Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why are people defending Evan Solomon? I'd fire him

I’m baffled by people arguing that CBC host Evan Solomon shouldn’t have been fired.
The conflict of interest seems obvious.
Solomon was inviting rich and powerful people on his TV and radio shows. He made a secret deal with a friend and art collector to try and get some of those people to buy some of the works from his collection in return for a 10-per-cent commission.
So how tough are the interview questions going to be? If Solomon wanted to persuade former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to spend thousands of dollars on paintings from his friend Bruce Bailey’s collection, is he going to risk alienating him during a 10-minute interview?
We’re not talking small change. Solomon pocketed $300,000 in barely 12 months on works sold to Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research in Motion (now Blackberry). Solomon’s access to Balsillie came because he was ostensibly trying to woo him as a guest on his interview show.
So he used his CBC position to make contact with Balsillie and, when they met for the first time, brought Bailey along as a guest. If Balsillie had appeared on the show - that never worked out - would Solomon have put his big commission cheques at risk with a tough interview?
And, more importantly, what would a reasonable viewer who learned of the secret deal think about Solomon’s independence or commitment to journalism?
Solomon has not spoken about the deal, or the firing. In a written statement, he claimed he had disclosed the arrangement to CBC management.
But that appears to be a half-truth. He signed the 10-per-cent deal with Bailey in August 2013, and kept it secret until this year, when he and Bailey got in a $1-million fight over the commissions owed and the truth was going to come out.
Personally, it seems sleazy to me to be steering people to buy art, supposedly as a friend, without revealing you’re getting secret payments if they buy. That’s a conflict worth declaring in personal life.
The whole affair also highlights - again - the palsiness of celebrity journalists and the powerful in a club with its own unwritten rules. (I’ve written about distance between journalists and the people they cover in The Tyee.)
There are good questions still to ask. Why did CBC only act when the Toronto Star reported the story, rather than investigating more thoroughly when Solomon belatedly revealed the arrangement?
And, as Bruce Livesay asks here, how come Solomon got a quick chop when Amanda Lang, also caught out in a serious conflict, was defended by CBC brass.
But Solomon betrayed the trust of the corporation and viewers by creating a clear conflict between his roles as journalist and commissioned art salesman. His credibility is gone.
I’d fire him.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Six thoughts on that Alberta election

Six thoughts on the Alberta election.
First, this is not that wild a swing. Rachel Notley is a moderate. That’s how she got elected. And, with occasional exceptions like Ralph Klein in his first years, the province’s Conservative governments haven’t been extreme either, with a populist willingness to spend on health and education, and even arts, when it’s politically useful. That’s how they kept getting elected. (Even Klein wasn’t really that extreme. He cut health spending by 15 per cent in his first three years in office, but then put the money back. From 1992 to 2001, Alberta's health spending increased by almost exactly the same percentage as British Columbia's.)
My dad at 90
Second, it’s hard to overstate what a total botch Jim Prentice made of this election. I spent last week in Alberta - it was my dad’s 90th birthday - and there was massive disdain for the premier. Despite a fixed election date law, he was seen to have called the vote out of opportunism. He told Albertans they should “look in the mirror” to see who was to blame for the province’s current woes, ignoring the fact his party was in power and persuaded Albertans to support its policies. He proposed increasing taxes for individuals, but not for corporations. He welcomed the mass defection of Wild Rose MLAs to the Conservatives and tried to guarantee some of the defectors party nominations. He was ineffectual in the leaders’ debate, delivering a patronizing “Math is hard” comment to Notley that made him look sexist and arrogant. By campaign’s end, all Prentice had to offer was threats that people should vote for him to stave off some unclear menace. He looked arrogant and out of touch.
Third, the NDP owes a lot of its success to the incompetence of the Conservatives. Even 10 days ago, when I landed in Medicine Hat, there was a sense that the Conservatives could survive if Wild Rose supporters were prepared to hold their noses and vote strategically to block the NDP. But with each day, the polls showed the Conservatives running farther behind, in third place in many ridings. Strategic voting lost any appeal. The party’s brand stunk of failure.
Fourth, voters didn’t just ignore the warnings of doom from the corporate supporters of the Conservatives. Their presumption in assuming the right to tell people how to vote damaged Prentice. The four major daily newspapers - apparently on orders from their Toronto-based, U.S-controlled head office - endorsed Prentice, and were also ignored.
Fifth, the new NDP government is likely going to have some big problems. I was newspapering in Peterborough in 1990 when Bob Rae won a surprise NDP victory in Ontario. Our New Democrat candidate was a high school teacher who had run with no expectation of winning, and then found herself energy minister. It did not go well. The Alberta New Democrats had four seats in the legislature. Now Notley needs to come up with a cabinet. Even with qualified people, there is a learning curve and there are bound to be missteps.
Sixth, give credit to Notley. She made a connection with voters, raised the idea that taxes are a useful way to pay for services and noted that different segments of society have different interests. Voters liked her better than the other leaders and trusted her more, enough to reject the fear-mongering. That’s a great asset for any new premier.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Another bleak update for Postmedia, with a shark waiting to be leaped

