Journalism Tag - BissettMatheson Communications Sun, 19 Nov 2017 14:17:32 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb US TV News comes up short in comparison to ours here in Canada


I got serious about following American news a few months back, first following the Democrat and Republican primaries and then the election campaign and then the aftermath. It got so bad I was routinely PVRing the three network’s evening newscasts then watching them all on top of a steady dose of CNN panels.

It left me with some definitive thoughts on the quality of their journalism. In some ways it was very good and in others it left a lot to be desired.

Overall, I have always found Canadian media more balanced in political coverage, but of course it’s hard to compare when it’s the US election, but two stories in recent days offer a particular glimpse of the mainstream media in the US, and not in a good way.


The first is the recent developments in North Dakota where an ongoing peaceful protest led by the Standing Rock Sioux Nation to a pipeline project has been met with state sanctioned force. The governor called in the National Guard and army and police, and the natives and supporters have been pepper sprayed, tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets and had water cannons turned on them despite the cold temperatures. Some have been arrested while others have required treatment for hypothermia.


Despite who you think is right or wrong, by any journalistic standard this is a major story – five thousand protestors, reportedly 300 injured, more than 500 arrested, and despite an announcement that the army has given a deadline for the protestors to move, and the protestors serving notice they have no intention of going anywhere, coverage has been sparse.

There has been precious little in the American mainstream media about the tactics of the authorities. For example, hardly a word on any of the three major Sunday morning news shows on CNN yesterday.

When the media don’t do their job, the obvious question is why? Could it be because President-elect Trump owns shares in the pipeline company? Hate to think that’s the reason but it has become a valid question.


The other story of questionable journalism was the coverage of the death of Fidel Castro. No doubt he did some bad stuff, but to listen to the U.S. media everything he did was evil. The total focus of the stories and panels I saw was his suppression of detractors, his firing squads and imprisonment of anyone who didn’t support his regime, his alignment with the Soviet Union and the Cold War, especially the Bay of Pigs fiasco. And a healthy dose of Cubans in Miami cdelebrating. Not a mention, from any of the media I saw, of the fact he set up social safety nets so in that country while there is poverty, no one is starving to death, no one is homeless, the literacy levels are much higher than those in the States, health care is better, education is better, there is hardly any gun violence and crime rates are much lower than in the US. No, not a mention.

I don’t know if it is because he was communist that they ignored the other side of the story, but ignore it they did. Those Sunday morning talk shows on CNN I mentioned earlier – they ignored it too.


But know who didn’t? The Canadian media. The CBC National had a very balanced report from Paul Hunter, and Adrienne Arsenault did a special report on the history of Castro’s revolution, from his then mountain hideaway where much of it was planned and carried out. CTV interviewed a professor who is an authority on Cuba, and he offered insight that covered both the good and the bad.

Mind you none of this is in anyway a thorough or definitive assessment of American coverage of either of these stories. For one thing it’s only television coverage. It’s just what I happened to notice from watching a lot of American and Canadian news over the past little while. It’s not the first time Canadian coverage has been better than what is fed to the American public. Coverage of the Iraqi war jumps to mind as a most blatant example, where CBC’s work was in many cases far superior.

Hell knows I am critical of various Canadian media from time to time, including our public broadcaster, but there is no question that on the big stories our broadcast media serves us better than the American broadcast media serves its public. This blog references just two examples. There are many more.

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Photo Credits: Standing Rock - Rolling Stone; Castro - CBC; Miami Cuban celebrator -  


]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 28 Nov 2016 04:42:23 +0000
Credit where credit is due on Syrian students at FHS story


A couple of weeks ago, Ezra Levant took direct aim at Syrian students attending Fredericton High School. For those who aren’t familiar with Levant, he’s a right wing pseudo-journalist, who until its demise, worked at Sun TV, and now pursues his right wing, anti-immigrant agenda through his social media channel The Rebel. 

While what he produces has the appearance of real journalism, it isn’t. You see, Levant isn't one to feel burdened by any need for balance, accuracy or fairness. Mark Twain once said, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Levant seems to have taken that literally.


The reports on his site paint a picture of Syrian students turning Fredericton High School into a terrible place by intimidating, harassing and bullying fellow students, refusing to attempt to learn English, and generally being a disruptive force.

The problem is that while most fair-minded people will see through his hate-fuelled rhetoric, those who are predisposed to be anti-Muslim will embrace his grossly exaggerated reports as justification for their prejudices. Not unlike what Donald Trump is doing. 

Part of Levant’s narrative is that his site reports things that the mainstream media is afraid to touch. And when his series of reports were published, he played that to the hilt, his reporter feigning outrage that the mainstream media was scared to report this story.

The truth of course is that responsible journalism takes more time. Levant’s reports were based on cherry picking through 2700 documents, mostly teacher emails which he received through a Right to Information request, then sensationalizing the content out of all proportion. Real journalism on the other hand, demands that facts have to be checked, people have to be interviewed, context has to be given and balance needs to achieved.


And while mainstream media doesn’t always hit that standard, it is the guiding principle under which responsible journalists work. And credit where credit is due, Brunswick News deserves credit for its fair and measured story on this issue.

It gave the story of the Syrian students context, quoting education officials about the challenges they faced, what worked, what didn’t, and what they plan to do in the fall to make the transition go even better. No question some teachers felt overwhelmed, but by all indications, the school administration dealt with whatever came up quickly and effectively. Levant never mentioned that part. 


To be clear, of course there were going to be challenges when 160 Syrian students enrolled in the district (29 at FHS). How could there not be? These folks have baggage some of which we can't even imagine. These are students who have been through considerable hardship escaping war that forced them to flee their homes, many spending years out of school in refugee camps, arriving in a country where they don’t understand the language and where the culture, local customs and social mores are all foreign to them. Their lives have been turned upside down.

So there are issues. For example theirs is a culture where females are not treated as equals, so taking direction from a female teacher for example where all your life you have been told you don't do that, takes some adjustment for the male students. Or they feel protective of their sisters and misinterpret any overtures from any males toward them, so they intervene. So this new world takes some adjustment, and it takes some time, but they will get there. They are already getting there. 


I am one of the volunteers who help out with the Syrian refugees when I can, nothing much, driving mainly, and while our communications is often reduced to an awkward and sometimes humourous combination of charades and hit-and-miss gestures, there is no mistaking the gratitude these folks feel toward this country and their desire to fit in. Of course there will be bumps, but goodwill on both sides will see us through them.

Anyway, kudos to the School District for its efforts, and to the local media for forgoing the Levant style sensationalism on this story, and doing it right. Both have provided a true service to the community.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Sun, 10 Jul 2016 23:21:30 +0000
Might be more than Trudeau losing PR points over elbowgate


It was around 1979 or early 80’s perhaps. Early June I think. The New Brunswick legislature was in session with added evening sittings, trying to work through a number of bills before breaking for the summer. There’s no air conditioning in the legislature and it was hot, and nerves were frayed. Nobody wanted to be there but the Opposition Liberals were dragging out the debates.


