TORONTO – Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has come under fire for the combative tone it’s struck with journalists covering the Ontario legislature.
Rival politicians, members of the media and industry watchers alike all say the obstructive tactics on display from Ford and his cabinet ministers go far beyond the partisan messaging expected in most political environments.
Drowning out reporters’ questions with paid applause and producing government propaganda in the guise of an independent news story, they say, represents a misuse of taxpayer dollars and poses a threat to democracy.
The government has said it uses funds from the caucus budget to fund social media accounts operating under the name Ontario News Now, which have delivered two videos so far promoting party messages.
Tories have also not denied that political staffers and others on the government payroll have been brought into official news conferences to offer seemingly spontaneous applause, which has been used to prevent reporters from asking follow-up questions.
Tory ministers have shrugged off the critiques and even doubled down on efforts to cast aspersions on the media, all of which is sounding increasingly loud alarm bells for some pundits.
“All of these are moves to obstruct democratic accountability, which undermines good government,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and a University of Ottawa professor of law and politics. “It does nothing to clean up politics as the Conservatives have promised to do. In fact it makes dishonest, unethical, secretive and wasteful activities more likely to happen.”
Conacher said there’s a distinction between controlling a political message and deliberately using taxpayer money to produce items that look like news stories but have not been subjected to any standards of independent journalism.
The first such video features one of Ford’s senior communications advisers reading a television-style script touting the premier’s schedule during his first 30 days in office before segueing to a clip of Ford enumerating his accomplishments to date.
“Premier Ford attended dozens of events in 30 days, and he managed to keep a few campaign promises too,” Lyndsey Vanstone reads shortly before providing an official signoff in the style of a television news report.
Health Minister Christine Elliott confirmed that Ontario News Now is paid for through the Conservative caucus budget, which is in turn funded by tax revenue.
Governments are barred from distributing propaganda, according to the Ontario Advertising Act, but Conacher said people can technically argue that the caucus does not operate as a government office and can therefore be exempt.
He disagreed with that interpretation and called upon the province’s auditor general to look into the matter.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath described Ontario News Now as inappropriate and disrespectful.
“You’re not allowed to use public dollars for partisan purposes,” Horwath said, defending past NDP-produced videos as neutral because they recognize religious observances or touch on similarly non-partisan topics. “So putting together this partisan machine of propaganda that the Conservatives have done…it’s against the rules.”
A representative from the Tory caucus did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The rounds of applause that have marked the end of recent news conferences, including one where Ford announced controversial changes to a handful of municipal governments in the middle of an election campaign, have angered many reporters.
Some of them expressed their frustration when staffers applauded community Safety Minister Lisa MacLeod’s announcement that the government would be scrapping a basic income pilot program and walking back planned increases to social assistance rates, drowning out follow-up questions from journalists and heralding the abrupt end to the news conference.
“Can you please stop clapping,” snapped CTV reporter Colin D’Mello. “This is a professional environment. Stop it. Take that into the legislature if you guys want to act like that.”
Elliott later defended the practice as fair, suggesting staff members were merely showing support.
MacLeod apologized if the applause offended anyone, but two days later referred to media accounts of some of her comments as “fake news” in the legislature.
For Tim Abray, a political communications consultant who served as press secretary to a cabinet minister in former premier Mike Harris’ Conservative government, such rhetoric is troubling.
Abray said times have changed since his days on a political team, adding many early Harris-era media liaisons were instructed to foster productive relationships with journalists covering Ontario politics.
“Even when there were seriously antagonistic relationships between the sitting government and the press core, there was still an acknowledged understanding of the importance of the relationship and an attempt to maintenance it in a meaningful way that served the purposes of keeping the public informed,” he said. “I think we’ve kind of lost the script on that.”
Abray said such tactics are not unique to the Ford government, saying everyone from former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper has tried to work around the media in some way.
But he called Harper’s tactics particularly disruptive, citing a long-standing policy that saw reporters submit questions in advance of conversations with ministers and limited some staff from speaking to the press at all.
Abray said it’s too early to tell whether the Ford government will make a habit of its recent moves, but said the early signs are deeply troubling.
“When you undermine the idea of the importance of a free press, you are actively undermining one of the major foundation stones of western democratic functioning,” he said.