Northern news readers in the age of Covid-19 have no doubt become somewhat acquainted with the formal designation over the last month or so — most media stories covering the territorial government’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak are riddled with the two-word title.
It’s not an unknown moniker.
South of the border, some familiar-faced press secretaries have become household names; and in Canada, Ian Cameron helms the boat for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau amid a sea of questions for journalists.
Yet here, in the NWT, there’s no name attached to the role — a role that’s disseminating the bulk of information to worried residents across the NWT amid Covid-19.
In the wake of the alarming spread of the virus and the social clampdown that followed, all media requests, regardless of their intended recipients in whatever governmental department, are being directed to the press secretary’s email.
In an effort to attribute the title to a name, NNSL Media reached out to the press secretary last week.
NNSL Media was told the GNWT wouldn’t be linking the cascade of government Covid-19-related comments to a sole source — or name.
“Cabinet Communications monitors the press secretary email account and we are coordinating all responses received with the appropriate departments,” read the press secretary’s response.
“Because of that, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the content to be attributed to the person replying to you,” continued the statement, which added the press secretary is essentially a “middle man … helping to make sure reporters have one place to go to get their information instead of needing to reach out to multiple departments individually.”
That’s all well and good for Rylund Johnson, who says he “understand(s) the centralizing of one email.”
The lack of attribution, however, is troubling for the Yellowknife North MLA.
“If Cabinet (Communications) is also massaging the message coming out of departments and then not attributing decisions to actual people we lack the transparency needed from our government where such important decisions are being made,” Johnson told NNSL Media in an email Monday.
“I find it concerning when answers are attributed to the Press Secretary as some abstract decision-maker as opposed to the people making decisions,” added Johnson.
He said GNWT communications is set up to help experts in speaking with the media, not to “create a faceless barrier and filter everything into amorphous comms speak that is unhelpful to both the public and the press.”
Johnson said he’s becoming more and more concerned with the overuse of communications employees speaking for themselves — instead of messaging coming from department experts or the ministers in charge.
“In the midst of a health crisis,” Johnson said GNWT statements involving health decisions should be anchored to the name of doctors or nurses informing the decisions, or the name of the appropriate minister.
In their statement to NNSL Media last week, the press secretary said attributions will “on occasion” be sent to the press.
“If the response comes directly from Dr. Kandola, a minister, etc., we’ll be sure to let you know so you can attribute it to them,” stated the press secretary. In the meanwhile, it’s best for media to attribute information from the press secretary as coming from the GNWT, in general,” read the response.
Johnson said media should not have quotes attributed to “nameless actors.”
“We must know who is making the decisions,” he wrote.
In any case, said Johnson, it’s never Cabinet Communications’ job to make any decisions — instead, they’re there to simply convey those made by elected officials or frontline experts.