The media is too often stymied by message control
“In order for citizens to be involved and engaged and make smart choices at voting time, they need information. It’s time we got some.”
— from a June 2010 open letter from the Canadian Association of Journalists and provincial press galleries
It’s been two and a half years since journalists in this country issued a public wake-up call, fed up as they were with the manipulative communication strategies of the Harper Conservatives. Ministers who issue carefully crafted media statements, refuse interviews, answer questions only by email — it is a new style of complete message control. You see what they want you to see — and only what they want you to see.
Governing politicians in this province, too, regularly offer up bland emailed statements in response to reporters’ questions in lieu of giving live interviews, providing no opportunity for followup.
It’s a troubling trend, and one I’ve written about before.
Why should anyone besides journalists care? Because journalists work to obtain information about government spending, policies and practices on your behalf.
As the open letter noted: “This is not about ideology or partisanship on the part of journalists. … Rather, we want to ensure the public has enough information to judge for themselves. Journalists are your proxies.”
Here’s a recent example of how communication with the government here is lacking. When the provincial auditor general released his annual report last week, he questioned some expenditures in the departments of Health and Finance.
Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy was not available to speak to The Telegram, but his predecessor, Tom Marshall, did, and that’s fair enough.
Health Minister Susan Sullivan was also unavailable.
“Sullivan was out of the province this week, and unable to do interviews,” The Telegram reported, “and the agency at the centre of controversy — the Centre for Health Information (CHI) — was refusing to do interviews with the media.”
Advanced Education and Skills Minister Joan Shea was willing to respond to the AG’s concerns about health spending, but only in the most general terms.
“Our government right now, we’re deeply concerned about fiscal management,” she said, “and with the Department of Health and Community Services we’re always looking for ways to sustain and just to manage our health-care funding.”
Asked why the CHI had been set up as a Crown corporation instead of as a division within the Department of Health, Shea had no answers.
In essence, the response from the Health Department was a whole lot of nothing.
Another bullet dodged.
No doubt the government trusts that the media has now moved on to the next big thing.
It’s not only the provincial government, of course, that sends out bland messages and refuses to answer substantive questions — it’s federal politicians and institutions, too.
Here are some other local examples.
On Wednesday, May 2, MUN issued a news release announcing the impending cancellation of its Lifelong Learning program, saying it was bleeding money — thereby throwing 10 full-time staff and 50 part-timers out of work, not to mention cancelling public programming.
One of the union reps involved told The Telegram she had only heard the news the night before.
MUN’s news release contained quotes from the university’s vice-president academic, but no one from the university would actually answer any questions that day.
“MUN did not make anyone available for comment on Wednesday regarding the decision,” The Telegram reported.
Not very forthcoming for an institution that prides itself on being open and transparent. It’s a communications tactic I call “lobbing the hand grenade” — toss out your incendiary information, duck, and run for cover.
In November, Conservative Labrador MP and federal cabinet minister Peter Penashue found himself embroiled in controversy when election campaign spending irregularities were brought to light.
He assured Canadians he would address the matter in person with his constituents. But what did he actually do? He posted a statement on his website professing his surprise and disappointment at the allegations of campaign overspending, and then he laid low. And still is lying low.
We are still awaiting the results of Elections Canada’s probe.
That shouldn’t be good enough for you as a Canadian, let alone a constituent. Journalists and citizens have to demand greater accountability.
Canadian Association of Journalists president Hugo Rodrigues says not much has changed since the open letter to journalists was published in 2010.
“In some cases, it’s worse,” Rodrigues said of government communications strategy.
“It’s Public Relations 101: Control the Message; you put out your communication in a controlled manner in the method that you choose.
“It’s disturbing, because these are governments that, on the one hand are doing that, and with the other they’re telling you how open and transparent they are.”
Rodrigues told The Telegram he does take comfort in one trend he has noticed in the media in the past year or so. And that is, that more and more, the media is reporting the steps it has taken to try and obtain information from the government and explaining how it was stymied in its attempt.
That’s something we must continue to do.
“We need to be transparent to our audiences …,” Rodrigues said. “If we’ve asked a question and not received a response, we need to say that. … We need to consistently and continually explain to our audiences … and they’ll start to share our frustration. … The people who are most frustrated with the government are picking up on the control tactics.”
In this province, you only need recall the highly choreographed “good riddance” message track that greeted Tory MHA Tom Osborne’s departure from caucus to see how tightly controlled and directed the message is here.
I just hope media organizations don’t let the fiercely competitive nature of the business stand in the way of an opportunity to work together to demand consistent and open communication from governments and institutions.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email at