TORONTO – Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has been criticized for the combative tone it is striking with journalists covering the Ontario legislature.
Rival politicians, members of the media and industry observers all say the obstructionist tactics presented by Ford and his cabinet ministers go well beyond the partisan messaging expected in most political settings.
Drowning out journalists’ questions with paid applause and producing government propaganda in the form of independent news, they say, represents a misuse of taxpayers’ money and poses a threat to democracy.
The government said it is using funds from the caucus budget to fund social media accounts operating under the name Ontario News Now, which have provided two videos so far promoting party messages.
The Tories also did not deny that political staffers and others on the government payroll were brought into official press conferences to offer seemingly spontaneous applause, which were used to prevent reporters from asking follow-up questions.
Conservative ministers have brushed off the criticism and even redoubled efforts to launch smears on the media, all of which are ringing increasingly loud alarm bells for some experts.
“All of these are moves to obstruct democratic accountability, which undermine good government,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and professor of law and politics at the University of Ottawa. “It does nothing to clean up politics as the Conservatives have promised to do. In fact, it makes dishonest, immoral, secret and wasteful activity more likely to happen.”
Conacher said there is a distinction between controlling a political message and deliberately using taxpayer dollars to produce articles that appear to be news but are not held to any standards of independent journalism.
The first such video features one of Ford’s senior communications advisers reading a television-style script showing the prime minister’s schedule during his first 30 days in office before transitioning to a clip of Ford listing the his achievements to date.
“Premier Ford attended dozens of events in 30 days, and even managed to keep a few campaign promises,” read Lyndsey Vanstone shortly before providing an official signature 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 prohibited from distributing propaganda, according to Ontario’s Advertising Act, but Conacher said people can technically argue that the caucus is not operating as a government office and can therefore be exempt. .
He disagreed with that interpretation and asked 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 the NDP-produced videos as neutral because they acknowledge religious observance or touch on similar non-partisan topics. “So putting together this partisan propaganda machine that the Conservatives have done … it’s against the rules.”
A representative for the Tory Caucus did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The applause that marked the end of recent news conferences, including one where Ford announced controversial changes to a handful of city governments in the middle of an election campaign, angered many reporters.
Some of them expressed their frustration when the staff applauded the announcement of the Minister of Community Safety, Lisa MacLeod, that the government will announce a pilot program of basic income and march the expected increase of social assistance taxes, drowning out follow-up questions from journalists and announcing the abrupt end of the press conference.
“Can you please stop clapping,” snapped CTV reporter Colin D’Mello. “This is a professional environment. Stop it. Take this to the legislature if you want to act like this.”
Later, Elliott defended the practice as fair, suggesting that the staff members were just showing support.
MacLeod apologized if the applause offended anyone, but two days later he referred to media accounts of some of his comments as “fake news” in the legislature.
For Tim Abray, a political communications consultant who served as press secretary to a government minister in the Conservative government of former premier Mike Harris, such rhetoric is troubling.
Abray said times have changed since his days on a political team, adding that many Harris-era media liaisons have been instructed to foster productive relationships with reporters covering Ontario politics.
“Even when there were seriously antagonistic relations between the sitting government and the core of the press, there was always a recognized understanding of the importance of the relationship and an attempt to maintain it in a meaningful way that served the purposes of maintaining the informed public”. he said. “I think we kind of lost the script on that one.”
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 restricted some staff from speaking to the press.
Abray said it is too early to say whether the Ford government will get used to its recent moves, but he said the first signs are very worrying.
“When you undermine the idea of the importance of a free press, you are actively undermining one of the main bases of Western democratic functioning,” he said.