Tag Archives: media

Canada’s largest PR machine troubled by a few ‘toxic’ stories

The media is unfair to the military, according to the Chief of Defence Staff. During a speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade last week General Jonathan Vance slammed “very toxic narratives” in reporting on the Canadian Forces.

“If you’re paying attention to the news today, there are some very toxic narratives about the armed forces,” Vance said. “The narrative that seems to prevail right now is if you join the armed forces, you are going to be sexually assaulted, raped or you’re going to suffer from PTSD at some point and may commit suicide.”

Reporting the truth is toxic?

With the largest PR machine in the country, the CF aggressively always protects its image and promotes its worldview. As I detail in my latest book A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation, the military runs a slew of journalistic, academic and cultural initiatives. The military produces dozens of publications and its numerous websites make articles, speeches, reports and other types of information easily accessible to the public. The Canadian Forces also employs YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to promote its positions and recruit new members.

In 2010-11 the Canadian Forces admitted to spending $354 million on public relations and related military commemorations. Six hundred and sixty-one staff members worked on this effort. According to another 2011 report, the Department of National Defence’s Public Affairs department had 286 staff.  Public Affairs Officers’ write press releases, organize press conferences, monitor the news, brief journalists, befriend reporters and editors, or perform various other media-related activities. A large proportion of the news stories about the military are based on CF statements and events.

But that clearly isn’t good enough for the Chief of Defence Staff. After taking charge of the CF, Vance immediately sought to reinforce their influence over news coverage of military affairs. In fall 2015, Ottawa Citizen military reporter David Pugliese revealed Canada’s top soldier’’ call for the “weaponization of public affairs.” Vance proposed a plan to induce positive coverage and deter critical reporting. Journalists producing unflattering stories about the military were to be the target of phone calls to their boss, letters to the editor and other “flack” designed to undercut their credibility in the eyes of readers and their employers.

While the “weaponization of public affairs” slogan was novel, Pugliese pointed out in a blog that “Vance isn’t the first to attempt to bring pesky journalists to heel. It was quite common for officials working for then Defence Minister Peter MacKay to phone editors of various publications to complain about reporters.”

The CF didn’t stop at complaining to journalists’ bosses. The top brass repeatedly asked the military’s National Investigative Service (NIS) to investigate reporters’ sources. In 2011 NIS investigated prominent CTV journalist Robert Fife after he uncovered documents about Chief of Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk spending over $1 million in public funds flying to hockey games and a Caribbean vacation. Pugliese described this as a blatant “intimidation tactic by the NIS against a journalist who was clearly not playing military cheerleader.”

In a similar incident, NIS spent more than a month investigating how Pugliese obtained information about a major Pacific Ocean military exercise in spring 2012. While the Ottawa Citizen defence reporter said the information came from a U.S. Navy release, which the NSI investigation ultimately supported, DND officials believed Pugliese was tipped off by a friendly Public Affairs Officer. Esprit du Corp editor Scott Taylor pointed out that the investigation had nothing to do with operational security. “No classified information was divulged. No operational security jeopardized. No Canadian sailors’ lives were put in peril as a result of Pugliese’s rather innocuous story, but [defence minister Peter] MacKay’s timetable for release [of the information] had not been strictly adhered to.”

According to Taylor, NIS was employed on at least four occasions to investigate the source of information for stories. Yet in none of these instances was classified material reported.

The military is sensitive about embarrassing leaks. A July 2014 Embassy story titled “DND points to ‘challenges’ with former soldiers talking to media” reported on ministerial briefing notes concerning the problem of “leaks.” A year earlier the CF required soldiers wounded in Afghanistan to sign a form saying they wouldn’t criticize senior officers on Facebook or other social media. Former soldiers are a concern since active CF members are restricted in what they can say publicly or post online.

An extremely centralized organization, the people at the top of Canadian Forces want to control everyone and everything.

To paraphrase a widely circulated quote: when you’re accustomed to shaping coverage, a bit of criticism can feel like a “toxic” media environment.

Comments Off on Canada’s largest PR machine troubled by a few ‘toxic’ stories

Filed under A Propaganda System

What else has a propaganda system like the NHL?

Recently veteran Montréal sports reporter Michel Villeneuve revealed that coach Michel Therrien told a small private group at a golf tournament he believed Max Pacioretty was the “worst captain” in the Canadiens’ history. Therrien, General Manager Marc Bergevin and owner Geoff Molson all poured cold water on Villeneuve’s report, which another journalist confirmed.

