Is it really a ‘Rip Off?’
Managing the media is a fine balancing act
Without buying into any nonsense about ‘fake’ news, we do know that the media has a hard time coming to grips with infrastructure issues and presenting them clearly to their readers. This is true, even when the journalists are not seeking the sensational.
Take the following example. In 2005, the City of Toronto faced a sudden $60M hole in its budget when the Province reduced its funding at short notice. It made a deal with Toronto Hydro, a wholly owned trading enterprise of the City, to buy its street lights for $60 M and lease them back to the City. The contract details, when released, showed that the City had agreed to pay $13.6 M a year to lease back the lights. The Press had field day and the Council went on the defensive. (Additional fact: The City tried to block the release of the contract and it took 5 years for a Freedom of Information request to produce the information requested.)
The news story about Toronto City Council selling off its street lights and leasing them back put the City Councillors on the back foot, fending off public criticism of the “rip-off”. On the face of it, you can see why the public were angry when the figures were stated baldly as selling off for $60M and paying close to $420M over the next 30 years to lease them back.
So today, two questions
- Was this a fair comparison? Are these figures really comparable? Anticipating media reaction, what extra information would you have required, what questions would you have asked – and potentially discussed in a media release? How would you have handled this situation? What would you have advised the Toronto City Council to do?
- Or, What have you learned from media storms like this that you could pass on to others, ways of ensuring readers could potentially get a better understanding of what is really happening?