Rodman Logan was one of the frontbenchers in the Richard Hatfield government. I was in the Press Gallery and unlike these days, reporters actually sat on the floor of the legislature, so we had a ringside seat for what was about to unfold.

As the debate dragged on, Logan took strong exception to some comment from somebody on the Opposition side. As I remember it he felt somebody said something disparaging about his war record.


The next thing he’s across the floor and up into the face of Liberal MLA Leroy Washburn. So Washburn is on his feet and the next thing Washburn’s glasses go flying to the floor. It was never definitively established whether Washburn dropped them himself as he was taking them off in the heat of the moment or whether Logan had knocked them off. Then fellow Tories grabbed Logan and escorted him back across to the government side.

It was reported as a heated incident or some such thing but otherwise nobody made a big deal about it.  Within a day or two it was forgotten. Mind you this was pre-video and pre-social media and it was a different time. People weren’t so damned sensitive.


I mention this story because of the great contrast with the fallout from Prime Minister Trudeau’s stupid stunt last week.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that physical contact shouldn’t be condemned, and of course it is, and the procedure and House affairs committee will now review the whole thing and there will probably be some kind of sanction.

But perhaps some perspective would be nice. The PM lost his cool at the delay tactics by MPs on the other side and in a moment he would undoubtedly like to take back he physically led the Opposition whip through the crowd, accidently bumping NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the process. Then he apologized. Three times, and not those wimpy half-baked apologies politicians often offer, but totally unreserved apologies. It had to have been a humbling experience, and deservedly so. No question it was behaviour unbecoming any politician, let alone the Prime Minister.


But what came next, and continues, was the over-the-top reaction by the NDP and the Conservatives. It started with Ms. Brosseau saying she was so shaken at being elbowed in the chest that she had to go into the corridor to collect herself. Imagine if every woman who has ever been on a crowded subway or was in a crowded bar or busy line up responded like that every time they were accidently bumped.

But it is politics and she’s milking it, as are the others. Comments range from Trudeau being compared to a drunken driver and even worse, a molester. Others dug deep to find comparisons to domestic violence.

It’s too early to determine what the public relations fallout will be. Trudeau showed a side of him that flies in the face of his carefully crafted “sunny ways” persona. So no question he has taken a hit.

But Canadians are by and large a forgiving and fair-minded lot, and I sense just as much backlash against the exaggerated response of the opposing politicians.  If there is a consensus it seems to be – OK, he messed up, but he apologized, so could we just move on.

If the Conservatives and NDP don’t take that to heart, it won’t be just Trudeau that takes a PR beating over this.


Back on that hot evening all those years ago in the New Brunswick legislature, I recall a bit of what was said, but I don’t remember any apology being a part of it. And I sure didn’t see Leroy Washburn retiring to the back room to collect himself. Although he probably did pick up his glasses. Times have changed. 

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 23 May 2016 01:15:14 +0000
Seniors 1 Gallant Liberals 0 - But where from here?

I heard it said once – “Whatever you do, don’t piss off seniors. They have nothing better to do than figure out ways to make your life miserable”.

An over simplification for sure, but I expect there is a gem of wisdom in that, that Premier Gallant may take to heart from here on.


The Premier and his Social Development Minister Cathy Rogers had been fighting what now appears to have been an unwinnable battle to change the fees charged for nursing homes.  They aren’t conceding it was bad policy, only bad communications.  What they regret, they say, and the reason they have now abandoned the whole thing, is that it caused seniors undue stress.


It’s safe to assume it caused the Premier and his Minister a lot of stress as well.

But what’s the take away here? That the government is weak for flip-flopping, or strong enough to admit a mistake and fix it? Or, as CBC host Terry Seguin asked Minister Rogers – that if any group gets organized and sustains enough opposition, that the government will back down?  Her response avoided a direct answer.


I guess one take away is never get between a senior and his or her money. It is true that the Gallant government did a poor job of communicating the proposed nursing home changes, and it didn’t help that the Opposition Tories exaggerated its effects at every opportunity.


When those same Tories were the government, they brought in the Shared Risk pension plan, and that change was better explained. But still, despite the fact the effect on seniors would be minimal if anything at all, the seniors mobilized and they went to war. To its credit, the Alward Tories didn’t back down and now the province has a pension plan that is sustainable for all civil servants, including those pensioners. But who’s to say that seniors backlash wasn't at least partly responsible for the Conservatives landing on the opposition side of the legislature.


Seniors making the New Brunswick government back down has somewhat of a tradition in the province. It may not have worked on the pensions issue, but I remember back in the late 80’s or 90’s when the government of the day announced changes to residency rules for New Brunswick snowbirds. Long story short, the seniors would have none of it and fought it until the government caved.

But back to this week’s 180-degree turn on the nursing homes issue. As Premier Gallant so rightly points out, the economic challenges remain.


So what now?  We know serious cuts are still needed. School closures (assuming the legal niceties are attended to), hospital closures, civil service cuts, program cuts? People will protest. Will they take inspiration from the senior’s victory this week and put up more of a fight than they otherwise might?


And what about the government? Will this slap down make them gun shy about future restraint announcements? They spent a lot of political capital on this one, and got nothing for it. And no, the announcement of working with seniors to develop a sustainable aging strategy isnothing more than face-saving.


The Gallant government seems to have this uncanny knack for digging itself into a hole. As Britney Spears so eloquently put it – Oops, they’ve done it again. Well, that’s not exactly what she said, but close, you get the drift.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Fri, 11 Sep 2015 02:11:37 +0000
Don't believe those elxn ads - they are not quite what they seem.

Attack ads are notorious for distorting the truth, grabbing a little snippet out of a speech and presenting it completely out of context.  It’s all about creating a negative impression, making a person seem incompetent, scary, dishonest, whatever.

They work on some voters. Specifically, they are aimed mainly at people who don’t really follow politics, and aren’t going to think beyond the message conveyed.  It will never cross their mind that they are being misled.

The attack ads we are most familiar with, because if you watch TV they are played so often you can’t miss them, are the Conservative’s attack ads on Justin Trudeau. So let’s look at a couple of those.


“Budgets will balance themselves.”  Did Trudeau actually say that? Does he really believe that? Yes, and yes. But the context makes all the difference. What he said was “if the government did its job well and focused on growing the economy then the budget would eventually take care of itself. Each increase in GDP sees an increase in the government's coffers. Balancing the budget is simply a matter of ensuring that there is enough economic growth and therefore revenue to cover expenses.”

Well, put it that way and I guess budgets do balance themselves. Put another way – if you earned more money, you wouldn’t have to worry about your making you mortgage or car payment. It would cease to be a problem.

Point being, if you don’t hear the context you are left with a false impression.

In a more recent attack ad, the Harper Conservatives are playing more on that “budgets will balance themselves” line by ridiculing Trudeau’s comment that he wants to grow the economy “from the heart outwards”.


