It is a news director’s dream. Sitting in a television studio in Barrie, Ont., or Kelowna, B.C., a technician records comments made by a member of Parliament or a powerful cabinet minister on an important local issue. The images are beamed for 30 minutes each day by satellite from Ottawa, free of charge and in plenty of time for the evening newscast. But there is a catch: the electronic infor-
mation service is paid for entirely by the federal Conservative party—and it is not available to opposition MPS.
The controversial Parliamentary News Service, set up last September, has already sparked a lively debate among journalists, politicians and academics. Some critics charge that the operation is a dangerous manipulation of the news by Tory backroom strategists. Others say that it compromises the integrity of editors by allowing a political party to pay the costly satellite transmission fees— about $25 per minute. But still others argue that the service is nothing more than an electronic version of the printed press release, which has been a feature of journalistic life for decades. Liberals and New Democrats, however, have the most at stake financially in the debate: they face the expensive prospect of estab-
lishing similar services of their own if the Tory program proves popular.
The project is the brainchild of veteran parliamentary reporter and media entrepreneur Ken Lawrence. Partly inspired by a concept developed by the U.S. Republican party, Lawrence approached the Conservatives last spring. His proposal coincided with a growing concern among Tory organizers that the government’s achieve-
ments were not being reported effectively by the national news media. It was, declared Lawrence, “a meeting of the minds.” By August, Lawrence had resigned as the head of Independent Satellite News—a co-operative television news service that he had helped to establish in August, 1983—and set up a new company, Ken Lawrence Enterprises, under contract to the Tory party. That contract—said to be worth between $250,000 and $500,000 a year— allows the Parliamentary News Service to broadcast news in two languages about the government to any TV or radio station in the country equipped with a satellite dish.
Each day Lawrence records hallway interviews with cabinet ministers and Tory MPS, and news conferences announcing government programs. As well, he links local news anchors with MPS and ministers for long-distance in-
terviews or asks specific questions on behalf of those stations and transmits the answers on his regular 4 p.m. satellite feed. Individual stations may use any part of the transmission—or ignore it entirely. By last month, according to Lawrence, about two-thirds of the 80 stations (60 English, 20 French) with access to the service had used it at least once.
Lawrence has already added a radio service, for which two reporters package stories on government programs that sound almost indistinguishable from the items filed each day by employees of commercial radio stations. The central difference: the reports do not include opposition reaction to issues or reaction from lobby groups that disagree with government programs. But Lawrence insists that he is not under pressure from the Conservative party to run “blatantly partisan” material. He added, “I think they realize that sort of stuff would simply not get used.”
For some observers, the issue of who pays for the service is the most critical. Employing a staff of five, Lawrence pays $3,800 a week to transmit a half-hour of images and sound each weekday by satellite. For small TV stations without staff correspondents in Ottawa, the access to interviews or newsclips of important politicians— regardless of who pays for it—is almost irresistible. Said Tony Panacci, news director of CKVR TV in Barrie, 100 km north of Toronto: “We make sure we balance anything we use with other material gathered locally, but the bottom line is it has to be good for our viewers.” James Furlong of CJON in St. John’s, Nfld., said that his station does not use the service frequently, but sometimes carries clips of interviews with cabinet ministers or local MPs. “It’s very hard to pass something like this up,” said Furlong. “Not many people in the business have that strength of will.”
Panacci, Furlong and others have drawn the line, however, at using material that is packaged to look like regular news reports. So far, Lawrence’s service offers such packages only for radio, and he said that he has no plans to extend that service to television. For his part, Peter Desbarats, dean of the University of Western Ontario’s journalism school, has expressed serious reservations about I
the service in general—and the use of packaged news reports in particular.
But other media watchers say that, aside from the radio news packages, there is nothing sinister about offering free clips and interview material. Declared Murray Goldblatt, a veteran newsman and professor at the Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa: “With all of the new information transmission technology, I think it’s a relatively innocent thing, especially because people have the right to reject the material or use it any way they see fit.”
Indeed, many media officials say that Lawrence’s operation is nothing more than the logical, high-tech extension of services that have traditionally been available. The Canada News Wire, a private, Toronto-based firm, has for years offered radio stations newsclips over telephone lines from private companies, labor unions and other organizations. Even the Canadian Labour Congress offers prerecorded comments from its senior officers on important issues. Declared Derik Hodgson, the CLC’s communications director and a former parliamentary reporter for The Toronto Sun: “Lawrence’s product is just an
electronic press release. How is it different from a newspaper or a magazine getting a quote from someone in a printed statement that they didn’t pay for?”
The service is, however, clearly causing concern to both Liberals and New Democrats. One NDP member, David Orlikow, last month asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to rule on whether Lawrence’s business violates the federal Broadcast Act. Said the Winnipeg MP: “If this thing gets used widely, the other two parties will have to try to match it, and that will greatly increase everyone’s costs.” To the Tories, however, the opposition concern simply confirms their expectations of the service. Jean-Carol Pelletier, the Conservative party’s national director, told Maclean ’s that he is “ecstatic” about the results so far. Added Pelletier: “People out there just long to see their own MP talking about a local issue on TV.” For the opposition parties, providing a similar opportunity for their constituents may become a costly necessity of contemporary politics.
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