Broadcast consortium chairman Troy Reeb discusses how the decision was reached to bar Elizabeth May from participating in the televised leaders debates.
How do the negotiations work? How does the consortium set up debates?
The negotiations take place behind closed doors because when you're negotiating with political parties there has to be some closed-door session to come to an agreement.
What about the criticism that it's too secretive?
So here's the reality: The consortium has no legal standing; it does not exist as a legal entity. It is simply an ad hoc gathering of the five major conventional networks in Canada, all of which have substantial news divisions and a substantial interest in covering the political comings and goings.
How did the consortium start?
The real genesis was that there was a time when all the networks and print and radio would put together their own proposals for debates. The parties would have to pick and choose between which outlets they wanted to work with and which set of rules. It just became a mess. It was then agreed the networks would get together because in the end they all knew if one of them hosted a debate, the rest of them would all want to broadcast as well. They would get together, they would work together and defray the substantial costs - they are substantial, and they are borne by us - probably about $200,000 to do a production.
Is that the only cost?
The sacrificed cost of prime-time revenue is a huge hit to all the broadcasters. It's massive. This is worth pointing out. People will say debate is earlier in the campaign than it has been in other years, but what starts on April 13? The hockey playoffs on CBC. That's hugely important to them. That's in negotiation long before political parties are brought in - what time frame works best to not have a huge financial impact on the business.
How do you get on the consortium?
I was not voted into this position. I was just the longest-serving member after the retirement of a colleague at CTV. We bring other delegates, but the requirement for being there is to be the chief editorial decision maker for the network.
How do you decide to keep Elizabeth May out?
It is an editorial decision. The process for coming to a decision on format and participation is no different from what happens around the newsroom table of a newspaper. There's always a vigorous discussion, oftentimes a really good argument. There was a really vigorous discussion this time as well, but on the Green Party question we very quickly came to unanimity.
But you let her on last time.
That has complicated the PR issue. But the difference, of course, was last time she had a sitting MP.
What about the criticism that you have a public responsibility to let her voice be heard?
We do include her voice. If you look at all of the English newscasts Wednesday night, Elizabeth May was front and centre in all of them. There are other avenues available and the debate is only one of many avenues. As part of our commitment of providing equitable - absolutely not equal -coverage but equitable coverage to the parties, of course we'll cover the Greens.
But the debate is the big show.
The biggest platform of all for a political leader to debate is not once during a campaign but is on an in-and-out daily basis in the House of Commons. That's where a political leader engages in the debates of the nation outside a election campaign. Because she has not been able to participate in those debates and has not had a member who has been able to participate in those debates, that weighed heavily on our decision making on whether she should participate.
Do you have the ultimate say, or do you need to trot it back to your executives?
I can't speak for the colleagues, I keep my president informed as to what is going on. But for us, editorial and the rest of the organization have some separation.
So what about the format of this debate?
Agreed to by four parties. There is a change - should say, the format is changed and tweaked every debate. Different participants, different technology. Tweaked to provide more head-to-head debate time between two individual leaders at given times. I wouldn't say it's a concession to one-on-one, it was championed by the consortium and agreed to by parties. There will be less of everyone jumping in, and more opportunity for two leaders to go head to head before everyone jumps in on a given issue.
Rather than starting discussion with one leader giving viewpoint, a question will be offered where two leaders can debate without the other two participating and then opened to broader group. It'll be done by draw - every leader will face off against the other. We reserve the right to determine which questions to which leaders of course - we are trying to make good television here after all.
If the program is dull, if the program doesn't deliver insight people won't watch. Then what is the point of us sacrificing all of that revenue by turning over that air time in what we believe is a public service if the public isn't being served.
Does this system work?
Some have referred to the non-partisan commission in the U.S. as a model. Well, that's not non-partisan. I was a White House correspondent for a number of years. It's bipartisan, done by Republicans and Democrats. Anyone who thinks that model would work in Canada and improve things and increase chances of small parties getting in - that would eliminate the chance.
So, is the door closed for Elizabeth May?
Our decision is final and the decision is unanimous. It will not be reconsidered.
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