“They’re spending so much time managing the message they’ve forgotten how to communicate.”
I love this quote from Adam Olsen, Green Party MLA for North Saanich and the Islands. He said it while on a CBC Radio panel with Moe Sihota (former BC NDP minister) and Dianne Watts (former BC Liberal leader candidate.)
Olsen’s comment is exactly why so many of us in the media have been tearing our hair out. (I swear I’ve seen tufts on our city hall reporter’s desk.)
The panel was discussing the province’s response to the floods in the Fraser Valley and Merritt, but Olsen was also referring to the government’s move to charge for Freedom of Information requests.
His point was that the NDP is fixated on controlling information.
I don’t actually have an opinion regarding the province’s communication response to the recent floods.
In fact, I’d be inclined to cut them a break on that because while it’s clear weird weather should have been expected, I don’t think anyone had predicted exactly this situation playing out the way it did.
However, when it came to the rollout of the vaccine, as well as reporting case counts by municipality instead of health region, there did seem to be a crazy amount of micro-managing of the message.
It not only made it hard for us to do our jobs, it created a certain level of skepticism and a sense that the authorities were not being completely transparent.
At a local level, message management has also been in full swing.
We’ve seen it in the carefully scripted press releases issued not by our MLAs, but by their communications officer. Be it on homelessness, the opioid crises, shopping local, we get well-massaged emails that signal engagement but really say nothing other than they’re in lockstep with their party’s agenda.
Maybe we should have expected this, but we didn’t. At least I didn’t expected it from MLA Kelly Greene, mainly because she had been an incredibly active and articulate city councillor.
While at city hall, she was quick to not just respond to our calls, but proactively push her agenda. In the media, we love people who have us on their radar.
Where I disagree with Olsen is in his implication that this is a uniquely NDP thing.
The exact same scenario happened when former MLA Rob Howard moved from Richmond city council to the Legislature. Again, Howard was an active, vocal councillor, who wasn’t shy to take a stand and tell us about it.
Once in the Legislature, however, we rarely saw him except when he came with colleagues to recite the talking points they appeared to have been issued.
Now, I hate to pick on two politicians for whom I have a lot of respect. But perhaps it’s because I have that respect, and have seen them in action at the civic level, that has me feeling that much more disappointed not seeing the same kind of action and responsiveness at the provincial level.
That said, I know that what we see politicians doing publicly doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. I realize a ton of work is often being done behind the scenes. I also realize that a political party has to be united and coordinated on key issues.
I also want to be clear, my issue is not with these two individuals. It's with a system that relies way to heavily on message management, which in turn undermines transparency and public engagement.
It’s important we feel our elected officials are part of our community, hearing and responding to our reality, not government minions feeding us the party line.
Granted there’s self interest here. News stories suffer when people, especially those we’ve entrusted to run our affairs, can’t speak candidly.
But it’s not just news stories that suffer.
Democracy itself takes a hit when “free speech” has to run the gauntlet of media minders and message managers.