Did Andrew Furey actually expect the two supper-hour newscasts in Newfoundland and Labrador to turn over their airwaves to him on Thursday night, literally without question?
By that last phrase, I mean that Furey did not make himself available that evening to answer questions from journalists — a practice that his government just a day earlier restricted in another forum. (More on that decision in a moment.)
Instead, the premier's office beamed over a video of Furey talking straight to camera, reacting to the report that Moya Greene released seven days earlier about the worrisome state of Newfoundland and Labrador's economy.
It's a critically important topic, to be sure, but the premier's office's expectations for its nine-minute video were out of bounds. After all, no one would expect news anchors to read a government statement of that length. Why would we play the video version, without the ability to probe further into what was said?
Here's how this played out.
Late Wednesday afternoon, a CBC producer was given a heads-up that the video was being made, and that it would be embargoed until 6 p.m. NT on Thursday. That is, the instant that CBC's Here & Now and the NTV Evening Newshour go to air. The Liberals' expectations could not be more clear.
Our reaction was instantaneous: we knew we were not going to run it in full, especially when it became clear that Furey would not answer questions Thursday evening about it. NTV came to the same conclusion.
Accustomed to manipulative tactics
Both shows led their newscasts talking about what Furey had to say, and played selected clips rather than the video itself, which ran almost nine minutes. (We embedded the full video into the web story, as an option for audience members who chose to watch it. After all, that's a very different thing than turning over our airwaves.)
We're used to manipulation. In the Tobin era, election launches were timed for the 6 o'clock news. Premiers of subsequent stripes timed big announcements for the supper hour, in the hope of catching eyeballs. Dwight Ball even pulled the video lever in February 2020 when he had had enough and decided to step down.
We did something else, too. We wrote a digital story earlier Thursday, to explain to the public what was happening behind the scenes, and report the pressure the government was putting on local media to transmit a political message. We pointed out that Furey would not be available until Friday to answer questions.
We also noted that the Greene report — the very thing that Furey was responding to — chided the provincial government for chronic transparency problems. "When the decision-making process isn't open and transparent, those outside of it tend to conclude that decisions were not made in the general interest," said the premier's economic recovery team (PERT) report. "Transparency is the best way to regain public trust."
For political scientist Russell Williams, that's smart advice, even if it's a bit rich coming from PERT itself.
"That's ironic, in the sense that that's not really how the Greene report operated, but it also seems to be a criticism of the way the government is operating itself right now," Williams, who teaches at Memorial University in St. John's, told CBC's Mark Quinn before the video was released. (After the video statement came out, Williams found himself unsatisfied, calling the address "a huge missed opportunity" to lay out the government's plans.)
On Friday, while speaking with reporters, Furey seemed genuinely uncertain why journalists were concerned. "Frankly, the fact that we're talking about the format as opposed to the content is a little bit troubling," said Furey.
Significantly less time for questions
Just a day before the video was released, the government made another decision that diminished the public's right to know.
We learned that reporters taking part in the now-weekly COVID-19 briefings will be allowed to ask only three questions in all, rather than the five currently asked in turns. The explanation was that it was being done "in the interests of time."
Journalists were taken aback by the move, given that the briefing is one of the now-rare opportunities to hold officials to account, and to get clear answers from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald.
"This is garbage," tweeted NTV's Michael Connors. Mike is one of the most even-tempered journalists I've ever met, so the comment really speaks to the frustration that journalists are having with public officials now.
A reasonable fear in my profession: limitations of who can even take part in a news conference, which were brought in because of the pandemic, will carry over when COVID-19 is behind us.
I need to be clear: this is not a problem that started with the current government. Over the course of many years, there's been a steady degradation of public access.
Years ago, journalists were routinely able to interview experts who worked for government departments, on the understanding that they spoke to their areas of expertise, while policy questions were — rightly — put to politicians. By the mid-2000s, that kind of access was already being dialled back. A defining moment for me was when an expert in the provincial government, someone I often contacted to better understand fiscal issues, told me that she could no longer speak to me at all, even though I never quoted her.
The trend has been to direct all questions to "the minister" — that is, the politician representing that portfolio. Forget the fact that the minister might not actually understand the issues or be able to say more than the talking points prepared in advance.
And even with that, we're getting less access. Ministers are conspicuously unavailable on sensitive topics, and we are often told a minister will not be available for a couple of days, sometimes longer.
Worse, we get brief (and I mean very brief, often just a single sentence) statements to be attributed to a minister, who we can assume did not actually say these words. The chance for followup questions? Non-existent, at least as often as not.
We've seen similar tightened access in other arenas, including Crown corporations and the City of St. John's.
It's been only nine months since Andrew Furey has become premier. His approach to transparency, accountability and the public's right to know has hardly been a breath of fresh air.
"I really think the government wants to start thinking a lot more about the need to talk to people, even if they're potential critics," Russell Wiliams said.
"The government needs to embrace the idea that they need to talk in genuine kind of two-way conversations. And that includes being available to answer questions from the media."