Thursday, September 22, 2016

Content, Not Style

Like a lot of folks, there was a time when I never went to bed without watching CBC’s The National. Like a lot of people now, I almost never turn the program on.

The National began losing thousands of viewers many years ago when it opted for personalities and style over solid, serious journalism. It became a water-filled balloon that developed a pinhole. Viewers dripped away, then dribbled and squirted out until the pinhole widened into an escaping torrent.

Now it routinely runs behind the CTV and Global national news in audience ratings. Its ratings are somewhere in the range of a specialty channel.

The problem with The National is that personalities are more important than the story. And in journalism, there is nothing more important than the story – the fair and factual story.

The most important personality at CBC, of course, is Peter Mansbridge, aptly named Pastor Mansbridge by Globe and Mail columnist John Doyle. He has announced he is leaving The National but is not retiring from the Mother Corp. He is 68 and will show up doing something else at CBC, no doubt being paid his million-plus bucks.

Nothing illustrates the CBC’s cult of personality more than his departure announcement. His last broadcast of The National will be July 1 next year, Canada’s 150th birthday. How excellent! Two major Canadian events the same day: Mansbridge’s last broadcast of The National and Canada’s 150th. Which would you vote for as the most important?

The National lost touch with Canadians when it decided that its intellectual superiority makes it the best editor of what news the great unwashed should receive. It represents the Toronto left-leaning establishment and Peter Mansbridge is the voice of that establishment.

We’ve all seen the scandalous results of the personality cult developed during Mansbridge’s painfully long run at The National. The Amanda Lang scandal in which the National’s star business correspondent was accused of taking speaking fees from companies on which she reported. She had a too cozy relationship with the Royal Bank of Canada.

Then Evan Solomon, once touted as Mansbridge’s successor, was fired when it was learned that he pocketed tens of thousands of dollars in secret commissions for art sales to people he dealt with as a CBC TV on-air host.

And Jian Ghomeshi, the CBC star who admitted a fondness for non-consensual rough sex and who was accused of sexual harassment and assault. He stood trial for sexual assault and was found not guilty. The CBC had to dump him.

Mansbridge and Rex Murphy, The National’s annoying know-it-all, both crossed journalism’s ethical boundaries by taking big buck speaking fees from companies or others who might be in the news. CBC management said it was disappointed anyone would think that taking large speaking fees would affect any on-air person’s journalistic integrity. Then it turned around and forbid on-air staff from taking paid speaking gigs.

What it should be doing is forbidding anything that nourishes its personality cult. Like Mansbridge accepting the Order of Canada, which should be for people who work tirelessly, often without reward, for the good of their communities.

Mansbridge’s semi-retirement is a huge opportunity for CBC management to return The National to its years-ago position as a powerful news source for Canadians. It is an opportunity to give the news operation back to real journalists who see the story more important than themselves.

A ‘star anchor’ to replace Mansbridge is not necessary. Let a variety of news people with on-air competency present the news stories that they are involved in.            
Aside from dealing with its inner cancers, CBC also must reshape itself to become relevant in the online world of news. Online news is a revolution that has brought incredible changes, with more to come. We no longer need to turn on the TV at 10 p.m. to find out what is happening in the world. We already know because we get online news every minute throughout the day.

All traditional news outlets are struggling with how to survive in the new and changing world of news. When it all shakes out, one longstanding axiom will still be there: Content, not style and personalities is the key to good journalism.


Thursday, September 15, 2016


Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.

Sir Walter Scott had never heard of Ontario when he wrote that line for his play Marmion back in 1808. Ontario wasn’t even a province back then.

Wally didn’t know it then but his words were the perfect fit for the province that has become a Pinocchio factory. Wherever you turn, some political leader or captain of industry is twisting the facts, hiding the facts or outright lying.

A recent example comes from Hydro One, which is owed $105 million by folks who cannot afford to pay their outrageously high electricity bills.

Global News recently asked Hydro One to say how many people in each of the past 10 years have had their electricity disconnected because they did not pay their power bills.

A simple question. An important question because the answer would show how many customers have been hurt seriously by skyrocketing Ontario electricity rates.

Ten years ago, the off peak charge for electricity in Ontario was 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Today it is 8.7 centres per kwh. The mid rate back in 2006 was 7.5 cents per kwh. Now it is 13.2. Peak rate was 10.5 and now is 18.

