Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On Ethics, That's a Wrap: Ad Buy Confirms NDP Has Lost Moral Centre

As I was walking along the street today, I turned to take a look at the latest headlines in the newspaper box. To my astonishment, the front page of the Sudbury Star featured a big picture of Andrea Horwarth. Since Horwarth wasn't in town yesterday, I figured that the front page must be covering last night's “chosen” leaders' debate, as unlikely as that seemed. From my own observation, confirmed by most of the political pundits who burst out of the gate last night with their analysis, Horwarth's performance was adequate, but certainly not stand-out – or even the best in last night's debate. What on earth was the Sudbury Star on about with their prominent coverage of Horwarth?

Before going any further, it's disclosure time. I write a monthly environmental column for the Sudbury Star, so I do have a professional relationship with this media organization. The Sudbury Star is a Sun Media newspaper.

OK, back to my blog. After a quick online search of columns and articles published in the Star that day, and finding nothing which would have led to a front page pic of a beaming Andrea Horwarth, my itch of curiosity needed to be scratched, so I picked up a hard copy of the newspaper. Upon closer inspection, I read the headline, “Horwarth leads”, with a graph published below the fold showing that most voters polled indicated that they preferred Horwarth for Premier over Kathleen Wynne and Tim Hudak.

Strange. What poll was this? Did I, keen political watcher that I think I am, miss a recent poll which would have contradicted virtually every poll in the election? Horwarth's approval rating (38%) as published on the front page below the fold in the Star wasn't significantly higher than Wynne's (32%) or Hudak's (30%), so her “lead” couldn't be the story – certainly not a story to justify the entire front page. In fact, where was the story? There didn't appear to be one at all.

That's a Wrap

And there wasn't. Turns out what I was trying to figure out is what they call a “wrap”: paid advertising which covers the entire front page of a newspaper. When I was growing up, you would never see this kind of thing, but given the financial health of the newspaper industry, “wraps” are becoming increasingly common. Most often, ads are placed over top of the real front page, “wrapping” it like a gift. In today's Sudbury Star, though, the “wrap” was the front page, and the paper didn't publish a regular front page at all. The wrap actually took up both the front page and Page 2, along with the last page. There was also a full page ad buy from the NDP in the middle of the paper.

Ironically, the Sudbury Star reported on the latest leader poll, which showed Horwarth sitting in third place behind Wynne and Hudak, contradicting what was published on their front page. On closer examination, the front page graphic referred to an Ipsos Reid poll from May 22nd – hardly current news in Ontario's 24-hour election cycle.

So what gives? Clearly, the NDP is at it again: taking front page newspaper ad buys in an attempt to deceive voters about today's news. Sorry, I'm calling it as I see it – the NDP's ad buy is an attempt to completely mislead Ontarians about the news. It's reprehensible and it speaks volumes about how low today's NDP have slunk in their effort to confuse and mislead voters.

It's also completely legal and a brilliant campaign move by the NDP. They pulled something like this off earlier in the campaign with the Toronto Sun, purchasing a wrap which showed Wynne and Hudak in a negative light (literally – see this article in today's Huffington Post about the NDP's front page wrap in free Toronto daily Metro, for coverage of today's wrap stories, and a pic of the earlier “Nonsense” wrap: “PC's, NDP Buy Front Page Newspaper Ads For Morning After Debate”, Huff Post Politics, June 4 2014).

PC's Gaming the System Too

If you read the Huffpo article, you'll quickly discover that the NDP wasn't the only political party playing games with Ontario voters today through purchase of a wrap. The Progressive Conservatives too set out to deceive voters by having the front page of the 24 Hours news publication. The PC's at least tried to keep their ad current by trumpeting their belief that Hudak won the debate – although as Huffpo notes, unlike the NDP, the PC's didn't indicate who paid for the ad (and I suspect that omission is going to cause some trouble with Elections Ontario down the road – the Huffpo piece references Elections Ontario rules about political advertising, and clearly says that all ads must identify who paid for them – if what Huffpo is reporting about the 24 Hour wrap is correct, the PC's – if this was their ad buy – have some explaining to do).

