After Doug Ford stormed to victory in Ontario last month, the joke going around journalism circles was that news outlets might benefit from a spike in interest of the new Premier’s erratic ways, similar to the so-called Trump Bump that has lifted the fortunes of newspapers south of the border. And, sure enough, Ford’s time in office has already spawned the creation of a new journalist’s job! True, it’s not a real journalist, but we live in Potemkin times. Besides, beggars can’t be choosers.
On Monday evening, the Ford-sponsored Twitter handle @OntarioNewsNow made its debut in the world, promising – per its biographic line – “Timely exclusive content on the PC government’s priorities for the people of Ontario.”
Its first and so far only tweet links to a video hosted by a woman named Lyndsey Vanstone, who gushes that the Premier has kept up an intense pace since “his inauguration.” The video runs through a series of still photos of the Premier meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario firefighters and revellers in fancy dress at the Queen’s Plate, and then it cuts to an interview in which Ford appears to speak to an off-camera reporter, touting his record, including the (baseless) claim that he has reduced gas prices by 10 cents. The video ends with Ms. Vanstone delivering an on-camera sign-off: “From Queen’s Park, I’m Lyndsey Vanstone.”
By late Tuesday afternoon, the video had racked up more than 53,000 views on Twitter. (It got an additional 17,000 views on a parallel Facebook account, where Melissa Lantsman, one of Mr. Ford’s communications strategists during the campaign who has since joined the Toronto office of public relations firm Hill + Knowlton, commented, “Best channel around. True story.”)
You may remember Ms. Vanstone from the Ford campaign trail, as the host of similar faux-news segments branded Ford Nation Live that trumpeted the candidate’s promises. Ms. Vanstone also participated in the manic applause of his political team that regularly brought his brief daily news conferences to a close, often above the shouts of reporters still trying to ask questions.
The Ford Nation Live videos ended with an arena-rock-style audio sting that growled, “For the people!” and on-screen text noting that they were “Authorized by the CFO for the Ontario PC Party.” The new videos have no such acknowledgment, and Ms. Vanstone’s day job is working in PC Caucus Services, which suggests the initiative is supported by taxpayer dollars.
In form and content, Ontario News Now is a cut-rate version of 24-Seven, the weekly YouTube chronicles of then-prime minister Stephen Harper, which debuted in January, 2014, and, reporters discovered, involved the work of four to six staffers. (Sadly, the videos were erased from the internet when Justin Trudeau got the keys to the Prime Minister’s Office and the YouTube channel that went with it, which seemed a decidedly uncharitable move.) But even Mr. Harper’s videos weren’t identified as news.
Who, though, could be bothered by such flimsy material, even if it appears to be state-sponsored propaganda? In our cynical era, journalists who ring alarm bells – like Toronto city councilors who protest the shrinking of council – are accused of mere self-interest. If they hadn’t rendered themselves irrelevant with their biased coverage, the argument goes, they’d still be doing just fine. People are fed up with the media, which is why they’re embracing “alternative” outlets that allow them to hear straight from their dear leaders.
So, okay, here goes. By expressing concern about Ontario News Now and its ilk, I am playing into the narrative of a liberal media elite that is apparently so distressed by Mr. Ford’s victory that it’s working overtime to keep him earthbound. If I note that neither Mr. Ford’s predecessor nor Mr. Harper’s successor ever felt the need to produce similar “news” reports, critics will argue that’s because the mainstream media already loves them. (Those critics conveniently ignore all of the pointed news coverage of both Ms. Wynne’s and Mr. Trudeau’s governments.) Hardcore supporters have no room in their minds for a counternarrative. The mere fact that Ontario News Now exists is proof of its necessity.
But why does Mr. Ford feel the need to continue with the sort of propagandistic tactics favoured by thugs and strongmen? Genuine strength is demonstrated by facing challenges head-on; in democracies, it means answering tough questions directly. Hiding behind home videos and canned applause this early in his mandate suggests insecurity and fear, as if the Premier doesn’t actually have the courage of his convictions.