Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Sparwood 'Bogeyman' who slipped through the cracks

From my piece in The Tyee today.

Randall Hopley, the Sparwood bogeyman, was back in the news last week.
Hopley is the scrawny loner who grabbed three-year-old Kienan Hebert from his bed and held him for four days in 2011. Hopley then eluded a massive RCMP manhunt and snuck Kienan, unhurt, back into the family home, leaving him snugly wrapped in a blanket. It took another three days for police to catch Hopley.
It was a rare story that justified the news media cliché "every parent's worst nightmare." Kienan was a cute kid from a caring family. Hopley was a 46-year-old loner with a long criminal record who lived in a trailer and drove a clapped out 24-year-old Toyota. Police released pictures that showed an unshaven man with blotchy skin and a bad haircut.
But Hopley was also a perfect example of how badly things can go when we don't do anything to deal with a little kid's problems and just boot him into the world.

The kidnapping was one of the chapters in Dead Ends: B.C. Crime Stories, my book published last year. (Available in fine bookstores or through Amazon and Chapters.) The story was gripping. But so was Hopley's sad life.

Check out the rest of the column here.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Letter from Managua: Bright lights, poor country

If you’re in a window seat, you probably see the giant yellow trees of life before you land in Managua.
They’re hard to miss. About 21 metres tall - imagine a five-storey building - and 13 metres across, 17,000 bright yellow lights on each one. Some 134 and counting are scattered across Managua - in the centre of rotondas (roundabouts), in boulevards and in a dense array along Avenida Bolivar, the main street leading down to the lakefront.
‘Que bonita,’ we said to our taxi driver as we drove past the trees one night early in our stay a year ago. 
He grunted. A lot of people without electricity in their houses, he said, and the government is putting up pretty trees. Who’s paying the bills to keep the lights on? What do they cost? 
Good questions, and the first indication that the trees - pretty as they are - were not universally beloved.
The trees are a pet project of Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega. Murillo, who is also communications minister and the only spokesperson for the government, is interesting - educated in England and Switzerland, a revolutionary and a poet who appears in public draped in flowing scarves and a dizzying number of bracelets, necklaces and rings.
Murillo had the first eight metal trees put up in 2013 for the annual rally to celebrate the 1979 Sandinista victory and and the resignation of Antonio Somoza. The design is based Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting of the tree of life, a powerful image. 
Since then, Murillo has kept on planting the metal trees around around the city. The
Rotonda Hugo Chavez near our old house had three of them and a giant illuminated portrait of the late Venezuelan president, a benefactor of Nicaragua.
When we returned from Canada in September, a new copse of trees had appeared in different colours. The bright yellow has been joined by greens and blues and reds and purples. 
There is a small forest in the new waterfront park on Lake Managua, and the push is on to have more ready by December and La Purisma - celebrating the conception of Mary - and Christmas. On our way home from a play last week, we spotted the white-hot lights as welders assembled more trees in a field near the central square.(Why is there a field near the central square? A 1972 earthquake flattened the city and aid that was supposed to support rebuilding was stolen by the Somozas. Managua was rebuilt in a sprawling, decentralized way. Some 43 years after the earthquake, the old cathedral on the main square is still unsafe to enter.)
La Prensa, one of the two main newspapers, has been taking a critical look at the trees of life. The stories noted the cost, at $25,000 U.S. each, is now about $3.4 million. The electricity bill is about $1.1 million a year, La Prensa said. 
That’s a lot of money in a poor country. At least 30 per cent of Nicaraguans live in poverty. Probably more. About 22 per cent of the population didn’t have electricity in 2012, according to the World Bank.
La Prensa found experts to say what could have been done with the money spent on the electric trees - replant the region around Managua with real trees, or bring electricity to thousands of homes.
I understand politics in Canada. I figured out the politics of Honduras in about six months.
But Nicaragua is more complex. 
The media aren’t much help. The newspapers are anti-Ortega. La Prensa, in every story that mentions Ortega, refers to him as the “unconstitutional president.” (The constitution limited presidents to one term; that was changed to allow Ortega to continue to govern. He’s on his third term.) The TV stations are largely pro-government. 
There are big protests, especially about the government’s plan to let a Chinese billionaire build a canal across Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. But a Cid Gallup poll last month found 66 per cent of Nicaraguans gave Ortega a positive approval rating. The opposition is divided and, from my perspective as a visitor, ineffectual.
And after 36 years, Daniel Ortega’s role as leader of the Sandinista revolution is still powerful. We rented a house in Leon earlier this year. There was a little red and black concrete monument, a couple of feet tall, that said our neighbourhood was called the Barrio 4 de Mayo, in honour of four young men dragged from their homes by Somoza’s National Guard and killed on May 4, 1979, barely two months before the revolution triumphed. 
Our neighbour told Jody how her two brothers were executed in the street, where children now played.
Maybe Ortega has disappointed. Maybe the trees are a wasteful extravagance. But many Nicaraguans remember how it used to be, in the days when death came in the night.

