Ex–lobbyist wants to be your source for election news

Just launched Monday, Toronto election news clearinghouse Toronto Election News is a splashy aggregator that aims to be the most comprehensive source of information on the titular topic.  When it comes to offering information about itself, however, TEN is a bit more coy.

As Mondoville found, not only are all the posts anonymous but a WHOIS search for the domain registration reveals that its owner paid a bit extra for the privilege of being able to obscure his identity.  That said, it doesn’t take much clicking (or taunting) to trace the site back to Tory strategist Brett Bell, who most recently served as “Social Media director” for Tim Hudak’s leadership campaign.

A link in the bottom-right corner of every TEN page links back to Bell’s astroturfing business, and pulling up his personal Twitter account reveals:

In a former life, Bell was the manager of government relations for lobbying firm the Lyons Group, where he helped set up the ironically-named “Toronto Environmental Coalition” on behalf of the pesticide industry. A trip on the Wayback Machine provides a glimpse of Jeffrey Lyons and Friends in happier days, prior to what could generously be described as the most spectacular crash and burn in City Hall’s recent history. (Honestly, think of the things Lyons had to do to become disgraced as a lobbyist.)

In late 2003 (about midway through the Leasing Inquiry), Bell hopped on over to Fasken Martineau, and according to an old Now article, served as their “key player at City Hall” at the time the company was waging war on behalf of Eucan and the Megabins.  One of the dirtiest campaigns I’ve seen, strategies included rigging public consultation results and putting out a libelous press release suggesting that Dave Meslin had a soft spot for sexual assault (seriously).  Still, Eucan won Mayor Miller’s endorsement for their eminently terrible product, so they couldn’t have had the worst lobbyists in the world.

What does any of this have to do with Bell’s Toronto Election News?  Hopefully nothing.  There is no reason to believe that the site will necessarily serve as anything other than the non-partisan, unaffiliated resource that it promises to be. At the same time, however, people should know who’s behind these kinds of news sites, even ones that primarily compile content from elsewhere (including from this blog); it’s the essence of all credibility, so when a publisher/editor doesn’t think his identity is particularly relevant info, then that itself becomes Toronto election news.

(UPDATE: 1:50 p.m.) Bell has now fleshed out TEN’s About page to include information about himself.

Jonathan Goldsbie is a campaigner for the Toronto Public Space Committee, which in 2005-6 successfully ran Eucan and their Megabins out of town.

19 comments

  1. I was wondering about these guys. They just sorta popped up out of nowhere, and I generally have a finger on the pulse of local stuff.

    If I were a right-leaning mayoral candidate, an astroturf campaign by a supposedly “neutral” site that came out with a ringing endorsement at just the right moment might be just what the doctor ordered…

    We’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out. Could be very interesting.

  2. I should add of course, that any spending on a site like that could be a violation of election finance laws, and nobody we know would ever engage in such a practice.

    Would they?

  3. I was Councillor Carroll’s EA during the Megabin discussion. I think you might want to reconsider the statement about “rigging Public Consultation results.” Unless you’d like to actually interview people who were involved, it’s borderline libelous.

    I often agree with the positions taken by Spacing and its writers but you often question the ethics of those who don’t agree with you rather than simply objecting to the issue at hand. That puts you in the field of conspiracy theorists and cranks.

    Some people just don’t take issue with advertising. Why do you need to slander them to disagree?

    As to the comment about violating election laws, Dan F must not understand that there are no laws about 3rd party spending. How do I know that? I was the person who started the Toronto discussion about Election Contributions from Corporations and Unions while I was Walker’s EA prior to joining Councillor Carroll.

  4. I encourage you to read the linked article, Justin. Analysis of the raw data from the phone survey on the Megabins revealed that there were several very screwy things going on.

  5. Funny, I’ve looked all over Spacing.ca and I can’t find scanned version of your NDP cards anywhere (?)

  6. I read the associated articles and was there at the time. We paid little attention to the phone surveys.

    That’s why the City hired students to interview people streetside in various locations, allowed Councillors to test bins and took seriously comments contained in e-mails from across the City. Where the broader public was surveyed (not people who were motivated to go to websites or were surveyed by the proponent) we found that there was general support for the bins amongst the general public.

    As I said, most people take little issue with Advertising, particularly when it is used to offset City expenditures that can be used for the provision of soft-services. Now we have a massive, unwieldy contract and a $500 Million Operating Deficit. Oh well.

