer reporting continuously and constantly to Breen on every little aspect and component of the investigation,” Buckingham said. “They went out of their way to please him. Why they did that is all speculation. It could be related to who’s who in the power structure, municipally and provincially, but that’s pure speculation.”

And what of the evidence itself? The fingerprinting came up with no match for Mark Smith, though they did find a print belonging to someone else – which doesn’t help the Crown’s case at all. However, they were able to prove that Smith ordered and paid for the sticky labels that were used in the commission of this crime.

But that is not enough.

Perhaps the police were unaware that Smith operates a graphic design services company and could easily have brokered this print job on behalf of a client. It is not a crime to design and order labels imprinted with the word ‘lying’; the onus is on the Crown to prove who actually affixed the labels to the signs. This, combined with some shaky testimony from Breen on Wednesday, adds up to a flimsy case indeed. How it even made it to court I will never know, but I am curious about what this trial will cost taxpayers.

Based on the evidence presented to date, Buckingham has asked the judge to deliver a directed verdict, which would essentially mean the case is tossed out. That application will be heard in April.

(As a sidebar to this story, I illustrated a cover for Current in March 2006, lampooning former police chief Richard Deering. That was my last contact with Smith. My first thought was ‘Is there a police vendetta because of this cover?’ I am pretty sure the answer is no. First, the cover appeared more than six months after the municipal election. Second, the police did not make the connection to Smith or Current until well into their investigation, after investing significant time in the case. So I don’t think their investigative zeal was motivated by a grudge against Current.)

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A little-known chapter in our history

Wednesday evening's edition of CBC's Here & Now featured a touching, eye-opening segment of 'The Finest Kind', by Deanne Fleet. It was the story of Andreas Barban (and his wife), Jewish immigrants who were accepted into Newfoundland in 1947, having escaped from Germany to the Far East. I had certainly heard of Barban, who died in 1993, but - like many others, I suspect - had no idea about the impact he had on the social and cultural fabric of this province. Frankly, if not for this item, I never would have known so kudos to Deanne Fleet for bringing it to our attention. (Why it aired at the very end of the newscast I don't know; it certainly deserved to be higher than that in the lineup.)

Fleet's piece set me to thinking about Jewish immigration, and Newfoundland's place in one of the nastiest chapters in modern history. In the years leading up to World War II, ships carrying Jewish refugees were denied landfall in North America and sent back to Europe, often to certain death. (Shown in photo are refugees on board the "St. Louis", which was denied entry by Cuba and the U.S. in 1939.)

Our acceptance of Mr. Barban and a handful of other Jewish immigrants was noble enough, but was it mere tokenism? Did Newfoundland turn away other refugees by the thousand?

I conducted some Internet research into this question. It took some time, but I came up with a fascinating, thoroughly researched article (citing numerous local sources) from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. It's called "Attempts to Settle Jewish Refugees in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1934-1939", written by Gerhard P. Bassler. You can read it here.

"It may come as a surprise to students of the Holocaust and of Newfoundland history that the Dominion of Newfoundland occupies a place in the history of the Jewish Holocaust," writes Bassler. "Due to its traditionally liberal refugee legislation, low population density, moderate climate, and challenges for immigrants with skills and capital, the island of Newfoundland and the territory of Labrador, which also belonged to the Dominion of Newfoundland, were widely considered a more suitable haven for European refugees than places like Shanghai and the Dominican Republic. In 1934, 1936, and 1939, proposals were advanced for Jewish group settlement, entailing ambitious plans for the economic development of Newfoundland and Labrador. The proposals envisaged spectacular possibilities for the refugees as well as for Newfoundland, and at least one of them came close to fruition. The contemporary public debate on these proposals and on the desirability of admitting Jewish refugees has been forgotten, and the pertinent historical literature contains no reference to it.

"Also unknown, therefore, is the fact that of the thousands of refugees petitioning to enter between 1934 and 1941, the Newfoundland government turned down all but 11 petitions. At the same time, the much smaller, poorer, and far more densely populated Dominican Republic offered sanctuary to 100,000; and the distant, overcrowded, and climatically unsuitable city of Shanghai took 20,000 refugees from Nazi persecution..."

Things were complicated by the fact that Newfoundland was living under Commission of Government at the time, so immigration policy reflected the whims and even prejudices of the appointed commissioners.

"In the 1930s the actions of the Commissioners speak louder than words. Newfoundland and Labrador might have afforded sanctuary to 10,000 or more refugees if the absorptive capacity assigned to the country by settlement experts had become a criterion for admission. Instead, the Commission turned down all the requests and petitions received by and on behalf of more than 12,000 Jewish refugees from Europe. Newfoundland's eight refugee nurses were recruited in London, not because they were refugees, but because they were the only qualified nurses available in 1939 to assume duties in the fishing outports, for which no one else could be found. The search for ways to keep refugees out on grounds other than economic appears to have been one of the chief concerns of the Commissioner for Justice. In their efforts to bar Jewish refugees from the country, the Commissioners looked to Canada as a model. Since British and Dutch farmers continued to be solicited, the systematic exclusion of non-Aryan refugees was clearly discriminatory."