Angered by the team’s response, Villeneuve threatened to reveal other damning information about the Canadiens upon his return from vacation. Before that could happen Sportstalk 91.9 FM fired him. Afterwards Villeneuve told La Presse: “Have they been subjected to pressure from the Canadiens? Perhaps because they negotiated hard to get broadcasting rights for the Montréal Rockets games” (a Canadiens farm team beginning next year).

As the Villeneuve saga suggests, the Habs have leverage over local media. The relationship between sports departments at newspapers or TV stations and the team PR department is close. Reporters rely on the team for access to players and coaches. Journalists often fly on team-chartered flights. Trying to be too independent or overly critical of the team can result in problems for a reporter.

Villeneuve’s experience sheds light on why Montrealers overwhelmingly support the Canadiens, not the Boston Bruins or Anaheim Ducks (or for that matter the Sherbrooke Phoenix junior team). In recent years these teams have had more success, more Québecois players and play (arguably) a more exciting brand of hockey. Yet Montrealers overwhelmingly stick with the Habs.

The reasons for the popularity are multifaceted and historically rooted. The choice of “Canadiens” when the term was associated with Francophones, the 1955 Rocket Richard riot’s contribution to Québec’s Quiet Revolution and the Habs’ historic success have all contributed to the club’s popularity. But the primary reason is that a $1.1 billion US corporation, part of a $15 billion league, promotes itself to fill a stadium, sell broadcasting rights and license retail shops, sports bars, condo towers etc.

To sell its various initiatives the team advertises heavily in local media. Additionally, the Habs’ large marketing department feeds reporters and broadcasters with stories and statistics, as well as organizing events, fan forums, team history commemorations. In one of a long list of major marketing initiatives, the Habs partnered with Montréal on “the City is Hockey” campaign through the 2000s. It associated the team with Montréal architectural references and delivered educational kits to schools.

Alongside the city of Montréal, many local businesses drive support for the Canadiens. The TV and radio stations paying to broadcast games have a substantial financial interest in promoting the team. So do a number of other media outlets with Habs partnerships. Hundreds of bars and restaurants across the city have informal team partnerships. Hoping to draw fans in to watch games, they decorate with Habs memorabilia. Many other businesses seeking to profit from the team’s popularity — while simultaneously driving it forward — contract players or name products after them.

Ranking just after general news and provincial politics, 12% of Québec news in 2013 was about the Habs. Two years earlier a study found that players, coaches and executives were among the most covered personalities in Québec. Incredibly, 12 of the 25 personalities who received the most media coverage in Québec in 2011 were Canadiens.

Given the tightly controlled information network devoted to promoting Habs mania, the team’s popularity is not surprising.

As a former junior hockey player and devoted Habs follower, it really doesn’t bother me that I am being manipulated by a “propaganda system” designed to create fans.

But it does make me wonder where else in our lives we are being manipulated in a similar fashion.

This was first published in the National Observer.

Comments Off on What else has a propaganda system like the NHL?

Filed under A Propaganda System

A first step in ending global warming — ban automobile ads

A Metro should never be wrapped in car ads.

On this past week, the whole front of Montréal’s Metro paper promoted Kia. All of page 2 and the back of a paper targeted at the city’s transit riders also promoted an unhealthy, lethal, inefficient and utterly unsustainable mode of transportation.

Incredibly, public transit systems regularly glorify the private automobile. Car ads are not uncommon on buses or in metros. During a trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, the great hall at the city’s beautiful old train station was covered with a 50 ft x 30 ft car ad. It seemed more than a little out of place. Would you see a promotion for trains at a car dealership?

On the contrary, the automotive industry has regularly disparaged mass transit. In the mid-1990s GM ran ads in US subways with pictures of the Aurora under the headline “Tear Up Your Monthly Pass” while more recently BMW covered bus shelters with the statement: “In the land of the bus shelter the guy with a car is king.” Numerous TV and online auto spots have depicted men unable to find dates because they bike or ride the bus and don’t have cars.

The auto industry has long been the biggest advertiser. Whether you’re at a party, online, at the mall, playing videogames, at the movies or even writing checks, there is an endless promotion of both brand names and automobility. Car advertisers have conquered nearly every sphere of human consciousness.

The scope of the industry’s promotion can be startling. On May 14 2007 Montreal daily La Presse devoted 43 pages entirely to cars: a twenty six page auto section; an eight page Mercedes broadsheet pullout; an eight page Mazda supplement in tabloid format.

There was also a full page car ad as well as a Porsche ad taking up a tenth of a page (in an eight page sports section). In addition to the 43 pages entirely devoted to cars, the front page of the business section had a seventh of a page devoted to a Hyundai dealership ad.