Opponents (not sure if it was the Tories or NDP) labelled that “Care Bear economics”.  That’s a clever line so kudos to whomever came up with it, but again, it is misleading.

In the speech where he made that comment, he was talking about the heart of the economy being the middle class, and that therefore growing the economy should come from that heart; from the middle class.

Voters can make up their own mind on whether that’s good policy, but he’s not channelling his inner Care Bear here. There’s more substance to it than that.

Even more recently, we have an example of the same kind of distortion from the Liberals, of a comment by Stephen Harper. The Liberals, like all the parties that aren’t the Conservatives, have to pace themselves in respect to media buys, so for now at least, this one only lives online, but is being widely circulated – that’s how I saw it. Here it is:

Well, really no, it doesn’t say it all. Far from it. If it had said it all, it would show that when he said he is not going to hold everybody accountable for “their” actions, he wasn’t taking about “everybody”. Here’s the complete quote:  "These (Duffy and Wright) are the two people whose actions are responsible for this situation. That's why I've held them accountable and I'm not going to go around holding everybody else accountable for their actions".

If you just grab the last half of that sentence, as the Liberals have done here, you can see how it changes the meaning completely.

Know what’s a shame? That truth in advertising laws don’t apply to political ads. But they don’t and with the election campaign soon to ramp up we are undoubtedly going to see a lot more of them.


The take away here – be careful of any quotes one party uses against another, and take it all with a grain, no a large handful, of salt.

Meantime, here’s to hoping whenever any party puts out an ad, that the media analyzes it to see if it is a distortion, and if it is found wanting in that regard, that they report that far and wide. 

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Sun, 23 Aug 2015 21:58:31 +0000
The Duffy trial and Stephen Harper's communications dilemma

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” 

Walter Scott

After a motorcycle trip to the White Mountains, where they don’t carry much Canadian news, I spent last evening getting caught up on what’s been going on with the election campaign and the Duffy trial.


From a crisis communications perspective, I can’t help but wonder how much longer Stephen Harper can continue to ignore that his Chief of Staff Ray Novak was indeed among the PMO staff that was in on the ill-fated scheme to deceive Canadians about the $90,000 cheque for Mike Duffy’s expenses. 


Mind you it isn’t proven yet, but when it came out in court that the Prime Minister’s lawyer Ben Perrin told the RCMP that he was positive Novak knew because he looked right into his face to see his reaction, when Nigel Wright suggested the scheme, that sounds pretty definitive.

This creates a particular problem for the Prime Minister as it means either he had to have known too, or that Novak purposely kept him in the dark. Either way, Canadians were purposely mislead by the PMO, and Harper’s response that it was only Duffy and Wright who knew, grows weaker every time he repeats it.


Which brings us back to the dilemma facing the PM. He hates the fact that the questions he is being asked are mainly focused on this, not whatever the campaign announcement of the day happens to be.  That has got to be rough for someone who does everything in his power to control everything. Hell, he’s not even willing to meet ordinary Canadians, only pre-screened party supporters. What level of ridiculous campaign control is that?

But back to the problem. What to do? How does he, as they say, change the channel?

The first rule of thumb in crisis communications is to be honest. But that means from the start. And that ship may have already sailed.


Neither of his options is good. He can continue to repeat his talking point that this is only about Duffy and Wright. But that fails to address the very legitimate questions of whether he was OK with deceiving the Canadian public, or was he was mislead by Novak. And if so, he is going to fire him? And what does it say about the culture of the PMO that the bunch of them were quite prepared to go along with Wright’s plan to deceive Canadians?


Refusing to address these questions will not make them go away. They just make him sound evasive. And his non-answers will continue to overshadow his campaign announcements.

But on the other hand, he has stuck by his talking points for so long, he can’t easily change his course now.

His hope may lie in the fact that after next week, the trial will adjourn until after the election. And then maybe reporters will move on as well. Sure bet though, that Mulcair, Trudeau and Elizabeth May will do their level best to keep it alive.

He can also hope that Canadians aren’t paying attention or simply don’t care. 

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Thu, 20 Aug 2015 01:21:33 +0000
Much Ado About Nothing - a cautionary tale about the media and politicians


I have never before written a blog directly related to a client. Always thought it best to keep the two separate. But I am going to make an exception today because what I find myself involved in has many lessons related to communications, from how the media works to how politicians act.


If you are in New Brunswick you may have seen yesterday’s front page, above the fold story in all three English language dailies.  The headlines ranged from  “Union apologies for email asking NB Power workers to support Grits” to “Union sorry for partisan email sent to utility workers”.  This morning, the follow-up story, again in all three papers with the headline “Energy critic calls for review of email asking NB Power workers to back Liberals” or some variation.


Disclosure – the union in question is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 37, which represents, among others, NB Power employees.  They have been a BissettMatheson client for many years.


Now, here’s what happened. The other day, the IBEW national office sent the New Brunswick local, among others, an email. Like every major union in Canada, it sees the Harper government as anti-union so obviously, it is in organized labour’s interests to seek a change. Just like any other group, like say, the forest industry, it tends to pursue its best interests.


Working with political strategists it identified key ridings across the country where it felt candidates who were more union friendly had a good chance of winning. In various ridings they identified candidates of various parties. In New Brunswick they identified three ridings where it felt the odds were good that the Conservative could be defeated, and in these three cases they saw the Liberal candidate as having the best shot. They wanted to get the word out to IBEW members that they would be hosting training sessions for any members in these ridings who might want to volunteer to help in any of these three campaigns.

That was the long and short of the memo. No pressure. And certainly no request to vote any certain way. Just a message as stated above.

The role of Local 37 was simply to forward that message. As you might expect, lots of emails get sent to members, both to their work accounts when it is a work related issue, and to their private emails when it is union business.

Long story short, by mistake this one was sent to the members’ work accounts. When it was realized, which was pretty quickly, the local immediately apologized to NB Power, and sent out an explanation to the membership.  Over the years the local has established an excellent working relationship with NB Power, and we appreciate that they understood that mistakes happen, and that it was unintentional.

That should have been the end of it. But when you send an email to 2,000 people, even if there are your closest personal friends, the chances of it going beyond that circle is pretty good. Which leads us to the media.

The headlines were inaccurate, the union didn’t apologize for the email, just for sending it using the work addresses, and the memo did not ask anybody to vote for the Liberals. But the reporter doesn’t write the headlines, and what he did write, the stories themselves, were actually quite accurate.


But then Jake Stewart, the provincial energy critic for the PCs, decides this is something he can make some hay on. So mustering up the most outrage he possibly could, he calls for a complete external review of how something this terrible could happen.


He is calling for all emails, telephone, and face-to-face conversations regarding the email in question to be gathered under oath and made public.

And he has taken the leap of tying it to the provincial Liberal government, calling it “sickening” and that “taxpayers deserve to know the full and unvarnished truth from a third party that is removed from the tentacles of Premier Gallant”.

