Opposition parties mull calling on watchdog to review PCs' news-style channel

Opposition parties mull calling on watchdog to review PCs’ news-style channel

New Democrats and Liberals say they may call on the auditor general to examine a taxpayer-funded social media account cloaked in the garb of broadcast news and apparently aimed at boosting the party in power.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal interim leader John Fraser said Tuesday they are considering a request to the province’s fiscal watchdog to shine a light on Ontario News Now. The sunny new Twitter and Facebook accounts come across as an extension of the Progressive Conservatives’ Ford Nation Live news-style campaign website, complete with a journalist-style correspondent – who works as a senior communications adviser to the premier – photo montage and interview with her boss Doug Ford.

The promotional tool is funded through caucus services, according to a spokesperson for the premier. Each party with official status in the legislature receives public dollars based on its proportion of seats in the house to be put toward caucus resources, a quasi-partisan support legislative service that typically conducts research and puts out out press releases.

“Sending out press releases is one thing; everybody sends out press releases. But to try to put something online that appears to be non-partisan news when in fact it’s a partisan production is very concerning,” Horwath said. “Perhaps they’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes in terms of what’s being produced.”

Asked whether she would call on the auditor general, she replied. “Yeah. If they’re using public resources, public dollars – which is caucus resources – to put forward partisan material, that’s not allowed.”

Fraser stressed the role of media in a democracy and warned that the Ford government may “head down the path” to propaganda. 

“We see less and less this government wanting to speak directly to the media. Ministers running down the stairs, ministers not available – not during the campaign, not now.

“This is just like a promo video,” he said.

“I guess we’ll have to start asking the auditor general, which is kind of ironic, don’t you think?” he added, referencing the Progressive Conservative outcry last year over hydro bill inserts that touted a rate cut, and earned a scolding from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk.

PC communications director Jeff Silverstein said the party's caucus services are "using technologies available to us to communicate with the people."

"The videos that are produced and paid for exclusively by the PCCS (PC Caucus Services), are not part of government social media, These videos are not shared on Ministry or government social media channels," he noted in an email.

The one-minute clip, posted to Twitter early Monday evening, wracked up 53,000 views in the first 24 hours, and 17,000 more on the Ontario News Now Facebook site.

It features a quick-fire photo and video montage of Ford glad-handing, meeting and greeting, including with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory. The footage went online the same day the premier tabled legislation to cut the size of Toronto city council virtually in half, a move stridently opposed by Tory and, according to a Forum Research poll, by nearly half of Torontonians.

The clip notes that Ford “laid out his agenda in the throne speech,” which contained no mention of the ward reduction. It also depicts him in Parry Sound thanking forest firefighters and support workers.

“We said we were going to get rid of cap and trade and the carbon tax, reduce gas prices by 10 cents. We did it. We said we were going to get rid of the CEO and the board of hydro. We did it. We said were going to get the kids back in school at York University. We did it,” Ford says in the mock interview.

“Since his inauguration on June 29th, premier Ford has been off to the races — literally,” host and Ford adviser Lyndsey Vanstone says, to shots of the premier at the track, an appeal to rural voters.

There is no evidence that gas prices have fallen 10 cents due to government policies, and Ontario premiers are sworn in, not inaugurated. Vanstone was previously a radio producer in Toronto, and was Ford's media spokesperson during his successful PC leadership campaign. During the general election campaign, she became the face of the party's in-house media push, with campaign manager Kory Teneycke describing her as a star in a campaign post-mortem.

But opposition MPPs caution that there's a big difference between campaigning and being in government.

“There’s some footage where the premier’s obviously on a government trip that’s paid for by government,” Fraser told QP Briefing. “You can’t travel [on the government dime] and use that footage in something that’s partisan.”

Silverstein cited an exception. "Videos produced by government, such as the Premier’s visit to the Britt Command Centre, are shared on government websites. After they are posted on government social media channels, anyone is able to share the content on other platforms," he said.

The segment wraps up in typical television news fashion: “From Queen’s Park, I’m Lyndsey Vanstone.”

Christopher Reynolds

QP BRIEFING Reporter

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