Response to Julian Walker’s "The Once and Future New Brunswick Free Press"

Neil Reynolds
Editor-At-Large, The Telegraph-Journal

1 In his comments on the editorial policy and practice of The Telegraph-Journal during the province’s debate over the sale of NB Power to Quebec Hydro ("The Once and Future New Brunswick Free Press"), Julian Walker primarily references a single editorial, precisely the same sample size he employs in his citation of an anonymous slur posted on a CBC comment board. Aside from a singularly reluctant concession – "to be fair, [ The Telegraph-Journal] did publish letters and op-ed pieces against the deal" – he declines to examine the scores of editorials published on this subject by the newspaper over a span of several months. He declines to examine the paper’s op-ed coverage. He declines to examine the newspaper’s news-page coverage. For that matter, he declines to examine the editorials, op-ed articles and news stories published by The Times & Transcript (Moncton) and The Daily Gleaner (Fredericton). Yet even as he restricts his attention mostly to a single editorial, he can ask this astonishing question: "Was there not a single question that came to mind for the newspaper…on an issue of this magnitude?"

2 In fact, the editorial policy of the three Irving-owned daily newspapers in New Brunswick was the same: by company policy, strict editorial-page neutrality, strict news-page objectivity. This policy was in effect throughout the NB Power debate. It was in effect during the provincial election campaign that followed. It is in effect still. The reference to neutrality [in the papers’ "A Statement of Journalistic Policies and Practices"] is definitive: The code specifies political neutrality: "We regard our newspapers as public meeting places. We believe that these newspapers can best contribute to the public good by pursuing an editorial policy of political neutrality – by acting as hosts of political debates rather than as partisan participants in them." It is hard to understand how Prof. Walker could have missed noticing this policy.

3 It was apparently not enough for Prof. Walker to misrepresent the editorial page position of the Telegraph-Journal. He asserts (prominently, in the abstract of his paper) that The Telegraph-Journal "muffle[d]" the NB Power debate – that is, silenced it. In fact, The Telegraph-Journal questioned many aspects of the NB Power deal in its own editorials, and devoted hundreds of pages (and more than 400 different columns and essays) to comment on all sides of the debate. This open-door policy was not accidental. Eric Marks, the editorial page editor of the paper, aggressively pursued op-ed comment from every perspective. Prof. Walker’s assertion that The Telegraph-Journal "muffled" debate is perverse.

4 Was there not a single question that came to the minds of the editors of this newspaper? To cite only one journalistic initiative, The Telegraph-Journal commissioned Philip Lee, a colleague of Prof. Walker, to write a series of articles on the economics of hydro-electric power generation. This series was distinctly not "a single question" initiative. Prof. Lee described his commission in this way: "Why would Hydro Quebec want to buy NB Power’s assets? What did Hydro Quebec have that New Brunswick didn’t? What did NB Power have that Hydro Quebec needed?

5 What was the true financial state of NB Power? How does the electricity open market work in North America? Finding the answers to these questions demanded a steep learning curve."

6 Prof. Lee answered these questions in the exceptional front-page series that followed – including the revelation that NB Power was essentially an insolvent enterprise. This series documented The Telegraph-Journal’s commitment to excellence in journalism – and disproves any suggestion that the newspaper was mindless or passive in its front-page journalism.

7 Please permit me a bit of detail on the newspaper’s editorial-page arguments as they evolved throughout the debate. In the days before the Quebec-New Brunswick Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) announcement, The Telegraph-Journal had already published a range of public opinions on the negotiations with Hydro-Quebec, including three letters (all opposed to any possibility of selling NB Power), two regular weekly columnists (one pro-sale, one neutral but cautiously optimistic about negotiations), and a lengthy (1,174 word) letter by Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, headlined "Williams warns of 'stranglehold,'" published the morning of Oct. 29, the day of the NB Power/Hydro-Quebec press conference. According to Premier Williams, the letter was written with the intention "to warn you and your people about a decision that could have significant long-term negative impacts." This critique of the process and of Hydro-Quebec’s record dominated the Telegraph-Journal’s op-ed coverage as the MOU was announced.

8 The Telegraph-Journal had already articulated its editorial position on the negotiations in an editorial published Oct. 27, headlined "N.B. must cut power rates." The nub of the editorial's argument was contained in its final paragraphs:

"The government has offered subsidies to take the sting out of high power rates, ranging from rebates for forest product mills to an emergency home- heating program. Both are variations on the energy policy New Brunswick has had for years: let NB Power do its work, and government will defer or defray the additional costs.

"Legislators have acknowledged the inadequacy of these short-term remedies. The negotiations with Hydro-Québec offer the first significant indication that government is looking for a viable long-term solution.

"If the government can produce a plan to cut power rates and reduce the debt taxpayers must cover, New Brunswickers will debate the idea on its merits. The status quo doesn't serve anyone's interest."

9 All of this material appeared before the deal was officially announced, and before The Telegraph-Journal's Oct. 30 editorial, "The deal of the century," which Prof. Walker references. Readers who turned to the opinion section on that day were treated to a range of independent and contrary views: a pro-deal commentary by then-premier Shawn Graham, a commentary critical of the deal by respected public policy analyst Dr. Donald Savoie and three letters that critiqued the MOU or the Graham government's ability to negotiate.

