Premier Doug Ford filmed Ontario News Now videos at least 100 times

TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford took time out of his work days to film taxpayer-funded videos that have been criticized as partisan propaganda on at least 100 occasions during his first year in power.

A Canadian Press analysis of a year's worth of Ontario News Now videos found that Ford filmed with them on close to a third of the days in his first year as premier.

The premier's office said he usually spends less than five minutes at a time on ONN filming and defended the use of time and did not dispute the estimate.

"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 or a digital householder," spokeswoman Ivana Yelich said in a statement.

One of the differences, said NDP critic Taras Natyshak, is that Ontario News Now styles itself as journalism. The spots are formatted like a TV news report, with a woman posing as a reporter interviewing the premier and cabinet ministers.

"Delivering your message on policy will always be an exercise that parliamentarians embark on and it's an important way to communicate through all facets," Natyshak said in an interview.

"However, trying to make it seem like this has the aspect of journalism and that he's being questioned by a legitimate journalist, sort of, is disingenuous. He's not receiving the hard questions that true media outlets would give him, given the opportunity."

In Ford's first year he held formal media availabilities, in which he takes a variety of questions from reporters, about two dozen times. He also did a handful of one-on-one interviews and called into talk radio on several occasions.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said it is a "shocking" amount of time for the premier to spend on his "personal propaganda network."

"Rather than filming partisan videos disguised as independent media, the premier could have spent this time speaking with students, educators, and municipalities affected by his cuts," Schreiner said in a statement. "I suggest the premier spend less time in the ONN echo chamber and more time listening to the people being hurt by his cuts."

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Ford "should be spending his time answering the tough questions from the media rather than filming vanity spots on his own private news network."

Ford has previously said that mainstream journalists have become irrelevant because he is "circumventing the media through our social media."

Ontario News Now is produced and funded through PC caucus services. All recognized parties in the legislature — currently just the Tories and the NDP — get caucus service budgets for research, communications and associated staff. The total earmarked for the parties for 2018-19, the latest figures available, was $13.7 million.

"As leader of the PC caucus, the premier is responsible for helping to get our government's message out through new and engaging content," Yelich said.

Peter Graefe, an associate professor of political science at McMaster University, said the videos are probably not a good use of the premier's time, but it also isn't clear that they are helping the government — rather they may just be fostering cynicism.

It is important for all governments to communicate with citizens, he said, but there is a line between information and partisan self-promotion.

"Normally, you would expect communications to be not through the government caucuses," he said.

The videos are not subject to government advertising rules that the auditor general oversees.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has called for the rules to be changed so that public money for caucus services cannot be spent on partisan advertising.

Interim Ontario director of the CTF, Jasmine Pickel, said Ford should also restore oversight powers of the auditor general.

The former Liberal government changed the criteria for what is deemed partisan advertising, and the auditor general has complained that doing so reduced her office to a rubber stamp and removed her discretion to veto ads as partisan.

The Progressive Conservatives frequently slammed the Liberals over government advertising that they said was partisan and promised during last year's election to restore the auditor general's powers.

But they now won't commit to keeping that promise, only to review it.

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