Tag Archives: Nova Scotia

Journalism and Democracy in the Chronicle-Herald Strike

The strike at the Halifax Chronicle-Herald (hereafter CH) is dragging into its 12th week. Events over the past weekend show how the strike is important, and not just for those directly involved. It shows how labour disputes are often as much about struggles over whose expertise within, and authority over, the work process is recognized, as they are about pocketbook issues like wages and pensions. And it shows the importance of responsible journalism for a functional democracy.

First, the backstory: The paper’s newsroom workers have been walking the picket line (and producing an online paper of their own) since January 23rd. In this weekend’s edition, the CH put out a particularly inflammatory story, stating that Syrian refugee children at a Halifax elementary school were “choking, pushing, slapping and verbally abusing their fellow classmates,” and that school staff appeared to be doing little, if anything, about it. Over the weekend, the CH first (without explanation) edited the story, taking out some of the details, and then deleted the story entirely their website with a terse apology. The story presumably remains in its original form in the paper edition. I won’t link to the CH site while its employees are striking. But if you are really curious, the original story is reproduced, along with an angry critique, here. Tim Bousquet at the Halifax Examiner took it apart in a post yesterday, focusing on factual inaccuracies and the failure to adhere to professional and ethical standards. The Halifax Typographical Union, which represents striking CH workers, issued a statement yesterday. The Superintendent of the Halifax Regional School Board made a public statement, addressed to all school board staff, today.

As Bousquet’s post makes clear, whoever was responsible for producing the story failed to adhere to some of the basic standards of journalistic integrity: a failure to verify claims, lack of balance, lack of context for granting interviewees anonymity, and unethical treatment of the children who were at the center of the story. And as both his post and the HTU statement make clear, these failures have to be put in the context of the CH labour dispute. The HTU statement puts it plainly:

Both [the story writer and editor] were hired and assigned according to the skills and abilities that management deems appropriate for the job.

This gets to the heart of the point about expertise and authority. Unions, by definition, are comprised of people who have a kind of work in common. What they share is not just an interest in getting paid decently by a common employer, but also inside knowledge about how the work process actually functions. Unions claim a particular kind of knowledge or expertise, and, through collective bargaining over working conditions, try to gain some authority over how their members’ work is done.

If it wasn’t clear before this weekend, it is now: the professional judgement of reporters and editors (the authorization of their expertise) is essential to producing a reliable, high-quality newspaper. If this weekend’s (non-)story turns out to be a turning point in the strike, it will be because it demonstrated that fact. And if it isn’t a turning point, then (as the CH apology for the story makes clear), that is because the CH owners have opted for a business model that doesn’t rely on producing a reliable, high-quality newspaper.

This points to the implications for democracy: this strike is important beyond the struggle over expertise and authority in a particular workplace. At a work site, it matters whether the people who are making the decisions understand how the system works. If you want effective workplace safety regulation, for example, you need an understanding of how the system actually works, so that you can appropriately determine risks. The same principle is true for political systems. If we want “government by the people” to be effective, then the people should be reasonably well-informed about how the system (society) operates. That a functional mass democracy requires a free press is obvious. If reporters are censored or otherwise constrained or unduly influenced by state officials, then the people (their audience) will not have a clear sense of what is really happening, and are more likely to make bad decisions based on that misinformation. But a functional mass democracy also requires responsible journalism. Reporting that is sensationalist, coloured by partisan or other axes to grind, or not fact-checked, can similarly lead people to make bad decisions. The ways in which this particular story seems to have inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment is a case in point.

My view of the CH before the strike was that it was a decent, though certainly not great, newspaper. Whatever its flaws, though, it is the newspaper of record for the province. The province’s media ecosystem includes (unfortunately increasingly consolidated) community newspapers outside of Halifax, and an impressive array of more critical/adversarial/alternative outlets like Examiner, the Halifax Media Co-op, and the Coast. But, with the possible exception of the CBC, only the CH has the depth of resources to provide a more or less authoritative account of provincial happenings. Such ongoing authoritative accounts not only reflect what is happening, they are also important drivers in constituting “us” as a distinctive community. (For those who haven’t taken POLS 3043, that last sentence is a plug for Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.)

So journalism, particularly at a newspaper of record, is a public trust. And the failure to protect that trust can have seriously damaging consequences for democracy and good governance. It puts those journalists, at least potentially or occasionally, at odds with newspaper owners and managers, as newspapers in North America (CH included) are generally private businesses, which means they need to turn a profit. Or at least contain losses to within what owners are willing to spend.

