Can a minister ever be too open? In the eyes of the States comms team, yes...
By Lucy Stephenson
POLITICIANS around the world are often accused of covering up bad news.
And as journalists we are taught to take a closer look at what governments are putting out when there are big, unrelated stories filling the agenda in case they are trying to ‘bury’ something.
But this past week, it turned out that Environment Minister John Young had been told to bury some good news – that being the fact that tests sent to the US to see if the pollutant PFOS was in Jersey potatoes and dairy products had come back clear.
So instead of issuing a press release or statement, the department’s policy was to keep shtum, and it took me a number of days to track down the information myself.
Deputy Young was questioned about why there had been no announcement, despite the JEP having run a story a few weeks ago to say the tests were being carried out, during a Scrutiny hearing last week.
Constable John Le Maistre – a former Jersey Farmers Union president – was particularly challenging in his questions, saying that news of the tests could have been particularly damaging for the industry given it was in the middle of the potato season.
He wanted to know what evidence the minister had based his decision to tell the media about the tests on and why there had not been more of an announcement about them coming back clear.
And the minister’s answer to the last bit? ‘My communications team told me not to.’
Further questions from this newspaper resulted in a statement from a spokesman for the communications department which explained that they had advised the minister to issue a formal announcement only once the full PFOS report was received, rather than solely on the positive dairy and potato-analysis results.
Without some digging by this newspaper we may still not know the results today.
I may not necessarily agree with it, but it’s an understandable course of action given the complexity of the PFOS issue and the potentially serious situation in which the Island finds itself in with this chemical being found in water sources across Jersey, albeit in most places at very, very low levels.
However, it is what the minister said during the rest of the exchange during the Scrutiny hearing that is most interesting.
He apologised for talking to the media about the tests in the first place, describing it as ‘not my finest hour’, and added that he ‘should have been more cautious when dealing with the media’ and that he was ‘too open’ on this occasion.
First off, Deputy Young is being too hard on himself. He has earned himself a reputation of being straight talking and honest (if something of a maverick among the Council of Ministers) and that is all he did in this case.
He also wanted to reassure the people asking questions (including residents in affected areas) that all possible tests were being carried out.
But, he has obviously had his wrist slapped for this particular case, which is known to have caused uproar among farmers, who are upset they were not informed about the tests and were worried about what news of the results could do to sales.
Secondly, can a government minister ever be too open? In the eyes of those trying to control them behind the scenes, yes, to the public, less so.
This case gives a wider insight into the States machine than just the decision-making process behind PFOS policy.
It shows the processes that go on behind the scenes, the conversations that are had and the people that are involved.
And it does make you wonder what else ministers are being advised not to tell people about, and why.
It would be naïve to believe that the public should be told about everything, always. And there will be legitimate occasions when it will not be in Islanders’ best interests to know certain information.
But, as Deputy Young said at Scrutiny, it is a fine line between being open and honest, reassuring the public that they are being well looked after and represented in the process, and being discreet when required.
And I’m in no doubt that the definition of ‘when required’ is broadening all the time under the present administration.
Which is exactly why we need ministers like Deputy Young to use their own judgment from time to time and not be afraid to speak up – even if it gets them into trouble with their teams.
You can always apologise later.