Line Between Media Business and Politics Getting Fuzzy

For a brief while this year, the career paths of two Tory supporters, Derek Burney and Elizabeth Roscoe, converged. Both worked for Prime Minister Stephen HARPER's transition team.
For a brief while this year, the career paths of two Tory supporters, Derek Burney and Elizabeth Roscoe, converged. Both worked for Prime Minister Stephen HARPER's transition team.

Line Between Media Business and Politics Getting Fuzzy

For a brief while this year, the career paths of two Tory supporters, Derek Burney and Elizabeth Roscoe, converged. Both worked for Prime Minister Stephen HARPER's transition team. Both went on to jobs in the media industry - Roscoe as a lobbyist with the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and Burney as chairman of CanWest Global Communications Corp. But that's where their similarities end. For volunteering on Harper's transition team, unpaid, for 2½ weeks, Roscoe's career could be sunk. Burney, meanwhile, is just settling into his new position as chairman of the biggest media conglomerate in the country.

News that Roscoe joined the CAB in April prompted the Conservatives to introduce what's become known as the Roscoe amendment to its accountability act. Under the new law, anyone who worked on the transition team (the group that choreographs the party's shift to power) or who played a senior role in government, will be banned from working as a lobbyist in Ottawa for five years. If and when the law is passed, Roscoe will almost certainly lose her job and be prohibited from working as a lobbyist until 2011. But in the case of Burney, whose political ties could make him even more influential than any lobbyist - he headed Harper's transition team, was once chief of staff for Brian MULRONEY and an ambassador to the United States - his appointment last August went unnoticed.

Their cases have raised questions about how effective the Tories' conflict of interest legislation will be at stopping the revolving-door connections between government and industry. How is it that Roscoe was caught up in the accountability act's dragnet, while Burney has floated safely above its reach? "There really should have been a great hue and cry about Burney," says Pat Martin, an NDP member of Parliament and critic of the lobbying industry. "He was far more influential, far more senior, and still enjoys the benefits of that political connection."

Burney may have escaped scrutiny in part because his appointment seemed almost routine. He follows a well-beaten path from the public sector to the top of the media industry. Each of the major communications companies has a number of former politicians or Ottawa rainmakers on staff or its board of directors. Brian Mulroney sits on the board of the communications company QUEBECOR INC., which also owns broadcaster TVA Group Inc. as well as the Sun Media newspaper chain. His wife, Mila, sits on the board of Astral Media. Lucien BOUCHARD is on the board of magazine publisher Transcontinental Media. David PETERSON, the former Liberal premier of Ontario, sits on the board of ROGERS COMMUNICATIONS INC. (which owns this magazine). Michael Sabia, the head of BCE Inc., was once a high-level federal bureaucrat responsible, coincidentally, for bringing Canada the GST. Frank Iacobucci, a former Supreme Court justice, is the chairman of the board of TORSTAR CORPORATION. The list goes on.

While not technically lobbying jobs like Roscoe's, these types of positions build strong bonds between government and industry, say experts. "It ties the media companies into an existing social network of decision-makers that affect policy and government regulation in Canada," says Dwayne Winseck, a professor of communications at Carleton University in Ottawa. Having these ex-politicos at the boardroom table is important for companies that are beholden to the government for everything from their broadcast licences (worth billions of dollars) to tax laws affecting advertising, says Ian Morrison, a spokesman with the industry watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. "Every one of these companies is working in a regulated environment, and government creates the regulations," he says.

No one is suggesting Burney has acted improperly in any way. Indeed, as former CEO of both BELL CANADA International Inc. and the defence company CAE Inc. he is well qualified to chair a major company. At the same time, there is no question that his extensive experience and connections within government are exceptionally valuable. As the head of the transition team, he would have played a major role in forming the entire look and feel of the new Conservative government, says David Zussman, a professor at the University of Ottawa who headed the transition team for Jean CHRÉTIEN's Liberal government. It's this type of insight into the complex machinery of government that makes him such an asset for a communications company like CanWest, says Morrison.

That perspective may prove useful in coming weeks as broadcast and cable companies prepare for a major government review of TV policy in Canada this fall. Broadcasters like CanWest argue the TV landscape is changing to their detriment as advertising has been increasingly spread among the fast-growing specialty channel market. CanWest and CTV are pushing for the right to charge cable companies, like Rogers and Shaw Communications, a fee for carrying their channels. Those fees could boost consumers' cable bills between $3 and $7 a month, and would represent hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue for the broadcasters.

Lobbying by these companies is never far removed from the boardroom table. Indeed, CanWest CEO Leonard Asper is a registered lobbyist, as is Rogers CEO Ted Rogers. And if Burney were to contact former cronies in government and discuss any government policy affecting CanWest, he too would legally have to register as a lobbyist (running afoul of the new accountability act). Throughout the 1990s, communications companies ranked among the biggest contributors to political parties and campaigns, according to a study by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.

All of this contributes to the perception that Canada's media cannot truly act as a fearless check on government powers. "It calls into question the common-sense notions about the autonomy of media organizations from the state," says Winseck. In 2002, the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, Russell Mills, was fired in a dispute with CanWest management over the paper's political coverage, raising questions about CanWest's links with the Liberal government of the day. "I don't think that people prominently associated with one political party are appropriate people to chair the board of a media company," says Mills, now executive dean of Algonquin College's faculty of arts, media and design. "It doesn't create the right climate for journalists to work in."

The cross-fertilization between industry and government helps companies ensure the regulatory environment doesn't change to their disadvantage, says Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor. "This is the nature of our system." For the media industry, that includes making sure the doors are closed to foreign competition. Diminishing the government's regulatory powers would be one way to reduce the need for corporations to curry favour in Ottawa, says Miljan. "You'll still have winners and losers, but it will be based on the public and consumer preference. It's the difference between stacking the deck in one person's favour or letting the market dictate."

For CanWest, Burney's appointment represents another step from a company that once had strong Liberal ties toward having strong Conservative ones. And in today's Ottawa, where the line between what is lobbying and what isn't can be tough to discern, that can't hurt.

Maclean's October 30, 2006