03 August 2008

Oh yeah, Pam's fried...just like a whole raft more

Telegram editor Pam Frampton has been writing about the Memorial University thing for some time now.

Her column on Sunday is not for the faint of heart.

She's fried.

Pissed would be a better term.

And she's got good reason, since she's discovered that sometimes people in government like to dance on the extremely fine meaning of words. They'll answer the question you asked - literally - but not even think about giving the answer to the question they know you were really driving at.

In the media relations business that sort of thing is something you do rarely. It's the kind of stuff you save for when they ask you about invasions from Mars and you are sitting on the body of a Venusian. No sez you, no Martians. The only justifiable motive for that kind of semantic dancing, in other words, is something of supreme national importance.

Even then a simple response like "we don't discuss national security issues" is way better than what amounts to a lie by omission:

In June, long before the Globe and Mail published its speculative piece about what was going on behind the scenes of the stalled presidential search process, I asked Joan Burke straight out: "Has MUN's board of regents, acting on the recommendation of the presidential search committee, brought any names forward for cabinet's/the premier's consideration?"

Her response: "We have had no correspondence from the board of regents and the presidential committee."

Really? So how did Minister Burke know there were two shortlisted candidates winnowed out from a longer list by the search committee?

According to Burke's public relations specialist, Nora Daly, "The minister became aware of the short (list) last winter/spring through routine contact with the chair of the board of regents."

Well, golly, I'm no education minister, but to me "routine contact" certainly falls under the definition of correspondence.

The problem with this sort of too-cute-by-half stuff is that it doesn't erode credibility, it smashes it with a battle axe.

Pam Frampton just won't trust Joan Burke and her colleagues ever again on anything. Sure there have been plenty of examples of other people being jerked off over the past few years, but until it happens to you, there's always the temptation to think it isn't really as bad as others portray it.

Then it happens to you.

And you wind up being done browner than a wedgie left in the deep fryer too long.

No amount of malt vinegar and ketchup will make that taste disappear.

And it won't disappear.

Part of what the public have been seeing over the past six to eight months in Newfoundland and Labrador has been the dismantling of the very comfortable situation between the news media and the government. Some would say it's lasted too long anyway, but basically, it stayed extremely positive for government civilized as long as reporters didn't feel they were being frigged with too much.

In some respects the change in reporting mirrors the considerable volume of critical public comment coming in the online spaces. Some of it might be planted, but with the opposition parties in the state they are in, they'd be organizational miracle workers if they could sustain the variety and intensity of the stuff turning up so far in 2008. People aren't shy to voice their disquiet as they might have been before 2007. The cause is irrelevant; it's just notable that there's is such a change.

None of this means that the government will collapse tomorrow. it just means the news media and the public have changed. Government will have to shift itself and start responding differently to the new environment than they have been.

Otherwise we are witnessing that start of something which could get quite ugly. It's not like we haven't seen that happen before. Reporters who haven't been able to get the Premier on the phone even though they know he's in town might ask their gray-haired colleagues about the days when they couldn't get Peckford at all even the Premier's press secretary didn't answer his phone messages.

Much depends on the man behind the curtain and whether he really plans to pack it in next year, as he suggested in 2006. Danny Williams might just tough the whole thing out for a few months and leave everything to his cabinet to cope with, if they wanted to. That would possibly meet his needs but, frankly, the long term prospects for his party would just get dimmer with each unanswered e-mail.

All of that just remains to be seen.

All we can say today is that Pam is fried. And if Pam is fried, things are not good for government and its relations with news media.