Thursday, February 28, 2013

Societal Watchdogs

As citizens within a democratic society we live in a state of illusion believing that our basic rights are protected. True we have constitutional right to choose our government, the right to free speech and assembly, even the right to defend ourselves once accused of an offence. These are to be considered the most basic rights and freedoms under the umbrella of a free society. At the same time we believe that there are in existence regulatory bodies, watchdogs if you wish, who provide an important opportunity to air out grievances before a third party adjudicator.

For a long time Canadians scoffed at the American system of what we called 'dollar value justice', that at the slightest provocation anyone would sue anyone in the US. Here in Canada we think we are more civilized and maybe that is the reason for the numerous guardians of society. We have the Office of the Ombudsman, who likes to call himself Ontario's Watchdog. Parliament supposedly has an Integrity Commissioner and an Ethics Committee, the police have various local disciplinary boards and the Ontario Commission on Police Services and Office of the Independent Police Review Director. Our doctors have the College of Physicians and Surgeons Ontario and our lawyers the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Away from the more official sphere of society there is the Ontario Press Council which claims to defend principles to inspire trust. The Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), not only produces licenses but also regulates conduct over our airwaves which can be assaulted through television and radio. There is even the Commission of Complaints for Telecommunication Suppliers which oversees the issues of the private sector relating to the telecommunication industry.

These watchdogs exist in various shapes and sizes, different breeds, with and without catchy slogans. Yet upon examination they all seem to share one common trait, that is, each is made up of people from the related field that they supposedly oversee. Doctors oversee doctors, lawyers oversee complaints about lawyers, police investigate issues against police, and so it goes on. It is argued that if one does not understand specific procedure then one cannot provide a fair adjudication of a complaint. This is where the illusion, the smoke and mirrors really begins.

Interaction and experience with these various watchdogs presents a rather frightening reality. The Ontario Press Council starts off the roll call, and yes it has a catchy slogan, the OPC claims to be “Defending principles to inspire public trust.” What principles are they defending and in what way? Can anyone at the Press Council in fact believe in this goo?

The Ontario Press Council was founded in 1972 as a voluntary media adjudication body which investigates complaints about newspapers in Ontario, Canada. As of 2009 it claimed to have 228 newspapers as members, in July 2011, Sun Media withdrew its membership taking out 27 of its newspapers. Although its mission statement, “The Ontario Press Council upholds acceptable journalistic and ethical standards on behalf of the public and press alike while defending the democratic rights of free speech and freedom of the press,” sounds impressive yet as a voluntary organization it has no real powers.

In August 2012, the Press Council was presented with a situation relating to Bullet News Niagara, an online news source and Niagara this Week, a Niagara regional community newspaper owned by Metroland Media. Mayorgate covered the issues in some detail in an article called, Is news media obligated to present the truth?

Attempts were made to find a solution with both media organizations. Peter Conradi as the publisher of Bullet News Niagara had tried to defend his online publication, though Mr. Conradi's credibility relating to this situation somewhat less than strong with a history of proven deceit. In 2006 Peter Conradi was the city editor at The Standard newspaper in St. Catharines Ontario. A front page story in late June of 2006 written by reporter Matthew Van Dongen featuring a local developer Nino Donatelli had been published with photographs. That article was intentionally deceitful of the public and the photographs were cropped with the intent to portray an image greatly removed from fact. Many would of heard the term that a photograph never lies or that its worth a thousand words, that front page of The Standard was a screaming banshee liar. At the time the whole deceit of the front page and more was brought to the attention of the Press Council. The Ontario Press Council conducted a review and instructed The Standard to 'redress' the issue, but by then the site in question had everything removed by developer Nino Donatelli.

The Standard front page published the photograph which was intentionally misleading of the facts.

This is an original photograph taken by Alexander Davidoff which shows the mountains of contaminated soil to be enormous and approximately 15ft. and higher.

The photograph in The Standard was intentionally cropped to suit the story, not the truth. This fact was confirmed by the original reporter in an interview on August 24th 2007. 
Original photograph taken early June 2006, by Alexander Davidoff
Peter Conradi as the city editor at The Standard had photographs cropped to suit the story! The truth mattered little and an interview with the reporter Matthew Van Dongen, recorded at the time, confirmed this fact. When asked why did the photos published in the article provide an image that was an absolute lie, Matthew Van Dongen said that the “photos were cropped by the editor to suit the story.” That recording is made available here for anyone wishing to hear it for themselves.

Fast forward to 2012, Peter Conradi now publisher of Bullet News Niagara and the issue at hand is intentional deceit published relating to exactly the same property. It is Peter Conradi who on August 22, 2012 states in an email “Please be advised that we will not print personal attacks on individuals and naturally that also goes for libellous statements.” Hmm.

This time out the Press Council supposedly reviewed the details and its executive director had the decision posted on their website. The Ontario Press Council lied and published publicly its lie. So much for defending principles to inspire public trust. In its posted decision the OPC state “Davidoff was offered an opportunity to express his opinions on the subject by both Niagara this Week and Bullet News, but he chose not to do so.” Don McCurdy was contacted and within a few days a revised version published though once again far from fact.