The current numbers will go up again on Nov. 1. Plus, Hydro One has applied for a new set of increases for 2017 and 2018.

So it is reasonable for Ontarians to know how many people are being disconnected for non-payment. Especially considering that unpaid Hydro One bills now total more than $100 million.

Laura Cooke, Hydro One’s Senior Vice-President of Customer and Corporate Relations, did not think it was reasonable. She refused to give the number to Global News. She told the news outfit she reviewed the numbers herself and found no “appreciable difference” in the year-to-year numbers.

We are supposed to believe her. No appreciable difference in the number of people hurt by rates that have almost doubled.

That’s hiding facts that should not be hidden from citizens. Ms. Cooke, however, simply is taking her cue from the government lead by Premier Pinocchio.

Steven LeClair, Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer, has said the Liberal government is keeping secret financial information on Hydro One and on the health care system and major infrastructure projects.
LeClair has said the government has refused to give him information on the financial effects of its move to sell 60 per cent of Hydro One. Or, how it came up with an estimate of the sale’s value. His calculations show that selling off part of Hydro One actually will cost Ontario taxpayers money.

He has said his office has to use other data and do its own calculations to determine the financial effects of government policies.

“Are Ontarians in the dark about it?” he told the Globe and Mail. “I’d say yes. What happens is, the government doesn’t reveal its underlying assumptions and forecasts used in the projections, so it leaves us having to create our own things because we’re not exactly sure where the government has got its information from.”
He also says that Ontario does not release fiscal information that would help us all determine if budget forecasts are accurate or pumped up.

The reason the government is withholding information from Mr. LeClair and its citizens has to be obvious: Ontario’s financial situation is much more dire than any of us suspect. The government has promised to balance the provincial budget by fiscal 2017-18. It looks like the only way they will be able to do that is by sleight of hand, which includes hiding facts and spinning out whoppers.

Meanwhile, we know from the Ontario Energy Board that the $105,583,215 in arrears that Hydro One was trying to collect in 2015 was owed by 225,952 customers. That is 1,750 customers more than in 2014.

That still does not tell us how many households have been disconnected because of arrears. My guess is that it is an “appreciable” number.

Just as important; what is the number of people who have cut back on groceries and other life necessities just to pay those outrageous electricity bills?



Thursday, September 8, 2016

Thoughts for Food

Summer, its days fading quickly, has been generous and kind this year. Sunshine aplenty, but without the scorching heat predicted to become a regular feature of climate change.

Gardens have done well, despite slightly less summer rain. Our vegetable patch is the best in several years. I’ve never seen apple trees in the region with so much fruit. A couple of trees I pass regularly have branches broken by the weight of the fruit.

Late summer is a time of year when there seems to be enough fresh food to feed the entire world, and then some. Unfortunately, that is far from true. The World Resources Institute estimates that by 2050 the world will need 70 per cent more food than is produced today to feed an estimated population of 9.6 billion people, 2.2 billion more than now.

Simply producing more is not a solution. Creating pasture land for grazing animals is eliminating millions of hectares of forests, which is dangerous to world survival. There is only so much land on earth and we already are seeing the dangers of messing with it.

There has been talk, accompanied by some alarm, about world food shortages eventually forcing us to farm insects for food.

One answer to food shortages is to slow population growth. That is happening but not fast enough. World population is expected to grow by only 50 per cent in this century, compared with an incredible 400 per cent in the last. Still, that’s hundreds of millions of more mouths to feed over the coming years.

One positive approach to a food crisis is lifestyle change. Our society consumes and wastes too much of everything, including food. We waste one-third of the food we produce: 1.6 billion tonnes a year, valued at $1 trillion.  Those figures come from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

An accompanying problem is that food waste gets tossed into landfills where it produces methane emissions. These add to the world’s greenhouse gas and climate change problems.

No one deliberately sets out to waste food. It happens. Suppliers and growers guess wrong on what will be needed. It happens to consumers as well. We’ve all planned a dinner or a party and ended up throwing out food for a variety of reasons.

Then there are the psychological traps that trick us into buying too much. Sellers want us to buy more and try to entice us with promotions, incentives and special offers that get us to buy things we might not need. One example is the quantity discount where you buy two items and get a third for free. In many cases you don’t need the third, but can’t pass up the deal.

An avoidable factor in food waste is our expectations. We have been lured into the mindset of wanting fruits, veggies and other foodstuffs that will win beauty contests. We have no use for the marred or the malformed. Bruised apples or blackening bananas are ugly ducklings that don’t get taken home.

