Friday, 16 March 2012

Just wondering: how is it possible to leak an email from a reporter?


Yesterday Harry Bloy resigned from Cabinet because he “leaked” a “private email” from a Province newspaper reporter to the subject of the reporter’s investigation.  As soon as this became known, the NDP decided to demand the resignation of Advanced Education Minister Naomi Yamamoto for providing Mr. Bloy with the email. 


Well, I’m not going to defend what Mr. Bloy did, but there a few things that need to be said.  First, the email wasn’t private, and therefore it could not be “leaked”.  Second, there is no basis for criticizing Minister Yamamoto for her role in this.


When I was first elected to public office I received media training.  Among the things I was taught were the following:  Do not expect that any conversation with a reporter is ever off the record.  And when you speak or write to a reporter, try to picture your words on the front page of the newspaper.


In other words, when a politician deals with the media, he should assume it’s all public, all the time.


That’s as true of an email sent by a reporter to a minister’s office as it is of a question asked by a reporter in a hallway scrum.  


And if the answer to the media question is public, so is the question.


In this case the email was not about a purely personal matter.  It was about the reporter’s interest in a subject of public importance, namely the business integrity of the operator of for-profit post secondary education institutions.  The whole point of the reporter’s inquiry was to get information that would form the basis of a news story.


Moreover, the email was not from a law enforcement official.  It was not an enquiry from a regulatory body seeking information from the Minister of Advanced Education that related to the exercise of statutory responsibilities.  It was an email from a newspaper reporter.


Yes, the newspaper was “investigating” the Eminata Group.  But a newspaper “investigation” is no different from an investigation you or I might undertake.  It has no special privilege or place in the law or anywhere else.  Its only significance is that when a newspaper reports the results of its investigation, it gets a lot more attention than if you or I were to do so.


Because the email was never actually private, it could not, I suggest, be “leaked.”  Using that phrase in this context is more than a bit pretentious.  But let’s look at what happened to it, one step at a time.  


First, the Minister of Advanced Education, Naomi Yamamoto shared the email with Mr. Bloy, who was her Cabinet colleague.  I hope no one seriously thinks there was anything wrong with that.  


If a newspaper reporter asks a question of a Cabinet minister about something that might form a media story critical of government, you should expect the minister to share it with her Cabinet colleagues, her officials, her political staff and government communications people.  That happens every day.  And it’s both defensible and necessary.  After all, government is not just one person, let alone one Cabinet minister.  It’s a team.  That’s what we mean by the principle of collective responsibility.  Every member of Cabinet has an interest in the business of government and a reason to talk with their colleagues about the problems and challenges they face.  


Any criticism of Minister Yamamoto for giving the email to Mr. Bloy, her Cabinet colleague, is risible.  The suggestion yesterday by the NDP that she should resign may have sounded like fun in the heat of question period, but it is evidence that the NDP are not, shall we say, quite ready for prime time. 


Second, was it wrong for Mr. Bloy to give the email to Peter Chung, founder and executive chairman of the Eminata Group, and, according to media reports, a donor to the BC Liberal Party?  According to the Province newspaper reporter who has been pursuing the story, Dr. Chung had the email in his hand when the reporter came to interview him.


I don’t think this is anything like a “leak”.  Of course, from the reporter’s perspective, I can understand the upset.  Dr. Chung may have had advance notice of the topics of the interview.  An opportunity to prepare? God forbid!  


But let’s take the issue one step further.  What would be wrong, for example, with the government posting on its website every single media inquiry it received?  As a matter of law there is no privacy attached to such inquiries.    (Government might need to edit out references to personal information that could not legally be disclosed under privacy legislation.)  The media could hardly complain.  After all, it’s the media that routinely complains about government’s lack of transparency.  What could be more transparent than publishing every single media inquiry?  Easy to do in a digital world.  Government would then have to explain why it only answered some questions and not others.  Lots more transparency and accountability there.  


Of course, once government posted the Province reporter’s email, Dr. Jung would have been able to read it and prepare himself for the inevitable questions.


Unfortunately, that’s not what happened here.  This appears to have been a case of selective disclosure.  Instead of making the inquiry known to the whole public, the email was apparently given directly to Dr. Jung.  And Dr. Jung is - at least according to media accounts - a party donor and a friend of Mr. Bloy’s.  That looks too much like Mr. Bloy was doing a favour for a friend.  That is what was inappropriate here, and it is a good reason to resign.


But don’t claim this was something it wasn’t.  The email was not private, it was not leaked, and it was perfectly appropriate for Minister Yamamoto to share it with her colleague.

2 comments:

  1. A thoughtful post and an interesting way to look at the situation. To mix a metaphor, it seems the opposition response is to light their hair on fire and then pick up the pieces afterwards.

    As an open government proponent myself, I find this theoretical proposal of posting all questions (and then the answers) from reporters one worth considering. It would create a sizable database at first, but eventually could lead to less repetition, less requests, the ability to answer some questions with links to similar conversations. It could also shed some light on the size of correspondence and requests government receives.

    To that end, I'm not sure FOI, reporters questions or public ones all couldn't be treated in this same manner. After all, the line between reporter, blogger or citizen is becoming increasingly blurred as social media begins to combine the elements that used to make these entities dramatically different. If there was a desire from the reporters or citizen to have their question kept private, they could simply indicate that, with a click of the button, upon posting. And they could even open that up for the public later should they desire, or after a certain time it would be automatic.

    In any event, for all their benefit, a system could easily be set up using modern tools where, as more information becomes available, or an issue advances or becomes outdated, that those 'following' that issue or thread or question could all, automatically, then receive regular updates on the issue that concerns them and 'report' about it accordingly. So, institutional memory becomes automated, but so does constituent engagement.

    Hope you're well,

    Tony.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for this interesting comment, Tony. Great to hear from you. I really think we would have better government in the long run if gov't would just routinely and automatically release (nearly) everything. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of FOI legislation is that this is simply not practical or possible, given the extensive (and probably necessary) legal protections for privacy rights and the other exclusions built into the Act. FOI is a wonderful example of why it's not always a good thing to legislate a good public policy objective. The result may be the opposite of what you want to achieve. But that's a subject for a whole blog post!

      Geoff

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