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The media are not the ones stifling access to information

Voices | Published:

TO quote Government of Jersey chief executive Charlie Parker during his speech to the Chamber of Commerce lunch last week, ‘as a senior government official, you have to have a very thick skin and be personally resilient’.

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It’s true, you do. And there is no doubt Mr Parker has learnt during his career to be both.

They are also qualities journalists require. After all, we put our names to stories day after day that not everyone always likes.

Because although there are times when things we write are our own opinions – these columns, for example – readers do not always recognise that reporting on something in factual, neutral terms as we do with news stories is not the same as approving of facts or agreeing with opinions contained in them.

Recently we had complaints that we hadn’t named a defendant in a court case when legally we were banned from doing so, for example.

In the main it is easy to ignore such criticism, because we know it is unfounded.

You also need to have a thick skin and be personally resilient in order to ask the difficult questions that we are sometimes required to ask to do our jobs properly, to scrutinise matters in the public interest, or to approach someone who you know does not want to engage or for whom you have some of those uncomfortable questions.

A few short minutes after Mr Parker had left the podium at that Chamber event I found myself in the latter situation.

He had, after all, just laid into the media – this newspaper particularly – in quite spectacular fashion.

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Let me just recap what he said: Media monitoring conducted by the government shows that the JEP gives negative stories much more prominence than positive stories – both in the size of the article and how high up it is in the paper. And those negative stories often only include a brief quote from the government right at the end ‘for balance’.

He added: ‘ “So what?” I hear you say. That’s the role of the press. Nonetheless, this default negativity about the government does have an impact on staff’s willingness to take risks, and raise their heads above the parapet, as I mentioned earlier. It makes delivering changes harder for those less experienced in delivering change, when we’re constantly criticised by those in the media whose working assumption is that we’re up to no good.

‘Yet when the media take time to do some in-depth sessions, both with me and other colleagues – whether by interviews on the TV or radio – they often get a better and more accurate picture of the changes we’re trying to deliver, the reasons why and the long-term benefits. My sense is that if the print media spend time really understanding the modernisation of our public services, rather than seeing it as a cheap source of easy copy, then they will get better information, more stories and therefore provide a better service to Islanders.’

With that fresh in my mind (although I’d have done it anyway because it’s my job) I waited around for Mr Parker at the end.

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And I asked him if I could ask a couple of questions related to the speech.

‘No’ came the quick, albeit polite, answer, followed up by a brief explanation that he had said he wasn’t doing any media interviews.

Instead he said he would be willing to sit down for an interview later in the year, when the time was right.

So I pointed out the obvious – he’d just stood up on that podium and told hundreds of people that the media, and I and my JEP colleagues specifically, do not seek to engage with him or his senior staff, yet here he was refusing to do exactly that.

But his response when I pushed further and explained that day in, day out the JEP seeks to engage with government on everything from the small to the large but very often gets nothing but a token line from a faceless spokesman or woman (or robot) was even more telling.

‘In the past there were some people who had go-to people, which meant you got a very one-sided story’ was the gist of his response.

‘And there were some civil servants with opinions who shouldn’t have been sharing them.’

That is why there is a code of conduct, I was told.

My efforts in the days that followed to find out more about that code of conduct haven’t turned up much, bar the below statement in the general civil service code of conduct, which was written in 2002.

‘Under States policies, certain types of information must be made available to States Members, the news media and to the public. You should, therefore, be aware of any policies on the release of information within your own department and ensure that you act accordingly.’

Experience suggests that there have been some policies issued in the past 18 months or so.

Because however hard this newspaper tries, and our media colleagues say the same thing, we are increasingly being barred from accessing real people with real, meaningful information.

We ask to speak to someone and if we are lucky we get (often days later) a statement of a line or two that cannot be attributed to anyone but that faceless spokesman or woman.

If you have further questions, the whole process starts again.

What happened to someone picking up the phone and having a quick chat, even for background information? Because Mr Parker is right, we will do a better job if we get that engagement, have all the facts and someone who is considered expert enough in that field to be paid public money has explained the context, the jargon or the background.

In the past I have sat down with the States HR director when we have had questions about sensitive internal disciplinary processes, with Social Security when we have wanted to know why family-friendly legislation was still taking so long and with senior members of the staff in the Chief Minister’s Department around population matters.

The late Colin Powell rang me once or twice to help me navigate complex government matters.

And even the two civil servants at the centre of the Cape Town flights scandal invited me in for a coffee to chat through what had happened to ensure I had my facts straight before we went to press.

It is rare that any of that happens today. And when it does, I won’t be naming names for fear that those people who are working hard to make sure important information gets out to the public in an easy-to-understand way could get into trouble.

Because that is how things are now working in the Government of Jersey – Mr Parker alluded to as much.

There’s a code of conduct and a very tight ship when it comes to who talks to the media, how and when – so much so that even the chief executive would not divert from policy.

And everybody in the States knows this is the case – it’s why if we journalists bypass the communications unit and call a civil servant up personally, increasingly those who answer are too worried about getting into trouble to put their names to anything they say, even if it is uncontroversial.

We talk off the record where we can, and revert to the communications unit where we are told. But we don’t stop asking.

Had Mr Parker agreed to let me ask him those couple of quick questions last Wednesday I’d have wanted to know more about his comments that politicians make decisions and civil servants execute them.

I’d have asked why in one breath he referred to not blurring those lines, yet just minutes earlier he said he had been pleased to secure the trust and support of ministers for, and I quote, ‘MY One Government proposals for modernising the public service’.

It is no secret that it is the Parker Plan, nor that he included it as a prerequisite for taking the chief executive’s job in the first place.

But at least be open and honest about how that important relationship between the political world and his office – there’s no such thing as the Chief Minister’s Department anymore, remember? – is currently working. In some cases it is entirely correct that those qualified to run the public sector are allowed to get on and do it, albeit while working with their politicians.

After all, previous experience tells us that a politician who micromanages does more harm than good.

And be honest about how the relationship with the media is working too.

Although I may not agree with the details, it isn’t wrong to have a policy on media engagement if that is the way you want things to be.

But it is disingenuous to claim that the media, and particularly this newspaper, which has a proud history of scrutinising a matter of such important public interest as the internal workings of our government, is the one stifling the public’s access to clear, important information.

Lucy Stephenson

By Lucy Stephenson
author

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