Cabinet’s representative in the Senate yesterday said he’d determine whether the Toronto Star lobbied the Prime Minister’s Office for a lucrative contract. The $355,950 deal was cancelled December 5 by the Procurement Ombudsman following a formal complaint from Blacklock’s.
“Can you tell me whether John Honderich or any other Torstar executive approached the Prime Minister or anyone in his office to solicit this contract?” asked Senator David Tkachuk (Conservative-Sask.). “I will make inquiries,” replied Senator Peter Harder (Ont.), Government Representative in the Senate.
A small federal agency, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, contracted a subsidiary of Torstar Corporation called iPolitics INTEL to have reporters attend public meetings of two parliamentary committees, Senate banking and Commons finance. “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 publish free transcripts of all testimony. Forty-three other news organizations are accredited to cover Parliament Hill committees.
“What is more intriguing is the timing of the contract,” said Senator Tkachuk.
On September 20 Torstar Corporation bought iPolitics for $1.4 million and subsequently laid off five employees, including reporters.
On October 10 Torstar chair John Honderich published a Toronto Star 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: “I think we’d prefer some real action on these files.”
On October 25 the Superintendent published legal notice of the sole-sourced contract to Torstar’s subsidiary worth $355,950 with options.
“Everyone here knows that parliamentary committee hearings are open to all and that the transcripts can be found on the web,” said Senator Tkachuk. “Can you tell us why this contract was awarded? Why does the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions need to pay a media outlet to cover public meetings?”
“The Office of the Superintendent is independent of government, but I am happy to raise this question directly with the Office and respond,” replied Senator Harder.
Under federal procurement guidelines, sole-sourced contracts are only to be issued in cases of a “pressing emergency”, national security, or where a single supplier possesses extraordinary scientific or technical skill.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez under December 6 questioning over the Torstar contract in the Commons defended federal aid for “bankrupt press”: “A bankrupt press is not a free press,” said Rodriguez. “A bankrupt press is not an independent press. A bankrupt press is not a press at all.”
Cabinet in 2019 will detail a $595 million, five-year program to subsidize chosen news media deemed to meet unspecified criteria for reliability. Blacklock’s neither solicits nor accepts government grants.