Our Expectations of the News Media

Clearly, the front page of our newspapers aren't what they used to be. Ads have been creeping onto front pages for years, and in the past 5 years or so, full page wraps have become, if not common, certainly not unheard of. And that's a problem for citizens who have certain expectations about the mainstream newsmedia – specifically that newspapers should be reporting the news.

Look, I don't like these wraps – but the fact is that newspapers have had to figure out ways to continue to remain relevant in the internet age. Today's ad buy in the Sudbury Star probably cost more than the combined election campaign budgets of the Green Party in Sudbury and Nickel Belt. Needing money to survive, it's no surprise really that newspapers have turned to this sort of advertising. But it is unfortunate, because people just don't expect to see advertising in certain places – like national parks, funeral homes and the front page of newspapers.

The times they are a-changing, as Bob Dylan sang about something completely different. Fact is, advertising is everywhere and we can't base current assumptions on our expectations shaped by past experiences. Critics of those like me who were offended by today's ad buy rightly point out that the wraps were clearly labelled “advertising”, no matter how small the print, and that newspapers have been running ads on front pages for some time. So what's the big deal?

For the newspaper industry, maybe nothing – except for the “big deal” in dollar signs with news media organizations stand to make by selling their front pages. We're going to see more of this before we see less of it – news consumers and those casual headline readers wandering our streets pausing at the paper boxes had just better get used to it.

Ethical Challenges

That being said, expectations persist. Conversations that I overheard today questioned the legality and ethics of these wraps. Clearly, they're legal (when executed properly, as the NDP's wrap in the Sudbury Star seemed to be and the PC's wrap in 24 Hours might not have been). About ethics, though, well, that's a completely different matter.

I took a quick look for some guiding principles which print media organizations use to assist with issues of ethics, and I couldn't seem to locate much which suggested that a wrap identified as advertising was necessarily unethical. If not unethical, it's certainly misleading, and it takes the newspaper publishing industry into a bit of a grey area, in my opinion. But grey is just that – grey. I suspect that a lot more is going to be written about newspapers who engage in the practice of using wraps. I'll move along now to the other issue of ethics.

When Did the Letter of the Law Become Ethical Sign Post?

After closely watching the behaviour of Ontario's three main political parties during this election period, far be it for me to suggest that political parties have anything akin to ethics at all. That's part of a larger trend about obtaining and retaining power. Lately, it seems that there are few ethical political lines which our politicians won't cross, and that the only guide to truly offensive behaviour is the law. In the minds of some politicians, if no laws were broken, what's the problem?

This is just my opinion, of course, but I think that it's one shared by most Canadians: adhering to the letter of the law simply isn't good enough in those we entrust with our votes to represent us in our legislatures. A certain degree of ethical behaviour is expected and required, and when wrong-doings occur, even those within the letter of the law, if the public trust is violated, we expect there to be consequences. These expectations are based on our past experiences and, frankly, on our own personal codes of behaviour and our social mores.

The Democratic Deficit

One of my personal concerns with regards to politics has to do with the health of our democracy. Voter suppression tactics are becoming commonplace in our elections, as political parties narrow-cast their messages to select groups in an effort to game the electoral system by winning a plurality of votes. In our current and archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, that's often enough for a political party to form government, and it leads to absurd situations where a party can govern with a “majority” without having received a majority of votes cast.

In this situation, it's no surprise really that political parties will do what they can to manipulate winning. This includes misleading the public about policy – those of one's own party and especially about those of the other parties – and, lately, about “facts”. It used to be that facts were generally agreed-upon starting points for public policy discussion. Today, increasingly, partisans can't even agree on the facts.