10 The Saturday, Oct. 31 edition continued the debate, with critical commentary by then-leader of the opposition David Alward, pro- and con-stances from Liberal and Conservative party columnists respectively, and three more letters critical of the proposal.

11 Over the next five months of public debate, the Telegraph-Journal published hundreds of letters and commentaries on the subject, in addition to its own editorials. Letters were published in proportion to the volume of opinion coming in, with letters critical or flatly opposed to the deal outnumbering those in favour by a factor of four or five to one. In its commentary section, the newspaper’s mandate was to present a full and balanced range of opinion, with an emphasis on informed and factual debate. Here, the balance of opinion over the total period of debate was slightly tilted toward those opposed.

12 Prominent and informed voices raised against the deal (or in favor of other options) included David Alward; Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams; Maine energy industry executive and analyst Gordon Weil; Dr. Yves Gagnon, who holds the K.C. Irving Chair in Sustainable Development at Universite de Moncton; David Frank, professor of history at UNB; Sen. Lowell Murray; businessman H. Reuben Cohen, CC, QC; Kurt Beers, the former executive assistant to former Prime Minister Joe Clark; social policy researcher Kurt Peacock; energy analyst Toby Couture; energy industry observer Tom Adams; and citizens’ groups opposed to the sale.

13 Informed voices who wrote in favor of the deal (or aspects of it) included William Marshall, former head of the New Brunswick Systems Operator; former NB Power chairman Derek Burney; former premier Frank McKenna; Claude Garcia, corporate director and associate researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute; the provincially-appointed citizens’ panel chaired by David Ganong; businessman David Cadogan; and (once again) Tom Adams.

14 The Telegraph-Journal’s editorial positions evolved with the public debate, while remaining consistent with the two principles espoused on Oct. 27: that the province’s debt-ridden, cost-intensive and highly subsidized power system needed to change, and that any potential agreement with Hydro-Quebec must be debated on its merits. Many subsequent editorials took politicians on both sides of the legislature to task for putting self-serving, partisan rhetoric before fact-based debate.

15 The Nov. 2 editorial, "An appeal to reason," argued: "You can't build sound public policy on a foundation of fear, and elation is not much more reliable. Politicians need to tone down the campaign-trail rhetoric they've been using to inflame the party faithful and take a calm look at what the agreement's impact would be. […]While we do not expect them to agree on every particular detail, we must expect them to be factual and honest; to inform themselves, where their knowledge may be lacking; and to address their arguments to the public in good faith."

16 The Nov. 25 editorial, "Put the details on the table," criticized the Graham government for failing to provide enough information to evaluate the MOU. It stated: "The day both parties signed the memorandum of understanding, it was incumbent on government to let citizens in on the process of due diligence that preceded the agreement. The details have been slow in coming, and this has added to the public's uncertainty. [...] To put the debate on a factual footing, government must table the rest of its supporting documentation, move off the simple talking points and engage in direct discussion of the concerns New Brunswickers have expressed." This criticism was repeated throughout the debate, with a representative example in the Feb. 19 editorial "What's your power policy?": "The flaws in the government's approach have been easy to criticize, from its initial denial that negotiators were close to a deal to its slowness in providing supporting documentation."

17 On Nov. 28, the editorial "Let's debate power options" addressed calls for a referendum with an appeal for informed dialogue: "New Brunswickers, pro and con, must assess the agreement's implications and whether there are alternatives. It's going to require more information but also more negotiation, as people engage in straight talk about what they want energy policy to accomplish.

18 "If, after a thorough investigation of the available options, New Brunswickers still want a public vote, they should have one. But the question must provide a choice between two options offering rate relief, debt relief, energy security and greater environmental protection. The status quo isn't a scenario worth voting for."

19 The Dec. 19 editorial, "Critics can be constructive," praised Nathan Ough, a 22-year-old university finance major who presented his own critique of the deal’s rate assumptions, as "a splendid example of citizen engagement."

20 "Mr. Ough is not against the proposal," the editorial noted, "but he has raised intelligent questions about whether the rate escalation clause is the best New Brunswick can negotiate. For more than a month, he has been engaged in a discussion of the underlying assumptions and long-range projections with the Department of Energy. He deserves kudos for leaving emotion out of the debate and framing it as a straightforward policy question - what would provide the best results for New Brunswickers? This is the calibre of discussion the issue warrants, in the legislature and in the public square."

21 These themes were reiterated, after Quebec’s withdrawal from negotiations, in the March 25 editorial "A bad day for N.B." It concluded: "As citizens have scrambled to understand the power market and the pressures bearing down on NB Power's bottom line, the magnitude and urgency of the challenge ahead have become apparent. New Brunswick's future depends on citizens and politicians rising to this challenge, in full awareness of how much is at stake."

22 Throughout the debate, the newspaper’s position was not to advocate for either of the MOU proposals but to call for informed debate and consensus-building, leading to positive changes. In the heat of great public debates, it is easy for newspapers to lose the elementary fairness and objectivity that superior journalism requires. I am extremely proud of The Telegraph-Journal’s performance record throughout the months of intense debate that the Quebec-NB Power deal provoked. In my judgment, we fully met the mandate given to us by the proprietors – by acting consistently as "hosts of political debates rather than as partisan participants in them."