Cheers and jeers for Ottawa communications warcraft








Hill folk and non-Hill folk are very different folks.  Rarely shall the twain meet.  So here’s my attempt to bridge a divide.

It’s in the chasm between the two — the normal people, and those of us who are light-headed on the ratified air of the Ottawa bubble and all the free oysters it provides — that misconceptions come out.  And misconceptions turn into talking points.  And talking points widen the divide.

Joe Tory may sit at home, switch the channel to Brian Lilley’s face, open his dedicated Conservative Party fundraising email folder and sit and stew over whatever it is the Media Party is up to now.  Can you believe what those lame stream media whiners are bitching about now?

Jane Dipper, meanwhile, may check her Twitter and gape incredulous over what @Min_Reyes is telling her today: can you believe what the Harper Government is trying to do now.  Muzzling scientists, chaining-up critics, clamping-down on debate.

Hill scribes write about Hill things.  Non-Hill scribes write about non-Hill things.  Interlocutors — your Andrew Coynes, or your Chantal Héberts — try to bridge communication divides between the two.

This is probably an irreconcilable divide.  Until we begin beaming Power & Politics into Canadians’ cerebella nightly, people will continue the slow slide towards personally-catered media.  News consumers, if they continue to consume at all, will nibble on ideologically-compatible sources and ignore or miss other outlets.

Which is, perhaps, not in-and-of-itself a terrible thing.  But what it does is foster saplings of inaccuracies that are worth correcting.

Take, for example, the truism that the brass doors of Ottawa are all shut — that ministers are scarce and that their media flaks are actually just sacks of flour with drawn-on moustaches and hats, propped up in office chairs.

Okay, it’s half true.  I’ve dealt with a number of moustached sacks.

Because, for a handful of ministers, ‘media relations’ is a dirty phrase.

Take one email exchange I had with the office of Rob Moore, Minister for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA.)

Following some euphemistic language in the most recent budget, I was poking around to ask whether the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC) — an arms length development board aimed at tackling the Nova Scotia’s mostly-unemployed island — was to be axed.

“ECBC continues to be responsible for the delivery of ACOA programs in Cape Breton,” I got back from a spokesperson, doing her best imitation of doublespeak.

What does that mean, I asked?  It is certainly true that ECBC receives ACOA funding.  Will that continue into the future?

“ECBC continues to be responsible for the delivery of ACOA programs in Cape Breton.”

Oh, okay.

Every interview request was turned down, and Moore ran from questions in the House of Commons foyer.

Turns out, in the end, ECBC got the axe.

That’s just one of a long list of stories of communications warcraft in Ottawa.  I’ve already described the Theatre of the Absurd that went with the Justice Minister’s spectacularly tin-eared unveiling of the new prostitution bill.

Hill author Mark Bourrie has a book dedicated to the professional obfuscation that goes on here, tentatively titled Kill the Messengers.  It will be out in the coming year.

But that’s really only half the story.

As Employment Minister Jason Kenney displayed this week, there is Ying to MacKay’s Yang.

When new changes were being announced to the Temporary Foreign Worker program — not exactly a political football for the Harper Government, by any means — the minister’s office laid out what essentially amounts to a four-course buffet for journalists.

Details of the changes were available from 11:30 onward, a technical briefing came at 12:00, and the public news conference began at 1:30.  That meant that journalists had two full hours to read and understand the changes — embargoed — before the Minister made the announcement public.  The Minister took just about every question posed to him (or so I hear. I, alas, did not attend.)

Compare that to MacKay’s gong shows, where a fifty-odd page booklet of legislation is shoved into journalists’ hands five minutes prior to the pronouncement.  There will be no technical briefing, no backgrounders to explain the changes, and no hand to hold.  Journalists get maybe a dozen questions, if they’re lucky.  MacKay is in and out of the room within a half hour.

Extrapolating the sorry state of MacKay’s relationship with journalists, his press conference will soon consist of locking journalists into a room while a projection of his face recites talking points — we have always been at war with Eurasia, war is peace, etc — before we are cattle prodded out.

But for every Peter MacKay, there is a Jason Kenney.

Good example: Dan Albas, Parliamentary Secretary to Tony Clement, who engages in technical economic debates on Twitter.

Bad example: Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, who hung up on Carol Off.

Good example: Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who is, arguably, the most readily available and accessible minister in Ottawa (at least, when he’s in the country and, sometimes, even when he’s not.)

Bad example: Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice Bob Dechert, who ran away from us after a committee killed an amendment to protect trans people from hate crimes. He ran so far away.  And he eventually got away.  (Dechert did, to his credit, later talk to me when I cornered him after a taping of Power & Politics.)

Good examples: Michelle Rempel, Lisa Raitt, James Moore, Pierre Poilievre, and a handful of others.

Bad examples: Peter Van Loan, Leona Aglukkaq, Julian Fantino, and many of the lower ministers.

The general problems with the bad examples is either that they are high-ranking ministers who don’t feel the need to talk to, or help, journalists — and who often get burned for it —  or they are ministers who, evidently, don’t have the unqualified trust of the Prime Minister and thus have less rope.

The good ministers are the ones who don’t buy this theory of the lefty journalists who are out to get the Conservatives, and realize that a well-informed story is, at the end of the day, a better story.

But, of course, the media is not so good at lauding those ministers who resist the trudge towards darkness.  And so we get accusations of bias for decrying those who take us there in a rickshaw.

So, for the sake of those who say journalists are nothing but whiners, and to those who fear a bumpy ride towards fascism, I say: cheers to the Government’s agents who actually make time for the Fourth Estate.

And nuts to those who don’t.



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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

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