In our world of instant and immediate communications technology, it seems that all too often the quantity outweighs the quality in terms of the actual message.
I was about to make a comment about “government,” but caught myself. What I meant to say is that the political animal has taken over the act of government at all levels and by doing so, has politicized the process. Whatever it may be that your local municipality, province or especially the federal government is announcing, you can be sure that the announcement will be aligned with the political agenda and there will most likely be a totally inverse relationship between the actual information released and the amount of communication.
The blueprint for government communications could be drawn from a Monty Python sketch. The Parrot Shop and the Cheese Shop are two that come to mind, but let’s not forget the Hungarian Phrase Book. You won’t find a federal or provincial minister speaking to more than two people unless they have their media handler with them. You know the type – that earnest young person lurking on the fringes, making sure to record every word, if only to make sure the minister stays with the party line. Communication has been reduced to a series of speaking points, or, in too many cases, one single point that serves as a life raft that the messenger can cling to when the audience has the temerity to ask questions that outside the narrow focus of “the word.”
I was at a major aerospace show last year when a federal minister started his remarks by saying he wasn’t going to be using his prepared text. This got a big chuckle from the crowd, but I was about to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on the fellow beside me before I realized he was the minister’s communications assistant and his life was flashing before his eyes.
Look at the message that is delivered and it’s hard not to grow even more cynical. If it’s good news, it comes from the mouth of the prime minister or provincial premier and the same for the primo photo ops. When it’s left to the minister to make the announcement, you know it’s likely not what you hoped to hear and if it’s really bad news, then it will almost certainly be doled out as a press release late on a Friday afternoon.
Last year, in response to a complaint, the federal Information Commissioner launched an investigation into government communications practices. Since the current government took office in 2006, the “information services” sector of government has swelled more than 15 per cent, to some 4,000 employees, according to a report by the Parliamentary Budget Office. This serves what purpose, as Canadian Press reported earlier this year.
A request for an interview with a scientist in the employ of the Canadian government, a man regarded as “the expert” in his field, generated 110 pages of emails involving 16 federal communications staffers in various offices across the country. The emails refer to “agreed answers” for the scientist as the communications boffins attempted to craft an “approved interview script.” They never did figure it out, there was no interview and while the story did run nationally and internationally, there was no direct input from the man who made it happen. You can talk about him, but you can’t talk to him.
This is the same government that has been reliving the War of 1812 as though there is some direct connection between Laura Secord’s cow and government actions today. Yet, when Lt. Gen. Stu Beare retires after 36 years of service, the government forbids him from speaking to the media. As the outgoing commander of Canada’s army with recent experience in Afghanistan, you would think he could offer a unique perspective on where we are and what we need to do to get to where we need to be in the future. Of course he does, he’s just not allowed to share it.
The Maritime Helicopter Replacement program has almost reached the age of majority in most jurisdictions and has taken another twist, above and beyond the “yes they do – no they don’t” question over the H-92 gearbox question. It was announced this September that the RCN will be further diminished by the retirement of three destroyers and both supply ships, with replacements not on the horizon for at least five years. At the same time, we are told that this will not affect our navy’s operational capabilities, which is a real head-scratcher for me. Operationally, the destroyers carry two helicopters and the supply ships would embark three, so until these ships are replaced there are simply not as many places in the Canadian navy to fly helicopters to or from and that may relieve the pressure on the shrinking pool of Sea Kings and their erstwhile replacements. And this is a good thing? Who knows? We surely can’t talk about it.
Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.
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