Somehow, somewhere in the recesses of Stewart’s imagination, he spun the whole thing into interference by the Energy Minister pressuring employees to help federal Liberal candidates, adding, “we have now entered resignation and public inquiry territory.”

Wow. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.


And talk about not letting the facts get in the way of a good rant.

I understand that politicians will exaggerate and distort if they think they can score a brownie point or two by embarrassing the other side, and if it were reversed I have no doubt the other side would do the same thing. It’s the way it works.

But because I was directly involved in this one, I know first hand and absolutely, that it was nothing more and nothing less than an honest mistake.

And now today, the editorial writer at the TJ piled on, apparently swallowing Jake Stewart’s distorted and exaggerated interpretation of the facts whole, calling it a black eye for NB Power.

The take away is perhaps a cautionary tale of how we really do need to take what we see in the media with a grain of salt. It is a case where a simple, honest mistake that had absolutely nothing to do with NB Power, was blown out of all proportion by a politician for political gain, and then leveraged by a newspaper’s editorial side to repeat tired union stereotypes. The fact of what actually happened had precious little to do with it.

No wonder the media and politicians are held in such low regard.   

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Thu, 06 Aug 2015 15:14:45 +0000
Is the Fair Elections Act giving Stephen Harper an unfair advantage?


When Prime Minister Harper went to the Governor General over the long weekend to trigger the longest federal election campaign since John A. MacDonald in 1872, he inferred it was a decision with safeguarding of taxpayer money in mind. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if that didn’t make his nose grow, nothing will.


In fact, this campaign will cost taxpayers many millions more than any previous campaign, because of its length combined with the new rules brought in by Harper’s majority government.

The salient point is that Harper, a brilliant tactician if nothing else, is gaming the system.  To him, any amount of taxpayer dollars is a small price to pay for reelection.

He has set the table, through what in true Orwellian fashion his government has called the Fair Elections Act.


The Conservative Party is overflowing with money, and the rule changes they pushed into law on spending limits allows them to use more of it than election spending rules ever allowed before. The other parties could too of course, but that’s a moot point because they don’t have as much.  But to suggest it is party money not taxpayer money isn’t true. Taxpayers, you and me, will subsidize by fifty to sixty cents, every dollar spent. We are talking tens of millions of dollars here.

But that’s only part of how Harper has changed the rules to give his party an advantage.


Pretty much everybody with expertise in this area agrees that the Fair Elections Act will result in voter suppression, particularly among demographic groups that aren’t inclined to vote Conservative. The act also makes it illegal for the Chief Electoral Officer to encourage people to vote. This means it is now illegal for his office to do the outreach it has done in the past to encourage voting by groups who don’t usually bother. The biggest example of this is the Student Outreach Program designed to encourage students to vote when they turn 18. In 2011, 500,000 Canadian students voted through this program. But now, with the Fair Elections Act, it is illegal for the Chief Electoral Officer to do anything that would encourage anyone to vote. Does that sound like a restriction you would want in a progressive democracy?

But does it matter? This is where the communications becomes especially interesting.

Harper and his advisors are banking on the fact that generally speaking Canadians are indifferent. That this is about process and they believe most Canadians don’t care about process. They are banking on the fact our democracy being eroded is a non-issue compared to things like unemployment, tax levels or the economy.  They may be right. Maybe if you are unemployed it is hard to be concerned that some fellow Canadians may be deprived of their right to vote, or that scientists are being muzzled or that any of the other ethically questionable initiatives of this government matter.

So the Harper strategy is to focus on discrediting his opponents through wall-to-wall attack ads while trying to convince us his party is the best choice for the economy and to keep us safe from terrorists. The problem is that the track record shows that Harper’s economic record isn’t good, and that Canadians aren’t buying into the manufactured fear tactic.

But that’s just so far and it is going to be a long campaign.


(cartoon credit, Brian Gamble, Globe & Mail)

His communications challenge is to convince us that we need him. And not all that many of us. All he needs to win is to pick up 10 percent support to add to his base. And that, it goes without saying, is quite do-able, especially with the way he has changed the rules to help make it happen.   

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 03 Aug 2015 21:10:04 +0000
What's good for the goose - Is the Harper gov't violating its own new anti-terrorism law?


Despite serious concerns raised by all manner of people who understand the issues to a greater degree than most of us, from judges and the legal community to academics who specialize in human rights and the Canadian Constitution, to no less than four former Prime Ministers, the Harper government used its majority to ram through Bill C51, its anti-terrorism bill.


While most agree there are some worthwhile elements in it, on the whole it seriously curtails Canadians rights and freedoms without providing much in the way of increased security. One fear is that it is so broadly written that it can be used against whomever the government of the day happens to want to target, from environmentalists or any other group that could be considered disruptive or a threat to our economic security.  And all of this with no increased oversight and no appeal process.

Now, it looks like the Harper government itself is in violation.

One of the provisions of the legislation states it is against the law to promote terrorism. This would include spreading ISIS propaganda videos. 


Most would agree ISIS is a special kind of nasty. They are quick to display their extreme cruelty through videos showing these violent actions. They have a sophisticated propaganda machine aimed are riling up and provoking us. It’s an effective recruitment vehicle for them.

So why then, have these vile videos, complete with the ISIS anthem, found a home in campaign ads, produced by the Harper Conservatives? Questions of taste aside, doesn’t this contravene Bill C51?


It sure would seem so, and as you might expect, the party has been asked to explain itself. Watch this item from Global News, where Tom Clark puts that question to Conservative campaign organizer Kory Teneycke. He fails to give a straight answer when asked if this isn’t the government breaking its own law?

It is interesting to watch Teneyche squirm as he flounders from one answer to another, trying to defend the indefensible. Did you notice his body language? He was not having a good time. And kudos to Tom Clark for not letting him off the hook.

As noted in a recent editorial in the National Post, The Tories can’t have it both ways. If Teneyche is right, then Bill C-51 is wrong and the Conservatives are hypocrites. The choice is either to change the law or stop using the ISIS propaganda for their own political purposes.


For what it is worth, my guess is that with the economy going south, about all that Stephen Harper has left to sell going into the election is fear. So I expect the law will not be changed, and he will continue using the vile ISIS video, in apparent violation of his own ill-conceived law.  Because that’s the way he rolls.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 06 Jul 2015 23:01:09 +0000
Enough with the Strombo bashing - he's good


Like most hockey fans, I really like Ron MacLean. I appreciate his hockey knowledge, his broadcasting ability and the fact he’s obviously a class act.

So when Rogers beat out CBC for the rights to NHL hockey and brought in a lot of changes, there was a lot of pushback to the demotion of MacLean from the top hosting spot in favor of George Stroumpoulopoulos.  They were big shoes to fill, and for many, Strombo wasn’t up for the job. In short, there has been a lot of Strombo bashing. 

The biggest criticism is that he doesn’t have a hockey pedigree, doesn’t know the game inside out, and by comparison, doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of the game and the players that MacLean does.