It looks like Postmedia has moved into asset-strip mode, based on its latest quarterly report.
The results were dismal, as they have been every quarter since the corporation bought the newspapers of near-bankrupt Canwest in 2010. Revenues are down 11.3 per cent for the first six months of the fiscal year, about $42 million. Expenses were down 10.8 per cent, or $32 million.
Postmedia management appears to have no solutions. They are cutting expenses, but not fast enough to match falling revenues. At the same time, the cuts are reducing value for readers and advertisers, which leads to more revenue losses. It’s a relentless downward spiral.
Paul Godfrey
Earnings before interest, depreciation and taxation were $190 million in 2011. This year, they will be about half that amount. The company is about two years away from being unable to meet the interest payments to the hedge funds that put up the cash to buy the Canwest properties. 
CEO Paul Godfrey initially talked about strategies to increase revenues at the 10 dailies across Canada. He was enthusiastic about  “Digital First,” an early initiative that has been a bust. Digital revenues - subscriptions and advertising - will be about $88 million this year, unchanged in four years. If the future is digital, Postmedia is in trouble.
The latest quarterly update includes a telling note on costs. 
Postmedia has outsourced production at three newspapers over the last 18 months.
Corporations usually contract out because its cheaper. But Postmedia reports production expenses jumped 25 per cent for the first half of this fiscal year, “primarily as a result of outsourced newspaper production of the Calgary Herald in November 2013, the Montreal Gazette in August 2014 and both The Vancouver Sun and The Province in February 2015.” The increased costs are about $9 million a year.
The contracting-out program does free up some real estate for sale, which will let Postmedia reduce its debt load.
But a corporation can look at that process in two ways.
If the debt repayment results in interest-rate savings greater than the increased production costs, the company is protecting its long-term sustainability.
If, however, the increase in production costs is greater than the interest savings, then the company is more focused on loan repayment than its future.
Postmedia looks to be taking the latter approach.
In Vancouver, Postmedia sold the press building for $17.5 million and handed the full amount over to Unifor, the union representing employees. The union agreement had strong language preventing contracting out; the payment was compensation for accepting the change. The deal saw $11.5 million in severance for affected employees, and $6 million paid to Unifor that it can spend “as it sees fit for the benefit” of affected employees.
In Montreal, the press centre was sold for $12.4 million. The Calgary Herald building - constructed in 1980, when newspapers managers thought the future was bright - is assessed at $41 million. Even if it brings $50 million, the interest savings will be barely half the increased production costs.
Which makes Postmedia look like a corporation in the process of wringing value from its assets before selling the remains, or writing them off.
Postmedia’s purchase of Quebecor’s 175 English-language newspapers, including the Toronto Sun and 32 other paid-circulation dailies, doesn’t change that. 
Quebecor sold cheaply at $316 million, or about $1.8 million per newspaper. (Quebecor had spent something over $1.5 billion assembling the group of newspapers since 1998.) The business has been trending steadily downward, but the properties still produce about $85 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and interest. And Postmedia hopes to make $60 million by selling the newspaper’s offices, and leasing space. (Again, not necessarily a sound long-term decision.)
But the deal does not change the fundamental problems facing Postmedia.
There is a point where business owners decide that the best strategy is to extract the most value in the limited time remaining. Based on the quarterly report, Postmedia looks to have reached that point.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Andrew Weaver, the National Post and media accountability