Niagara this Week had not made an offer of any kind they simply ignored the whole thing. Was this lie posted by the Press Council on their own or were they lied to in return by Niagara this Week? When the OPC posted the revised version it was more clear. The original lie was that of the OPC and the revised version a greater one. Copies of correspondence with Niagara this Week prove no opportunity was in fact provided to resolve the issue and the Ontario Press Council found it unnecessary to deal with the truth.

The pomposity of the Ontario Press Council is further evident when viewing its official web page titled 'Where The Ontario Press Council Stands, Journalism of Opinion'. Here the OPC states: Columnists are given wide latitude to express controversial opinions but, when they present what purports to be a statement of fact, they should ensure that it is accurate and, when necessary, provide the source of the information.” The OPC continues down the page with this, “A media organization publishing an unsolicited opinion article should go beyond simply determining that it is not libellous; it should be prepared to accept responsibility jointly with the author for factual errors.” Empty and hypocritical words provided by a club.

In the 'Message From the OPC Chair', Dr. Robert Elgie states, “With the proliferation of social media, independent bloggers and individuals who profess to be journalists, it is extremely important for the public to seek reliable news sources.” It is true that the public needs to believe that what they read is reliable and true. Dr. Elgie does not sound like he has much of a pleasant opinion of bloggers and that is maybe because they are 'independent'. Traditional media align itself with political parties providing in effect nothing more than PR sheets for them. Here in this case two so-called media organizations, one more traditional than the other, provided an article which was based on an absolute lie. Both media organizations breached even what the OPC sets out as their version of ethical acceptable conduct. As the knight in shining armour the Ontario Press Council armed with its slogan in turn publishes publicly a lie to add to those already provided by both media organizations.

The public on the whole has little to no faith in the press, that is simply a fact. An individual who buys a paper will always see 'news' reported more as opinion today with allegiance to one side or the other of the political fence. Dr. Elgie's pomposity may be sated with such a statement as “independent bloggers and individuals who profess to be journalists..,” yet the proof that traditional media is more likely to only “profess to be journalists” is now the likely norm. Whether it is Niagara this Week, Bullet News Niagara, its publisher Peter Conradi, or Marlene Bergsma of The Standard hard undeniable proof has been provided of intentional deceit passed off as news or claimed opinion. And, the Ontario Press Council has simply jumped on top of the pile with a public lie without a public apology.

One down, and more to come. How far do we trust these clubs who purport to be guardians of our society? In a democracy we elect our government and its various representatives. Yet what happens when we catch one of those elected to have committed an act less than honest or dignified? If it was a fish caught in one of our lakes and it was of a size that was less than impressive or had two heads, we have the choice to photograph it for Facebook or throw it back. Do we as a democratic society have the same opportunity with an elected representative? Is there a way to have this individual questioned or are we to shut up and wait till the next election.

An individual could try to approach the media to bring public attention but media seems to always know what is in the public interest to be reported, regardless of Dr. Elgie's high opinion of them. Canada's parliamentary system has a system of Integrity Commissioners and Ethics Committees at the provincial and federal levels. In Ontario the Office of the Integrity Commissioner was created in 1988 with the passing of the Conflict of Interest Act of 1988 later amended as Members Integrity Act in 1994. At least the title sounds impressive, more so than most of the 'watchdogs'.

In September of 2011 the Office of the Integrity Commissioner for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario was presented with serious allegations relating to MPP Jim Bradley. The issues revolved around obstruction and misuse of powers something that could be considered unethical and definitely without integrity. It was the response from the Office of the Integrity Commissioner that was somewhat bewildering. It appears that the Integrity Commissioner is not there to receive complaints from the public, in fact he only deals with complaints by ministers against other ministers. The letter from the Integrity Inquiries Coordinator Ian Stedman did not bother to assist a member of the voting public in any way at all, it simply said 'don't bother us you fool'. No advice was provided where one may be able to go to be heard or who would investigate such serious allegations regarding an elected member of our democratic government.

So far now we are stuck with that smelly thing at the end of the winning vote, next logical step would be the Office of the Ombudsman. Here once again a catchy slogan, one cannot miss it even as one steps out of the elevator. On the wall facing the elevator doors is a promise “Ontario's Watchdog,” probably made with fingers crossed.

The Office of the Ombudsman was established in Ontario in March 1975 its powers and authorities are set out in the Ombudsman Act. They include the power to enter any government premises to gather evidence, and the power to compel witnesses to give evidence. The act also requires individuals as well as government officials and employees to cooperate with the Ombudsman's investigations (Wikipedia – Ontario Ombudsman). All of this sounds impressive. Reforms have resulted in areas such as the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, compensation of crime victims, Legal Aid and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, all after investigations and recommendations by the Ombudsman. Still the powers and jurisdiction of Ontario's Watchdog are limited.

