THE TYRANNY OF THE TALKING POINT

Government spin doctors control what information government does and doesn't release. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Spin doctors control what information government does and doesn’t release. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Dear government spin doctor

I am working on a story about how the job you’re doing is helping to kill Canada’s democracy.

I know that your role, as a so-called communications professional, is to put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

That means you often don’t respond the questions I ask, you help elected officials do the same thing and you won’t let me talk to those who actually have the answers.

While this may work out very well for you, it doesn’t work out so well for my audience who, by the way, are taxpayers, voters and citizens.

So your refusal to provide me with information is actually a refusal to provide the public with information.

And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.

That just doesn’t seem very democratic to me. Does it seem democratic to you?

I understand you’re just doing your job.

I did that job before myself before I became a journalist, working as a communications officer for the British Columbia government.

So I don’t think you’re a bad person.

But you should know a few things about me.

My job isn’t to help you put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

My job is to tell the truth.

And, because that’s my job, you should know a few other things about how I’m going to report this story.

First, if you don’t respond to my questions, I’m going to let my audience know that.

Second, if you respond to my questions with non-answers, I’m going to let my audience know that too.

Third, I’m not going to put those non-answers in my story for the sake of false balance.

That’s because me asking questions about what the government is doing wrong isn’t an opportunity for you to simply tell the public about what government is doing right.

You have a big advertising budget for that.

Instead, it’s an opportunity to explain to the public why the government is or isn’t doing that thing I asked you about.

And, finally, if you refuse, ignore or interfere with my requests to interview public officials, my audience will also find out about that.

This may sound like hardball at best and blackmail at worst. But it’s actually the last and only defense I have against you and your colleagues.

Public relations professionals outnumber journalists more than four to one in this country – and for good reason.

It pays to promote and protect the powerful but it doesn’t pay to hold them to account.

My hope is that more journalists will also start routinely telling their audiences about the strategies and tactics you use to frustrate the public’s right to know.

If that happens then the public might start caring about the damage that’s doing to our democracy.

And, maybe, just maybe you might start rethinking what you are doing.

After all, there was a time when journalists could actually talk to public officials without having someone like you always watching over their shoulder and telling them exactly what to say.

I know it’s a long shot.

But it’s the only shot I can take against the tyranny of your talking points.

Sincerely,

Sean Holman, Journalist

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Maclean’s magazine reports the Department of National Defence is withholding information from the Parliamentary Budget Officer about Operation IMPAC – Canada’s mission in Iraq – on the grounds of cabinet confidentiality. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The National Post reports a Federal Court judge has ruled “media fighting for access to Omar Khadr have failed to show a prison-interview ban was politically motivated and violated their constitutional rights.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• CBC News reports, “Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has personally ordered that documents from all general freedom of information requests be publicly posted, despite serious concerns from the civil servants responsible for implementing the new policy. Critics say the plan – if implemented – represents a major policy change that will seriously undermine the ability of opposition parties and the media to hold the government accountable.”

• “The province is not tracking how many inmates are overdosing in jails across Ontario,” according to the Hamilton Spectator.

• The Vancouver Sun reports, “Soon-to-be mandatory ‘independent’ review boards for tailings dams at B.C. mines may not be answerable to government or open to scrutiny by the public.” The boards were recommended by a government-appointed panel that was struck following the breach of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley Mine.

• The Telegram hopes a committee reviewing Newfoundland and Labrador’s controversial right to know law will recommend a “much needed laissez-faire approach to the release of information.” That committee, led by former premier Clyde Wells, “has missed a couple of promised deadlines. At last check, it was supposed to release its report by the end of January.”

• Kinder Morgan Inc., the company that is looking to expand a pipeline that carries crude oil to the West coast, “has engaged in a protracted fight with the province of British Columbia in an effort to keep its oil spill response plans a secret.” But, according to DeSmog Canada, Kinder Morgan has “willingly disclosed” such plans “south of the border for portions of the pipeline that extend to Washington State.”

• The Globe and Mail reports, “B.C.’s Ministry of Health is withholding the results of scientific research on how oil and gas operations in the province’s northeast communities are affecting human health.” Independent MLA Vicki Huntington’s freedom of information request for that research was denied because its release could be harmful to the financial interests of a public body.

