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Oh no, Chief Minister

Oh no, Chief Minister...

Oh no, Chief Minister…

A week after the Chief Minister accused local media of publishing sensationalist fake news, a disastrous press conference shows how the Manx government is becoming desperate to “manage” stories about it.

It’s ironic that such a dreadful, “on message” press conference comes after throwing shade at the media and its role in scrutinising the government.

And with social media now being the place for the public to campaign about gas prices, abortion laws, healthcare and many other issues, it’s a misstep to cast doubts on all these.

That is, however, exactly what Chief Minister Howard Quayle chose to do.

During October’s Tynwald sitting, in his State of the Nation speech, he said:

Mr President, I hope we can debate the policies of Government in an open and honest way, dealing in facts and figures rather than hearsay and rumour. I say this because there seems to me, to be a worrying trend for knee jerk responses to Social Media.

There is much discussion about fake news. To me, the role of a free press is more important than ever. I have noticed though, an increasing tendency for more sensationalism in the way stories are reported.

We should remember what is in the public interest is different to what is interesting to the public. We cannot rely on second hand gossip posted anonymously to inform our thinking. Good journalism is well researched, relying on facts and evidence rather than half-truths and tittle tattle.

There are many benefits to Social Media, but we must also be alive to the fact that many of the things we read on it are not objective.  They often contain incorrect information and are driven by a single person’s agenda. I think we can do better.

And then, this week, he gathered the journalists he’d been so quick to criticise, only to have his comments backfire.

Facts and evidence

The story is a simple(ish) one – someone broke into law firm Appleby’s computers and stole data which may show how offshore jurisdictions help facilitate tax avoidance. Now, journalists from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Panorama are looking into the revelations.

But nobody knows any of the actual allegations yet, and so the press conference was held to defend the Isle of Man against… erm, something. And not enough that the Chief Minister didn’t know what the allegations were, but the press conference was called with three hours notice without telling journalists what it would be about.

So what was the point, really?

Simple – and the Celtic League made the point nicely (for once). Over-eager “news management”.

Government thinking must have been “quick, get refuting before the media starts asking questions”.

It didn’t help that halfway through a government PR flack had to step in (about 10mins 30secs):

It led to Isle of Man Newspapers calling the press conference “bizarre”.

Not the greatest media relations moment – but aside from the subject matter and ineptness, this is indicative of something that’s been going on for some time.

Managing the Manx media

Most public bodies deal with the media on some level.

The government, however, is becoming obsessed with managing news as public dissatisfaction grows with a number of its policy announcements. The PR team in the Cabinet Office seems determined to coax and prod local media into toeing some sort of line.

It’s worth saying that media access to ministers has been shrinking steadily. For example:

  • A minister who won’t be interviewed by a media outlet on any subject after it said they’d refused to be interviewed
  • A PR person who sent a passive-aggressive email in response to a media inquiry – only to change their mind over their response when they actually looked into the story
  • A minister who denied a story happened, but who changed their mind when confronted with photographic proof
  • A minister who refused an “unexpected” video interview at a press conference, but 10 minutes later did a video interview with another outlet
  • The number of chief minister’s press conferences – set up to allow the media to ask our top politician about anything – called off, or held without the chief minister

Why this strategy will fail

Ultimately, politicians stand or fall at elections – and a hostile media will all but guarantee re-election is beyond reach. That, of course, won’t inconvenience a PR team. They’ll just get a new minister to deal with.

However, journalists remember who’s said what and will raise all of it again in the run-up to an election. Unless, of course, a politician’s refused to be interviewed – in which case they may find themselves refused interviews. Or asked where they’ve been and why they refused to be interviewed.

Criticising the media (and social media) simply shows ignorance as to how journalists actually work. Every politician decries growing sensationalism, when in fact Manx media outlets have stayed much the same in terms of tone and content over the years.

And in terms of social media, well there’s always a chance to come out fighting with the facts. Instead of:

It’s Twitter, Chief Minister. How about “Today, I…”?

There is something to take away from all this.

In terms of the government’s PR, to borrow some words from the Chief Minister:

We must also be alive to the fact that many of the things we read on it are not objective.  They often contain incorrect information and are driven by a single person’s agenda. I think we can do better.

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