Ottawa often seems to exist in its own world with its own deeply stupid rules. My friend Tim Bousquet has a great anecdote of this at the footnotes section at the end of this post at his site, the Halifax Examiner.
Mike Karanicolas, a freedom of information advocate who does great stuff with the Centre for Law and Democracy (example of their work here), had invited Tim to participate in an “open discussion” with some federal Treasury Board staffers about open government. Here’s how it went down:
But when we got around to a woman—and I’m sorry, I didn’t catch her name—who worked at the Treasury Board, she asked who I worked for and left the room to make a phone call.
When she came back, she said that with a journalist in the room, the Treasury Board employees were not authorized to speak without a government media professional in the room. That’s right—a session on open government could not proceed without a media minder present because the discussion might go off the government’s talking points.
Ever see the movie Cube? It’s maybe the best Canadian sci-fi film ever made. A group of unrelated people all wake up in this giant maze of cube rooms, some of which contain murderous booby-traps. They have no idea how they got there or why. They grapple with the question of who would build this thing and for what purpose, but the answer seems to be that no one is in charge. The cube just exists, contrary to all sense or reason, and so it must be kept going.
This is basically how I feel about the communications wing of the federal government. Even when they’re actively working against their own interests they can’t help themselves. It’s not uncommon for reporters to try to get information on a story that the government wants to promote, yet the story gets buried because PR staff can’t get out of their own way to answer the reporter’s questions.
Here’s another example from this week. The discovery of one of the lost Franklin Expedition ships is a textbook story that the government wants to celebrate. On Tuesday they held a technical briefing for journalists that featured senior officials from the Navy, Coast Guard, Arctic Research Foundation, Parks Canada and other groups. I was a great opportunity for reporters to get clips of officials beaming with pride about their discovery.
Except the whole thing was off the record. There’s no logical reason for this other than that tech briefings are traditionally off the record so that staffers can give blunt answers without being quoted. They’re usually followed by press conferences with politicians or senior officials who speak for the department. But in this case, these were the senior officials.
At least one reporter argued with the comms staff beforehand to no avail. He was told rules are rules and the event was off the record. Only at the very end of the event when a reporter raised the issue did Parks Canada vice president Andrew Campbell say sure, of course you can quote us. The guys on stage thought it was a normal press conference, they had no idea comms people were going around saying they couldn’t be quoted.
This caused a bunch of grief for reporters, particularly on the TV side, who hadn’t recorded the whole thing. And in TV and radio if you can’t get good clips your story won’t be featured as prominently. There’s no logic to the cult of PR anymore. It just runs on its own steam now, even if the person practicing it is only hurting themselves.