Murillo seemed unchastened by the media attention. More trees would be going up, bringing “beauty, colour and love” to Managua, she told the media.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Clark scandal is about corruption and an attack on democracy, not just FOI

In my long-ago days running newspapers, we were preparing - once again - for a trip to the Labour Relations Board for some sort of hearing.
Our labour lawyer had come over from Vancouver as we sorted through the documents we were legally required to disclose to the union's lawyer in advance of the hearing.
The HR vice-president from Toronto who was 'helping' with negotiations and strategy came across a note she had scribbled on a scrap of paper - a few words, a thought during a meeting.
"I don't have to disclose that," she said. "It's practically a doodle."
And the lawyer, very pleasantly, told her that she did have to disclose and he wasn't going to stand for anything less than total adherence to the rules.
I'd always like him. I liked him more after that.
Which provides context for my Tyee column on the Liberal government's willingness to break the law to protect its own interests.
In the column, I write:
"The state has immense power, and politicians and their operatives are motivated to wield that power to protect their own interests. Citizens, ultimately, are protected by the rule of law. If the state's agents put themselves above the law, citizens have lost the most important thing standing between them and oppression."
That's what is at stake in this case.
You can read the column here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A good - and bleak - look at Postmedia's drift toward the rocks

The Globe and Mail’s James Bradshaw has a good piece on Postmedia today, confirming the bleak future and lack of any real plan for Canada’s largest newspaper company.
No one can see an end to revenue declines that have come every quarter since Postmedia scooped up Canwest newspaper properties as they headed to bankruptcy, the article confirms.
And Postmedia management has no idea what to do about it and no vision for a sustainable future for the company, at least based on Bradshaw’s piece.
I especially liked CEO Paul Godfrey’s comments on the cuts that have damaged the quality of the newspapers and service to advertisers.
“We’ve said over the last five years, three or four times, God we can’t go any further [with cuts], we can’t go any further. And yet we always have been able to,” he said. But at what cost? “That’s the big question,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knows when they’ve gone too far until they’ve gone too far.”
Candid, I suppose. But hardly suggesting management with a plan.
Godfrey also confirmed Postmedia’s attempt to build digital audiences and revenues with tablet and smartphone products hasn’t worked.
“Mr. Godfrey is pressing ahead with a “four-platform” revamp, which has built new apps for smartphones and tablets and redesigned print editions and websites at the Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette and Ottawa Citizen. The rollout has been on pause while the company retools some aspects – “We learned a lot; everything we did wasn’t great,” Mr. Godfrey said – but will resume soon with the Edmonton Journal and Windsor Star.  According to figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, however, daily circulation of digital editions on phones and tablets at the Citizen and Gazette are about 11,000 for each paper, excluding copies used for education, compared with about 65,000 and 55,000 copies respectively for print.”
But “pressing ahead” hardly seems accurate. Godfrey announced that four-platform plan in the company’s 2012 annual report, promising "a laser focus on accelerating the transformation.”
Three years later, only three papers have implemented the plan, apparently without much success.
There are no magic solutions for newspapers. But Bradshaw’s piece paints a bleak picture of the future for Postmedia and its network of papers.
I’ve written about Postmedia’s woes and lack of direction before. Just search on Postmedia on the blog, or check out my recent piece for The Tyee here.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Glacier Media, and more bad news for the future of newspapers

