Guernsey Press

OPINION: An ill wind blows through the corridors of power

The recent attempt to control the schools debate, which saw an angled response from Education to Deputy Tina Bury’s amendment, is an example of how the government’s communication approach raises questions about objectivity and independence, says Nick Mann.

Deputy Tina Bury. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29368679)

IT MAY at first glance be something of a sideshow to the schools debate, but how the Bury amendment was portrayed through official States communications this week is an ill wind.

For years now, the States has tried to portray one voice, one organisation through much of what it does. It has tried to create a united brand and has done so even harder during the Covid pandemic.

It has also spent more resources on producing content that is not about the traditional government role of communicating information, but instead telling stories and breaking news.

It is an inevitable consequence of staffing the growing comms team with more former journalists, but Guernsey’s offering looks very different to other jurisdictions and raises questions about objectivity and independence.

That may all be money well spent to some, but it directly steps on the toes of all the other media outlets who are still competing with more commercial considerations at play – and who are there as a vital cog in democracy in shining a light on where government is getting it wrong.

Ultimately the danger is that there is an imbalance created by public money being chucked at one side and also used as a tool to limit resources at the other. As independent media is eroded even further there is less and less accountability.

That imbalance permeates into the political sphere too.

It has always been there to an extent, where committees hold the upper hand against any deputies moving amendments or requetes because of the direct access they have to the staff and resources to fight their case and overwhelm those who oppose them.

The Education row shows just how unfair a fight it can be, but worse than that shows how States communications can be used to present opinion as fact and disseminate it widely and quickly, leaving others on the back foot trying to correct the situation.

The committee has come across as particularly defensive over its work on the secondary education model, with a whiff of an aggressive undercurrent at times.

That it came out hard against the Bury amendment, which simply calls for all the cost evidence of the different models, including two schools, to be published to create a complete picture, was therefore no surprise.

That the States social media accounts were used to misrepresent it and express an opinion was a step too far.

Before it was deleted, the States tweet said: ‘An amendment to the Government Work Plan seeks to re-insert the much-maligned two-school model “front and centre” to the debate on the future of secondary and post-16 education.’

It did no such thing, even if that type of opinion can scare the public into thinking it did. The same narrative remained in the press release.

Individual members of Education may well think that – who knows? even their advisors might – but, unattributed as it was, it becomes the all-encompassing ‘States’ view – and the leaders of the amendments and their supporters clearly don’t subscribe to that.

They spent time trying to mop up the pieces on this, but were left fighting on the back foot in the comment threads on social media to get their case across.

There are always unfounded accusations of bias thrown at the different media outlets, but that mud sticks more easily to a States which in these situations does nothing to present a balanced picture and never will.

The communications apparatus will back whatever the committee is proposing, which is always ironic when the same people will have in the previous term been busy trying to persuade the public of the opposite.

The States always holds the upper hand because it controls the information, indeed it still acts as if it owns it.

The lack of a freedom of information law means that it is free to release as little as it wants to.

It controls the times things are published, so it can bury bad news and ignore follow-up questions.

It can, and does, issue opinion as fact to help ease a policy letter through the system.

None of this should surprise, but long gone are the days, for example, when early sight was given of embargoed reports so they could be digested and fully analysed before publication by media outlets.

Some politicians, when in a particularly pompous mood, like to remind the media of their responsibilities not to mislead – some would simply have them as mouthpieces of the establishment to champion whatever cause was the flavour of that particular government.

But they see no problem in using their platforms to distort the information flow in their favour.

If their voice becomes all-encompassing with no tolerance of challenge then the island loses out. Bad policies and bad spending decisions will go unchallenged.

Deputies need to be empowered to argue for their causes, to stir the public debate in an even-handed manner, not be squashed by superior resources.

If States communications is allowed to be more of a propaganda machine, it erodes democracy and creates distrust – the fall will be hard.