Add to this the eight page Actuel section where nearly half a page was dedicated to auto classifieds. In the sixteen page front section, a fifth of page two was an Accura ad; an eighth of a page five was another Acccura ad; a third of a page nine was a Ford ad; a sixth of page ten was a Lexus ad; more than half of page eleven was a Honda dealership ad; and nearly half of page twelve was a Chevrolet ad. Finally, three quarters of page sixteen was devoted to Subaru.

Imagine if all the money used to sell cars were put into promoting cycling and mass transit. To even the playing field, health and environmental agencies could run public education campaigns describing the private automobiles’ dangers, pollutants, space consumption, financial burdens, toll on the climate, etc. Malmö Sweden, for instance, ran a “No Ridiculous Car Trips” campaign to reduce journeys of less than five kilometres.

Public transit agencies should be pushed to devote their space to anti-car messages. How about covering light rail with: “Cars Pollute. Take the Train” or buses with: “Free the City. Kill the Car”. Transit authorities could also give bike makers a discount to put up messages that challenge the cultural dominance of the automobile. Heck, maybe Nike would pay to cover bus stops with “Just Do It. Ditch your car.”

Those who want a landscape more amenable to pedestrians, cyclists and trolley riders must challenge the promotion of a product many times more damaging than cigarettes. Car advertising should be (as with tobacco) steadily eliminated (and immediately appropriated).

The dominant media, ad agencies, and carmakers will no doubt resist bitterly so let’s build momentum towards this end by prodding media outlets with ethical advertising guidelines (campus newspapers, green groups etc.) to get rid of car ads. Public transit agencies should also be encouraged to reject auto advertising.

In a world where temperature records are broken each month, advertising cars should be criminal.

Comments Off on A first step in ending global warming — ban automobile ads

Filed under Stop Signs

Tax dollars used to shape the news

Last Saturday the Ottawa Citizen published a feature titled “The story of ‘the Canadian vaccine’ that beat back Ebola”. According to the article, staff reporter Elizabeth Payne’s “research was supported by a travel grant from the International Development Research Centre.” The laudatory story concludes with Guinea’s former health minister thanking Canada “for the great service you have rendered to Guinea” and a man who received the Ebola vaccine showing “reporters a map of Canada that he had carved out of wood and displayed in his living room. ‘Because Canada saved my life.’”

A Crown Corporation that reports to Parliament through the foreign minister, the International Development Research Centre’s board is mostly appointed by the federal government. Unsurprisingly, the government-funded institution broadly aligns its positions with Canada’s international objectives.

IDRC funds various journalism initiatives and development journalism prizes. Canada’s aid agency has also doled out tens of millions of dollars on media initiatives over the years. The now defunct Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has funded a slew of journalism fellowships that generate aid-related stories, including a Canadian Newspaper Association fellowship to send journalists to Ecuador, Aga Khan Foundation Canada/Canadian Association of Journalists Fellowships for International Development Reporting, Canadian Association of Journalists/Jack Webster Foundation Fellowship. It also offered eight $6,000 fellowships annually for members of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, noted CIDA, “to report to the Canadian public on the realities lived in developing countries benefiting from Canadian public aid.”

Between 2005 and 2008 CIDA spent at least $47.5 million on the “promotion of development awareness.” According to a 2013 J–Source investigation titled “Some journalists and news organizations took government funding to produce work: is that a problem?”, more than $3.5 million went to articles, photos, film and radio reports about CIDA projects. Much of the government-funded reporting appeared in major media outlets. But, a CIDA spokesperson told J-Source, the aid agency “didn’t pay directly for journalists’ salaries” and only “supported media activities that had as goal the promotion of development awareness with the Canadian public.”

One journalist, Kim Brunhuber, received $13, 000 to produce “six television news pieces that highlight the contribution of Canadians to several unique development projects” to be shown on CTV outlets. While failing to say whether Brunhuber’s work appeared on the station, CTV spokesperson Rene Dupuis said another documentary it aired “clearly credited that the program had been produced with the support of the Government of Canada through CIDA.”

During the 2001–14 war in Afghanistan CIDA operated a number of media projects. A number of CIDA-backed NGOs sent journalists to Afghanistan and the aid agency had a contract with Montréal’s Le Devoir to “[remind] readers of the central role that Afghanistan plays in CIDA’s international assistance program.”

The military also paid for journalists to visit Afghanistan. Canadian Press envoy Jonathan Montpetit explained, “my understanding of these junkets is that Ottawa picked up the tab for the flight over as well as costs in-theatre, then basically gave the journos a highlight tour of what Canada was doing in Afghanistan.”