It’s a bad sign when even newspaper companies no longer like the business.
Glacier Media’s latest quarterly report, released last week, suggested the corporation has pretty much given up on a long-term future for its 30 newspapers across B.C.
Vancouver-based Glacier had been seen as a newspaper company (to the detriment of its share price). But it also has information services aimed at more specialized markets - real estate, agriculture, energy and mining, for example.
And that, management says, is where the corporation’s future lies. Newspapers are in decline. The company’s plan is to extract cash during their remaining time and invest it in businesses with growth prospects.
Glacier puts it fairly bluntly: “The Company’s objective is to grow its business information assets and the portion of cash flow generated by these operations, which have higher growth profiles and valuations, and harvest the cash flow from community media assets and reduce the related financial and operating exposure.”
Conventional wisdom has been that small community newspapers - the core of Glacier’s holdings - have a brighter future than urban dailies.
But the corporation no longer shares that optimism.
Newspapers do “generate significant cash flow and provide scale for the Company,” the quarterly report says. “Efforts will be made to restructure community media assets to create greater direct value and simplicity for Glacier, or monetize where appropriate value can be realized.” (Restructure usually means cuts. Monetize means sell, which raises some other interesting questions. )
It’s hard to argue with management’s conclusions.
Glacier’s newspaper revenue fell 9.8 per cent in the last quarter, continuing a long skid. And that is after the corporation swapped papers with Black Press in December to eliminate competition in parts of the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island and, theoretically, increase profitability.
Newspapers still provide about 65 per cent of the corporation’s revenues. (Hence the reference to providing “scale.” Glacier is a small company without the newspaper revenues.)
But the newspaper profit margins are shrinking. On an operating basis, the business information division produced earnings equal to 27 per cent of revenue; for newspapers the return is nine per cent. (Before joint administration costs, interest, taxes and depreciation.) 
This is the first time Glacier has reported the results of its two divisions separately, as it moves to redefine the corporation.
There was another first. Glacier bought the Victoria Times Colonist in 2011, as part of an $87-million deal that included two other small dailies and 20 weeklies. Postmedia’s community papers in the Lower Mainland were likely the prize that Glacier wanted.
The corporation has acknowledged, vaguely, that it is not the sole owner, describing “certain assets acquired from Postmedia” as “Joint Ventures and Associates.”
In the latest report, after the swap with Black Press, it specifically put the Times Colonist in that category, without saying who was the “associate” involved.
An informed bet would be that Glacier’s associate is David Radler, Conrad Black’s long-time business partner jailed for mail fraud. The corporation has partnered with Radler in newspaper properties in Alberta, the Okanagan and the U.S. He is still, apparently, taking a management or advisory role at the Times Colonist.
Which raise some interesting speculation about the plan to “monetize” its newspaper assets. The Times Colonist, as a daily newspaper in a mid-size city, never fit with Glacier’s focus. It’s even possible Postmedia forced Glacier to take the Victoria daily if it wanted the Lower Mainland community papers.
If Glacier wants out, Radler is the person most likely to take over.
Footnote: I have sat through this movie before. My stints as publisher in Peterborough and Victoria came as the Thomson Corporation made one last stab at bringing growth to its newspapers in Canada and the U.S. It decided, after four or five years of effort, that the future was bleak. It sold the newspapers and invested in high-value information services. Glacier is taking the same route.