The National Post devoted just 160 words to the news it had lost a defamation suit launched by Victoria  climate scientist and Green MLA Andrew Weaver and had to pay him $50,000. Even that brief report didn’t come until two days after other media reported the B.C. Supreme Court decision.
It was a striking contrast to the Post coverage when television personality Ezra Levant lost a similar defamation suit in November. That was big news and reported in an 800-word article.
The piece had a catchy headline “Levant guilty of defamation, must pay $80K; 'Reckless.'” The lead was dramatic. “In his blogging about Canada's hate speech laws, rightwing personality Ezra Levant defamed a young law student as a serial liar, a bigot and a Jew-hating ‘illiberal Islamic fascist,’ bent on destroying Canada's tradition of free expression, a judge has found.
The Post’s coverage of its own defamation defeat wasn’t just shorter, it was duller. 
The headline was “Climate scientist wins defamation suit against National Post.” The lead lacked the Levant story’s flair. “A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ordered the National Post to pay climate scientist Andrew Weaver $50,000 in damages in a defamation suit over articles published in 2009 and 2010,” the Post reported tersely.
The Levant judgment was more damning. But a finding that the Post and three of its writers - including the business editor - all defamed Weaver seems like big enough news to rate more than six paragraphs.
And when the Post decided to appeal the judgment this week, that rated a story twice as long as the original story on the verdict. 
Not to single out the National Post. Generally, the news media can dish it out, but aren’t so good at taking it. 
The Toronto Star ran a seriously flawed article on Gardasil vaccines last month. The front-page play and banner headline - “A wonder drug’s dark side” - suggested great importance. The stories of young women who suffered serious problems after vaccination were heartrending.
They far overshadowed the story’s cautions that, despite the headline, there was no established link between any of the women’s illnesses and the vaccination. There was overwhelming scientific consensus the vaccine is safe and effective.
The article drew immediate criticism. And The Star’s reaction was to deny any possible problem and to bash the critics. Editor Michael Cooke indulged in insulting Twitter exchanges. Columnist Heather Mallick responded with a generally baffling piece. The Gardasil vaccine story, she wrote “was not about the drug itself — it is safe and effective — but about parents and girls not always being told what they need to know in order to make informed decisions, and being dismissed by doctors when they became terribly ill.”
It’s impossible to reconcile that claim with the actual headline or the story. 
And Mallick dismissed one critic of the story casually. “Here’s a tip: don’t read a website run by a rural doctor whose slogan is ‘wielding the lasso of truth,’” she wrote. Leaving aside the assumption that rural doctors know nothing, Dr. Jen Gunter is an ob-gyn certified in Canada and the U.S. and practises in San Francisco. 
The Star eventually admitted it blew the story. The public editor set out the problems, the publisher apologized.
But the first response was self-righteous defensiveness, and attacks on anyone who dared criticize.
That’s a newsroom instinct. Partly, it’s justified. Anyone who has spent time in news management has faced pressure from the powerful, or people who think they are powerful. Managers know staff are watching to see if they cave.
But it’s also a way of avoiding justified criticism, or self-examination. 
There was a legitimate story in The Star report, especially around the level of informed consent. But it was lost in the torqued presentation. The point of the story, to any reasonable reader, was that the HPV vaccine Gardasil could leave you terribly sick and permanently injured. There is no evidence that is true, and noting that in a few paragraphs is not enough.
The Globe and Mail’s response to columnist Margaret Wente’s serial plagiarism followed the same pattern of initial defensiveness and dismissal of the person pointing out the problem. (An “anonymous blogger,” the Globe’s public editor sniffed.) There is an instant tendency to reject any criticism as uninformed or malicious, attack the critics and claim some imaginary high ground.
The news media got away with that kind response in the old days, when they were more powerful and critics had a hard time finding a platform.
But times have changed. Wente’s serial plagiarism was discovered and documented by Carol Wainio, an artist and university professor. She shared it on her blog and the compelling evidence was widely shared on the Internet. 
Attacking the messenger doesn’t work when people can see the evidence for themselves. 
It’s a welcome development. Newspapers can quit funding ineffectual press councils (as the major daily newspapers in British Columbia have already done). News media no longer need public editors or ombudspeople or readers’ representatives.
If they mess up, they will be held to account in public forums. News media that welcome the new accountability and the chance to learn from mistakes - which are inevitable - will increase their engagement with their audiences. 
And those that opt for defensiveness or unjustified attacks on critics will find credibility fading away.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Clark backs right to unions, except for health workers