Bousquet speculates that

“The point of publishing the article seems to have been to get content out, possibly content that generates wide discussion, and never mind the ethical considerations.”

Attracting eyeballs to advertisers, without regard to broader or longer-term consequences, is certainly a way to run a content-providing business. But it isn’t a way to run a reputable newspaper.

PS. The influential One NS Report tells us “IMMIGRATION IS ESSENTIAL” (p24) for the future of the province. The Report frets about the number of Nova Scotians who “do not see immigration as the preferred route to population growth.” (p7) And its default mode is to scold those with such bad attitudes, in contrast with the bold and innovative entrepreneurs and visionaries. But attitudes are cultivated. They flourish, or not, in particular cultural environments. One ironic outcome of this episode is that it shows how business elites’ relentless focus on improving the bottom line can produce just the kind of attitude that the report laments.


The Ivany Report: An Environmental Analysis

This post is (very loosely) based on my notes for a roundtable presentation on the Report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy (aka the Ivany Report): “Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Actions for Nova Scotians.” The roundtable was part of a conference put together by students in Acadia’s graduate program in Social and Political Thought, and was also recorded by the NS office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (video of the roundtable discussion here)

The Report is explicitly directed at “building our new economy” in Nova Scotia. For those unfamiliar with the region, Nova Scotia is a province where (according to the 2009 State of Nova Scotia’s Coast report) some 70% of the population lives in coastal communities. Many of those communities, not surprisingly, are close to sea level. It’s not quite Florida, but there are clear climate change vulnerabilities associated with sea level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity (see for example this report on Halifax Regional Municipality; an elevation map of the province is here). On the other hand, what makes us vulnerable to climate change is also an asset: Nova Scotia’s licence plate motto is “Canada’s Ocean Playground.” This can be recognized iconographically in the report, which features seven full-page photos, three of which are of beaches. Put another way: something we recognize as an important asset, and defining part of our identity, is what is vulnerable to climate change.

To anyone aware of these vulnerabilities, the fact that this report appears to take no account of the “new climate” on which the “new economy” will have to be built, is striking. I think the way to explain this silence is through the Report’s committed refusal to engage in politics. I’ll describe the silence in a bit more detail before discussing what I think is its significance.

First, a quick content analysis of the Report with respect to global warming/ climate change:

  • The term “global warming” does not appear anywhere in the report’s 87 pages.
  • The word “climate” appears a total of six times, as follows:
    • three times, it is used to refer to the “macroeconomic climate” (pp. vii,48,70);
    • it is used once to refer to the “climate for risk taking and business development” (p. 28);
    • it is used once to refer to the “attitudinal climate” (p. 46);
    • the one time it is used in a weather-related context is in a boxed quotation, which discusses how the province’s “cooler climate” is conducive to growing premium varieties of apples (p. 40).

That’s it.

To be sure, the report does mention environmental issues beyond climate change, although for the most part these are vague references to “environmental protection” or “sustainability,” rather than specific issues. To the extent that environmental issues do appear in the report, they appear to emerge from the public engagement sessions that were conducted as part of the report’s fact-finding. Thus one of the nine “broad themes” that emerged from the public engagement was “sustainability and growth” (pp. 6-7) (I’ll come back to the significance of this by way of conclusion). Of the 19 “New Goals for Nova Scotia,” only one is directed at environmental sustainability (or two, if you count goal #15, which is to double agriculture and fisheries exports “on a sustainable basis”). Goal #17, “A province-wide plan to achieve Nova Scotia’s new goals for sustainable economic growth and population renewal,” includes the point that such a plan “must recognize that progressive land development can both strengthen our economy and reduce our negative impact on the environment” (p. 49). Here, and consistently throughout the report, environmental sustainability, or the reduction of environmental impacts, is hedged within a growth imperative.

Indeed, the growth imperative, and the need for an “attitude change” to accept that imperative – is the document’s overarching message. In their foreword, the commissioners helpfully lay out the “three core messages” of the report, which work as a sequence: 1) “there is a crisis”, 2) change is possible, and 3) “… the single most significant impediment to change and renewal is the lack of a shared vision and commitment to economic growth and renewal…” (p. vii, my emphasis).

The connection of the lack of “commitment to economic growth” with a “lack of a shared vision” is what I mean by a refusal to engage in politics: dissensus or disagreement is seen as a problem (to be solved), rather than a condition that we have to live with.