But as much as I like MacLean, I think I have grown to like Strombo even more. To me, he is a fan and that is good enough because he is a good interviewer. He doesn’t pretend to know it all, and I appreciate that. And more, he knows enough to ask the right questions. And that’s what a good interviewer does – parks his ego at the door and lets the subject of the interview be the focus.

I felt motivated to write about this after watching his interview with Mike Babcock during the first intermission in last night’s Anaheim – Chicago game, because it struck me as quite excellent. He had five minutes, and he put it to the best use possible, asking the right questions with the right tone to solicit great responses.


As a diehard Leafs fan, so I’m over the moon with the Babcock hiring, and I have watched every interview I could find with him. Many were good, but none were of the caliber of the one Strombo did.

Want to see what I mean? Here it is.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Fri, 22 May 2015 02:58:00 +0000
A word of praise for local journalism

These are tough days for journalists all over, and New Brunswick is no exception. From the cutbacks at CBC to the dismissal of photographers at Brunswick News and increased demands on their reporters, journalism isn’t the satisfying vocation it once was. And there is nothing to suggest it is going to get better any time soon.

There is no denying the changing media landscape has had a negative effect on the product overall. But this said, there is still some good journalism going on out there.


I get a first hand look at the best our journalists have to offer each year, as part of the judging panel for one of the broadcast categories for the Atlantic Journalism Awards. And each year it strikes me that the quality of the journalism is pretty dam good. Mind you, what judges see is the best of the best, but still, they are shining examples of solid reporting.

Whether it is coverage of the horrific police shootings in Moncton, including that shot of the killer mid-rampage by one of the photographers the Irving media has decided it no longer wants to pay, or any of the other winning entries that effectively captured humanity at its best, or worst, or served to hold our politicians and institutions to account, these are works that serve to remind us of the value of journalism done right.


I congratulate them all, but I do want to signal one out, and full disclosure here, the subject matter of the stories focused on a client of ours, the Paramedic Association of New Brunswick.  I want to mention it specifically because it is as excellent example of the role of journalism in shining a light on an intolerable situation and in so doing informing the public, which in turn forced the government of the day to respond.

So not only congratulations but also a sincere thank you to Adam Bowie of the Daily Gleaner for his series on how how paramedics in New Brunswick are not allowed to help patients to the full extent of their skills. His stories told of how the result often ranges from more damage and longer recuperation times from heart attacks and other health conditions than should have been the case, to patients suffering needlessly from more pain than necessary. His stories told of the impossible dilemma and terrible frustration this put Advanced Care Paramedics in, knowing they had the skills and training to help, but at the same time weren’t allowed to because New Brunswick is the only province in the country that doesn’t recognize Advanced Care Paramedics.

Adam’s digging brought this story to the surface, and that helped procure a promise from the government of the day that it would remedy this. Now, we have a different government and one that also promised to fix it, but has so far done little. That’s unfortunate, but that is an issue for another day.

I can be as critical as the next guy about the state of journalism in this province, but today, on the heels of the Atlantic Journalism Awards, I am more appreciative than critical.

My point is that good journalism makes a difference. Good journalism makes us more aware of the world around us, and the best journalism serves to make that world a better place.  It’s heartening to see that despite the job getting tougher in many respects, we still have journalists who strive for, and hit this ideal. 

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Tue, 12 May 2015 01:56:20 +0000
Is Premier Gallant crazy like a fox? A look at the communications around the seniors and nursing homes issue


Is Premier Gallant crazy like a fox, really doesn’t know, or is he simply bad at communications? Either way, he’s got seniors worried about their futures, over his budget measure of removing the cap of $113 a day for residing in a nursing home.

The government says the vulnerable will continue to be protected but that they want those who can afford to pay a little more to do so.  But the lack of any kind of substantive response in the face of questions, from the Opposition and from organizations that represent seniors, has done nothing to alleviate these concerns.

The government accuses the Opposition of fear mongering, and no question the rhetoric on this is in overdrive.


Interim Opposition leader Bruce Fitch calls it an “attack on seniors”. That’s mild compared to comments from the NDP’s Dominic Cardy who calls it an attack on the most vulnerable, adding “New Brunswick seniors have worked hard their whole lives to build up their own contingency funds and are now having them stolen by the Liberal government”.

That may be a gross exaggeration, but it is consistent with what is being said on social media by the hundreds.


In Question Period, the Opposition has been pushing – asking exactly how much money does the government want to collect from seniors through this policy change? Responses range from the Premier saying that will all come out when the legislature reviews the department’s estimates, to Social Development Minister Kathy Rogers saying those policies haven’t been developed yet.


Again, nothing there to put seniors worries over this to rest.

There was an interesting back and forth during Question Period between the Premier and Fitch yesterday on this business of the details being held back until Estimates. Here’s an abbreviated version:

Gallant: We will be glad to go into detail about the costs during estimates

Fitch: He is hiding secret numbers that he cannot or will not give today. It is a general question that should be answered here in question period.

Gallant: I have been the Leader of the Opposition, and I have asked questions that would be similar, to get the numbers during question period. I can tell you that I was told I would have to wait for estimates.

Fitch: When the Premier was in Opposition, he continued to say: I will do government differently. If he is accusing us of hiding behind the estimates, he is doing exactly the same, and we expected more.

So what we have here is the Opposition saying – you are as bad as we were, and that we expected you to be better. Really?

Not sure who wins that little bit of sparing. But back to the more important point.


The government’s explanation is that all this amounts to, is asking those who can afford it to pay a bit more for nursing home care to do so. That idea isn’t flying.  In the absence of solid information, middle class seniors are wondering if they will be considered capable of paying more and if so, how much will the government take, and will all their savings eventually be depleted?


There are only a couple of reasons why the government would make this budget announcement and then let seniors spin in the wind while waiting to see whether they will be spared. It’s either because they haven’t worked out those details yet, as the Minister suggests, or because the Premier’s strategy is to allow them to continue to think the worst, and then when the hit isn’t that bad they will feel relieved. It’s an old Premier McKenna trick. For what it's worth, I doubt this is the case, but it's hard to fathom why the government wouldn't do more to alleviate seniors' worries, and silence the critics.  

Whatever the reason, what’s lost amid the angst is the government’s message that it is being fair and transparent.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Thu, 09 Apr 2015 01:01:16 +0000
Does everybody dumping on the budget mean it's a fair one? Not necessarily.


For the life of me I don’t know why anybody would want to be in government these days. But parties fight tooth and nail for the privilege, which, with the Gallant government’s first budget, includes the inevitable privilege of being pretty much universally scorned.

Our financial situation guaranteed a budget that would be unpopular, and given that just about every special interest group has jumped in to say how short-sighted the budget decisions are in regards to what they care about, maybe that speaks to it being fair overall.


The technology sector is upset about cancellation of the tax rebate program, seniors are upset about removal of the cap for residents of nursing homes, teachers are upset about the pending reduction in teaching positions, the New Brunswick Union is upset about cutbacks in the civil service,


and while the rich couldn’t very well come out against being hit with higher taxes, others have done it for them, suggesting it will kill jobs, community groups are upset about court house and Service NB office closures, or pending school closures, and the list goes on.