• CBC News reports Saskatchewan’s information commissioner has ruled a 15-page proposal to create a premier’s library in that province can stay secret because it would disclose a cabinet confidence.

• Saksatchewan NDP MLA Warren McCall has told the Regina Leader-Post that the creation of lobbyists registry in that province as proceeding “slower than molasses, uphill, in February.”

• Manitoba’s “Opposition Progressive Conservatives say they’re getting the runaround in finding how much taxpayers have paid to put up at-risk youth in hotels,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News reports DemocracyWatch founder Duff Conacher’s concerns that “New Brunswick’s right to information law is weak and the fines for breaking the laws are so low, they are meaningless”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Winnipeg’s interim chief administrative officer has resigned after the mayor claimed he had lost confidence in the bureaucrat. But, according to the Winnipeg Free Press’s Dan Lett, no further details have been provided because the resignation is a personnel matter – a “trump card” that is “played way too often in situations in which government doesn’t want people to know what happened.”

• 24 hours Vancouver’s Kathyrn Marshall writes that White Rock, B.C.’s city council has “voted to scrap question period. Just like that, White Rock has obliterated a hallmark of liberal democracy. White Rock residents will no longer have the opportunity to pose public questions to their elected representatives following council meetings.”

• In October, TransLink – Vancouver’s regional transportation authority – began “re-examining current [freedom of information] practices and exploring options for easing the burden on staff.” That review, which was expected to take three months, was announced in a memo signed by the authority’s then-chief executive officer Ian Jarvis and obtained by freelance journalist Bob Mackin.

• The Vancouver Courier reports, “When the provincial government set the rules for the non-binding plebiscite on a sales tax hike for TransLink expansion, it didn’t include any campaign fundraising or reporting regulations.”

• “Toronto police met the mandated [freedom of information] response deadline of 30 days in 52 per cent of requests last year,” according to the Toronto Star. “That’s nearly a 30 per cent drop from 2005 – when 80 per cent of FOI requests were completed within the 30-day timeframe – and down almost 15 per cent from 2013, which saw a compliance rate of 65 per cent.”

• Alberta’s information commissioner has ruled Cold Lake, Alta. was right to release records that disclosed unit prices and hourly wage rates for the companies responsible for a highway twinning project. According to the Cold Lake Sun, a third party had argued that disclosure was harmful to business interests.

8 thoughts on “THE TYRANNY OF THE TALKING POINT

  1. G Barry Stewart

    “Public relations professionals outnumber journalists more than four to one in this country – and for good reason.”

    That is scary — though not surprising.

    I saw what you did there… a new paragraph for each short and punchy talking point. Too many on-line responders are long-winded and can’t/don’t put in paragraph breaks. I prefer the your style.

    I wish you well in your quest to cut through the strings of the “handlers.”

    Reply
  2. Andy Pelletier

    Sean,

    Maybe it’s time to start naming the PBO officials who refuse to have questions answered so that the public can start asking them directly. It seems that these “professionals” like to hide behind anonymity. Time to pull the curtain back on these Wizards.

    Reply
  3. Michael Taylor

    I really appreciate your piece (picked up from the Tyee, BTW), Mr Holman. I know that many journalists have expressed their frustration about the problem of getting actual answers from this government (and any citizen who takes the time to watch one or two episodes of parliamentary question period or listens to a Harper press conference should feel the same sensation!). I hope you encourage your students and colleagues to dig into the precepts you have outlined before and during this upcoming federal election. Canadian democracy depends on it!

    Reply
  4. Dzrew

    Here is a note that I have put out before but I believe it is relevant in this discussion.
    I remember reading I F Stone, one of the most respected journalists in the US, while I was in Grade 12 in high school in1964-64. It was part of a course I was taking called “World Problems.” He said he would not interview politicians because they always lied. When he wrote, he analyzed what they did , not what they said. He wrote a successful independent newspaper called the “IF Stone Weekly.”
Too many of our journalists just repeat what politicians tell them. The journalists think they are great because they have close contact with the politicians in power and they don’t realize they are being used to spread the politicians’ propaganda.
They could ask them the right questions, but they should do an honest and rigorous analysis of what they have been told.
I F Stone would have a lot of fun with the internet.
    P.S. Can you imagine studying this in Grade 12. I am amazed i did and it is still with me after 50 years. Some topics in other courses are as well. I had a good time.

    Reply
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