A federal agency yesterday cancelled a $355,950 sole-sourced contract to pay Torstar Corporation reporters to attend public meetings. Authorities claimed only the Toronto Star was “capable”. The cancellation followed a formal complaint by Blacklock’s to Procurement Ombudsman Alexander Jeglic.
The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions in an October 25 notice Subscription-Based Parliamentary Monitoring Services said it hired a digital news website iPolitics to attend two committees, Commons finance and Senate banking. Torstar Corporation bought iPolitics a month before the notice for $1.4 million, then laid off five iPolitics staff including reporters.
The Superintendent claimed under Government Contract Regulations “only one person is capable of performing the work”; “iPolitics INTEL is the only supplier the Superintendent is aware of that can provide on-demand, subscription-based parliamentary committee monitoring services,” wrote staff.
Parliamentary committee hearings are open to Canadians. Clerks compile exact transcripts of all testimony free of charge. Forty-three other news organizations are currently accredited to cover Parliament Hill committees.
The Procurement Ombudsman in a 2009 Procurement Practices Review said federal agencies should only award contracts without open bidding in cases where “one supplier can meet requirements” due to extraordinary technical or scientific skill, national security or “pressing emergency”.
The contract would have paid the Star $71,190 annually including tax – six times the market rate for news media licensing – with options to renew for an additional four years, a total $355,950.
Star Wanted “Real Action”
Blacklock’s on December 3 filed a complaint with the Ombudsman. The Superintendent of Financial Institutions on December 4 said the contract was “put on hold internally until further notice” after the Ombudsman’s office intervened, then yesterday confirmed it was cancelled altogether.
Notice of the contract award came 15 days after Torstar Corporation chair John Honderich published an October 10 commentary appealing for federal subsidies. Torstar suffered net operational losses of $106.6 million in the past two years.
“There has been a lot of talk but no action,” wrote Honderich: “On balance, I think we’d prefer some real action on these files.” Cabinet in a November 21 Fall Economic Statement proposed a $595 million, five-year subsidy program for select news media deemed to meet unspecified criteria for “professional journalism”. Details are due in 2019.
A week after the subsidy announcement, on November 28, an Ottawa group headed by a former Toronto Star executive confirmed it applied for grants from the Department of Canadian Heritage to “expose” unreliable election-year coverage by other media. “The country lacks adequate understanding of what’s being put through our media ecosystem,” wrote CEO Edward Greenspon of the Public Policy Forum; “This project is designed to expose these attempts and determine how best to counter them.”
Greenspon is a former Star vice-president. He declined an interview. Neither the Policy Forum nor the department would disclose the amount of grant funding sought by the group. Blacklock’s neither solicits nor accepts government grants.