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Wilson-Raybould testimony raises questions about government influence on news

Former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould walks to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

The PMO suggested it could avoid controversy by lining up people to write op-eds

Two journalism instructors say it would be difficult for the government to swamp newspapers with positive pieces

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – How much influence does government have when it comes to newspaper content in Canada?

That question is being raised, after Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony referred to the PMO wanting to arrange some favourable newspaper coverage.

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Katie Telford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, is said to have attempted to allay fears about actions Wilson-Raybould could take with regard to SNC Lavalin.

“If Jody is nervous, we would of course line up all kinds of people to write op-eds saying that what she is doing is proper” is what Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff Jessica Prince recalls Telford saying.

People in the newspaper business, though, point out it’s not easy ‘planting’ content, even in op-eds.

“At most newspapers, the people who are making decisions on this are looking very closely at what they are publishing and they’re looking at the sources,” Mark Hamilton says, a journalism instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. “It’s not easy for the government to swamp the media with experts and having them all published.”

Frances Bula, who has worked at both the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun and is the assistant chair of Langara college’s journalism department, says reputable newspapers take great pains to offer up different points of view on the op-ed page.

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“They are very careful about whose op-ed pieces they pick. They pick a balance. They won’t run a long series of opinions on one side.”

She says there’s confusion about what an op-ed piece is. She stresses they are basically large letters-to-the-editor, written by guests, who aren’t paid by the newspaper.

“I feel as though there has been an unfortunate turn. People are jumping to conclusions about how things work in news organizations,” she says. “There is a certain kind of conspiratorial thinking that this is part of a big plot, that these politicians, business leaders and media are taking us down the dark hole.”

Bula acknowledges op-ed space is sought after. She calls it a booming business, with organizations, corporations and think-tanks clamouring to get their views out.