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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why does TVO ignore the ONTC?

Ontario is in election mode and the ONTC is a more prominent issue than at any other time in recent memory (albeit really only in conjunction with the Ring of Fire). With the Liberals claiming that they saved (most) of the ONTC and the NDP vowing to reinstate the Northlander, the discussion seems to have been opened up to a province-wide audience. Why then, does the ONTC get so little time on TVO's flagship current affairs program, The Agenda?

When the ONTC issue first hit the news in March 2012, TVO said nothing. In fact, the first real coverage of the issue was in August 2012, when host Steve Paikin wrote an article about the demise of the Northlander on The Agenda's web site. I found the piece frustrating, because it accepted the Liberal's financial claims as fact (which the Auditor General later showed could not possibly make sense) and did not open up a discussion about the future of the ONTC. Rather, Paikin's article suggested that the train was dead, end of story. That said, it was an important article because he was the first journalist to report on the massive costs associated with the ONTC's pension liability. This did make people ask how much the divestment would cost and eventually led to the Liberals backing down.

At its core, however, The Agenda is a TV show. How much airtime has TVO given to the ONTC? By my count, next to nothing. In November 2012, dismayed by the lack of coverage, I wrote to TVO encouraging them to feature the issue on their show. I received the usual "thank you and we will consider it for the future" stock answer and nothing changed.

As I said at the top, this is election season in Ontario and TVO has finally given the ONTC some time. Recently, The Agenda did a live show from Canadore College in North Bay. The broadcast portion did not talk about the ONTC, but the web-only discussion segment did - just. An audience member brought up the issue of transportation in the north and Steve Paikin asked Vic Fedeli (also in the audience) to discuss the ONTC issue. This was, as far as I can tell, the first coverage TVO had given to the ONTC, which by this time was largely safe from divestment. The discussion, which lasted only a few minutes, essentially said that mobility in the north was harder, trains are expensive and the Northlander was toast.

Some more coverage came a few weeks later, when The Agenda held a debate on transportation in Ontario with candidates from the four major parties. I say transportation in Ontario, but for all intents and purposes, it meant Toronto and surrounding area. To be fair, Steve Paikin did apologize for running out of time, but the ONTC was given the last two minutes, just long enough to acknowledge that it existed and that the NDP wanted to bring back the Northlander. Wow!

More recently, TVO dedicated an entire hour of the show to northern issues, bringing all four parties together to talk about the north. While discussing the state of the roads (which do need improving), the cancellation of the Northlander was mentioned by the NDP candidate as a decision which did not make sense. In response, the guest host Piya Chattopadhyay said that the issue would be revisited if there was time at the end. Naturally, there wasn't.

So, by my calculations, the ONTC has received one article and about five minutes of airtime from The Agenda since March 2012. If I am wrong, I would be delighted for someone to correct me, I really hope there was a discussion that I missed. TVO is the provincial broadcaster, yet it seems incapable of discussing the ONTC. It isn't just a northern issue, the Northlander also connected Toronto and the Muskokas to the the north and the ONTC's buses still do. They have spent a good deal of time recently discussing the Ring of Fire and northern roads, but why can't rail be discussed too?

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