The thing is, taken in isolation, every group’s criticism has validity. And while every one of them realizes, or should realize that our financial situation is dire, not one of them suggested what should have been cut instead, only that their “thing” shouldn’t be.

Now, on the heels of the budget, Moodys has raised the suggestion of a drop in our credit rating.

In a column the other day former Fredericton Chamber of Commerce President Les Smith made the point that this province has to pay $685 million per year interest charges on our debt of nearly $13 billion. He pointed out that that amounts to $78,000 per hour. And that’s without making a dent in the principle – it’s the proverbial money down the toilet.

To put this in perspective it amounts to almost 10 Atcons, every year, with about the same benefit.


The government knows our financial situation is serious. So it is a bit puzzling that it didn’t raise the HST. Finance Minister Roger Melanson says they might do that next year, and so be it, but it means that in the meantime, we lose a year’s worth of much needed revenue.

I think New Brunswickers get that we are in a desperate financial situation and that restraint is required, and I expect there is general approval of the government’s stated reasoning that fairness will prevail and that people who can afford it most are required to contribute more.


But fairness often hinges on one’s perspective. And as is often the case, the devil may be in the details. For example, while taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing nursing home costs for rich people, what income and asset levels does the government have in mind for subsidized care? What constitutes rich? It’s not usually a good omen when these details aren’t available. 

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 06 Apr 2015 02:06:53 +0000
Atcon, the AG, and for the Opposition, the gift that keeps on giving


Auditor General Kim MacPherson has done in one day what the Liberal government hasn’t been able to do for months – get the Opposition’s Question Period focus off fracking.

This week, she released her report on Atcon and the Tories were on that like a hungry dog on a bone. Premier Gallant’s position, on the other hand, is more along the line of “Nothing to see here folks. Nothing new here. Move along now.”


But the Opposition isn’t about move along anytime soon. Question period yesterday was an interesting battle with the Conservatives pushing first to see if the Premier would identify the Minister mentioned in the report who signed away the province’s security on the loan. No dice.

Then asking if the government will authorize the Auditor General to conduct a forensic audit to see where the money went. No dice there either.

And the Premier didn’t bite when the Opposition asked, or to use their language demanded, that the six Ministers of his cabinet who were also in the Shawn Graham cabinet when the Atcon decision was made, be fired.

The Premier’s rebuttal was that the people of New Brunswick knew what happened with Atcon and still re-elected these members. He didn’t go so far as to say this proves the people of New Brunswick are OK with it; in fact he said he doesn’t blame New Brunswickers for being upset.


But he’s walking a fine line here, and his position that there’s nothing new in the report doesn’t seem to be resonating.

The difference may be that this time, the word is coming down from our very credible Auditor General, and Kim MacPherson didn’t mince her words, remarking that the government of the day showed what she termed "a very troubling disregard for taxpayers’ money". She laid out a whole pattern of irresponsibility from the decision to ignore advice from senior bureaucrats who advised against loaning the money, to the government signing away its security on the loan, thereby putting taxpayers at even more risk.


The difference is also that for the first time, we learned the actual content of the memos the cabinet received from their advisors, and we could see the very strong and straightforward warning they received that this was a bad deal. The documents show that bureaucrats advised the government that Atcon’s viability was “very questionable” and that Atcon “had a “dismal track record of repaying government money” and was “on the verge of collapse”. 

The Auditor General concluded there was absolutely no rational reason for the government to act as it did.


No question it was a damning indictment of what amounts to blowing $70 million of taxpayers money.

Premier Gallant had absolutely nothing to do with it. But, six members of his cabinet did. And so far, while he’s saying the government is taking the AG’s report seriously, he’s otherwise stonewalling in counter to the Opposition’s efforts to keep the issue alive.

Those six ministers, meantime, have been avoiding the media for two days. Asked about that, the Premier would only say that all the information is out there.


If by that he’s suggesting it is time to move on, that appears to be wishful thinking. The Opposition certainly isn’t about to stop, and you can bet that from here on they will remind New Brunswickers at every turn that what has been dubbed the Atcon 6, the ones that were party to wasting $70 million, are now the key decision makers in the Gallant government. Not the best message for a government that is about to bring down a budget of restraint with a message that we can’t afford to do otherwise.  

A quick scan of social media suggests many New Brunswickers aren’t ready to move on either, nor do they agree all the information is out there. The most common sentiment, for example in the comments on the CBC website, is outrage.

And despite the Premier saying all the information is known, questions do remain, the biggest being why these questionable decisions were made? People would like to hear from those six ministers, if not with an explanation of why, at least perhaps with an apology.

There’s risk in that, because the AG has pretty much said what they did is indefensible. But really, could apologizing possibly make it worse?  But mea culpa doesn't come easy for any politician, so we shouldn't expect it. So what then? 

The Premier is trying hard to put the focus on the future, not the past. So here’s something he could do. He could change the rules so that in the future, whenever a government cabinet decides to ignore bureaucratic advice, that it will be obliged to make that decision public, and explain why. That would be a step in the right direction.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Thu, 26 Mar 2015 01:52:27 +0000
The road rage was over-the-top, but so too was the media coverage


The coverage this week of that road rage incident in Fredericton says as much about the state of journalism as it does about the individuals directly involved in the confrontation. And not in a good way.

Social media has led to public shaming at a level never experienced before. Not that public shaming in and of itself is bad. On the contrary it serves to keep people in check, and often people deserve to be shamed. Usually it would be in proportion – you do something boneheaded in public, and the people who are around nail you for it. You feel ashamed, and life goes on. Been there and done that.


But with social media, when someone captures the incident on video, and promptly puts it on YouTube for the world to see, the proportion of the bad behaviour to ridicule has the potential to go seriously out of whack.

That’s what happened in this case when the video went viral.


Then the media piled on. From what I can tell every media in Fredericton was part of this. The radio stations, ATV, Global but especially CBC. The driver on the receiving end of the tirade happened to work at the CBC, and he got his son to video the encounter. That video made its way to several CBC radio programs, and became a top story on the suppertime TV newscast.  

The next morning, CBC Radio is going at it yet again. As I was listening I pulled my Gleaner out of the mailbox and there the story was again, smack on the front page.

Here’s the thing. The irate driver went way overboard. That’s a given. I expect the other driver did do something to provoke him, as I can’t imagine this guy would go off like that for no reason, but that’s beside the point. He over-reacted. We get that. And he apologized. The video has caused him and his family considerable grief and embarrassment.


He has been publicly shamed big time, and way out of proportion to his crime. But there’s a journalistic question here around news judgment and ethics. One would hope it would prompt some soul searching in some newsrooms.

What’s even more troubling, journalistically, were the comments of STU journalism professor Jan Wong. On CBC Information Morning yesterday morning, she was asked about the newsworthiness of this incident. Her response was that it wasn’t that the road rage incident was newsworthy, but what was newsworthy is the fact that the YouTube video of it went viral and was watched by half a million people.