Would things have been different if Newfoundland was an independent country? That is hard to say, and perhaps pointless to debate. However, Newfoundland society has always impressed me as being tolerant and relatively untainted by racism, so I suspect that we would have made a greater effort to save these people. At least, I like to think so.

He won't be a free agent for long

Once again, we are all indebted to George Murphy. The lineups were long last night as people queued to fill their tanks, alerted by Murphy to an imminent increase in the price of gasoline.

Murphy (at right, CBC photo) warned us that the price would increase by at least 7 cents per litre, and the actual increase was close to 8 cents. For drivers able to get out last night, especially with larger vehicles, the savings were substantial indeed.

No wonder then that, when George Murphy talks, people listen.

It’s amazing that George, a taxi driver with no training in economics, is able to duplicate with uncanny accuracy the work of the province’s Petroleum Pricing Office, working from the basement of his home with nothing more than a computer and an Internet connection.

Equally impressive are Murphy’s public communication skills. Prior to his volunteer work on oil and gas pricing, George had no training or experience in communications. He is now one of the province’s best-known and most respected public policy advocates. He is quick on his feet, talks with confidence and handles media interviews in a friendly, forthright manner. When he talks, people listen. Reporters are quick to answer or return his calls. People trust him.

George Murphy has what I like to call ‘trust equity’ with the public. Combine that with his great media relationships and you have probably the most effective spokesperson in the province.

As noted above, George is driving a cab for a living. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a noble occupation for sure – but Murphy is certainly under-employed for his skills and status within the community.

That’s about to change. Murphy is switching lanes onto an entirely new career path, having just completed a public relations program at CompuCollege. He is now qualified to work in communications and has already performed some contract work for clients.

Any company or organization that would like to put a consistent public face on its public and community relations should give George Murphy careful consideration. Heck, they should grab him while they can! I predict that he won’t be a free agent for much longer…

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Time vs. Maclean's: and the winner is...

A piece of junk mail caught my eye this week; an offer to subscribe to the Canadian edition of Time magazine. I am an avid reader of Maclean’s Magazine, so this piqued my curiosity. Which is the better magazine for the money?

Hands down, Time is cheaper. They are offering me 56 issues for $30 and two years for $35. One year of Maclean’s will set me back $57 and two years will cost $100, more than triple the cost of Time. However, that’s where Time’s advantage ends.

Unless you have an affinity for superficial coverage of American news and don’t give a fiddler’s fart about what’s going on in Canada, Time is a waste of paper. The Canadian edition is a misnomer, since the two recent issues I examined had almost no Canadian content. There was one article in the January 1 edition about the Canadian Man of the Year (Stephen Harper) and the February 12 issue was Canuck-free. Calling the magazine ‘Canadian’ borders on deception.

MacLean’s, on the other hand, is a remarkably good magazine. I have been a subscriber for more than 10 years, and have seen the magazine evolve from a dry, dust-gathering fixture at the dentist’s office to a vibrant and challenging read. When editor Anthony Wilson-Smith left in 2005, to be replaced by Ken Whyte, former editor of the right-leaning National Post, there was concern that the magazine would tip too far to the right. While this influence is there, on the editorial page and in the appointment of former National Post writers – such as Mark Steyn – it is clear that Whyte’s priority, first and foremost, is to create a quality magazine packed with provocative reading.

Maclean’s has abandoned its dry weekly news wrap-up format, in favour of a more featurish, analytical and subjective writing style (which is essential, since weekly glossies cannot compete with daily newspapers and electronic media for straight news coverage). The magazine has also gotten bigger, increasing content by 30% and more.

My favorite columnists in Maclean’s are Paul Wells (penetrating political commentary), Andrew Potter (intelligent, left leaning) and Scott Feschuk (the funniest man on earth). The arts and entertainment section is bigger and better, and the writing throughout is always good and often excellent. If you haven’t read Maclean’s Magazine in a few years, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy. You will not be disappointed. (Hint: it is much cheaper to subscribe.)

Above all, don’t waste your money on Time magazine!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

More questionable marketing stunts

Hot on the heels of that disastrous promotional stunt in Boston, in which blinking electronic packages – planted to promote a cartoon series – stirred fears of terrorist bombs, come two more ‘what were they thinking’ moments in marketing.

Still in Boston, Cadbury Schweppes got into hot water when it sent people on a treasure hunt, looking for a buried coin that was worth $1.5 million to the finder. What raised eyebrows in this instance was the location of the treasure hunt: the coin was buried in Boston’s 350-year-old Granary Burying Ground, resting place of John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and other famous U.S. citizens.

