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Too much government silence leads to suspicion

Voices | Published:

By Lucy Stephenson

(23242126)

LAST week a rumour started circulating that States chief executive Charlie Parker had been paid a bonus – at a time when thousands of States workers are locked in a pay dispute that they have warned could end in strikes.

We were very quickly told in no uncertain terms that there was no truth to the rumour. The States communications unit were quick to dispel it and this newspaper was also reassured that there was no other such payment floating around under a different name.

From the moment our journalists started asking questions we were categorically told it wasn’t true – and the answers came quickly.

That quick response highlighted all the recent incidents in which the answers have not come in such a timely fashion – a sure-fire sign that there’s more digging to be done.

In the grand game of journalist versus the States PR machine, no answer, or a delayed one, is often all we need to know that there is a story waiting to be told.

Which is why I find it so weird that many weeks after first asking, I am yet to be provided with details of who exactly is doing what in the new civil service structure.

It is important that we, the public, are aware of what is going on, who is doing what and where. In the past the government would have jumped at the chance to explain what it does clearly and simply to the taxpayers that fund it. And how else are we, the public and the media, supposed to hold anyone to account without such information? It is clearly a matter of public interest that we have the details. But there have been so many changes, demotions, promotions, new arrivals from the UK and subsequent departures by staff uncomfortable with the new regime that we have lost track.

And, perhaps the States have too?

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That would be the easy answer to why so far I have only been provided with a list of the director-generals – the one group that is reasonably easy to piece together from press releases anyway.

I have been promised that they are working on providing me with details of the next layer down, but so far, after many weeks, nothing has been forthcoming.

So, is there something to hide? Or is it simply that things are a bit of a mess and no one is really sure who is doing what? I am not sure which is worse.

In another email to the communications unit a few weeks ago I asked for an interview with Mr Parker, it being a year now since he started coming to Jersey for the handover preparation.

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He did not take over formally until January, and I was told in no uncertain terms that he would not be offering interviews until then.

Similarly, around the same time, I asked for an interview with a new director-general – a request to which I haven’t even had a reply.

Unlike the bonus rumour, the silence makes you wonder what is up?

Why are staff, and even politicians, being told not to talk to the media, as we know has been the message since the beginning of the new regime?

Any suspicion of secrecy, as is human nature, leads us to ask: what are they hiding?

In another case of ‘silence is golden’, Infrastructure Minister Kevin Lewis has never responded – or apologised – for publicly blaming the media for screwing up the States’ deal with the landowners of the remaining fields for the new Les Quennevais School.

Earlier this year he said it had been inaccurate reporting that caused the rift with the landowner in question, when in actual fact the media had simply been quoting from a document published by the States.

Had we actually got something wrong, he’d have been the first to ring up and demand a correction.

In reality, the fault was not on our end, so we never heard from him.

Instead, during a brief exchange via, once again, the good old communications unit, my request for a comment was effectively declined – a telling reaction.

As I say, silence really is golden.

When Chief Minister John Le Fondré was elected he promised a government founded on openness and transparency.

The reality, to date, is far from that. And, as a former backbencher renowned for demanding answers from the government, Senator Le Fondré knows that silence only leads to suspicion.

Lucy Stephenson

By Lucy Stephenson
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