Freedom of Information

Communication or obfuscation? The electorate deserve better from politicians and public bodies

By Bill Heaney

It’s the oldest trick in the communications and public relations executive’s handbook.  Compose a sentence which says nothing in response to a straightforward question from the press or a politician looking for clarification or confirmation of something that may reflect badly on you – or on the organisation that employs you.

And hope that your inquisitor will go away content with what you have told her. Nothing to see here, move on please.

Since I was for some time (a short time admittedly) a spin doctor working at the highest level in Scotland – the First Minister’s office – I should know.

However, the advice I most admire was proffered by a namesake, the Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, whose mother told him: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

I have stretched that a little by adding – “Unless it is clearly to your own advantage.”

And reminding myself that the best strategy when you are found out is to own up immediately, and never to dissemble or prevaricate. Never.

I think I took that from another poet, Louis MacNeice, who was a government spin doctor during the Second World War.

His strategy was to stress those aspects of the truth that were to one’s advantage and go on to talk about nothing else.

One should never take to the bunker or hang up the telephone on the press because that only leads to continued speculation about the actuality.

Banning the press is the strategy of totalitarian regimes and has not place in a democracy.

I am afraid that after having asked a question of Laura Mason, West Dunbartonshire Council’s education director, I have been forced into a situation where I have to speculate.

You should know what these questions were:

Was there or wasn’t there a decision to close St Martin’s PS in Renton long before the consultation with parents began?

Was there a conspiracy foisted on the education department by the SNP administration in league with the Catholic Church to close St Martin’s before the decision was made eight days ago?

I asked these questions because it has been drawn to my attention that there is an e-mail trail going back to 2015 which one of the school campaigners, Drew MacEoghainn, insists is “the smoking gun”.

That this contains the evidence which proves that the Renton parents were duped into thinking there was a chance that the village school would remain open.

And that the council simply strung the parents along with a fake consultation in the full knowledge that there was never a hope of a secure future for their children’s school.

There was never a possibility of a new-build which the parents wanted or even a joint campus with Renton PS on a site off the village Main Street.

It was a move to a refurbished old school, St Mary’s in Bank Street, Alexandria, or nothing. Hobson’s Choice, which is no choice at all, of course.

It is little wonder then, given these circumstances, that parents in the public gallery interrupted the committee meeting with shouts of “Judas” and “betrayal” when the delay leading to closure was announced at the education committee.

I think anyone might justifiably be angry in those circumstances.

My recent experience of going back to council reporting and a new report from the Scottish Information Commissioner (see previous item here in The Democrat) have not been great.

But then my relationship with politicians and officials who want to keep their cards close to their chest never has been.

It is almost always on the back of a piece of information from a concerned member of the public that I raise things with the council and council officials.

I am obliged to do this here because I have been told to do so by West Dunbartonshire Council’s chief executive who has told me not to contact her direct but to go through the Communications Department.

St Martin’s parent Drew MacEoghainn came to me with what he considered to be “the smoking gun which proves that the SNP pushed for the closure of our beloved school from the beginning”.

And that they had blustered and prevaricated in order to try to deceive parents that they had nothing to do with the proposal to request a report with only one option – closure – from education director Laura Mason.

Mr MacEoghainn produced the following e mail train between Laura Mason and Community Party councillor Jim Bollan from that time:

Q and A between Bollan and Mason was as follows:

Bollan: Can you let me have a note of any draft/briefing paper you used at your meeting with the reps from the parent council of the above school earlier this week and a copy of any minute that was taken?

Mason: I met with two parents as reps from the St Martin’s PC. It was not minuted as it was an informal meeting. The purpose of this was so to give them advanced warning of the proposal paper going to our Committee in March. The paper is being prepared for Committee and therefore was not available to share but I told them about the proposal in relation to St Martin’s.

Bollan: What specifically is the proposal for St Martin’s?

Mason: Sorry Jim, I should have specified that on previous email. The draft proposal is for the closure of St Martin’s and relocate pupils to St Mary’s. The report will seek Committee’s approval to proceed to statutory consultation. St Mary’s element is not subject to statutory consultation.

Bollan:  Is that the only option going to Committee? Was this the proposal the SNP instructed you to put forward to Committee?

Mason:  This is the option we were asked to progress to Committee for St Martin’s.

West Dunbartonshire Council’s response to The Dumbarton Democrat when we asked if this e mail chain was authentic was as follows:  “A commitment was made in December 2015 to bring forward plans for the schools estate in Alexandria. To fulfil this commitment, officers presented a report to the educational services committee in March 2018 outlining options for St Martin’s, St Mary’s and Renton primaries with a further report and recommendations presented to the June committee for members to consider.”

I responded to this reply, saying: “That doesn’t answer the question. Did she [the director of education] or did she not say she had been instructed by the SNP administration to prepare a report recommending closure of St Martin’s. Is the e mail exchange authentic or not?”

The Council was not prepared to comment further.

My understanding from this exchange is that the Council are not prepared officially to say definitively whether the St Martin’s parents were duped or not.

Politically, the SNP group leader, Jonathan McColl, has nothing to say either since he is part of a group which has made a decision not to participate in the democratic process by speaking to the public through the press.

The boycott brigade – Docherty-Hughes, McColl and O’Hara.

The two local SNP Members of Parliament, Martin Docherty-Hughes in West Dunbartonshire and Brendan O’Hara in Helensburgh (Argyll) appear to be in agreement with this, which is remarkable in the 21st century.

Everything we have written and published here in The Democrat has been subject to the usual laws and public scrutiny regarding the press.

Perhaps the SNP administration (and others) should pay heed to this advice on Communications and Journalism, which comes from a man under serious pressure from within and outwith the organisation which he heads:

‘The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language. If responsibility is the answer to the spread of fake news, then a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission. Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons. Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.  

‘I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace. By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice. A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.’

 The author of these words was none other than Pope Francis, who has a reputation for upsetting people who are obdurate and stuck in the past and who delivered this message to mark Communications Sunday. He has bravely proposed a journalism of moral and professional integrity which communicates the whole truth and respects the dignity of the people in the news and the people who receive the news.

Perhaps officialdom and its communicators should pause for a moment and listen for a change?  The Scottish Information Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry,  in his annual report expresses the belief that things are far from well in the world of official communications. He is not alone in that.

 

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