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,
A too-cozy relationship between a journalist and source hurts coverage.Flickr photo: by Mr.TinDC


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...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Saanich, Atwell, online noise and big issues being ignored

   Train wreck, gong show, circus - the clichés used to describe the municipal meltdown in Saanich, Victoria´s bigger suburban neighbour, have been piling up. Newly elected Mayor Richard Atwell is being likened to Toronto´s Rob Ford, always a bad sign.
   But all that noise is drowning out the fact that important issues are being ignored in a time of trial by Twitter and quick news hits. If this is local politics in the new age of social media, I don’t like it.
   Two narratives have emerged after Atwell´s first 50 days.
   In one, he is an incompetent, untrustworthy, weirdo loner. (Do you have Asperger’s, a TV reporter asked Atwell.)
   In the other narrative, Atwell is the people’s champion, battling media, business and political elites determined to crush him by any means.
   We’ve always liked simple stories pitting good – our side – against evil. And gossip, wild speculation and blindness to unwelcome facts aren’t new.
   But we once recognized reality is more complex, with the help of news media that provided information framing a rational discussion of issues.
   So far, that hasn’t happened this time. Social media and online forums have been giant megaphones for the gossip and wild accusations by Atwell’s supporters and detractors, reinforcing the simplistic narratives. 
   And traditional news media haven’t cut through the clamour in a way that focuses attention on potentially serious allegations about police abuse of power and computer spying.
   Atwell is an outsider who toppled 18-year Saanich mayor Frank Leonard in November. He has no political experience, which his supporters consider a plus. He did help lead the campaign against the Capital Regional District’s sewage treatment plan, a movement built on anti-establishment fervour.
   He got off to a wretched start as mayor, showing up at the municipal offices before he was sworn in to axe Saanich’s chief administrative officer Paul Murray. He hadn’t discussed his plan with council, which is actually responsible for hiring and firing the top manager. Atwell’s action cost Saanich taxpayers about $480,000 in severance, damaged relations with councillors and created the early impression he was clueless.
   Then the weirdness escalated. On. Jan. 6, the Times Colonist, citing unnamed sources, reported police had responded to a 911 call at the home of a woman who had worked on Atwell’s campaign. There had been a dispute between Atwell and the woman’s fiance, the newspaper reported.
   Atwell didn’t respond to Times Colonist calls before the story broke, and avoided the media for another for 24 hours. When he finally appeared, he said it was a small misunderstanding and he wasn’t having an affair with the woman. (He’s married.) 
   Five days later, Atwell called a news conference. He admitted he lied when he claimed he wasn’t having an affair.
   And he went on the offensive, saying he had asked B.C.'s Police Complaint Commissioner to investigate how information about the 911 call became public. 
   Atwell also said that since the mayoral campaign began he had been stopped four times by the regional road safety unit and been given roadside breathalyzer tests twice, blowing 0.0 each time. (One stop was clearly legitimate; he had an expired insurance sticker.)
   Atwell said he wanted the head of the unit to investigate whether he had been singled out by police. (The Saanich Police Department has four officers on the 15-officer traffic regional unit. The police union had backed Leonard for mayor.)
   And Atwell revealed his lawyer had asked Saanich police to investigate the legality of spyware placed on his computer at municipal hall, which he learned about Dec. 11.
   Supporters and detractors flooded the online forums and the news media jumped on the story.
   But, mostly, the two existing narratives prevailed. There was little focus on the real, big issues raised or the holes in the official response.
   Take the surveillance software installed on the Atwell’s work computer, a product capable of capturing all the keystrokes and content as well as sites visited. Saanich police investigated and hired lawyer and former B.C. police complaints commissioner Dirk Ryneveld for advice. (Why an outside lawyer was needed hasn’t been explained.)
Police reported to council, behind closed doors, that no Criminal Code offence had been committed.      Council released a statement on the investigation a day later, on Jan. 11. But given the seriousness of the allegation, it was incomplete and opaque, raising as many questions as it answered.
   The spyware was placed on “a number of District of Saanich computers,” council said, but it didn’t say how many. The program was the result of recommendations from an external audit of computer systems done in May, council said. 
   But the surveillance program wasn’t purchased until ¨late November,¨  after Atwell won the election.
   If Saanich staff had identified a security problem, how come it took six months to act? Why was the mayor’s computer among a small number targeted? What was the written policy around meaningful disclosure of the surveillance to computer users? 
   While the police decision that no Criminal Code charges were warranted was probably correct, B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham noted covert computer monitoring - “tracking Internet use, logging keystrokes, or taking screen captures at set intervals as part of ongoing monitoring” - had so far always been found to be contrary to provincial privacy protection.
   Those serious issues were mostly lost in the noise, although this week Denham announced her office would launch an investigation into the use of the surveillance software. (The investigation will also provide a useful assessment of the competence of the new Saanich council, which reviewed the surveillance program and found no concerns.)
   Allegations about police activities have also received too little attention. 
   The Saanich police board met behind closed doors and said Atwell should not take up his role as chair. They wrote Justice Minister Suzanne Anton asking for an investigation, though into what was unclear. (She said no.)
   But neither the board nor the police department has responded to Atwell’s concerns that someone in the department leaked the information about the 911 call. That’s a serious issue of public interest, and the department has the ability to launch an investigation and report publicly. It apparently hasn’t, and the police board has shown no interest.
    And I haven’t seen any news stories following up on the allegation that Atwell was targeted by traffic police. Four stops in a few months seems unusual. The decision by officers to administer two roadside breathalyzer tests which both showed Atwell had consumed no alcohol also demands an explanation.
    At the least, it would be useful to have the media report a response to the allegations. Have senior officers looked at the files and checked the officers’ reasons for deciding Atwell might be impaired? Have they checked to determine if anyone pulled his vehicle files during the campaign? 
   So far, Atwell has been a blundering mayor. That’s just the way democracy works sometimes. Maybe he will get better at the job, maybe he won’t.
   But something has gone really wrong with our collective ability to respond sensibly to his travails and some very big issues that have been raised along the way.
   And that’s much more worrying.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Saanich council fumbles the computer surveillance issue