Union rights for construction trades...  but not for these women Photo: NS News

It’s tough to buy Premier Christy Clark’s sudden commitment to people’s right to organize a union. 
Not when her government continues to make it impossible for thousands of low-paid workers in seniors’ care homes to join a union and freely negotiate workable collective agreements.
Clark over-ruled B.C. Hydro, the provincial bureaucracy and several cabinet ministers last week and ordered the Crown corporation to ease its efforts to keep the Site C dam a non-union project.
She singled out measures designed to prevent employees from deciding to form a union. "I don’t believe that’s legal, I don’t believe it’s right," Clark said. "I believe they should have the right to organize and BC Hydro can’t take that away."

Clark should meet with the employees at Inglewood Care Centre in West Vancouver. They decided to join the Hospital Employees’ Union in late 2013, and set out to negotiate a first collective agreement with Carecorp, the contractor that provides labour to Inglewood and residences.
By December, the two sides were far apart and the union issued strike notice.
And Carecorp responded by firing more than 230 employees. It is giving up its contract with Unicare, the corporation that operates Inglewood and six other similar residences in B.C., Alberta and Washington. 
Unicare will find a new contractor for Inglewood. The employees will lose their jobs, although many will be rehired by the new contractor, without seniority and at new wages and benefits.
And the union will disappear. 
Sure, the new employees and the HEU or some other union can go through the difficult certification process again. 
But that’s a tough sell once employees know that if they do, they’ll just get fired again. What’s the point?
The contractor shuffle has become common practice across B.C., as care homes  and seniors’ residences - privately owned, but also funded by health authorities - change contractors once employees unionize and try to negotiate a contract.
Bad for the employees, obviously, and bad for residents of the homes as wholesale staff changes every few years create training problems and a lack of continuity.
And certainly a concern for Christy Clark if she really believes employees have a right to organize.
The B.C. labour code allows employers to contract out work, unless an existing collective agreement prohibits it. 
But unionized employees outside the health and social services sectors have the right to appeal to the labour board if they believe that the decision to contract out, or change contractors, is aimed at getting rid of the union. The board can impose remedies, and the union certification and collective agreement can be forced on the new contractor.
That changed for health and social service employees after 2003, when the Liberal government used legislation to remove prohibitions on contracting out from their collective agreements. The legislation also said the labour code sections on successor rights would not apply to these groups of employees.
The government wanted to cut spending. It chose to achieve the goal by weakening the unions, making it harder for employees to organize and driving down wages and benefits for people working in hospitals, care homes and community social services. 
It worked. And those provisions survived the Supreme Court of Canada that found many other aspects of the government’s legislation attacking the unions were illegal.
But if Christy Clark really believes that employees have a right to organize, and that it is “wrong” to try and prevent that from happening, then she needs to fix this problem.
Labour law is about balance. And the current law tilts the balance entirely in the employers’ favour in the health and social services sectors. 
Sure, the employees can decide to form a union, just like other workers. They can try to negotiate a first contract, never an easy task.
But they can’t really bargain like other employees. Because they know that the care home can cancel the contract with one service provider and sign a deal with another contractor. The employees are on the street. The union ceases to exist. And unlike public-sector managers, the employees get no severance. The Employment Standards Act just requires working notice.
And the government has never made an effective argument for denying one group of employees the rights enjoyed by everyone else in the province.
The cynical might argue Clark’s Site C position was motivated by a desire to stay on the good side of Tom Sigurdson and the B.C. and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents workers on big construction projects. Or by the lawsuit the the council had filed against B.C. Hydro’s plans.
But assume the premier does believe employees have the right to decide to form a union and try to negotiate a collective agreement (even if they are ultimately unsuccessful).
If it was wrong for B.C. Hydro to deny those basic rights to construction workers, how can it be less wrong for the provincial government to do the same for care aides, cooks and other workers in the health and social services sector?

