Friday, May 27, 2011
Why waste time and money to say nothing?
The new premier clearly enjoys the chance to knock off some of the no-brainer stuff that riles British Columbians. I thought fondly of Christy Clark myself on the long weekend, when my family converged for a picnic at Rathtrevor Provincial Park and didn’t have to pay to park.
If she’s making quick fixes behind the scenes, too, I’ve got one for the list. How about a look at the way the province communicates with media?
It’s been a dispiriting experience these past 15 years to watch governments close the lid on communications.
You’ll catch me at parties on this one, holding forth to some unfortunate party-goer about being from a generation of journalists who actually remember interviewing deputy ministers.
And nowadays? We exchange emails with "government communications and public engagement" staff (formerly the Public Affairs Bureau), who work very hard to answer our questions without actually saying anything.
You can still get interviews with cabinet ministers, of course.
But in most cases that just means you’ll now have a name to put to the bland, say-nothing comments that the communications people were going to give you anyway. You still don’t have the information you went looking for.
The unhealthy fixation with trying to control the government “message” started during the NDP era of Glen Clark, in the late 1990s.
Communications under his leadership was a dense pad of cotton wool wrapped tight around government, one that kept a journalist wandering in a whiteout for days. Interviews with knowledgeable people inside government gave way to frustrating exchanges with friendly communications staff who mostly didn’t know a thing about what you were asking about.
The situation worsened under Gordon Campbell. His government gave up any attempt at neutrality in 2002 and converted communications positions to political appointments. All pretence of being an information bridge between government and the public was abandoned, and PAB became a fully politicized arm of the premier’s office.
That marked a major shift. The old PAB was in the business of helping media connect to people in government who knew the answers. The new one worked to shut that down.
Government represents the people. We are intended to be kept in the loop about what’s going on in B.C., and heard when we question government decision-making.
But beyond the principled argument, running a communications department like you’re Kim Jong-il is also just plain stupid in the information age.
Keeping a lid on things is no longer an option. Government merely forfeits the chance for input into a story - and looks dishonest and secretive to boot - when it hides information, silences its experts, and teaches its people to repeat “key messages” even when they don’t make one damn bit of sense.
This is not a sexy issue to sell to the public, I admit. Journalists have tumbled ever lower down the list of professions the public distrust. I’m bracing for the “cry me a river” comments that follow anytime I’m perceived to be whining on behalf of media.
But like us or not, we’re still the public’s best bet for finding out things you’d never know otherwise. Media pressure is still one of the most reliable ways to try to right a government wrong. A civil society doesn’t want to give that up.
Even positive stories are getting hard to do now if it involves talking to a government employee.
I set out to get an interview with a particular income-assistance worker a while back after I kept on hearing really nice things about her from people living homeless in Victoria. It took weeks of emails and phone exchanges with worried-sounding communications staff to make it happen.
The communications staffer who sat in on the interview said he couldn’t recall media ever having direct access to a government employee. I launched into my I-used-to-talk-to-deputy-ministers rant.
There are some very good communicators working for government. The problem is not communications staff, it’s the way they’re being used.
Nor has it all been a downward spiral when it comes to government communications. The province’s Web site is a treasure trove of information for journalists, and a resource that didn’t exist back in the days when senior government managers still spoke aloud.
But sometimes a journalist just needs a real person. They need someone who knows what’s going on because it’s his or her job to know. Christy Clark must know that from her own recent experiences as a radio commentator.
Premier, please lower the drawbridge. We need to talk.