Saanich council is doing a lousy job of dealing with the suburb´s bizarre political problems.
Mayor Richard Atwell complained to Saanich police on Dec. 15 that spyware had been installed on his office computer without his knowledge.
Police investigated and, apparently, decided to hire former B.C. police complaints commissioner Dirk Ryneveld for advice. They concluded no Criminal Code offence had been committed, and reported to council behind closed doors on Monday. Council released a statement Tuesday.
But it was a lame effort. Weasel words and lack of clarity are warning signs in this kind of situation.
The statement said security software had been installed on ¨a number of District of Saanich computers, including the office computer of Mayor Atwell.¨
How many computers? Three, 10, 30? Was the software placed on any councillors´ computers, or just the mayor´s? A complete report would have answered those questions.
The spyware was placed on the computers in ¨late November,¨  the statement said, based on recommendations  in a May 2014 computer system audit.
The action was after the election. An explanation of why it took six months to deal with a computer security problem, an issue that should be taken seriously, would be welcome. So would evidence – a purchase order for the software from August, for example – to show this wasn´t launched after Atwell won. Given his allegations, answering all those questions fully should have been important.
The decision that no Criminal Code charges were warranted is correct. The law lets employers spy on private communications  to protect a computer system.
But Atwell might have had better luck with a complaint to the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner.  B.C. privacy regulations allow overt computer monitoring by employers as a matter of course if employees are told, before the process begins, what is allowed and what isn´t and how they will be monitored. The surveillance is broad – things like websites visited.
The rules are much stricter around covert monitoring, commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a release this week.  “This type of monitoring could take the form of tracking Internet use, logging keystrokes, or taking screen captures at set intervals as part of ongoing monitoring.¨
It´s only allowed when there is a specific investigation into wrongdoing and only after all less invasive investigative measures have been exhausted, she notes.
So far, the privacy office has found all cases of covert monitoring unjustified. None have been found to be within the province´s privacy law.
Which raises two issues.
First, Coun. Judy Brownoff said Saanich has a well-known policy that tells employees their computers may be monitored. Council should have produced that policy and shown that it was shared with Atwell and other people whose computers were being monitored under the new program.
Second, it´s unclear what sort of monitoring Saanich is doing under the initiative launched in November. Given the controversy, and the capabilities of the software apparently being used, council should have determined and reported on its security activities, especially in reference to the issue of covert versus overt surveillance as defined by the privacy commissioner.
I´m not choosing sides. Atwell´s tenure has been a mess, starting with the destructive, arrogant and expensive effort to force out the city manager.
But that simply makes it all the more important that council do its job well. It didn´t this week.