Premier wrong to admonish media for doing its job

Premier Stephen McNeil is pictured during a briefing on May 8 in Halifax.

Recent comments by Premier Stephen McNeil during a briefing about the COVID-19 pandemic in Nova Scotia were out-of-line, and dismissive of the media’s role in getting vital information to the public.

On May 8 in Halifax, the premier took some members of the media to task for publishing the province’s plan to gradually lift public health restrictions. The information was contained in a presentation by Nova Scotia’s Chief Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang on May 6 to members of the Nova Scotia Business Labour Economic Coalition.

During the briefing, Dr. Strang reviewed the decision-making and consultation processes provincial officials will be using before lifting some of the measures. He cautioned that Nova Scotia will take a “slow and methodical approach” under a reopening plan that balances public safety with the needs to increase economic and social activity.

Dr. Strang said Nova Scotia’s reopening will depend on advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the status of COVID-19 in the province, consultation with sectors, and the ability for people and businesses to continue to follow public health measures. Each phase could last a minimum of 28 days and the readiness to reopen and to move onto the next phase will be assessed weekly.

He said the May 1 announcement that some measures were lifted amounts more to a “pre-phase,” describing it as a necessary opening of some outdoor spaces.

Those who have been and will be consulted are: restaurant and drinking establishments; business associations; private campgrounds; the cosmetology association; personal care services; fitness establishments; unregulated health professions; regulated health professions; golf courses; casinos; licensed childcare providers; and art and cultural organizations.

Phase 1 will involve allowing: some businesses to open; daycares to operate; more outdoor activities; urgent health care services to resume; the size of social gatherings to increase; and essential cultural gatherings (like funerals) to take place.

According to Dr. Strang’s presentation, phase 2 could include a larger gathering size and opening businesses deemed low-risk. The third phase could mean increasing gathering size again and re-opening moderate-risk businesses/workplaces. Phase 4 could include opening highest risk settings, with another increase in gathering sizes. The final phase will involve re-opening all businesses, but will depend on vaccine availability.

McNeil said there were a “number of media reports” about the document.

“Some of the stories have suggested that Dr. Strang and I have been not been transparent with you, our fellow Nova Scotians,” McNeil said. “Imagine, for the past two months, we have come to you virtually every day, to tell you everything that we know; the good news, the bad news, and the complications. We have said from the very beginning we were all in this together and nothing has changed.”

While the premier was on solid ground pointing to the province’s efforts in being transparent, it was in dissecting the motives of those who reported on the document where McNeil was completely off base.

“But some seem to want to make COVID political and discredit our chief medical officer, who is helping us get through this unprecedented time,” the premier said. “It’s one thing to come after me, as an elected official, but it’s an entirely different story to misrepresent what Dr. Strang was doing this week.”

McNeil said the public was informed during the May 1 briefing that Dr. Strang was going to share information with stakeholders about the province’s new protocols to get their input on how to re-open the economy. The premier said the document was based on publicly available national guidelines.

“I’m being as open and transparent as I can be,” McNeil said. “To those who’ve suggested that Dr. Strang is keeping information from Nova Scotians, that could not be further from the truth.”

The premier said the document reviewed by Dr. Strang contains no dates because consultations are not complete. When consultations are finished, McNeil said they will come back to Nova Scotians to explain more of their plan.

The first journalist to ask a question following the briefing, the CBC’s Mike Gorman, quickly responded to the Premier’s finger-wag.

“Premier, I respectfully submit that reporters reporting on documents they’ve received doesn’t equate to an attack on Dr. Strang’s credibility, but I wonder as I look at today’s documents… whether or not you would have released this document today and Dr. Strang would have made this presentation today, had the document from Wednesday’s presentation not been leaked?”

The premier shot back that he respectfully disagrees, repeating that the document was already made public and it will be feedback from stakeholders and partners that will dictate how the consultation process proceeds.

It is understandable that the premier was unhappy that raw plans for gradually rolling back those measures were publicized before they had a chance to provide context, but provincial officials should not be surprised.

The province itself decided to bring this information to some members of the public, and while it was deemed confidential, none of those consulted were obligated to keep this information secret. Considering these plans dictate the future of their businesses, investments and jobs, they have a large stake, and the right to do with this information as they wish.

And in some cases, stakeholders providing plans to the media and giving their opinions, was in fact, feedback.

It is more important than ever that the press relay such information to a public that has been loyally adhering to strict public health measures introduced when Nova Scotia entered a state of emergency two months ago.

If the premier is concerned with sensitive information hitting the front pages, provincial officials could have provided the media with some basic information and context which would not have undermined the consultation process since no final decisions have been reached.

During these unprecedented times, governments need the media to properly inform the public, and the media needs governments to be upfront and accountable.

Just as no government wants to dance to the tune of the media, it can also be said that the media is not the mouthpiece of any government, even during a pandemic.