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As news director of MTN, a small, private TV station in Portage la Prairie, Al Thorgeirson hasn’t the resources to rent satellite time whenever he wants to quiz Manitoba MPs on Parliament Hill. Yet on January 28, viewers who caught the station’s half-hour agricultural show, Agriviews, saw a five-minute double-ender from Ottawa with reporter Scott Jantzie firing questions at Wheat Board Minister Charlie Mayer about a recent review of the Grain Stabilization Act. A clip like this would normally cost MTN $1,000 in satellite time alone, but this story was free, compliments of the federal Progressive Conservatives.
Every weekday since September 14, Parliamentary News Service has been broadcasting a half hour of what critics have dubbed “Tory TV” to stations across the country via Telesat Canada’s Anik D satellite. Three to five minutes of each feed are “photo opportunities,” unscripted clips of ribbon cuttings, MPs arriving at work or chatting with the prime minister. The rest of the time is made up of four- or five-minute pre-taped interviews with cabinet ministers or PC backbenchers.
PNS is the brainchild of Ken Lawrence, a 47-year-old media entrepreneur who began his career in 1961 as a country-and-western disc jockey in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. In 1968, Lawrence became a parliamentary correspondent for Standard Broadcasting. Six years later he formed Ken Lawrence Enterprises, a TV news service, and in 1983 he was awarded a contract by Independent Satellite News, which packages political pieces for TV outlets.
Lawrence was offered a similar contract by the Progressive Conservatives when he approached them early in 1987. He says he came up with the idea of PNS after realizing that regional issues were being neglected by the national media, and in February he presented his concept to Jean Carole Pelletier, national director of the PCs, Senator Norm Atkins and other Tory officials. They were in a mood to listen: the party was at its lowest standing ever in the Gallup Poll-the choice of only 22 per cent of decided voters-in part because of what the PCs saw as Tory-bashing by the CBC. PNS, they decided, was a way to get their message to the people themselves.
One Tory backbencher has said this decision means a $500,000-ayear financial commitment, but Lawrence refuses to discuss the price tag because taxpayers’ money is not involved. It’s a private business arrangement between him and the Tory party, he says. The PCs pay for the expensive satellite link between Ottawa and local news stations, for the equipment and staff and for the satellite transmission.
Lawrence promoted PNS by sending letters to the country’s 60 television stations, offering them “access to PC MPs via satellite five days a week at no charge.” So far, 45 have used PNS at least once. The procedure is simple: news directors seeking an interview are accommodated on a first come, first-served basis. But in fact, only 50 per cent of the material PNS transmits is initiated by stations. The rest originates with Lawrence or the Tories themselves, although Lawrence says MPs seldom come to him with ideas: “People are always surprised when I tell them how little the Tories are involved. They rely on my judgment as to what are good stories.” In the instances where stations request an interview, they can either send in their questions for Lawrence to ask, or the local reporter can talk to the MP directly via a two-way feed. Angelo Persichilli, news director of CFMT in Toronto, used the latter method when he interviewed Minister of Multiculturalism David Crombie early in October. “If Crombie’s answer deserved a rebuttal, I wouldn’t get a chance to ask it,” he says. On the other hand, CKVR in Barrie always sends its queries in to PNS. “We feel okay if Lawrence asks the questions,” says David Scott, the station’s assignment editor. “We don’t need to come back with second questions because we hit them hard with the first.”
When Lawrence started the service, he must have realized it would raise ethical questions. Just after PNS was launched, The Ottawa Citizen quoted Liberal MP Brian Tobin as likening PNS to Gorbachev’s propaganda machine; the prime minister, Tobin said, was “the titular head of the new politburo on the Rideau River.”
And in early December, John Turner’s communications director, Raymond Heard, lambasted PNS on The Journal, saying the public will be watching subsidized news. While he is no fan of PNS himself, Hugh Winsor, The Globe and Mail’s national political editor, attributes the Liberals’ reaction to envy. “The Tories correctly assessed that a lot of TV stations were not getting access to their MPs,” he says. “They were smart to get their ministers on news programs. If the Liberals had the money they would probably do the same thing.”
The biggest uproar came from parliamentary press gallery members, who complained “pretty strenuously,” according to Don Newman, then president. In early September, Lawrence, a 19-year member of the gallery, was summoned to a meeting of the executive to review his membership. Although he produced letters from BCTV, London’s CFTL and Ottawa’s CKCK that stated they intended to continue using his services as a freelance correspondent, the executive decided Lawrence was now in the PR business, not news; Lawrence resigned at the end of the month. “We didn’t want to put him out of business,” says Newman, who notes that Lawrence is well liked on the Hill. “It was nothing personal.” Now, Lawrence gets a parliamentary press pass from the Conservative whip.
