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BC Politics

Dear Government Spin Doctor: A Journalist's Final Warning

One last shot at the tyranny of the talking point.

Sean Holman 23 Feb 2015TheTyee.ca

Sean Holman is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, an award-winning investigative reporter and director of the documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline. You can find more of his writing at Unknowable Country.

Dear government spin doctor,

I am working on a story about how your job is helping to kill Canada's democracy.

I know that your role, as a so-called communications professional, is to put the best spin on what the government is or isn't doing.

That means you often don't respond to the questions I ask; you help elected officials do the same thing; and you won't let me talk to those who have the answers.

While this may work out very well for you, it doesn't work out so well for my audience who, by the way, are taxpayers, voters and citizens.

So your refusal to provide me information is truly a refusal to provide the public with information.

And if the public doesn't know what their government is doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn't want it to do.

That doesn't seem very democratic to me. Does it seem democratic to you?

I understand you're just doing your job.

I did that job myself before I became a journalist, working as a communications officer for the B.C. government.

So I don't think you're a bad person.

But you should know a few things about me.

My job isn't to help you put the best spin on what the government is or isn't doing.

My job is to tell the truth.

And because that's my job, you should know a few other things about how I'm going to report this story.

First, if you don't respond to my questions, I'm going to let my audience know that.

Second, if you respond to my questions with non-answers, I'm going to let my audience know that, too.

Third, I'm not going to put those non-answers in my story for the sake of false balance.

That's because me asking questions about what the government is doing wrong is not an opportunity for you to tell the public about what the government is doing right.

You have a big advertising budget for that.

Instead, it's an opportunity to explain to the public why the government is or isn't doing that thing I asked you about.

And finally, if you refuse, ignore or interfere with my requests to interview public officials, my audience will find out about that, too.

This may sound like hardball at best and blackmail at worst. But it's actually the last and only defence I have against you and your colleagues.

Public relations professionals outnumber journalists more than four to one in this country -- and for good reason.

It pays to promote and protect the powerful, but it doesn't pay to hold them to account.

My hope is that more journalists will start routinely telling their audiences about the strategies and tactics you use to frustrate the public's right to know.

If that happens, then the public might start caring about the damage done to our democracy.

And maybe, just maybe, you might start rethinking your actions.

After all, there was a time when journalists could talk to public officials without having someone like you always watching over their shoulder and telling them exactly what to say.

I know it's a long shot.

But it's the only shot I can take against the tyranny of your talking points.

Sincerely,

Sean Holman, Journalist  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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