It is true that news is, by definition, the unusual. And this video grabbing this much attention therefore fit. But her response is too simplistic. If this is what the next generation of journalists is being taught, this does not bode well for the profession. By her explanation, content is secondary to the popularity.

There is, or should be, a responsibility on journalists to weigh all manner of factors in determining newsworthiness, and popularity should be more toward the bottom than top of that list. In this case this should have included asking themselves if they would be guilty of contributing to this modern day phenomenon of excessive shaming. The answer to that should have determined the manner in which they reported the story.

“Proportion” being the key thing. The story can be covered without the necessity of playing that video at every opportunity. It’s not as if people wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. Just as the incident was over-the-top, so too was the coverage.

By coincidence, over the weekend I watched a Ted Talks video on this very issue, public shaming, delivered by someone who would know, Monica Lewinsky. What she has to say about our culture of humiliation is well worth listening to, by all of us, including journalists. Here's a link

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Wed, 25 Mar 2015 14:17:16 +0000
The 6:00 practice, and when politicians just make it up

One of the beefs I have with the media is that too often they allow politicians who aren’t being honest off the hook.

The problem with this is two-fold. First, it allows inaccurate information to get out into the public realm, and second, with no repercussions, there is little deterrent for politicians to watch what they say.


The most recent case in point is Fredericton City Councillor John MacDermid.  He’s a little put out that this week, his fellow councilors awarded a tender for repairs to the York Arena. I’m not sure what the vote was, but the majority voted yea and he voted nay.

Nothing wrong with that of course, but in talking to the media afterwards, he said he was against repairing the arena because the city doesn’t need another ice surface. He said there is only demand because people only want ice in prime time hours. Then he said, and here’s the exact quote “There was a time when people would get up at 6:30 in the morning and take their children to hockey. That just doesn’t happen any more.”


As a dad who got up many a morning, not at 6:30 but earlier in that, in order to have my kids on the ice by 6:00, that comment took me by surprise. Do parents really not do that anymore?

It didn’t take long to find out that yes, they sure do. 


This morning, for example, the Booster Juice Capitals had a 6:00 AM practice at the Grant Harvey Centre and at the same time Swiftys Capitals were on the ice at Willie O’Ree. Tomorrow at 6:00 AM, the Peewee Furies are on the ice at Willie O’Ree while the Atom Furies are on the other Willie O’Ree ice surface, and Colpitt’s Canucks are practicing at Grant Harvey, and it too, is at 6:00.

How much digging did it take for me to find this out? About 15 seconds. I googled FYHA and clicked on ice schedules. Councillor MacDermid could have done that, or maybe he did but wasn’t going to let an inconvenient truth get in the way of his narrative.


Point being, when Councillor MacDermid made that comment, he wasn’t speaking from any kind of knowledge; he just made it up, and presented it as fact. It is a disservice to all those parents out there who do get up at 5:30 in the morning to take their children to hockey.

It’s one thing to be against a city decision. But councillors, and for that matter any politician, should not resort to fiction to support their point of view. And when they do, the media has a responsibility to call them on it.  Maybe if this happened more often, politicians would be more careful, and that would serve all of us.

I don’t mean to pick on this particular councillor. It’s not as if he’s the first or will be the last to play fast and loose with the facts, but he is the latest. 

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Wed, 18 Mar 2015 01:36:50 +0000
Lay off of photographers just the latest assault on quality journalism by Irving papers


You’ve heard that thing about how if you put a frog in a pot of water then slowly heat it to boiling and the frog doesn’t try to jump out because the change is so gradual it doesn’t notice how bad it's getting.

That’s what came to mind yesterday when I heard that Brunswick News laid off all of its photographers.

It’s just a few more degrees of heat for those of us who read these Irving newspapers. And you have to wonder if readers notice how bad these papers are getting.

That’s not a slam on the reporters. Many are very good, and they do their best but the cumulative changes can’t help but negatively affect the journalism.


By deciding the photographers are expendable the owners are either showing that they don’t understand that professional photography is part and parcel of a newspaper’s journalistic product, or they simply don’t care, and are telling us that second-rate photos are good enough.

This decision adds a larger burden on the reporters. Now as well as researching, doing interviews and writing their stories, they have to take supporting photography. This may not be a big deal sometimes, maybe not even often.


But when there is breaking news with a lot of activity, that’s where professional news photographers, such as the ones who have just been shown the door, shine. Catching those moments in history, maneuvering to find the angle for that perfect photo, finding the shot that captures the human condition at its best…or worst.  These are the pictures that grab us and pull us into the story; they are the ones that stay with us; the ones we remember. They are not accidental. They are split seconds born of years of experience.


Brunswick News' Regional General Manager explained that the move was made because reporters now have the technology to handle the photography. This shows he doesn't get it. It's not about the technology. A reporter with an iPhone is not the same as the trained eye of a photographer.  

We may not miss those shots because of course we won’t know what might have been. But there is no doubt that overall the quality of the photography in the Gleaner, TJ and Times and Transcript will be diminished.

And so will the quality of the reporting. Now Brunswick News reporters have to think about getting photography. This on top of the Brunswick News new emphasis on its website, with demands on reporters to post stories quicker, and update often.

And on top of this, there’s the quota system with its focus on quantity over quality.

The reporters are doing their best and I feel for them, but the long and short of it is that it seems every development at the Irving papers over recent times has been at the expense of quality journalism.

The owners are banking on the fact that as readers we’re okay with that. We are the frog in the boiling water. 


]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Tue, 10 Mar 2015 02:15:50 +0000
Thou shalt not discuss duality - what's that all about?


The response was strong and swift and the message unmistakable when Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside suggested in a tweet that the costs of duality should be discussed. And that message wasn’t just for the mayor, it was for all of us - don’t you ever dare suggest we discuss duality.

Because he did bring it up, francophone mayors demanded an immediate apology, with the Mayor of Dieppe even suggesting a boycott of the upcoming Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference, apparently because Mayor Woodside is the President.  

Most New Brunswickers, including Mayor Woodside, are not against bilingualism. Neither are they bigots. Most of us understand that we are an officially bilingual province, and that duality is part and parcel of that. And most of us understand that it is enshrined in the constitution.


But what many of us don’t understand is that it is somehow outrageous to suggest we even talk about it. It can’t be the fact it is in Canada’s Constitution that places it out of bounds. We talk about all manner of things that are in the constitution, all the time. How often has the Charter of Rights and Freedoms been openly discussed for instance, and that’s part of the Constitution?

But for whatever reason, any discussion of duality is out of order, out of bounds, never to be mentioned, at least not in polite company, and certainly not in public.

In a province that prides itself on openness and tolerance, why is that?  

