16 April 2013

The “Significant Impact” of Open Line #nlpoli

Cleaning out the home office has turned up a few forgotten gems.

One of them related to the political impact of open line shows in the province.  Last week,  your humble e-scribbler moderated a lunch-time talk by Professor Alex Marland and Randy Simms on just that topic.  The pile of papers included a Canadian Press story that appeared some time in early May, 2008. 

Headlined “Williams lashes out against accusations of tight message control”,  the story was Danny Williams’; reactions to comments during the Cameron Inquiry by John Abbott, the former deputy minister of health and community services.

Newfoundland [sic] Premier Danny Williams says a former public servant made "offensive and stupid" remarks when he told a public inquiry that radio call-in shows influenced the government's handling of an emerging scandal involving flawed breast-cancer testing.

Abbott testified on May 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7.  The link above is to a version of the story that appeared in the Western Star on May 12, 2008.  It is also available at cbc.ca/nl with links to other CBC stories on the breast cancer inquiry.

As CP reported, former “deputy health minister John Abbott told the inquiry that the government's communications staff monitored and manipulated the province's wildly popular radio call-in shows to deliver key messages to the public on various issues, including revelations there were persistent problems with breast-cancer testing in the province dating back to 1997.”

"I can tell you categorically, unequivocally, that John Abbott is completely wrong if he's implying that government decisions are made on the basis of open-line shows," Williams said in an interview [with Canadian Press].

Williams’ sharp comments are laughable in hindsight given the subsequent disclosures of how much energy Williams, his political staff, and senior public servants put into monitoring open line shows.

If you look closely at it, though, Williams actually denied something Abbott never said. Abbott’s comments from May 2 are at the end of this post.  You can see that Abbott was not talking about open line shows driving cabinet decisions.  That’s what Danny denied. 

Abbott was talking about the attention politicians like Williams were paying to open line shows as a vehicle for sending messages.  Canadian Press referred to the practice generally as being about the manipulation of public opinion.  That’s pretty much what they were up to, but you will see pretty quickly that Danny denied something else.

In the period Abbott was talking about, it was a common practice for a senior communications officer in  the Executive Council’s cabinet secretariat to spend one day in five monitoring all three call shows.  The officer would be responsible for alerting department officials to a comment and co-ordinate the response.  A similar process on the political side made sure that sympathetic partisan parrots could deploy to support government’s information management. 

Danny Williams testified at the inquiry on October 28.  He didn’t face any questions about Abbott’s comments specifically but commission lawyer Bern Coffey did ask about Williams’ attention  to the media. 

Williams’ reply was that “…I am conscious of them [media reports and comments] and I am sensitive to them, but I can’t say that I have the luxury of being able to follow all of them.” 

Maybe not all of them, but that wasn’t from lack of trying.  During his time in office, Williams complained regularly about the media and about the amount of attention he felt compelled to pay to media comments about his administration.  On one occasion before his Cameron testimony, Williams claimed he spent upwards of 50% of his time “counter-spinning negativity”.  Unfortunately, someone has disappeared text of the speech in which Williams made the comments.

Williams told the Cameron inquiry what “Randy Simms says on a daily basis is not my concern, I got to be honest with you, but you know, I do get moved and moved to action as well by people like Patricia or if on TV I see stories…”. 

The dig at Simms – the the host of the leading open line show at the time – is pretty funny since subsequent information has confirmed the extent to which Williams was intensely interested in media comments including from people like Simms.  In mid-2009, Williams launched into a now-infamous tirade against Simms over remarks Simms made but Williams just didn’t like.


The Testimony

The Commissioner [Margaret Cameron]:

But does it make a difference, does this suggest in any way that determinations about what is to be done, either by the department of Eastern Health is somehow affected by who calls Open Line?

Mr. [John] Abbott:

Dare I say and I’m going to say unfortunately,  yes, it is, again if you’re talking about transformation in our governance, in our administration, the Open Line Shows are having a significant impact on what government departments, ministers’ offices are following and it’s a, I won’t say a recent trend, but fairly recent trend and exponential in the sense that if you see now, hear now in terms of their prevalence of open line shows in Newfoundland and you will see that MHAs, ministers, the premier are calling in and using those open lines as a forum to get out their messages, but they’re also using it as a form to find out what’s happening in the Public.

The Commissioner:

Well, let’s bring it down to ER/PR for example, would whether or not ten women or no women and men, because ER/PR did affect some men.

Mr. Abbott:


The Commissioner:

Calls an open line show have any impact on a  decision on how or if to communicate with people?

Mr. Abbott:

It could very well be a factor and that’s the judgment of the, of I’ll say minister of the day in terms of how they dealt with that, whether it’s ER/PR or any other issue in terms of their perception of what they now need to do. And there’s, you know, the literature is starting to develop on that and there’s been some forums in St. John’s around this issue because it’s recognized, it is having a significant impact on how government does business.

The Commissioner:

And by extension, how Eastern Health does business.

Mr. Abbott:

And the public sector in general, yes, and certainly taking the lead from their respective ministers and some ministers were more in tune and are more in tune with that forum than others. Some rely on it quite extensively and others are, will, well if there’s a transcript provided to me, but that’s it, but others are much more in tune on a real-time basis.