Fortunately there are a growing number of initiatives aimed at reducing food waste. Denmark, for instance, has become a world leader with numerous initiatives that have reduced its food waste by 25 per cent in the last five years.

A food waste supermarket in Copenhagen has been so successful that a second is scheduled to open next year. It sells food that regular supermarkets plan to discard because of overdue ‘best before’ dates, damaged packaging or incorrect labelling.

You can read more about Denmark’s campaign against food waste at:

In San Francisco, a subscription service named Imperfect Produce buys ‘wonky’ produce from farms that will discard it because it does not conform to  industry standards of perfection. It delivers boxes of it at reduced prices.

Here at home Loblaws has launched the Naturally Imperfect program selling ugly duckling produce at cheaper prices.

These initiatives are doing more than working against food waste, or providing food at lower cost. Most importantly they are helping to change attitudes about things that appear less than perfect, and about what we really need.

As Mahatma Gandhi once said: "The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed."


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Yellow Jackets and EpiPens

Their work for the year almost done, the  yellow jacket wasps now have time to explore human spaces, and the leftovers they contain.

There is much to explore. Fruit is ripening on the trees and bushes. The last of the sugary summer drinks are being spilled on decks and patios. The wasps are out in large numbers, tasting it all.
We appear to be heading into a record fall wasp season. Yellow jackets seem to be everywhere already, especially if they make you nervous.

Most people have little reason to worry about wasps, provided they resist the urge to swat them, and avoid their nests. But for some people the hyper-activity of autumn yellow jackets is the season of fear.

Large wasp populations are likely the result of a milder winter. More queens than usual lived through it. Wasps die off during the winter, except for some queens who live to start new colonies each spring.

My wife recently walked into a yellow jacket nest and suffered about two dozen stings. She is not allergic to their venom, thankfully. Many people who are carry an EpiPen, the epinephrine injector that buys time for anyone suffering severe allergy shock.

EpiPen is the only easy-to-carry, easy and quick-to-use medicine for people who suffer severe allergy shock. This includes many children dangerously allergic to some food items, peanuts to name a common one.

EpiPen is the focus of a yet another pricing scandal in the United States. Profit greed has tripled the price of the life-saving device in the U.S. Mylan Pharmaceuticals, which acquired the EpiPen rights in 2007, has increased its price by more than 400 per cent.

The drug epinephrine itself costs only pennies. The EpiPen allows for super fast, uncomplicated delivery. You simply take it from its plastic case and jab it against your thigh.

So if you live in the U.S., have a severe allergy to stings, or have a child with a food allergy, you have to cough up at least $600 U.S. The pens expire after 12 months.

Teresa Voght Lisek, interviewed for the Mother Nature Network, said her husband and two children each have severe allergies. She says that extra pens must be kept in several locations in case of emergency. Buying enough to cover them safely would cost $5,600.

The cost of one EpiPen in Ontario is just over $100 Canadian plus provincial tax. Our health care system protects us from any outrageous price increase like the one in the States, but don’t be shocked if someone finds a loophole.

The U.S. price of an EpiPen was $57 when Mylan acquired it nine years ago.

Mylan’s EpiPen price increases mean that some people simply cannot afford to buy the protection. They are left to take their chances. Meanwhile, Mylan’s chief, Heather Bresch, 47, received $19 million in compensation last year for doing such a great job.

She is unapologetic about the outrageous price increases on a drug and delivery device that many people need to save their lives.

“I am running a business,” she told The New York Times. “I am a for-profit business. I am not hiding from that.”

Ms. Bresch has experience with controversy.  A report by the University of West Virginia said she was awarded a business degree, 10 years after attending classes and without completing the course work because her father was West Virginia’s governor. He now is a senator.

Senator and daughter might get to meet face to face in Congress. A special  Senate committee has called on Mylan to appear before it to explain the price increases.

Mylan also has angered some Washington politicians for moving its headquarters to the Netherlands in 2014, a move that reduced its tax rate and prevented a takeover that its investors had favoured.

The company will not say how much it makes off EpiPen but sales of the pen exceed $1 billion.

Meanwhile, if you want to keep wasps at bay, try this: Mix one cup of hand soap with 20 drops of peppermint oil. Top up with water and put in a spray bottle. Spray in areas wasps frequent.