Control, control, control: Nunavut’s media babysitters (Part 2)

“It intimidates the employee. It prevents the employee from responding to questions”

By DAVID MURPHY

This screen grab shows a passage from an article by journalist Ann Silversides that Maisonneuve magazine published in 2014. When she researched the story in 2012, the Government of Nunavut insisted that a government minder watch over her at all times. (IMAGE FROM MAISONNEUVE WEBSITE)


This screen grab shows a passage from an article by journalist Ann Silversides that Maisonneuve magazine published in 2014. When she researched the story in 2012, the Government of Nunavut insisted that a government minder watch over her at all times. (IMAGE FROM MAISONNEUVE WEBSITE)

On the question of whether government minders should, as in Nunavut, act as babysitters for public servants in media interviews, there are two schools of thought.

And those opposing views pit public relations professionals against journalists.

First: the public relations argument.

PR expert Richard Andrews of McGill University says communications people can provide support to the source, fill in blanks when sources don’t know answers, and ensure journalists report information accurately and in context.

“If the person who’s being interviewed is not familiar with the media, they can sometimes get the wrong message out,” Andrews said, adding the same goes for those using a second language in an interview.

“If they are working for a social service department, health department or something, and they misuse a word, they can create a lot of discomfort and even panic, especially amongst older readers,” he said.

And journalists can take advantage of government employees who aren’t familiar with media, Andrews said.

One example he provided:

Question from journalist: “Is your department corrupt?” Answer from employee: “My department is not corrupt.”

Newspaper headline: Minister denies corruption in her department.

Public relations people also help to protect their respective departments and the interviewee’s interest, Andrews said.

“Sometimes an inexperienced employee will give an interview, say the wrong thing, and they can lose their job. And they didn’t realize that they were saying the wrong thing,” Andrews said.

“It’s a bit like having a lawyer with you. If you go to court or you’re being interviewed by the police, sometimes an innocent remark can go against you.”

Journalism experts disagree.

They mostly think that public service micromanagement puts a chill into government workers and undermines their expertise. That effectively means public servants are intimidated into toeing the government line.

Dwayne Winseck, a journalism and communications professor at Carleton University, said a government PR person can change the demeanor of an interview subject.

“It basically puts somebody there who puts discipline over whoever your interview subject is,” Winseck said.

“Now they’ve got to be looking over their shoulder, and not only use their own good judgment but bouncing — in their own mind — their good judgment against what the government of the day’s judgment is like,” he said.

He said heavy-handed government communications control started even before Stephen Harper’s Conservatives came into power.

“In Canada you really get the crack down both in the Chrétien government and of course with the Harper government. And that’s permeated all levels of government and it’s permeated all parties too.”

Another journalism expert, Chris Waddell, also with Carleton University, said the practice shows a complete lack of confidence on the part of government in their employees and “absolutely” hurts the public.

“It intimidates the employee. It prevents the employee from responding to questions that may be appropriate questions. It tries to censor the employee by having a communications person determine what are the quote-unquote facts,” Waddell said.

“And it prevents the employee potentially explaining issues that [are] important for the public to know,” he said.

By definition, public servants are not there to serve government, but to serve the public, Waddell said.

“They’re loyalty should be to the public. They’re not there as deliverers of messages for the government of the day,” he said.

Overall, communications babysitters are an example of how government’s manipulate and control messages, Waddell said.

Journalist Ann Silversides discovered first-hand how the GN controls its messages.

Silversides published a story last year in Maisonneuve magazine about nursing in Nunavut.

In it, she touches on her difficulties dealing with GN health communications employee Ron Wassink.

Silversides said the health department’s deputy minister at the time, Peter Ma, made it a condition that Wassink sit in on all of Silversides interviews with government employees during her research back in 2012, and that he record all interviews.

“I’ve been a journalist for more than thirty years and never before had these kinds of conditions placed on my activities,” Silversides said in her article.

The GN also told Silversides she wasn’t allowed to interview certain nurses during her time in Nunavut, she said — even if the subject was unrelated to nursing and the government.

“I was most appalled when I was told I was forbidden to talk to nurses,” Silversides said.

This seems particularly relevant given the death of a baby in Cape Dorset in 2012 and the nursing scandal that continues to swirl around it.

The GN has recently hired lawyer Katherine Peterson to review the events around Baby Makibi’s death.

Silversides sent an email to one nurse who was forbidden to speak to her, which she shared with Nunatsiaq News.

“I am not sure when freedom of speech and association was outlawed in Canada — perhaps just in Nunavut, and I missed the news story (and, I hope, the protests),” Silversides wrote to the nurse.

“I came here to try to understand important issues, and the official attitude to me is as if I am here to write a trashy exposé for a British tabloid,” Silversides wrote.

“There’s a real culture of fear in some places among staff,” Silversides said.

“The nurses were very paranoid about speaking to me without official sanction. They felt their jobs were on the line.”

You can read the first part of this two-part series here.

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