I’m not talking about the dinosaurs that backed the old Confederation of Regions Party in the early 1990s. I’m talking about reasonable and fair New Brunswickers who understand and respect the necessity to protect the francophone culture, but don’t understand why, in a province that is on the verge of bankruptcy, we can’t consider common-sense solutions such as having English and French kids travel to their respective schools on the same bus.


Why, these New Brunswickers wonder, are we running separate school buses over the same streets when there is room on one bus to accommodate everybody? There are other examples but this is the one that has become a symbol of what some see as the apparent waste of duality.

Do these duality-driven costs amount to much? I have no idea.

What I do know is that when you refuse to talk about these things people will sometimes jump to outrageous conclusions.  The costs may very well be grossly exaggerated, and probably are.

But until governments and politicians change their attitude and agree it is time they explained to New Brunswickers why, for example, we need to run two half-filled school buses when one would do the trick, these questions will remain, as will the outrageous conclusions.

How has refusing to address these issues worked out so far? 


In his recent State of the Province speech, Premier Gallant made an impassioned plea for New Brunswickers to get onside with his government’s efforts to reduce spending. He said something to the effect that we all have to be part of it.

No question our financial situation is a mess and it has to be addressed. But what is compromising Premier Gallant's effort to get necessary buy-in from New Brunswickers is that many see his, and others, reluctance to even discuss duality in the context of saving money as an excuse not to be supportive.

The Premier’s phone conversation with Mayor Woodside where he told him duality is not on the table has apparently silenced the mayor. But it does nothing to satisfy a whole lot of other fair-minded New Brunswickers who are simply looking for answers to what they see as legitimate questions.

I have been working in communications all my adult life and I have not seen an example yet where a refusal to discuss something leads to a better understanding of it.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Wed, 04 Mar 2015 00:11:50 +0000
Good communications does not fix bad behaviour

Crisis communications has been part of our company’s services for over 20 years. Over that time we have been called in to advise on all manner of situations. And every time, one of the first things we look at is whether the company or organization did or is doing something wrong. If so, our advice is always to fix it.

Our position is that if a company isn’t committed to proper, ethical behaviour, its problem is deeper than just a communications issue, so communications isn’t enough to fix it.

Which brings us to Sun Life and Bank of Montreal. Here are two multi-million dollar companies that had refused pleas from spouses of people who made poor, irrational financial decisions because they suffer from dementia.


In one case a man with Alzheimer's disease cashed in insurance policies the couple had paid more than $17,000 in premiums into over the past 30 years, policies that were to pay $140,000 on his death. The man in question cancelled them for a cash settlement of less than two thousand dollars. Despite pleas from the man’s wife, including medical documentation showing he wasn’t in his right mind, Sun Life’s response was to hang tough.


And with the Bank of Montreal, a similar story. A 76-year-old man with dementia borrowed $70,000 to purchase a new vehicle, even though he already had a car. That commitment was for seven years of $800 monthly payments. His wife tried to return the car, but because her husband refused to give her power of attorney, BMO said they couldn’t take it back. But meantime, he wasn’t making the payments.

So the car just sat there. After the man died, his widow tried again to return it, but rather than repossess it, the Bank of Montreal instructed its lawyers to go after her house.


These are examples of companies behaving badly. Both cases have now been resolved, but the thing is, the resolutions came only after they got wind that CBC’s Go Public segment was going to expose this behaviour.

CBC did the story anyway, which is how I and I suspect many others heard about it, as it was on radio yesterday and The National last night.

In its letter to the spouse saying it would reinstate the insurance policies, Sun Life said it was doing it on compassionate grounds. Funny how the compassion only showed up after the CBC did.

Which brings us back to my point at the beginning of this blog, that if a company isn’t committed to acting ethically, no amount of communications is going to make everything all right.

These cases got resolved because they were going to become public. But what about the others, and there is no doubt there are and will be others? At a time when experts say Alzheimer's is only going to become more frequent, is the corporate policy of these companies, and others like them, to only exercise compassion when they are shamed into it, as was the case here?

If so, that’s pretty messed up, and will do precious little for their corporate reputations.

If you missed the Go Public item, it’s on the CBC website, right here.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Tue, 24 Feb 2015 14:44:02 +0000
The anti-terrorism bill and the communications challenges and opportunities it represents


In the next federal election, as always, I want to cast my ballot for the party that best reflects my values. I expect you are the same. But how do you do that when the party's positions are based on polling as opposed to conviction?

Prime Minister Harper’s anti-terrorism bill is the biggest current example of this.

Look at what we have.


We have the Harper government positioning itself as the party that is tough on terrorism by championing a bill that, by all indications, is overkill and an assault on our civil rights.


This is an opinion shared by four former Prime Ministers, five former Justices of the Supreme Court, a former RCMP Watchdog, academics and many others who have a lot of expertise in this area. They see problems with the wording, which they see as overly broad, and they warn that the bill lacks effective oversight.  In other words, it is a seriously flawed bill.

But to the Harper government, this is secondary because they have polling that shows widespread support for it. And that support is the result of Harper convincing Canadians that terrorism is a threat that demands this action. It’s a page directly from George Bush’s playbook, who won an election by exaggerating the terrorism threat in the U.S. and convincing Americans that only his party could protect them.  

With the sinking price of oil taking away Harper’s argument that the economy is great because of him, he needed something else to go into the election with, and so terrorism it is.  The fact the bill could result in peaceful protestors being treated as terrorists is not a big concern to him, because he doesn’t see Canadians caring a whole lot. That’s his gamble.


But what of the others? Justin Trudeau, apparently more concerned about being seen as soft on terrorism than as standing up for civil rights, agreed to support the bill before his party even had time to properly review it.

Strategically, that may be wise politically because it denies Harper from being able to position the Liberals as opposite anti-terrorism. I’m sure his support is the last thing Harper wanted to see.


So Thomas Mulcair and the NDP are the odd man out, the only party, aside from the Greens, coming out opposed. That’s the role of opposition and he is making valid arguments against the bill.

But the communications challenge is whether Canadians are listening, or will they simply not get past the simplistic Conservative messaging that to oppose this bill is to be reckless and not understanding of the threat terrorism poses.

Mulcair’s position is consistent with a party that had traditionally placed a lot of value on civil liberties, so therefore does represent his party’s values. But strategically, and this may work for him politically, with the Liberals on-side with the government, it positions the NDP as a true alternative.

What this anti-terrorism bill has done is really quite fascinating. From a communications point of view it will be interesting to watch unfold.

The Harper government has already moved to limit debate in an effort to lessen the amount of time it remains in the media.

But if Mulcair and all the others who see it as problematic are successful in getting Canadians to look at it closer and this diminishes public support, it will be interesting to see to what extent the Liberals will try to backtrack and distance themselves from it. This could be tricky given they were so quick to say they will support it, but then, Justin Trudeau recently embraced Eve Adams, a political opportunist if there ever was one, so they may get practice trying to distance themselves from that.

It would be good if the parties simply stated what they stood for and then let Canadians decide, but that is just so Pollyanna isn’t it?


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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Sun, 22 Feb 2015 22:07:40 +0000