  7. I can’t believe we’re still arguing about the Megabins. But, fair enough, I was the one who brought them up.

    The summer students the City hired to survey people on the street weren’t so hot, either. At the Works Committee, Councillor Davis recounted her experience being interviewed about a bin on the Danforth, and the students were under the impression that it was their job to sell the public on the initiative.

    And, come on, even if the the things didn’t have advertising, they would still be shit garbage bins.

  8. I really don’t see how this new site has any more potential for conflict of interest than what we see here on A Spacing. That’s not to say I don’t (or do) see potential for conflict of interest. Personally, I’d like to know more about the funding sources for this new site… just as I’d like to know more about A Spacing’s funding sources.

  9. samg: give the head a shake. You don’t see how a web site run by a former lobbyist — who was paid by the industry to advocate on behalf of them, and run by a former partisan political operation — could not have any conflicts of interest?

    As for asking about Spacing’s funding sources: I’m sure they’ll give that info up just as quickly as you hand over your *own* income statements. Businesses have a right to privacy too. Do you ask The Walrus or The Toronto Sun how they get funded? I assume no, because most everyone in the world knows media outlets get money from ads, newsstands, grants and subscriptions (if a magazine). If I’m not mistaken Spacing does get grants as I’ve seen a logo in their masthead (Canada Council?).

  10. Victor is correct in our funding sources except its the Ontario Arts Council. We also sell merchandise. Nothing to hide, but like most people we keep our financial cards close to our collective chest.

  11. Justin: the issue with the Megabins wasn’t the advertising per se, but the fact that advertising took clear design priority over their usefulness as garbage bins, and not the other way around. They were mainly billboards that happened to have garbage receptacles in them. And because the receptacles were on the sides, the bins couldn’t be placed next to anything without making them impossible to use (which happened near my house, when a bin was placed next to a tree coffin). Advertising or not, JG is right about them being shit.

  12. I think it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible for those who are very partisan in some arenas to be nonpartisan in others. I ran the “Who Runs This Town” project in 2006 and tried to keep it completely non-partisan. Same with City Idol (’06) and Better Ballots (’10). Most people know I’m left-leaning, and at times I’ve been a member of the NDP. I would have wanted people to give me the benefit of the doubt back then, so we should do the same for Brett.

    That said, disclosure is important. Names of organisers and funding sources should be shared. I thought it was kinda shady that there was no name listed on the website, and I’m glad he’s added it.

    I’m actually having lunch with Brett next week to talk about his website, the 2010 election and voting reform. I like working across political ideologies. It’s way more fun than preaching to the converted. I’m still a little hurt by the whole smear campaign against myself and the TPSC. But I’m putting out a press release tmrw saying that Brett shot JFK. So as far as I’m concerned, we’re even. Besides, as Jonathan pointed out, we kicked their ass and “ran Eucan out of town”. haha. Hard to hold a grudge, when you win. 😉

    We need more initiatives like Brett’s website to get more people engaged with city elections. Especially this early in the game. I love how the City runs a pathetic campaign in the final weeks of the election encouraging people to “vote”, but does very little in the 9 prior months to encourage people to actually engage in the election.

    Websites like WhoRunsThisTown, Spacing and TEN fill that gap. The lefties have been much better at it. Let’s be friendly as others try to catch up with us.

    As for Spacing, I doubt many of them are actually card-carrying NDPers (if any) and I would say they’ve done a great job of putting forward a transparent progressive voice, while holding our progressive Councillors to account, and creating an amazing space for people to talk about the issues. All funded through a shady, secretive transit button scheme.

    Goldsbie continues to be one of my favorite writers and activists. Keep it up!

  13. Regarding my comments about A Spacing’s funding, it was an honest request for info. I wasn’t casting any aspersions. But I think the potential for conflict of interest or bias is inherent in any site and any media — sorry if that offends people. Should I happen to mosy over to Brett’s site (which I don’t really see myself doing), his lobbying background will certainly be on my mind. If I had to compare Brett’s site to A Spacing, I quite sure I’d find the latter more reliable/useful (otherwise, I obviously wouldn’t visit the site)… But that doesn’t mean I consider it the unvarnished truth or as “the transparent progressive (what a loaded word) voice”. Personally, I think everything is worth reading with a grain of salt… my comments included.

  14. @samg I’m curious what your reference to ‘A Spacing’ is about…?

    Thanks for the heads up on the TEN site and who is behind it Jonathan.

  15. Yvonne, Dave, Matt, Jonathan and Shawn…

    everybody’s here!

    Let’s all take a moment to reflect and appreciate what comment threads can be when they’re not, say, attached to a Toronto Sun article.

Comments are closed.