From the public engagement sessions, the authors have gleaned a couple of “fault lines” that inhibit a shared vision (pp. 9-10). One was about “public versus private sector roles in economic development,” with a somewhat related lack of agreement on whether or how much “private sector leadership” should be “recognize[d] and celebrate[d].” If we want to apply political economy labels (the Report doesn’t use these terms), the “fault line” is one between Keynesians and neoliberals, who disagree on the appropriate means to achieve more economic growth.

A second constellation of issues is around the rural-urban divide, and the trade-off between natural resource extraction and environmental protection. Rural Nova Scotia here is characterized more or less exclusively as a site for resource extraction (“pulp and paper and lumber mills, mines and quarries, fish plants and aquaculture operations”), and the questions are whether these “sectors” or “rural economies” can or should be modernized, and if so, how.

“Some participants emphasized the need to renew, modernize and in some cases expand these traditional sectors… Others asserted that maintaining a pristine environment may be more economically beneficial over the longer term that (sic) pursuing growth in the mining, forestry or energy fields.” (pp.9-10)

One thing to notice is that the Report frames these “fault lines” as disagreements about means, not about ends. Whether we prefer high levels of public sector spending or cutting corporate taxes, and whether we think lumber mills should be developed to the highest efficiency standards or shuttered to make way for eco-tourism, we are agreed on the end of trying to do what is most “economically beneficial.”

The presumed goal is sacrosanct. There is presumed agreement, first, that “Nova Scotians” are a monolithic community, even a “nation” unto ourselves. The idea that “Nova Scotians” includes multiple, sometimes antagonistic communities, is characterized as problematic “politics”: petty squabbling, a distraction from the serious tasks at hand, and precisely the bad attitude that needs to be left in the past. “The first [change] area identified is political leadership” (p. ix) – defined by refraining from “politics as usual” and “putting aside partisan interests.” “Political leadership” for the authors means getting away from those messy disagreements that divide rather than unite us. It is for this reason that the Report resorts so casually and consistently to the language of “crisis”: the emergency that will get us to see that we are all in this together, so that we can all engage in the serious work needed to reach our common goal.

But what is that serious business, that common goal? “Crisis” literally means “turning point.” But where are we to turn, other than away from the bad attitudes of the past? The second point of agreement presumed by the Report is that we should turn inexorably to more economic growth. Because of its ideological commitments, the idea that communities might have goals that aren’t measurable in positive economic terms (or maybe aren’t measurable at all) can hardly be registered.

This refusal to engage in thinking about ends, to ask, in an open and serious fashion, “what is more growth for?” is what I mean by the Report’s refusal to engage in politics. And it is the watermark that seeps through every page of the Report, starting from it’s first words: “Now or Never.”

As noted above, one time where engagement with substantive ends is forced onto the agenda is in discussing the public engagement findings, and more particularly the theme of sustainability and growth. This shouldn’t be surprising, because there is perhaps no issue that more clearly forces us to confront these differences than our desires for economic growth and the recognition of environmental limits – particularly in a community whose historic identity and prosperity literally sits on ground that is in danger of being washed away by climate change.

So it is not surprising that public discussions of “sustainability and growth” lead to:

“Success and growth can be measured in many ways beyond simply looking at GDP or other conventional indicators, and more consideration needs to be given to how communities envision their own success.” (6; my emphasis)

But no more consideration can happen, within the frame imposed by the Report. Communities can’t take the time to deliberate and determine their own vision(s) of success, because we’ve all got to pull together for greater growth, now or never.

In its recognition of limits, environmentalism should force us to confront anew the questions: What do we want? How should we live? Who are we? From an environmental perspective, what is even more significant than its silence on climate change, is the Report’s attempt to banish these profound, and irreducibly political, questions, or to presume that we have settled or can settle these questions once and for all, now or never.


What if we are always on the job?

It has been less than a month since reporter Shauna Hunt’s famous confrontation with a group of sexist jerks outside of a Toronto FC soccer game. (In case you missed it, see the fairly extensive CBC report, including a link to the video here.) The bros were banned from the games of all MLSE (owner of TFC) franchises for one year. (Whether missing a Leafs season counts as “punishment” is another story.) There was speculation about the filing of criminal charges (e.g. Causing a disturbance) although I haven’t seen any reports that charges were actually filed. But at least one – the one who tried to defend the initial incident by saying it was “f__ing hilarious” and “you’re lucky there isn’t a f__ing vibrator here” – was identified via social media and as a result fired from his job at Hydro One.

