When Ontario Premier Doug Ford travelled to New York late last month to meet with U.S. business leaders, Canadian media were given less than a day’s notice about the trip. Mr. Ford brought his own TV crew: Ontario News Now.
The communications service, run by Progressive Conservative staffers, is fronted by Lyndsey Vanstone, a former broadcaster. ONN travels regularly with the Premier, posting exclusive footage and interviews on social media, mimicking a mainstream news outlet.
At first glance, ONN looks like news content, raising concerns about whether the government is purposefully trying to blur the lines between partisan messaging and journalism.
It’s all paid for by taxpayers, but the costs are unknown. Because ONN operates out of PC caucus services, a fund that every caucus of 12 or more receives for administration and research, it is not subject to disclosure or freedom of information requests. The overall budget for the PCs is around $6.7-million.
The Globe and Mail has learned the top two staffers at PC caucus services – Ms. Vanstone, as director of communications, and executive director Jeff Silverstein – earn six-figure salaries, with Ms. Vanstone making at least $100,000 and Mr. Silverstein close to $150,000, according to multiple sources who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
ONN content is widely shared on social media by Mr. Ford and his cabinet, who are told by the Premier’s Office they have to participate, multiple sources said. (When asked if he is forced to do ONN videos, Economic Development Minister Todd Smith said “God no. … It’s a way to get our message out.")
Mr. Silverstein did not answer questions about salaries, but said any employee who makes more than $100,000 will be found on next year’s sunshine list. He did not answer questions about ONN’s total budget or travel costs. He said all PC MPPs and cabinet members "are encouraged ... to participate in and share Ontario News Now content.”
“Ontario News Now is a creative way to communicate the government’s message in the modern, digital world – no different than a video press release,” Mr. Silverstein said in a statement.
“In total, Ontario News Now content has been viewed more than 10 million times across social media platforms – not to mention the amount of earned media that has been generated as a result of the Queen’s Park Press Gallery’s fascination with the platform.”
The medium has been criticized by opposition leaders and political watchers who say it undermines democracy by allowing the government to get around traditional media and evade critical questions.
“The problem is it blurs the partisan with the public," said Jonathan Rose, associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University. "Governments are entitled to send a partisan message, but it has to be done clearly under the party banner, and not under guise of some neutral name like Ontario News Now.”
NDP leader Andrea Horwath said salaries for PC staff working on ONN are further proof of Mr. Ford’s patronage.
“What the government is trying to do is make it look as though this is a legitimate outlet, and it’s not. It is a propaganda machine being paid for by public dollars," she said.
The idea was conceived on the campaign trail by Kory Teneycke, the former vice-president of Sun News who served as Mr. Ford’s campaign manager.
Mr. Teneycke said he viewed the format, which was then dubbed Ford Nation Live, as a way to use social media to stream content from events and announcements in a more appealing way.
“It’s just the reality of modern campaigning. You could get more coverage by providing your own. But it’s not really a competition with traditional news,” Mr. Teneycke said.
“The reality is that the internet has fundamentally changed the media business, and people in journalism live that every day."
He calls the idea, “One of the better things that we did during the last campaign."
While opposition parties have labelled the content as government-funded propaganda, the PCs argue it’s an innovative way to promote their policies.
Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government had a weekly video series, called 24 Seven. Former news anchor Ben Chin, now a senior adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, made YouTube videos called Liberal TV for the Ontario Liberal party in 2007.
Mr. Silverstein said every party uses caucus budgets to their advantage. “In opposition, the NDP use their caucus budget to create partisan attack videos. While in government, the Liberals used their caucus budget to sign lucrative polling contracts with Liberal insiders," he said.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said there needs to be more transparency about ONN’s cost.
“It’s essentially being used as a vanity project,” he said. “It’s a public expenditure. And it should be disclosed as such.”