There were a few comments during Saturday's Liberal policy convention about the CBC's coverage of the NB Power story. They came up during the accountability session, in which several Liberal delegates told Premier Shawn Graham they were skeptical about the sale of the utility, or at least concerned about the way the government had announced and promoted it.
Former Miramichi-area MLA John McKay told the session that the CBC was "critical" of the deal and that the province's Irving-owned newspapers were supportive of it, creating, in his words, a battle of "media tycoons." Spin Reduxit will leave the discussion of the Irving papers to others, but the notion of "critical" coverage is worth addressing, given it often comes up when a government finds itself in controversy. (Bernard Lord blamed the media in part for his 2003 difficulties with car insurance.)
Graham, Energy Minister Jack Keir and other government officials have said repeatedly that they want New Brunswickers to read the Memorandum of Understanding and ask questions about it. That's precisely what CBC News in New Brunswick has been doing: my colleague Robert Jones, for example, has explored whether the MOU really provides for $5-billion in rate savings, and what period of time that figure covers. I've looked at various sections of the deal, such as the one covering the Mactaquac Dam, to assess the government's assertion that Hydro-Quebec will assume the huge cost of replacing the dam. (It will. If, however, if Hydro-Quebec is prevented from replacing it because of federal regulations, New Brunswickers will pay to decommission the dam.)
We've also gone beyond the wording of the deal itself to look at how it affects the province's biggest industrial player, the Irvings, given that J.D. Irving Ltd. was suggesting just last year it might move a mill to Quebec to take advantage of lower power rates there.
The fact is, we are being flooded with tips. Many of them genuine good-faith questions. Others turn out to be red herrings and conspiracy theories. We don't report on those assertions we can't verify. We are being factual, not critical.
The Liberals deserve credit for devoting a special session at their convention to the deal, and for having the premier respond to tough questions from his own supporters in full view of the media (click here to listen to Real Audio of the 90-minute Q&A). It's clear party members adore their leader and trust him, which is why it obviously pained some of them to put those questions to him.
The doubts Liberals expressed on the weekend about the Hydro-Quebec deal reflect the doubts of other New Brunswickers who aren't members of the party. For Liberals to suggest these doubts are the result of media "criticism" is to dismiss the concerns and hesitations of their fellow party members. (The premier's own repeated calls for unity despite "differences of opinion" show that he gets it.)
New Brunswickers may eventually embrace this deal, or at least grudgingly accept it as something they can live with. If so, we'll certainly detect that shift in opinion. We'll report on it, and that will become the story. But many New Brunswickers, both inside and outside the Liberal party, aren't there yet, and it would do a disservice to ignore that reality.