Flash forward to a case, made public by CBC News yesterday, where an employee of Northern Pulp in New Glasgow, NS, was fired for complaining to the mayor about racism in the community. There are some differences in the two cases. Arguably, a statement like “[a particular rural Nova Scotia community] is the Mississippi of the north,” said to a mayor, is more obviously a political claim than “[a particular statement] is f__ing hilarious” (let alone the vibrator comment). There also may be more truth to it. Still, I can’t help but feel that the two are connected. Perhaps not in a causal sense, but rather in revealing something about contemporary society, and the dangerousness of its mix of ubiquitous surveillance, precarious employment, and pervasive branding.The point of ubiquitous surveillance, assumed at least since Jeremy Bentham dreamed up the panopticon, is that it tends to make people engage in more self-policing. But as he expresses in CitizenFour, Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs was motivated by the concern that “self-policing” would also mean the stifling of political dissent. In this context, it is important to remember how many political changes, that are now widely accepted as sensible, were driven by movements that were at the time seen as dangerously subversive – the US civil rights movement being just one obvious example.
The desire to break the law – for an individual not to fully internalize social authority as vested in the law – is hardly pathological. But being able to act on the desire to break the law requires a certain degree of security. In some cases, it is security grounded in privilege: you know that you are unlikely to be caught, or that the consequences will not be too severe. Given what many reporters subsequently said about the pervasiveness of such harassment, it seems plausible that the ex-Hydro One employee wrongly judged that he had just this kind of security. In other cases, there is a kind of moral security that comes with knowing that you are doing the right thing, whatever punishments may be inflicted on you.At least with respect to the former, a generalized condition of precarious employment is important (with some obviously being in more precarious situations than others). Most obviously “precarious employment” as a general descriptor means an increased reliance on short-term contract work in the economy as a whole. But it also means the dismantling of various protections, built into labour law, that apply even to workers in non-“precarious” jobs. And it means employment contracts are settled in a context where opting out of the labour market is increasingly difficult (tightened eligibility requirements for (un)employment insurance, for disability benefits or other forms of social assistance, increasingly expensive education, etc.) And, perhaps least obviously, the context includes an economy and socially accepted “standard of living” that is increasingly financed by personal debt, so that the vast majority of workers are only one or a few missed paycheques away from financial ruin and its associated perceived social costs.

The third dimension is the phenomenon of pervasive branding. On the one hand, this refers to developments in the contemporary economy where a company’s “brand” is increasingly important. The company’s name and logo represents a financial asset that has a measurable value, one that is backed by the company’s public reputation. Like all capital assets, these are built up by labour. Just as corporate marketers and spokespersons can build up the company’s reputation, and thus add to the brand asset, so too can an employee who publicly does something disreputable be seen to creating a real financial liability (hence the morals clauses that are frequently explicit in the employment contracts of public figures). And while “brands” are often thought of as a distinctively late-modern phenomenon, as in this article which describes the 1960s as the “Cambrian explosion” of brands, they have a longer history, which begins with the physical marking (burning and scarring) of flesh to make bodies legible as property.

Social activity today is highly individualized, and it is increasingly common to see the phenomenon of branding thought about and practiced at the individual, not just corporate, level. Precarious workers, who once had nothing to sell but their labour power (or “nothing to lose but [their] chains,”) now have their “personal brand.” And make no mistake: (personal) brand management is a constant task. (For more on this, see Alison Hearn’s excellent “Meat, Mask, Burden: Probing the Contours of the Branded Self” (unfortunately paywalled)) The constant refrain, especially to youth, to be more reflexive (self-policing) in their social media activity is a reflection of this. A kind of scrutiny applied to current or past indiscretions, that used to be reserved for politicians seeking high office, is now presumed to apply to anyone seeking anything like a middle-class career, or even just a tolerable social life. Thus the old-fashioned separation of “personal” from “work” activities no longer obtains, because anything that you do, on the job or off, may diminish the value of your, and your present or potential future employer’s, brand.

Personal branding as a kind of self-commodification seems troublesome enough, particularly if we recall the mutilation that is required to make living bodies legible as property. Ubiquitous surveillance and a precarious employment economy just seem to make it all the more necessary to engage in it, and to engage in it constantly. And if we are constantly providing an outward performance of a particular brand of ourselves, well, Vonnegut’s Mother Night puts it well:

‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’

All this seems to undermine the possibility for a kind of moral security, dependent on an inner resolve that King called “self-purification,” that makes principled resistance to authority (aka political dissent) possible.

