The newly elected Progressive Conservative government of Ontario has been recently under fire for promotional social media videos that are being passed off as news. Ontario News Now (ONN) bills itself as “Timely exclusive content on the PC government’s priorities for the people of Ontario.” Opposition leaders and social commentators are calling the videos blatant propaganda and undemocratic.
To date, ONN has released two videos. The first video, featuring a segment with Premier Ford himself, reviews the accomplishments of the party and what election promises have been delivered on so far. The second segment focuses on the current legislative action against the federal government’s cap and trade program.
Both videos feature Lyndsey Vanstone, a communications director with the PC caucus services.The Caucus Service Bureau is a part of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario that is delegated with distributing communications on behalf of their respective parties. Tax-funded resources are appropriated to each party based on the number of seats currently held in the legislature.
The ONN seems to be in line with Ford’s media savvy approach, and a continuation of his similar campaign-time channel Ford Nation Live.
The liberals make and break the Government Advertising Act of 2004
While the ethical implications of the news style segments are under question, they are undeniably legal. In 2004, in response to the heavily tax-funded advertising of Mike Harris, the Ontario government under Dalton McGuinty passed a piece of legislature that gave the Auditor General power to approve or deny partisan promotional material and even request alterations to submitted content before approval. The legislature would allow parties to use tax dollars to run ads that are deemed informational or serve to “promote Ontario or any part of Ontario as a good place to live, work, invest, study or visit”.
While the law was the first of its kind, only a decade later, the very same Liberals, now under Kathleen Wynne amended the act and virtually removed all of Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s oversight. On the decision Lysyk went on to say “these amendments would transform the role of the Auditor General into that of a rubber stamp because they would oblige us to approve an ad submitted to us as being in compliance with the amended requirements even though, in our opinion, it was clearly partisan,".
The amended act opted to provide a definition of a partisan ad based on new criteria. The criteria, as written in the legislature defines a partisan ad as including the following:
it includes the name, voice or image of a member of the Executive Council or of a member of the Assembly
it includes the name or logo of a recognized party
it directly identifies and criticizes a recognized party or a member of the Assembly
it includes, to a significant degree, a colour associated with the governing party
While the Auditor General’s role wasn’t overturned until 2015, the Liberals launched a series of Youtube Videos in 2007 titled “Liberal TV” featuring Ben Chin, which targeted and attacked the Conservative party before the election.
Doug Ford vs. mainstream media
While it is increasingly clear that the Liberal party is solely responsible for changing the legislature to allow for tax dollars to be spent towards partisan advertising, it comes as no surprise that Premier Doug Ford would make full use of it. The Ford family’s relationship with mainstream media outlets has been one of mutual dislike.
In a CBC News article on Ontario News Now, political science professor Jonathan Rose at Queen’s university is quoted as saying “Having a separate news channel kind of corrodes the function of the democratic media, because it assumes that the media isn't able to fulfil the function that is assigned to them”. However, Professor Rose seems to overlook the fact that the threat of propaganda is in controlling and streamlining the entire political discussion into one authoritative source.
The fact remains that everybody is aware that ONN is simply promotional material targeting a base constituency-a quick google search would tell you that. Claiming that citizens would be so deceived to mistake it for “actual news” is an insult on the average person’s intelligence. Besides, the real issue at hand regarding the “function of the democratic media” is not with blatantly obvious party advertisements but with the partisanship of supposedly “neutral” outlets like the CBC.
Patrick Brown would have had it otherwise
While Doug Ford decided on utilizing the full extent of the Government Advertising Act amendment, the PC’s were not unanimous in this approach. Before his fateful fallout, former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown promised to reinstate the Auditor General’s oversight and veto powers in response to Premier Wynne’s partisan advertisements centered around Hydro One.
Under the leadership of Brown, a private member’s bill was introduced into the assembly by Deputy Leader Sylvia Jones to reintroduce the Auditor General’s role. The bill would never make it far, since the very party that championed the Government Advertising Act was too keen on reaping it’s benefits.
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