11/15/2012 04:55 EST | Updated 01/15/2013 05:12 EST

Policy-making and politicking meet in Tories' heavy monitoring of ethnic media

OTTAWA - The federal government's intense — and expensive — scrutiny of Canada's ethnic media may be prompting cries of partisanship from opposition critics, but it could just be a happy confluence of good governance and good politics.

Thousands of pages of documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws reveal that the Citizenship and Immigration Department spent nearly $750,000 over three years monitoring and analyzing ethnic media sources at home and abroad.

The reports, which ranked media reports from "very positive" to "very negative," included coverage of campaign events in cultural communities during the 2011 election. They also included six weeks of assessments of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's media image in the spring of 2010, when the minority Conservative government was on an election footing.

With Kenney serving as the Harper government's highly political point man on ethnic outreach, a constituency the Conservative party says is critical to its success, New Democrats and Liberals are crying foul.

The department says it has an obligation to assess ethnic media on a year-round basis, and that the media monitoring is not directed by the minister's office.

Andrew Machalski, president of the Toronto-based media monitoring company MIREMS Ltd., which did the work for Citizenship and Immigration, has a more nuanced response.

"Kenney is very hands on, we notice — not from having spoken to him, but from experience," said Machalski, who got clearance from the government before agreeing to speak to The Canadian Press.

MIREMS monitors ethnic media for both Immigration and the Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy that serves the prime minister, although the level of service for each is quite different.

Privy Council receives only a summary of the day's front pages in the ethnic press, while the research done for immigration includes summaries of stories chosen by certain keywords.

The minister "will ask for a translation and very often will send a letter out correcting or arguing the point with the media, so it really establishes an interaction," said Machalski.

MIREMS may then be asked to follow up on whether the minister's letters were published, and where.

"We are able to measure an action-reaction thing here," said Machalski. "To be honest, I wish every single politician in the country would do this, whatever their political colour."

Notwithstanding Machalski's commercial self-interest, his pitch is sincere — he's been in the business since the late 1980s, although governments actually began ethnic media monitoring as early as the Second World War for national defence reasons.

The industry has exploded since, in part because coverage of Canadian politics and policy is now far more dominant in a growing ethnic press.

But there's the rub: the governing party buys Machalski's services at the expense of taxpayers.

Whether that vitally important intelligence is driven by a concern for good public policy or partisan ambition is in the eye of the beholder — and highly subjective and situational.

Using tax dollars to rate a minister's media perceptions or to rank campaign events during an election period is clearly offside, said veteran Liberal MP John McCallum, the party's critic for government operations.

"I would agree that the line is imprecise, but I would also contend that ... even that imprecise line has been clearly crossed by this government," McCallum said.

Jack Jedwab, the executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies based in Montreal, had a very different take.

"I think it's good that there is insight into the (cultural) communities," said Jedwab, a point where he's in agreement with all political parties.

"I can appreciate around election time where it might raise some questions, to be honest.... That's a risk, and the fact of paying more attention to news coming out of the communities outweighs the risk."

Jedwab said that with media monitoring, "the motivation is going to be partisan if a party does it. When the government does it, it's being done in the interest of citizens."

Jedwab would like to see that taxpayer-funded information shared broadly across government and across the partisan spectrum. "It's of general interest."

Indeed, media intelligence can be profoundly useful at a public policy level.

MIREMS, for instance, initially flagged a questionable publication about immigration consultants, prompting further inquiries by the department.

"We started to clip ads for immigration consultants," said Machalski. "One example from Russian newspapers: 'Six weeks — if you're pretty, you can dance — we'll get you into Canada.'"

Other ads in the Punjabi press offered a three-for-one special that no doubt raised eyebrows at Citizenship and Immigration: taxes, wills, and immigration papers.

The information was used as part of the government's overhaul of the immigration consultant system in Canada.

"What we do is an important source of intelligence," said Machalski.

Jedwab, meanwhile, made the case that governments have always monitored mainstream English and French media as well.

"I don't hear a lot of people waxing cynical about that," he said.

Nor did Machalski make apologies for the fact their reports could have partisan overtones.

What they are looking for is Kenney's influence on perception of government policy, not party politics, and in that way he's no different than ministers before him, Machalski said.

"He does everything a politician does and we sit on the catbird seat.... Kenney is the bird we're watching right now."

Kenney is highly attuned to the media reports, Machalski said, "because he's actually gone on record in a meeting with the Chinese media and told them, 'I've got a team of people who read the Chinese newspapers and drop reports like hot buns on my desk and I look at them; I know what you guys are writing.'"

But there's an unspoken subtext on the issue of monitoring ethnic communities that is muttered aloud by neither the governing Conservatives or opposition parties.

Ask any MP of any stripe and they'll tell you they spend a significant amount of their constituency time dealing with visas, passports and immigration matters. It's vital to their communities and to their re-election chances.

It also has spin-off electoral rewards that can be difficult to replicate among other identifiable voting groups.

An accidentally published document detailing the Conservatives ethnic outreach strategy from the 2011 federal campaign showed the extent to which the Tories track which communities vote for them.

Statistics used in their report suggest that in polls that are more than 40 per cent Chinese, the Conservative vote grew 8.5 per cent across the Greater Toronto Area between 2004 and 2008.

In polls that were more than 40 per cent South Asian, the Tory vote grew 14.8 per cent.

The take-away note attached to the document: "There are a lot of ethnic voters. There will be quite a few more soon. They live where we need to win."