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Letter from Leon: Battling the dust storms

Looking from the square to the Iglesia el calvario on a sunny, dusty Saturday

When we said were heading to Leon once our Cuso International placements ended, our Nicaraguan co-workers warned us about the heat.
They forgot to mention the dust storms.
It is hot, heading to 36 today. But we’re pretty good at handling heat by now.
But the dust, it’s new. We’ve been here a week. For the first few days, we just marveled at the need to sweep four or five times a day and the way every surface was covered in fine black grit in a matter of hours. It didn’t seem that surprising, since windows and doors needed to be open to battle the heat.
Yesterday, things got crazy. The winds were much stronger and the dust storms turned the sky a pale yellow, blocked the view of nearby hills and even made it hard to see churches from a few blocks away. The six-block walk to the market was decidedly unpleasant as dust coated skin and scratched at eyes. Drivers coming into town had their headlights on at midday. (Not the norm here.)
Our house has windows and doors that we can close. Lots of people, including some of our neighbours, make do with sheets hung over the windowless gaps in the wall.
Partly, Leon is just a victim of its environment. Strong winds - about 45 km/h an hour as I write this and gusting way higher - sweep toward the Pacific coast, about 20 kms away. We’re surrounded by volcanos, and the fine ash from past eruptions travels easily.
But people here also point to the loss of windbreaks and ground cover that stopped soil from being blown away. The big agricultural producers of sugar cane and peanuts take a lot of the blame, and the Google satellite view of the region shows vast areas of soil waiting for planting - or to be blown away.
It’s not just the big producers though. Poor families cook with wood, and windbreaks are convenient places to find fuel, whether to use or to stack in the yard and sell to other people.
It’s blowing even harder today. The doors and windows are rattling, and you can see the dust clouds racing across the sky. The winds produce mysterious cracks and bangs from all directions.
We were going to head to the ocean, but it seemed a like a better day to stay in the house. We’ve got a little terrace off the kitchen, with walls about four metres high on two sides and an end wall of brick and corrugated tin that towers about nine metres over the space. They break the wind and it still gets sun.
And the terrace has a pila - a concrete sink with space to store water and wash clothes. We’ve also got a big blue plastic barrel which, as veterans of Central America, we keep filled with water. If you get hot, or dusty, you can just dump buckets of water on your head.
Which, it turns out, is lucky. Yesterday the water was off by 9:30 and didn’t come back until 5 p.m. It’s out again today. 
Angry Leon residents marched in the streets last July to demand the government do something about the dust storms - plant more trees, make stricter rules for the big farmers. They worry about illness as well as the pure unpleasantness of being pelted by dust and finding everything you own covered in grit minutes after you’ve cleaned up.
If they take to the streets this month, I will be with them.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

In The Tyee - my piece on why journalists shouldn't be friends with the people they cover

Journalists: Never Befriend a Source

Columnist's athlete admission shows favourable coverage -- not good reporting.
By Paul Willcocks, Today, TheTyee.ca
Reporter
A too-cozy relationship between a journalist and source hurts coverage.Flickr photo: by Mr.TinDC

Related

It probably wasn't the point he wanted to make, but Globe and Mail sportswriter Cathal Kelly set out the definitive argument for keeping a studied distance between journalists and the people they write about.
Kelly was reacting to a rant by Toronto Maple Leaf player Phil Kessel about how unfairly the media has been treating the team's captain Dion Phaneuf.
Maybe that's true, Kelly wrote. But the players don't treat the reporters like people. If the athletes were nicer, learned journalists' names, pretended to be interested in them, then the coverage would be kinder too.
Chat with a reporter in a coffee shop lineup or schmooze in the dressing room, and everything changes.
''Once that's happened, you'll never rip that guy in print,'' Kelly writes. ''You'll criticize, but the ripping days are over. He's not just someone you cover any more. He's someone you know.”
It was a weird piece. Readers think journalists are doing a professional job of covering sports or business or politics. They don't expect a few fake pleasantries from the subject -- or their absence -- determines what and how the journalist writes...