The Harper government has made message management a key priority. So why are they so bad at it, wonders Steve Saideman.
Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
I have long argued that two key priorities have shaped Stephen Harper’s defence policies over the past several years: a balanced budget in 2015 and message management. Anyone interacting with government officials can tell stories about the climate of fear that exists there. That fear isn’t so much about policy being screwed up as it is about saying something aloud that the media might report.
Military missions pose significant risks to message management for two reasons. One, the mission itself can go awry. Two, larger missions mean more interactions with the media. It’s this second issue that this government seems more concerned with. Embedding reporters with thousands of soldiers is a nightmare for anyone seeking to control the messaging. This is one reason why Canada’s deployments since Kandahar have been very restricted in size and scope.
But now the Harper message mismanagement has taken a turn towards the comedic. This week, media were invited to two orchestrated events that provided little in the way of “real news” but much in the way of failed message management.
David Pugliese reported on a staged photo op for Lieutenant General Jonathan Vance, commander of Canada Joint Operations Command [CJOC]. Vance posed for pictures while he was supposedly being briefed about Canada’s mission to Iraq. It was seen as “an un-coordinated and ‘bone-headed’ attempt at publicity.”
The same day, reporters were invited to CFB Trenton to see some of the personnel saying goodbye to loved ones as they got on a plane headed for Kuwait. This is standard fare for any military deployment—stories about the troops as they say goodbye and go on to war. But photographers were not allowed to take photos of these moving departure scenes. Why not?
Mostly fear, I would guess, and not of ISIS and the possibility it might retaliate against the families of the CF personnel going to Kuwait (the proffered justification) Everyone down the chain of command fears Harper. It may not be the case that the prime minister or his closest aides gave out such orders, but years of being told not to interact with the media or to only talk with heavily scripted talking points has created an environment where most people working in government choose silence just in case.
The most ridiculous part of that story was that the media were told not to take photos of equipment labeled with their destination of Kuwait. This is not a Camp Mirage situation where all actors wanted to deny a well-known reality that the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan were using a logistics base in Dubai. This time, everyone is on the record that the Canadian mission will be based in Kuwait. Why deny this? It just makes everyone look silly and perhaps incompetent.
I do have some fear—that the Public Affairs Officer at Trenton will get punished for saying something that might be unforgiveable: “This is not my call as I am getting orders from the minister’s office.” This places responsibility for the excessive control of the media directly on Minister of National Defence Robert Nicholson. Oops. The last thing anyone wants right now is responsibility.
The media play a vital role when the Canadian Forces deploy. While they should not reveal secrets that would endanger the Canadians in harm’s way, how else are we to know what is going on? How is Parliament supposed to hold the government to account for its efforts? Only through information released by the government?
Of course not. Democracies, even constitutional monarchies like this one, operate best when those responsible for making and implementing policy know that the media are watching them and will report when those policies do not work or are implemented in ways that are contrary to the stated aims of the government. Blinding the media means blinding the public and Parliament. That might be good for politics—dodging responsibility often is—but it is bad for governance and it is bad for democracy.
There are pretty clear lines that can be drawn in situations like this. The media should not report anything that threatens the security of the Canadian Forces. The Canadian Forces should be allowed to speak about what they are doing, but not whether they think what they are doing is a good or a bad idea. That is, they should not be commenting on policy.
The contradiction is that Harper and Nicholson trust the military to deploy missiles and bombs but do not trust them (or any other part of government) to talk about it. It is an interesting interpretation of “the pen is mightier than the sword” as this government seems to fear talking far more than it fears action.
 In 2007, I was in a group of academics that got to tour Kabul and Kandahar—an opinion leader familiarization tour. We were told not to meet the media. As academics, we do not follow orders too well, so when we learned where the media tent at the Kandahar Air Field was, we went there and chatted with the reporters.