The Hamilton Spectator cannot get serious about supporting full public discussions until it stops functioning as a mouthpiece for those factions that want to shut the public out.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 21, 2006
The Hamilton Spectator recently published an investigative report on the deal between the City of Hamilton and TradePort, the company the city hired to manage Hamilton Airport. It's well researched, well written, and confirms many of the public's suspicions about the incompetent governance and excessive secrecy that tend to surround public-private partnerships.
In last Saturday's Hamilton Spectator, editor-in-chief Dana Robbins decried what he called "the indignation [the report] generated in some quarters of Hamilton's 'establishment,' some of whom were not only critical of what we published but of The Spec's decision to probe the airport deal in the first place."
(A reader even called Robbins and accused the paper of an "ongoing campaign against free enterprise." I shudder to imagine the worldview of anyone who thinks The Spec opposes free enterprise - he or she must make Ayn Rand look like a Bolshevik.)
Robbins then shares a remarkable observation: "I think it says something troubling about Hamilton, and the brittleness that often flavours public discourse in our community. In plain English, what should be reasoned discussion too often ends up a bar-clearing brawl."
I was reminded immediately of Don McLean's recent column in View in which he wrote, "The message seems pretty clear. ... Citizens and councillors who have other views are frozen out. This is how decisions are made here. If you want to change it, you’ll have to launch another civil war, and another, and another."
Where Robbins writes, "Anyone, it seems, who dares question the wisdom of the day in our city becomes fair game for vilification," McLean laments "the Hamilton attitude that we don’t need to have a full public discussion and arrive at a community consensus on crucial decisions."
Robbins worries that "reasoned dialogue is discouraged," while McLean observes that "our energies are sucked into these conflicts, instead of consensus–building processes that would produce reasonable compromises."
So I say to Mr. Robbins: kudos for launching and publishing your investigation, and welcome to the club. You're getting a taste of what active citizens go through on a daily basis when they try to challenge the prevailing doctrine in this city.
I do hope that Robbins' experience with the "establishment" alerts him to the difficulties citizens have when trying to meddle, I mean participate, in the business of governing Hamilton. Unfortunately, I'm not persuaded yet that Robbins' epiphany will translate into a more robust, more independent stance for the paper.
For one thing, he still feels the need to make unhelpful reference to Hamilton's "lunatic fringe" of "conspiracy theorists and moon watchers." I cannot help but wonder if Robbins counts Hamiltonians for Progressive Development, that radical cabal of, um, successful entrepreneurs, business professionals, and lawyers, among the "lunatic fringe".
More seriously, notwithstanding its commendable forays into investigative journalism, the Spec continues to function as an adjunct of the very elite culture of entitlement that has Robbins so worried. In Hamilton, developers have an undue influence on the political process, and the Spec helps to smooth that process.
When a citizen demanded an audit into Mayor Larry Di Ianni's compliance with election law based on evidence of overcontributions, the Spec rushed to the Mayor's defence, painting Joanne Chapman as a politically motivated malcontent and making every excuse for Di Ianni's steadily growing list of campaign finance violations.
The Spec regularly expresses rhetorical support for sustainability, but that rhetoric has no impact whatsoever on its editorial stances toward actual programs and initiatives that impact sustainability.
The paper erupted with abasement and loathing when the Maple Leaf deal went sour last winter, despite vocal public opposition, its own research indicating that the plant would be smelly and polluting, and the company's cover-up of environmental violations at its Rothsay rendering plant.
The Spec continues to support Aerotropolis development, making excuses for the city's profoundly anti-democratic approach to the issue (every long-term planning option the city is considering must include aerotropolis, despite the fact that it violates seven of the city's nine planning criteria), playing up optimistic jobs scenarios, and downplaying strong evidence that aviation is shaping up to be a poor investment.
At every step, the paper hitches its editorial wagon to the sprawl industry's demands: aerospace development, expressways, one-way urban freeways, and continuing greenfield sprawl, all of which make real - as opposed to merely rhetorical - sustainability next to impossible.
Just this week, the Spec splashed a thinly disguised advertorial for Hamilton's development industry on its front page. The "Top of the World" series has followed the exploits of several homebuilding executives on their trek to the North Pole to raise $500,000 for anti-poverty initiatives.
Is my characterization unreasonable? Judge for yourself. The following paragraph was near the top of a cover article (PDF) that took up half the front page on April 19:
The team, which set out for the North Pole April 11, included Paul Hubner, of Stoney Creek-based Baffin Inc.; Turkstra Lumber president Peter Turkstra; Losani Homes CEO Fred Losani; Branthaven Homes owner Steve Stipsits, and Scott Shawyer, CEO of an engineering company [emphasis added].
Aside from Baffin Inc., which makes footwear of the sort used in polar expeditions, and the unidentified engineering company, this was a parade of homebuilding executives. The Spec also mentions the companies by name in an editorial on April 20; another article on April 18 (this one repeats the paragraph above word for word); and yet another article on April 11. Another whole subset of articles showcases Baffin Inc's provision of boots for the expedition.
Raising money to address poverty is a laudable goal, and I recognize that newspaper coverage would not be complete without identifying the companies involved. (RTH did something similar last year when we covered Design Hope.) However, the actual execution of that coverage has served mainly to lavish Turkstra Lumber, Losani Homes, Branthaven Homes, and Baffin Inc. with lots of free advertising and good PR karma.
I know why companies try to get their names attached to worthy causes; it's great publicity, and at least in some cases, the individuals involved really do want to help. What I don't understand is how an independent press can do its job as a public watchdog when it's entwined with those companies.
With Hamilton's building industry so deeply implicated in the root problems that plague this city's governance, it's unseemly for Robbins to complain about challenging the city's power base while simultaneously feeding it. If he's serious about "full public discussion", then the Spec needs to stop functioning as a mouthpiece for the factions that want to shut the public out.