Powers that be take note: Islanders are wise to spin

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We know to look out for key details, identify themes, links and the bigger picture, add context and research the background and, sometimes, seek out the missing pieces of the jigsaw.

We are also taught from the very beginning about spin – a biased portrayal of something or someone.

A few days ago one of the best examples of spin I’ve seen in ages landed in the JEP newsdesk inbox. It was from the States communications team and was entitled ‘interim team stood down’.

‘The States of Jersey’s Chief Executive, Charlie Parker, has announced that the transition team, appointed in October 2017, is being stood down,’ it began.

It went on to explain how the four top (read also highly paid) UK consultants had worked with Mr Parker to review the operations of Jersey’s public sector and had now finished the work. Quoting Mr Parker, it went on: ‘We have a rigorous view of the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation, and the team’s recommendations have informed both the one government structure I announced recently, and the priorities for action.’

There was more about moving from review to action, cross-government initiatives and a different approach.

Then, 160 words after it opened, the press release gave up the real story that the four consultants would be staying around longer than first planned (publicly at least), three to ‘support the delivery of specific initiatives on new time-limited contracts over the next year’ and the fourth to oversee a ‘specific role for a couple of months’ until someone is permanently appointed.

Finally, in the notes section of the release, they reconfirmed what we already knew: that these aren’t just any consultants, they are £432,945-for-five-months consultants.

They – the politicians and senior civil servants pulling the strings behind the poor comms team who currently appear to be being treated as nothing more than admin staff designed to send emails and pass on messages that have come from on high – knew that the media would pick up on the true line of the story, so why the half-veiled attempt to disguise it?

I’d think it were some kind of game they like to play with the media to keep us on our toes if it weren’t for the fact that such press releases are also published on gov.je for the tax-paying public to read and digest. Instead I can only assume it is part of a wider game they are playing, to try to spin us all. Which is weird, because at the end of the day these consultants sticking around isn’t a negative story.

And it would have been a perfectly acceptable press release – and one that would have left less of a foul taste in the mouth afterward – if it had said: ‘Transition team finishes its work, they will now help us with the next stage’.

However, they didn’t. And that conscious decision about the structure of a simple press release is just plain disrespectful to Islanders who deserve transparency from their government, particularly at a time when the opposite has been identified as one of the big problems of the past.

The public, still scarred from brushes with highly paid consultants in the past, are rightly wary of any story involving such individuals now, and this case only serves to strengthen that.

In his exit interview with this newspaper I asked Treasury Minister Alan Maclean, who has announced that he is not seeking re-election, what it had been like being a part of a Council of Ministers that had lost the faith of Islanders and had perhaps one of the worst reputations since the inception of ministerial government.

It had been difficult at times, he said, adding that it wasn’t as bad as some Islanders perceive. And he added that it was communication – or perhaps lack of it – that was largely to blame for the loss of public confidence. The States, he said, has not been good at letting Islanders know what it is doing and – crucially – why.

He’s completely right, and it’s something this newspaper has said time and time again. And for a while it seemed like they were listening. After all, one of these very consultants is PR guru Stephen Hardwick, brought in to transform communication across the States internally and externally.

Plus there are other highly paid experts – for example, former Scottish Tory specialist adviser Ramsay Jones – also on the books for similar reasons.

Perhaps it is naive to think that such moves should actually be improving communication. But Jersey is unique in that its community is far less tolerant of – as a result of being more aware of – spin than perhaps those in towns and cities in the UK who often feel detached from the political system.

And those pulling the communication strings in the States of Jersey would do well to remember that.

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