Facts No Longer Facts

Case in point in this election. Tim Hudak's PC's came out with a plan to create “one million jobs” - that's a pretty specific number. When economists and others took a close look at the background information upon which this specific number was based, it quickly turned out that the PC's made a basic error of math – by counting one “person year” of employment as a job, even though a job, if it lasts for more than one year, will consist of several “person years”. After the numbers were crunched, it became clear that the PC's were counting some jobs up to 8 times. So based on their own figures, the PC's “million jobs plan” wouldn't actually create a million jobs.

The PC's, though, have refused to acknowledge the fundamental math flaw in their plan. Even in last night's “chosen” leaders' debate, Hudak repeated that he would create one million jobs in Ontario in 8 years. He even upped the ante by insisting that if he failed to live up to his platform promise, he'd resign on principle. I'm not sure whether Hudak was using the new or old math for this latest promise, but if he can't acknowledge a “fact” which is staring him in the face – and worse, if he can't come clean with Ontario voters about the facts – I'd like to think that most Ontarians won't care what he promises. Hudak's behaviour on the hustings by continuing to repeat a lie of his own making are unethical and a slap in the face to Ontarians. For that, he may end up with a majority government come June 12th.

NDP's Contribution to the Democratic Deficit

Back to today's NDP wrap buy in the Sudbury Star. Clearly, the NDP has slunk to a new low in this campaign in their unethical attempt to mislead voters about the news. Although no laws were broken, the NDP's deception with their wrap buy is another slap in the face to Ontario voters. I say this not just because they selectively chose to highlight the one poll in which their leader Andrea Horwarth was identified as leading in (although that, too, says a lot about the NDP, and a little bit about the dismal state of the current NDP campaign). The thing is, the NDP wrap in the Sudbury Star is a blatant attempt to defraud the voting public – to deliberately mislead them into believing something is “news” when it isn't.

I realize that on the one hand I am being critical of the NDP for their wrap purchase, and not particularly critical of the Sudbury Star for selling its front page to the highest bidder. That might seem like a contradiction. It isn't. While I continue to suggest that the expectations of citizens regarding our print media publications need to change, that does not forgive the unethical behaviour of the NDP as demonstrated in today's wrap buys. Again, there was nothing illegal about the ad buys – but given the existing, current expectations of the public, it's pretty clear that the NDP only bought today's wrap in order to mislead voters.

And the NDP can't even claim that they were trying to communicate something. Talking about a two week old poll and coming to the conclusion that Horwarth was somehow “in the lead” based on that one dated outcome – it's a complete deception. And it's an insult to voters. And it contributes to our democratic deficit and damages our democracy.

Supporters Growing Tired with NDP Antics

Frankly, this kind of tactic isn't really new for the NDP. But it is one which is turning off more and more of their base supporters. A good many of the people whom I spoke with today about the Sudbury Star wrap are people who have supported the NDP in the past. There was nothing positive said about the wrap by anybody – except for me, who argued that it was a brilliant campaign strategy.

And it is a brilliant strategy. If you can't reach or engage voters on your policies or platforms, on the strength of your candidates or your leader, then really you're going to have to engage in deception. Stretching the truth – as the NDP has done in Sudbury with their “promise” to four-lane Highway 69 by 2016 – is just the tip of the iceberg. Advertising which has the sole and only purpose to mislead voters about the NDP's popularity is something different all together, but it's only going to get more common in future election campaigns.

That the NDP would stoop so low to win the Sudbury and Nickel Belt ridings has clearly come as a shock to many NDP supporters (and especially to those who can't countenance their political donations going into the pockets of a loathed Sun Media publication – say what you want, but aside from paid advertising, Sun Media has been no friend to the NDP, ever, period, end of story). It shouldn't. The NDP has been moving away from its core for years, both provincially and federally. It's morphed into a champion of the status-quo, abandoning its principles and values in pursuit of power. It's a party which has lost its moral centre. In an effort to be competitive, the NDP has sold its soul.

Unless it finds its way back, the NDP may become irrelevant by the end of the next decade. After all, does Ontario – or Canada – need two Liberal parties?

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)


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