Conservatives offer media outlets cheaper access to Andrew Scheer’s campaign tour

The Conservative Party is offering media organizations a dramatically reduced price to cover party leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign —  a fee that’s a little less for the entire election period than what the party charged for two weeks in 2015.

The $11,500 fee is intended to encourage media outlets to assign reporters for the duration of the leader’s tour at a time when many news organizations are facing serious economic challenges.

“We obviously are going to take our message across the country,” Scheer said Monday during a stop in St. Catharines, Ont. “We have a great story to tell and we want to make sure that we get that story in front of Canadians in as many possible ways.”

The leader’s tour is a staple of modern political campaigns. In the past, major media outlets tasked reporters to such tours, to cover every rally and protest and document a leader’s every statement and stumble.

But as the number of media outlets has shrunk, and as the cost of assigning journalists to follow every party leader over a campaign lasting a minimum of five weeks has risen, the number of reporters ‘on the bus’ has also diminished.

But does offering what appears to be a cut-rate price for reporters violate any election laws? Is it a party subsidy or just good marketing by a savvy campaign team?

It’s not a discount: Conservatives

Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann said the campaign isn’t offering media outlets a discount — it’s basing the price it charges on what it would cost those outlets to keep up with the leader’s travels on their own.

“We calculated the amount based what the cost would be be for a journalist to follow the tour in the most obvious and economic way possible, that is, a flight pass and bus pass, plus purchasing Wi-Fi on buses and planes when available and meals when flying over regular meal time,” Hann wrote in an email reply to the CBC’s Katie Simpson.

“So our cost is reflective of that, and while it does come in at less than previous campaigns, it is far from subsidized travel as the plane will fly, the bus will run, whether there’s anyone in the seat or not.”

How are the Conservatives keeping the price so low? The New Democrats intend to charge media outlets $45,000 for the right to travel with leader Jagmeet Singh.

The Liberals have yet to set their price for Justin Trudeau’s tour, but party spokesman Braeden Caley said they also are working to keep costs as low as possible.

In 2015, when the election campaign ran roughly twice as long as the usual 37-day campaign, the Conservatives charged media organizations $70,000 to cover the entire campaign. The Liberals and NDP each charged about $50,000.

That striking difference raises the question of whether have media organizations been overcharged in the past — or whether they are being subsidized now.

CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson said the broadcaster will not accept any party subsidy of the cost of covering a campaign.

“In light of what we have heard from the federal Conservative Party, CBC News is looking into the significant price discrepancy between the 2015 campaign versus this one,” he said.

Other media outlets didn’t respond to questions from CBC News.

Canada’s election laws do not prohibit campaigns from subsidizing media outlets. But Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier said campaigns are audited — and a political party would be required to report as an election expense any difference between the actual cost of covering a leader’s tour and a reduced charge.

An element of trust

“They do have to indicate how much money in total they spent on travel for the leader and the campaign. The parties are responsible for making sure that they report all of their expenses and contributions as per the Canada Elections Act, and that they stay within limits,” she said.

But there’s an element of trust involved here. The financial statements each party must file after the campaign includes only a line item for the leaders’ tour. There is no itemized breakdown explaining where the money comes from.

Similarly, political parties would have to claim any amount over the real cost as a campaign donation from the individual reporter, since corporate donations are illegal. Gauthier said she is unaware of any such filings.

Long-time Conservative strategist Chad Rogers said a party’s costs in facilitating media coverage can vary widely — depending on the size of the plane being leased, the number of miles flown and the number of buses involved, plus the cost of outfitting journalists with work stations and the number of political staffers assigned to do advance work, handle baggage or book the hotel rooms used by reporters to file their stories.

Typically, each party will have at least two or three fleets of buses operating in different parts of the country during the campaign.

Rogers also said the fixed election date makes it possible for parties to negotiate better deals for both planes and buses.

“Every party is looking to recover costs and, ideally, the campaign wants to spend as little as possible on anything that isn’t advertising,” he said.

Former NDP strategist Kathleen Monk said it’s a concern that the Conservatives appear to be charging far less than the other campaigns, especially given the importance of media coverage of the leaders’ tours.

“We know that buying campaign ads costs millions and millions of dollars, not only to produce them but to place them on different media channels,” she said. “But the earned media that they get on a campaign is priceless.”

There’s no question the Conservatives own a considerable edge in fundraising heading into the campaign. The party raised more than $24.3 million in 2018, compared to $16.5 million raised by the Liberals and just under $2 million by the NDP.

But the spending limits during the campaign period are the same no matter how much money a party has, which effectively eliminates any fundraising advantage the Conservatives hold.

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