Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Monday, May 23, 2011

City Hall works to undermine
Free Press in Oshawa

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and Unfiltered Opinion
Reprinted from Oshawa Central Newspaper

Bill Longworth, City Hall Columnist
May 23, 2011

On May 12, the Mayor attended the 356th Annual Mayor's Breakfast, this hosted by the Christian Business Ministries Canada (CBMC) of Oshawa and District.

This was a public event and presumably the Mayor was going to make some pronouncements about this city. In anticipation of these announcements, Tamara LeClair, a talented local videographer, requested permission to film the event.

She was given permission by the event organizers who in turn informed the Mayor`s Office who refused the request---there being the rub that fires the inspiration for this column.

Countless others, not seeking permission, may of course have informally videoed or recorded the event. In such public events, we have been conditioned by experience to have implicit and implied permission to photograph, record, or video, unless that permission is explicitly denied either verbally or by signage

So while Ms. LeClair was polite in asking for permission to video, there was little need to do so. And of course, the mainstream media never seek permission in recording of news events, often recording at the outright annoyance of the subject of their cameras

The situation is quite different, obviously, in small private gatherings where the substance and privacy of individuals, by the nature of the gathering, is seldom for public consumption.

The Mayor`s Office, in turning down the video request, and in fact, any time they turn down an opportunity for publicity, raises serious questions.

While at first blush, the video refusal sounds insignificant, upon reflection it has huge implications for democracy and the governance of this city.

Politicians and public officials thrive on publicity and see it as a necessary component of their political success. Thus they’ll put city business on hold to go and cut a ribbon...as long as the press is there.

All politicians operate with the same motto, "Any publicity is better than none!” Unless, of course, it is the kind of publicity recently earned by the disgraced Head of the International Monetary Fund.

In a deeper vein, information is an absolutely necessary component of a democracy. According to Canada`s Supreme Court, it is a basic right of citizens to be informed of all viewpoints, as part of their enlightenment, in order to make informed ballot choices.

So straight jacketing formal and informal media limits public information and thus undermines democracy itself.

And in this age of social media, every individual can be a legitimate public commentator, and in fact, can often be as powerful as the traditional press.

This is, of course, where democracy started in the first place. Every individual had opportunity for input, comment and discussion in gatherings in public squares. And the internet and social media is now that public square of much of the social discourse and dialogue. Democracy has come full circle!

The decision to disallow LeClair's video seems to have been made by Mayor John Henry`s Executive Assistant, Mark Sheriff, an appropriate surname for a guy to straitjacket the Mayor into the straight and narrow.

Sheriff, as you will recall, is the Past President of Colin Carrie’s Conservative Riding Association that was instrumental in getting Henry elected. When Henry got elected, Sheriff resigned from that role to take his present Executive Assistant role in the Mayor’s Office.

And Sheriff, as a rabid Conservative, will get the inspiration for his political decisions from his hero, Stephen Harper, whom you will recall limited the press to five questions in the recent election. Harper wanted to keep his message straight forward and scary about what others would do to the economy without being handcuffed into explaining details of his own record or his plans for the future and why they would be better.

He simply wanted to make unsupported and unsubstantiated declarative statements unsullied by any sloppy explanations that in themselves would raise more questions in the public`s mind. He just wanted to dumb down his message so we ordinary folks could understand it. The truth of what he was saying didn’t matter.

So Sheriff, having made the decision to refuse the videoing, then worked to justify his decision. He stated LeClair, 1) didn't run a legitimate business, 2) didn't make money at it, 3) would use the video for other than personal use, and 4) would redistribute the video on facebook. He also stated that she was "unaccredited"---all clues as to how City Hall would conduct its public information campaign.

In response to questions on how to become accredited, “The Sheriff” indicated that it was necessary to be on City Hall’s List of media contacts without stating how to get on that list.

Sheriff stated that he couldn’t permit “just anyone” to video Henry because they would then have to let everyone and his brother have that right...and that will just not happen as respect for the office would be lost.

Sheriff didn’t explain how Mayor John Henry's tooling around Southern Ontario to various City and Town Council meetings in a Mackie's Moving Van to seek support for extension of the 407 highway to Hwy /35 enhanced respect for the office of Mayor of the City of Oshawa!

In any case, Sheriff’s attempts to explain his refusal to allow Ms. LeClair’s videoing of Henry's speech was obviously an amateurish grasping at straws to justify a decision he had made---but it does speak volumes about how city hall information is going to be disseminated.

Sheriff’s refusal in this case ignites serious concerns undermining the basic principle of the “free press” to report various sides of issues, events, and personalities, unhampered by the whims of City Hall.

It implies an attempt by City Hall to allow media access only to those selected which calls into question the selection criteria. Is it only those media outlets that would put a positive spin on all City Hall activity, no matter the smell, that is favoured with City Hall accessibility?

We do know that City Hall only advertises in a few “friendly” newspapers and allows distribution of those publications in the libraries and other city facilities. To keep that “friendly” designation, those papers a) print frequent pictures of prominent city politicians, b) print frequent puff (public relations) stories on prominent politicians, c) print frequent “rose-coloured glasses” stories about the city, d) never print hard stories that are critical of politicians or City Hall operations, and, most importantly, e) never do any investigative reporting to scratch below the surface of City Hall operations.

This lack of objectivity is a severe disservice to Oshawa voters and means that city taxpayers are kept in the dark about many “sensitive” stories such as the mysterious, abrupt, hasty, sudden, surprising, and completely unexpected departure of Commissioner Stan Bertoia who controlled the largest budget of any city hall bureaucrat and who was responsible for letting contracts for public works and many expensive consultant’s reports. Bertoia left a city salary of $189,000 for one of about $110,000 for a much more junior position with the TTC, a resignation that is extremely unlikely to be voluntary.

It is amazing that no other city newspaper has taken up this story. It seems gaining favour with city officials and the politicians to boost their advertising revenue from City Hall is more important than real investigative reporting to properly inform city readers.

Funny---the only city paper to take on stories like this, the Oshawa Central Newspaper, does not get any advertising revenue from the city.

Guess that is because the Central is not a propaganda rag for City Hall. It takes its responsibility very seriously, particularly with this watchdog column, in commenting objectively with informed opinion on City Hall.

Newspapers have played an important role in the development of Free Western Societies over the last 200 years, one of the principal reasons democracy has flourished, and the Central Newspaper does not take this important responsibility lightly.

City Hall's insistence on patronizing only friendly newspapers is discriminatory, anti democratic, and censorship of the worst kind, and a supreme disservice to city ratepayers.

Real social change has come from newspapers that take their responsibility seriously...and that will not change at the Central.

We shall persist as the only FREE PRESS in Oshawa, unconstrained by any need to remain popular with the politicians.

You, the Citizens of Oshawa, are the most important players in our game---and our pledge is to be diligent in our reporting to you!

We shall continue to feed you a caviar and fine wine menu of information rather than the stale bread and polluted water you might get from other city news sources.

You can depend on us!

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

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