Compared to Hydro One, the Northern Pulp case seems to give these questions a more explicitly political twist. Here the damage is not to the cultural capital that is built up in the company’s brand, but to the company’s political capital. The dismissal letter posted on the CBC story states in part: “you have tarnished the image [of the company] and undone a lot of work that the company has been doing to build relations with our local officials.” The implications that this has for the expression of political dissent (about concentrations of economic as well as state power) seem rather ominous.

Individualizing Healthcare and the Contradictions of Liberalism

The recent public musings of our provincial Minister of Health and Wellness, Leo Glavine, in our local paper (here), don’t exactly inspire confidence in our now almost 6 months old provincial government.

Scott D at Left Turn East has rightly called Glavine’s style “Social Darwinism with folksy charm” (here). And Atif Kukaswadia calls Glavine out for ignoring social and structural determinants of health (here), as well as his bizarre banking analogy (more on that momentarily). And the paper in question already has a few letters to the editor up (including one from me). But there is more to say about this than can fit in a letter to a community newspaper.

One thing that is striking about the column is the swift move from “proactive healthcare” (“medical help” can come in the form of diet or lifestyle advice, as well as a pill), to an individualization of health. Our health is shaped by the choices we make: what we eat, how often we exercise, how much we drink, and so on. Of course this is true, but as someone once said, “people make choices, but not under conditions of their own choosing.” Kukaswadia points out the difficulties that smokers have in quitting, and the higher costs of healthy food. Browbeating people living in poverty to “make healthy choices” when the “choices” are things like buy fresh vegetables vs pay the heating bill are unhelpful, to say the least. And we also get decidedly mixed messages about what the “right” choices are. Just consider how many ads for pop and fast food people saw while watching icons of athleticism representing our country on our public broadcaster over the last two weeks.

But liberalism (small-l, which is much broader than the Liberal party) has long struggled to reconcile an ideological commitment to individual freedom with bourgeois morality. And commitments to some kind of welfare state and a belief in the need for austerity just sharpen the contradictions. You are free to make your own choices! But you’ll be punished severely if you don’t choose correctly!

This ideological contradiction I think is the way to explain Glavine’s banking analogy, the point that has drawn most attention because it is just, well, weird:

Imagine if healthcare worked like banks. Patients would have to prove they practice a healthy lifestyle before receiving assistance. They would have to prove that they practice the basic tenets of proper eating and exercise. Such a system would save money for those who have not abused their health and need medical care.

There is a whole lot to say about the view that banks operate as public services providing “assistance” rather than profit-oriented businesses. (They could, of course, but then they would have to be socialized.) Glavine’s message, though, seems to be that we should re-impose the Victorian distinction between the “deserving and undeserving poor” on contemporary health care. It is an astonishingly reactionary view. And Glavine seems to know it as soon as he says it. The next paragraph opens with:

But, copying this approach would be archaic and inhumane…

[Why does he ask us to imagine something archaic and inhumane? Never mind.]

…and it is not for me to judge those who are dependent on the system.

And yet, trapped by contradictory ideological commitments, judge he does. A few lines later he gets to:

Then there are people who are cognizant abusers of the system. They accept government assistance, yet still have money to travel.  These people are abusing their neighbours’ hard-earned money.

How have we got from recommending healthy lifestyle choices to an attack on welfare cheats? Maybe with the accumulation of neoliberal ideology and austerity logic this short-circuit makes a certain kind of sense. All the more reason, then, to take it apart:

We ALL “accept government assistance” whenever our public health insurance pays for a visit to a doctor or a nurse. We also “accept government assistance” whenever we send our kids to public schools, drive on public roads, take our garbage to the curb, eat food that has been inspected and drink water that has been tested.

Now, most of us who accept these kinds of government assistance – myself, bankers, and Minister Glavine included, no doubt – “still have money to travel.” Nobody tells us we should feel ashamed about it. Guilt-free, because we have “earned” it, we visit family and friends, expand our horizons, or take a stress-reducing vacation. All of those things, and not least the feeling that we have “earned” them because we see ourselves as valued and productive members of society, are good for our health.

And this, finally, is the irony: with his attempt to publicly shame people living in poverty, who have had the temerity not to “choose” properly, the Minister contributes to the view that “these people” are a drain on society. The more they are seen in that way, and the more they see that they are seen in that way, the more likely they are to make “poor” health choices.

As minister of health, it is my job to improve the health of all citizens.

Respectfully Minister Glavine, you are not doing your job.