One of the more imaginative initiatives of the Municipality of North Grenville has recently come to an end. At the beginning of last year, Mayor David Gordon and CAO, Brian Carré began what was called the Mayor’s Media Briefings, designed to improve communication and transparency. The original idea was that, every Tuesday morning, after the Committee of the Whole meeting the previous night, the media outlets would meet with the mayor and the CAO to be briefed on matters the municipality had raised. A very good idea, and a serious attempt to develop a good working relationship with the media and the public.
There were problems from the beginning, however. When one media outlet referred to the sessions as “media scrums”, the CAO objected strongly, insisting these were briefings, not scrums. The difference? Briefings take place when the municipality bring up topics for coverage, provide statements to the media, who can then ask questions and get clarification and more details. Scrums are when the media simply ask questions of the municipality on whatever subject they choose.
The “briefings” were, in fact, scrums, because the municipality did not raise the issues, or make statements, but simply sat back and waited to be asked questions. This may seem a subtle difference, but, in reality, it is a major problem for the media. For example, I might be working on a story for some time, and need some comment from the mayor or CAO. If I asked a question during the “briefing”, I was letting the other outlets know what I was working on. Too many times, I noticed that, having asked about a story, I could see the other two media reps busy taking notes. No scoop for me!
The municipality’s intention in setting up the sessions was “to provide the media an opportunity to ask questions directly to the Mayor and senior staff about issues facing Council, as well as other topics of interest or concern to the community”. The format may have suited the municipality, but they seemed to have forgotten that the media were not colleagues, but competitors. Our businesses depend on getting the stories first and getting the facts right. Sharing stories with the Advance, or even Juice FM, was not part of our plan.
The municipality should have been aware of this competitive aspect, as, at one point, the representative for Juice FM tried to have the Times barred from the briefings, claiming we were “not a real newspaper”! The sad thing was, the mayor and CAO took that seriously, although later discussions showed them the falseness of that accusation. That person is no longer working in the media. It did, however, underline the reality of the competition we faced.
Again, according to the municipality, “there has been a steady decrease in the level of interest in 2017 and as a result, the Mayor has decided the media briefings will be discontinued”. This is a pity on many levels, but understandable. Even during the lazy months of the sessions, it was only our representative who was asking questions, but the basic flaw in the system continued. Mayor, staff and Councillors are still available for questions, when necessary, so the lines of communication are still open. We also appreciate very much the willingness of the Mayor and some members of Council to submit articles to the Times. The arrangement with them is that such articles will not be edited or amended in any way, unless there is a request for basic editing of punctuation, grammar, etc. No articles will be commented on by us in that issue (though we can, of course, comment in a later issue).
It has been suggested by some that this rule was not followed at one time, but this is untrue. The arrangement has been kept by us at all times.
One of the most important roles of the media is to promote communication between government and residents, and this the Times has always been eager to do. The ending of the Mayor’s Media Briefing is unfortunate, but, perhaps, inevitable. The format was wrong, from the media’s point of view. However, both Mayor Gordon and CAO Carré should be thanked for taking that initiative in the first place, and we hope something will be introduced to replace the sessions on Tuesday mornings.
I know that members of staff and Council sometimes (?) disagree with what they read in the Times. Sometimes, I know, they get quite upset. But that, too, is inevitable, and we won’t always agree with the interpretation of facts and issues. I don’t always agree with some of the writers whose articles we publish. That is democracy for you. Everyone has a voice here, whether they agree with the editorial line, or not. In a municipal system that has no party politics, the media must play the role of the official opposition, as well as the cheerleaders when things go well. Let me, once again, offer space in the Times to Mayor Gordon, members of Council, Brian Carré and any of his staff who wish to speak directly to the people of North Grenville (and Merrickville-Wolford). As John Lennon said: “I want to tell you. My head is filled with things to say”. Feel free to say it here. It’s your local newspaper.