It’s time for Doug Ford to ditch Ontario News Now

OPINION: If ethical concerns won’t persuade the government to shut down its propaganda wing, what will? Maybe the fact that it’s not doing its job
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 01, 2019
Doug Ford leads a group of three other people through an aisle of wine vats
Premier Doug Ford, MPP Rick Nicholls, and Walter Schmoranz tour the Pelee Island Winery in this screenshot from a recent Ontario News Now video.

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I have probably drunk Pelee Island wine at some point in my life, but I couldn’t call it memorable. That’s not meant to be a knock against the winery that’s been embroiled in a bit of a political bunfight this week; it’s just that my ability to distinguish between wines begins at “red or white” and ends at “bottled or boxed.” I might be a philistine of the vine, but, on the plus side, nothing I did this week had people howling for a boycott of my work.

The same can’t be said for Pelee Island Winery, whose president, Walter Schmoranz, appeared in a video distributed by the Progressive Conservative party’s social-media operation Ontario News Now. Schmoranz also happens to have donated $2,050 to the Tories this year.

The video immediately caused two problems, one for Schmoranz and one for the Tories.

Turns out, appearing next to one of Canada’s least popular premiers doesn’t make for good publicity. The hashtag #BoycottPeleeWinery began making the rounds on Twitter (although who knows whether it will result in real sales declines).

The problem for the PCs is more substantive: the party used its own personal media arm to push out something suspiciously like an advertisement for a political donor, and that raises serious ethical questions. Queen’s Park Today reports that a number of other Tory donors have also received cameos in Ontario News Now videos. The outlet has, naturally, also featured businesses that have not donated to the PCs. But it gives the Tories an immensely powerful spotlight that they can point where they want — and it doesn’t look as if they’ve been particularly careful with it.

It’s worth explaining that Ontario News Now is not part of the “government,” as such. Yes, it’s funded through public money (the producers apparently make upwards of six figures), but that money comes out of the budget provided to the political parties in the legislature. This means that it’s not subject to the rules for government advertising — even though probably the only reason anyone cares about the party’s social-media activities is that it happens to be running Ontario right now.

The charitable explanation for this week’s blunder is that the Tories were simply doing their version of what every government does. I can’t count the number of times I attended an announcement from the previous Liberal government that involved a friendly business owner who was happy to tell reporters how great the day’s announcement was for their particular sector. It’s self-interested on both sides: politicians want friendly quotes to show up in the media, and businesses are always happy to make nice with a customer who spends $160 billion a year.

So why shouldn’t the Tories do essentially the same thing but on a larger scale — and with more control over the script?

The problem is that this recent controversy effectively resets the “days since the government scored an own-goal” sign on the wall of Ford’s office. And it could also do further damage to a government that’s already battling accusations that it’s too cozy with lobbyists.

All this might be worth it for the Tories if there were evidence that Ontario News Now was getting the government’s message out to its loyal followers. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any: while the videos that the party publishes undoubtedly get lots of clicks and produce encouraging digital-engagement metrics, there’s no indication that they’re doing anything the Tories couldn’t do in more conventional — and less costly — ways.

No surprise, then, that some members of the caucus are reportedly agitating to have the operation shut down. Ford should listen to them. Not because Ontario News Now irritates many Queen’s Park reporters (although it does) or because of the obvious potential it has to facilitate further ethical breaches. It should be shut down because there’s little evidence that it’s actually worth the money the Tories are spending on it — and, last I checked, wasting tax dollars wasn’t part of Doug Ford’s brand.

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