18 March 2006

If the gag fits

From the Saturday Telegram editorial on the Prime Minister's gag order:
Conspicuously missing in that list of five issues [being emphasized by the Harper administration] are pretty much any local issue that might have influenced votes for Conservative candidates in this province.

To those who trumpeted Loyola Hearn as a fresh approach - and some in the media went so far as to claim Hearn was the only approach - during the last federal election, this news must come as something of a surprise and perhaps a disappointment, as well.

The idea was that, with a new minister and a new government, concerns affecting this province, like custodial management, would take the fore. That hope seems sadly misguided now - but not unexpectedly so.

Reporters dealing with the new fisheries minister - when they can get him to do an interview - say he's different now. Cautious isn't strong enough to describe his approach.

Hearn has already come under fire from those who note that his pre-election belief in the necessity of custodial management - and the uselessness of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) - has tempered to the point that he now seems to be echoing past ministers of fisheries about reforming NAFO, not scrapping it. It's a disappointing turn of events, to say the least. [Emphasis added]

There are legitimate reasons for a new prime minister to lower the cone of silence over his minister: rookie ministers make rookie mistakes, and you need look no further than last weekend'’s crossed wires over the Conservatives' plan for the Atlantic Accord money and equalization to realize that.

Left: the latest Harper cabinet fashion accessory.

The Telly-torialist makes some solid observations, not the least of which is the bit that comes after the section just quoted above. The Telly points out that by gagging cabinet ministers now and cutting access to the media, the Harper Conservatives are running a strong risk of alienating a group of people they will need later to help spread their own messages.

True enough. But the Telly's advice may be a case of casting pearls.

The Conservatives dislike and distrust the media. Their efforts to control messaging reflect the sort of actions that go with their established attitude. Moreover, they also go with the anal-retentive attitude Stephen Harper displayed as Leader Opp and the one he has shown in spades since taking office: he will not speak to media at all unless the encounter is highly controlled and the interview is a softball affair.

More importantly though, the sort of centralized control the prime minister's office is imposing is doomed to failure. The federal government is simply too big to have every communication vetted by Harper's staff. Having seen gag orders in action, like the one imposed in National Defence in the mid-1990s, I can tell you they simply don't work.

As the Globe notes in its Saturday edition, public relations experts and those with experience of political comms know that gag orders like this simply can't work in the real world.
Patrick Gossage, a former press secretary to prime minister Pierre Trudeau who coaches politicians on media relations, said the new government's strategy is simply unworkable.

"Every PMO in the history of PMOs since Trudeau's PMO at least have made attempts to control the message centrally, usually without success," he said. "We tried to do it for a little while. It didn't work.... They're in a way, dysfunctional, because it makes the team look like it's not a team."
Delays - politically deadly delays - will occur in a business that is time sensitive. In the end, the Harper government will experience more political problems as a direct consequence of the gag order than the order could ever hope to solve.

In the short term, though, the gag order also sends a powerfully negative message about the Harper government. Gagging your own team tells the world that you are not in control, that you are afraid. If Stephen Harper and his ministers can't deal with a few scraggly reporters, how in the name of heavens will they cope with the real challenges every prime minister will face?

There aren't enough carefully stage-managed photo-ops in Afghanistan to undo the image of a shit-baked1 government.

1 shit-baked: adj. scared shitless