Still, the service has proved popular with small stations. Lawrence and his staff of three cameramen, two reporters, one producer and one part-time technician were producing an average of three or four videos a day in September; by January the number had risen to five or six. “The bulk are to do with local issues, things that don’t get covered by the national news at night,” Lawrence says.
Media critic Barrie Zwicker doesn’t object to PNS as long as TV stations clearly attribute the source of the stories they use. “The Tories are claiming to help the media,” Zwicker says, “but the real reasons are to improve their own self-image. They are interested in perpetuating their own fortunes. But the media is partly on the take, and this should be disclosed to the viewer with a legend saying this item is made possible by the Tory parry.”
Last November, John Best, then news director at CHCH-TV in Hamilton, disagreed with Zwicker, calling him-quite incorrectly-a self-styled critic who has never worked in the media. “We didn’t even consider putting a super on the screen. I spend $3 million a year gathering news, so a few free props from Ken Lawrence don’t bother me,” he said at the time. But in January, Best, by then vice-president of news and public affairs, and his successor as news director, Michael Krizanc, arranged with Lawrence to start paying for PNS. “We thought it wise to start paying our own way,” says Krizanc, “so that there can be no criticism that someone else is pulling the strings in our newsroom. We want to prove we are calling the shots.”
Krizanc is rather defensive about this decision. Asked whether he felt the need to prove his station’s independence to the public or to other news organizations, he shot back: “I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I just want to demonsrrate that we are making our own decisions.”
Persichilli at CFMT was just as skeptical of Zwicker’s views on using superscripts. After debating their use, he decided they were not necessary. “PNS isn’t supplying us with a feature,” he says. “The journalistic skills are on our side, so if the report is biased, it’s our fault. There are no strings attached to the service, we maintain complete editorial control and I don’t feel we are misleading the public by not using a super.”
But without that identification, viewers don’t know that what they’re watching is more an electronic press release than journalism. “What I fear most,” says Zwicker, “is that some stations will not say this was a freebie from the Tory party. The media is full of people willing to take freebies, stations are set up to make the maximum profit and cut costs.” Lawrence counters that no acknowledgement is considered necessary when information from a written press release is used on air. Hugh Winsor dismisses this argument. “I think the people who use these things and don’t attribute them to the Tory party are absolutely shameless,” he says.
“They should say on the TV screen that they are using propaganda paid for by a political party. Now that would take guts. I think the station owners are laughing all the way to the bank-they’re too cheap to have an Ottawa correspondent, either independently or collectively, so they take a free ride on the tail of the Tory party. You can’t blame the Tory party-the service was a smart move on their part. Blame the news directors.”
But even if the source is acknowledged, will news directors on the receiving end of a free interview avoid asking tough questions? “It shouldn’t happen, but it might,” says Peter Oesbarats, dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario. Winsor says he hasn’t heard of reporters going soft; at the same time he points out that local news reporters are often on a chummy, first name basis with their local MPs. “Anyway, it’s in the Tories’ interest for reporters to ask tough questions, so they can be seen handling them well,” he says.
MTN news director Al Thorgeirson says, if anything, his reporters ask tougher questions on PNS: “Our viewers wouldn’t pull any punches if they were talking directly to Charlie Mayer, so we don’t either.” Still, there is the question of balancing these Tory handouts with interviews with Liberal and NOP politicians. News directors of larger stations like CFMT and CHCH try to get opposition viewpoints, but critics still wonder if the smaller stations can’t afford to rent satellite time in the first place, can they afford to get both sides on every issue?
PNS’s radio service, launched October 18, has many media people even more concerned. For this, Lawrence and his staff daily package two or three English and one or two French items that are indistinguishable from legitimate news reports. “When Lawrence took his service a step forward with his radio stories, I became alarmed,” says Oesbarats. “In effect you get very partisan, biased reports. There is an element of misrepresentation in that. I fear the next step is production of the same type of packaged stories for TV:” This prospect especially bothers him. “I don’t think radio or TV stations should be using canned reports from tainted sources,” he says.
Oesbarats feels radio stations have even more limited resources than TV; so the temptation to use the PNS service is almost irresistible. Zwicker believes that economics alone doesn’t explain PNS’s popularity. “I think the Tories have found a legitimate fault in the media,” he says. “There isn’t enough coverage of smaller issues, or less influential politicians. The media overreacted at first, but that’s because they harbor the false conceit that they are already doing a very good job.”