A number of commentators have highlighted the political impact of military sponsored trips, which date back decades. In Turning Around a Supertanker: media-military relations in Canada in the CNN age, Daniel Hurley writes, “correspondents were not likely to ask hard questions of people who were offering them free flights to Germany” to visit Canadian bases there. In his diary of the mid-1990s Somalia Commission of Inquiry, Peter Desbarats made a similar observation. “Some journalists, truly ignorant of military affairs, were happy to trade junkets overseas for glowing reports about Canada’s gallant peacekeepers.”

The various arms of Canadian foreign policy fund media initiatives they expect will portray their operations sympathetically. It’s one reason why Canadians overwhelmingly believe this country is a benevolent international actor even though Ottawa long advanced corporate interests and sided with the British and US empires.

Comments Off on Tax dollars used to shape the news

Filed under Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy

Kagame: dictator or great leader?

The Globe and Mail’s recent coverage of Rwanda has been schizophrenic. While South African-based correspondent Geoffrey York has done important work detailing how Paul Kagame’s government has assassinated its opponents and contributed to violence in Eastern Congo, columnist Gerald Caplan has justified its repression and echoed Kigali’s position on regional conflicts.

At the start of January York reported on two new books describing the totalitarian nature of President Kagame’s regime. “Village informers”, wrote York. “Re-education camps. Networks of spies on the streets. Routine surveillance of the entire population. The crushing of the independent media and all political opposition. A ruler who changes the constitution to extend his power after ruling for two decades. It sounds like North Korea, or the totalitarian days of China under Mao. But this is the African nation of Rwanda – a long-time favourite of Western governments and a major beneficiary of millions of dollars in Canadian government support.”

A year and a half ago York wrote an explosive investigation headlined “Inside the plots to kill Rwanda’s dissidents”, which provided compelling evidence that the regime had extended its assassination program, killing (or attempting to) a number of its former top officials who were living in South Africa. Since the initial investigation York has also reported on Rwandan dissidents who’ve had to flee Belgium for their safety and revealed that Ottawa failed to act after UN and Spanish court investigations concluded Canadian priests Guy Pinard and Claude Simard were killed by soldiers loyal to Kagame in the mid-1990s.

At the end of 2012 York reported on Rwanda reasserting control over the mineral rich Eastern Congo. In one of a number of insightful articles York described how “Rwandan sponsored” M23 rebels “hold power by terror and violence.” The rebel group added “a [new] layer of administrators, informers, police and other operatives” in and around the city of Goma in part to “bolster” its “grip on the trade in ‘blood minerals’.” (In 1996 Rwandan forcesmarched 1,500 km to topple the regime in Kinshasa and then re-invaded after the Congolese government it installed expelled Rwandan troops. This led to an eight-country war between 1998 and 2003, which left millions dead.)

While York has done what investigative journalists are supposed to do — comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable — unfortunately the Globe also publishes regular columns by an author who seems to strive for the exact opposite in the case of Rwanda.

Gerald Caplan recently wrote about political conflict in Burundi, invoking Kagame’s rhetoric of “genocide” all the while ignoring Rwanda’s role in organizing armed opposition to the Burundian government. In support of Kigali’s aggressive regional posture, Caplan continues to repeat Kagame’s rationale for unleashing mayhem in the Congo two decade after the mass killing of Rwandan Tutsi (and Hutu) in 1994. In a 2014 column he wrote: “In the Congo former génocidaires lead a violent anti-Kagame militia dedicated to ‘finishing the work’ of the hundred days.”

In another column Caplan justified the arrest of presidential opponent Victoire Ingabire and criticized the Law Society of Upper Canada after it called for the release of her American lawyer, who was also imprisoned.

And strangely, for a former NDP strategist, Caplan has sought to muzzle media that disagree with the current government’s version of Rwandan history. In 2014 he signed an open letter condemning the BBC documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story and a year earlier wrote a piece about lobbying the University of Toronto to remove the Taylor Report, a program on campus radio, from air because it hosted critics of the Rwandan government.

Caplan has failed to inform readers about his ties to the regime in Kigali. He started an organization with Rwanda’s current Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo and said he stays at her family’s hotel when visiting the country. Caplan has also spoken at a number of events in Kigali and New York organized by the Rwandan government.

So, who to believe? York or Caplan? Is Kagame a saint or dictator?

My money is on the investigative journalist.

Comments Off on Kagame: dictator or great leader?

Filed under Canada in Africa