According to a contrite Cadbury spokesperson, the historic cemetery “was not an appropriate place to bury a coin. It was poor judgment and we have apologized to the authorities. No damage was done to the graves.”

Just before that, the folks at KFC caused a holy ruckus with the launch of their new Fish Snacker sandwich, which the company says is ideal for “American Catholics who want to observe Lenten season traditions” while leading busy lifestyles. Gregg Dedrick, the President of KFC, went straight to the top in searching for a product endorsement.

“The company has turned to Pope Benedict XVI, beseeching him to bestow his Papal blessing for this innovative new menu item,” KFC said in a press release. “Vatican officials confirmed they received KFC's request, and the company is hopeful to get the Pope's blessing this Lenten season.”

If this was a joke, it didn’t ring true and the stunt gave heartburn to many American Catholics. As far as I can tell, the company still hasn’t issued an apology.

Still with KFC, I wonder if the company was trying to appeal to a higher power with another promo stunt, the recent unveiling of what the company says is the “world’s first brand visible from space" (image below).

Yes, the Colonel’s face can now be seen by extraterrestrials, hungry perhaps for some unidentified frying objects. The logo covers an area of 87,500 square feet in the Nevada desert, also known as the UFO capital of the world. (The logo is much larger than a 75 X 110 foot replica of a Maxim magazine cover that was assembled last year, also in Nevada.)

And then, in the midst of all these marketing public relations ‘wins’, KFC gets stuck with this stinker of a video clip on You-Tube, exposing a rat infestation at a KFC/Taco Bell in New York. Which goes to show that there is indeed such a thing as 'bad publicity'.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Avalon caribou are safe for now

The CBC Radio Morning Show had a great follow this morning (Monday) on an item it aired last Friday, about a grass roots movement to open up the Avalon Wilderness Reserve to snowmobile traffic. The small group of retired people behind the movement, who seem credible enough, say they respect nature and will behave responsibly. They also said the Avalon caribou herd that the reserve is intended to protect has dwindled from thousands of animals to hundreds, and that there were none left in their neck of the woods anyway.

That item resulted in a flood of calls from listeners, every one voicing opposition in a most articulate way to changing the regulations. This was followed by an interview with wildlife biologist Dennis Minty, who presented a persuasive case against opening the reserve to the machines. His key point: years ago, caribou numbers in the reserve had declined to a few hundred animals, and the reserve had been instrumental in bringing them back from the brink. Opening it up now can only cause harm to the herd, which has been decimated by a persistent outbreak of brainworm.

Host Jeff Gilhooly also made a good point: the proponents of this notion may well be responsible, but it would open up the area to "cowboys" with less noble intentions.

The environment minister is going to be interviewed on Tuesday, but it's safe to say that this issue is already dead in the water... or should that be lost in the wilderness?

Friday, March 2, 2007

Cochrane's speech had quite an impact

The full text of David Cochrane’s speech to the St. John’s Board of Trade, which you can read in its entirety two posts down, has generated a lot of discussion over the last two days.

My blog is less than a month old so, up to now, I was getting about two hundred hits per day. Word of mouth is an amazing thing because, soon after the post appeared, I was getting almost a hundred hits per hour! The hits are still coming at a pretty steady pace, so I know that Cochrane’s speech is having an impact.

Thanks for this must go to Ed Hollett, Simon Lono, Craig Welsh and the six or seven others who flagged the Cochrane speech in their blogs.

The entry seems to have touched a nerve, because the majority of comments (on this blog and elsewhere) applaud Cochrane for expressing his views. Naturally, some people didn’t agree, and that’s fine too, though those people who accused Cochrane of political bias or hidden agenda did not get the point.

What Cochrane advocates is open discussion and debate of the issues; an environment where questioning the government’s approach is not equated with a lack of patriotism. This is essential to any healthy democracy.

I am a big fan of disclosure so, for those who don’t know me, it is no secret that I do a fair bit of consulting work for the oil and gas industry. That said, I am not a mouthpiece for the industry. I am at a point in my career where clients pay for my ideas and advice, and respect my counsel. They do not expect me to shill for them. My opinions – which will gradually unfold in the weeks and months ahead – are honestly held and based on a career that includes 12 years of journalism and 15 years in communications, working with technology, mining and oil and gas companies, as well as public sector and not-for-profit clients.

My political affiliations? I have none to any particular party. In the federal election of 2006, I volunteered to handle media for Liberal candidate Siobhan Coady, but this does not make me a Liberal. I simply have a great deal of respect for the candidate. In the last provincial election, I voted PC, because I liked Danny’s business background and believed that he could get the best deal for the province in resource development. Where I stand on that is a subject for another day…