Ontario's Ombudsman has no authority over lawyers or doctors (both have their own private clubs) nor does the Ombudsman have any real authority over municipalities, other than look into complaints regarding closed door meetings. Most importantly the Ombudsman has no authority to investigate any complaints or issues relating to the Ontario Cabinet or its elected ministers.

On July 3rd 2012 a request for an investigation was presented to the Office of the Ombudsman. This request revolved around the issue of a Minister of Environment who had instructed two separate directors of the ministry to alter details of official reports filed on record by the ministry under the Environmental Bill of Rights and presented at the legislature. No part of this allegation, in two separate stages was frivolous or without clear undeniable evidence. There was no illusion that the minister in question would in fact be investigated that is simply not possible after all in our democracy. Yet two individual senior employees, public servants, had no shelter from the truth. Well that was the foolish illusion at the time.

A Maggie DiDomizio was assigned the case file for investigation and DiDomizio ensured that Minister of Environment Jim Bradley and his two directors, Lisa Feldman and Bill Bardswick, were permitted to do as they pleased. Official reports placed on record, even presented at the legislature by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario appeared to matter no more than used bathroom tissue to Maggie DiDomizio of the Ombudsman's Office.

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Gord Miller confirmed in an interview at Queen's Park that this was a serious issue and would warrant an investigation by his colleague Andre Marin, in particular if the alterations changed the complexity of the original reports. Changes made by Directors Feldman and Bardswick completely altered the circumstances of the original reports, and each of the directors had confirmed that they were acting upon the request of Minister Jim Bradley.

True the Ombudsman has no real authority in many areas particularly that of the Cabinet and its ministers. Yet this was an opportunity for Andre Marin to help protect our Environmental Bill of Rights. He chose instead what appears to be political safety over truth or fact. A letter was sent to Andre Marin in an attempt to find a solution, Marin ignored it without any response.

With a budget of $10.75 million for 2011-2012 and employing some 85 staff, the Office of the Ombudsman who likes to see himself as Ontario's Watchdog, in fact is only a toothless mutt. The situation with Minsiter Jim Bradley and his directors, Feldman and Bardswick, is not the only example of the watchdog's dentures dropping. His OMLET (a catchy little acronym) – the Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team – specializing in investigations of closed door meeting complaints also proved its lack of will to act. The Regional Municipality of Niagara faced two such complaints in succession and only received a little public wrist slap.

Although Andre Marin lays claim to have instigated dramatic reforms in areas such as the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and others, more often it is an excuse why his office can do nothing that is received as a response to a plea for help.

One might think of the Office of the Auditor General as an alternative on the side of the public, but it would be disappointment again. Here the Auditor General shows some mixed signals and leaves only a question mark as a footprint.

So what are the people left with as alternatives? Very little in fact as far as irregularities with our elected representatives, we do indeed have to simply shut up and wait for the next election. There are other 'watchdogs' such as the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services and Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which investigates complaints relating to our various police departments and individual police officers. Our lawyers have a regulatory body of their own called the Law Society of Upper Canada and our doctors the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. A case which exemplifies these 'clubs' was that of a doctor who had wilfully lied to the public. We all have heard of the Oath of Hippocrates and believe that if there are few in society who we can trust, surely our doctors we must.

In the Niagara Region its chief medical officer Doctor Valerie Jaeger who lied to the public. Dr. Jaeger is not only the region's chief medical officer she is also a practising family physician. The proof of Dr. Jaeger's lies conclusive and undeniable. In its decision the College of Physicians and Surgeons decided they had no authority over the matter. It was irrelevant to the College that Dr. Jaeger was a licensed practising family physician. Their get out of jail card was that she was a government official. In their decision the College did not clear Dr. Jaeger of the intentional lies, or deny the fact she was a practising family doctor. All the College said was that she was a government official in the employ of the Regional Municipality of Niagara. Therefore it was quite acceptable for Dr. Valerie Jaeger to lie! No wonder the elected representatives can get away with just about anything.

Our private sector has its own watchdogs such as the CRTC which slapped the wrist of Sun TV's Ezra Levant for his public insult relating to the executive of the Chiquita Brands International, Inc. Telecommunications service providers have an authority called the Commissioner of Complaints for Telecommunication Services. The CCTS is currently investigating a situation of overcharging, customer abuse and harassment by Bell Canada. This Commissioner is a legislated body made up of telecommunication providers such as Bell Canada, Rogers and many more. Funding for the CCTS is in fact provided by its members, so it is going to be interesting to see what indeed will be the decision brought forward.

After examining these 'watchdogs' it is hard to still believe we have any real chance in hell when as members of the public we need help. Perhaps it is time we put aside the snide remarks about our southern cousins and their propensity to sue just about anyone. Our basic principles of democracy are still there in a way, yet Canada has become truly a dollar value justice society, denying that fact only allows the huge wheels of bureaucracies to roll over one's tax paying body.

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