a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Leaks are part of democracy just like politicians

Let’s face it, leaks have become as much a part of democracy as those we elect to represent us in legislatures.

In Ottawa, the biggest leaker of information these days is not WikiLeaks but the Harper government.

Since this government is so obsessed with message control, the leak has become its weapon of choice.

A case in point is the negotiations now going on between Ottawa and Washington about a common Canada-U.S. perimeter at all entry points into the two countries. Existence of these negotiations was leaked to several media outlets.

The government has not denied there are negotiations. Nor has it really confirmed their existence. All it will say is that there is no agreement between the two countries, leaving us to infer there really are negotiations. And of course the Feds have not denied being involved in the leak.

Why leak rather than formally announce existence of negotiations in Parliament? A formal announcement means you will be held accountable for what you say or promise. A leak that is fuzzy on details means you can say publicly whatever you want later.

If the negotiations don’t go anywhere, you can say they were only exploratory talks, rather than admit failure.

You can also use the leak to test public reaction. This is called trial ballooning in politics.

If people hate the idea of negotiations with the U.S., the government can simply say a leaked report was simply a draft and not policy. Or it can say the media reports were exaggerated.

The media of course love leaks as much as government because they are easier to report than detailed public announcements. They also add an air of mystery and suspense to their coverage. Journalists after all are in the infotainment business.

And of course we prefer to read about leaks instead of formal government announcements because they are less stuffy and free of the weasel words that public officials love so much.

The government and media of course know that we know where this leak came from. And we know that they know that we know. But as long as leaks are so useful to democracy, we can all pretend that we don’t know because leaks serve an important function.

I will be taking two weeks off from this blog for the Holiday season. I wish all of you a safe and happy Holiday season.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why would Ford allow himself to be upstaged?

Normally, municipal politics barely attracts local interest. And the swearing in ceremony for a new mayor would warrant as much national attention as a Rotary Club picnic.

But last week’s swearing in of Rob Ford as the new Toronto mayor was a national story.

First, His Worship had the chain of office placed around his neck by someone who looked like a cartoon character – Don Cherry. Then Cherry, dressed in pink, launched into a diatribe against bicycle-riding, elitist pinkos.

We really don’t know much about what Ford said at the ceremony, except that he declared the war against the car to be over.

As for Mr. Ford’s vision for Toronto, we know that the mayor wants to halt the gravy train. He doesn’t much like streetcars or anything resembling them. Beyond that, there have been a few hints about outsourcing city services to private contractors and little else.

This peek-a-boo approach in which you let others upstage you seems to be part of a pattern with Ford.

Normally, a mayor’s chief of staff is next to invisible to the public. But Ford’s chief of staff, Nick Kouvalis, has become a celebrity after bragging publicly last month how his campaign team tricked John Tory into staying out of the Toronto mayor’s race.

We can expect Kouvalis to remain the target of intense media scrutiny for as long as he is chief of staff.

Perhaps, the strategy is to allow those around you to develop a notoriety to distract the voters from measuring your own performance.

There also appears to be a deliberate attempt by the Ford administration to start a class war in which someone not using a car in Toronto is being cast as elitist.

Toronto is not the only city where the class warfare card is being played. There is an excellent article in The Tyee this week by Yves Engler that documents how the pro-car interests are claiming to be standing up for the little guy in several cities.

Practitioners of right-wing populism usually have a designated public bad guy to keep the voters interested and motivated about their political brand.

The former Harris government of Ontario did this many times by targeting welfare cheats, union bosses and teachers. The Harper government has done this with Russian aircraft to justify the expensive stealth fighters it wants to buy.

Ford wants the suburbs, where his support lies, to be blaming the downtown crowd for their high taxes.

It will be interesting to see if Ford can make this type of politics work at the municipal level. Expect Toronto city council to be getting a lot of national attention while Ford is mayor.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Keeping an eye on Big Brother

For most of the past century, society has grown used to the idea of Big Brother watching us all.

Big Brother still does of course. But increasingly, thanks to Access to Information laws, advances in technology and changed attitudes, we have been keeping an eye on Big Brother.

WikiLeaks has provided us all with a reminder of that.

What is interesting about the latest document dump by WikiLeaks is how governments, business and other institutions seem to be resigned to a new age of disclosure.

Remember all the predictions a few weeks ago about international upheaval because thousands of pages of U.S. diplomatic cables were about to appear on the WikiLeaks site.

Well those documents are now out in the public realm and the international world seems to be stumbling along as well as it usually does. In fact, the very politicians who predicted chaos now seem to be dismissing WikiLeaks as a nuisance.

Sure, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may be in a heap of legal trouble. The site may wind up being shut down, at least temporarily. But there will likely be someone else ready to step in with a replacement.

With a few exceptions, most of the material being disclosed on WikiLeaks can be classified as little more than gossip. And as long as human nature is what it is, there will be a demand.

Diplomats will go on speaking in euphemisms, extending insincere courtesies, and nudging and winking at each other. Governments will go on making deals with each other. And the world will remain as unstable tomorrow as it was before WikiLeaks.

Some of the web sites devoted to the public relations industry are now filled with chatter about adequate crisis planning just in case WikiLeaks blabs sensitive corporate secrets. No doubt some enterprising PR firms are already marketing Wikileaks damage control packages.

Bank of America is rumoured to be putting together a special WikiLeaks SWAT team because the bank believes the web site has some of its internal documents.

What’s interesting is how much Wikileaks is altering the media landscape so quickly.

A case in point is Canada’s spy agency, CSIS. For several years, CSIS directors past and present have been saying that the courts are too inflexible in dealing with terrorism threats. But CSIS could never get much traction in the media.

Thanks to disclosure by WikiLeaks of remarks by former CSIS director Jim Judd, the agency’s longstanding lament finally appeared on front pages across the country last week. A lot of government spindoctors will be assuming a sure way of getting something in the media is to leak it to WikiLeaks.

The Prime Minister’s Office seems to have developed a WikiLeaks play of its own.

As we know, William Crosbie, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, offered his resignation after he discovered the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables quoted him as saying very unflattering things about Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

We know he offered to quit because his resignation offer was leaked to the Globe and Mail and National Post.

The RCMP is investigating this leak. But they probably don’t have to look too far for the leaker because the PMO had the most to gain.

Governments like to appear to be in front of a developing story instead of struggling to catch up.

The strategic leak is a time-honoured tool of all governments. Both the strategic government leak and now web sites like WikiLeaks will be around for a long time.