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In a crisis, honesty is the best prescription

Maclean Kay: Public health officials insisting a leak wasn’t a leak is disappointing for many reasons - not least that it didn’t have to go down that way.
Dr. Bonnie Henry (BC Government Flickr)

This should have been so much easier.

Last week, someone at the BC Centre for Disease Control leaked several documents to media, which contained vastly more pandemic information than has ever been made public. And not just more information, mind you, but better and more detailed. And precisely the kind of information media had been asking about for months.

Not an ideal situation, for this or any government. But it was even worse, because public health officials, cabinet ministers, and indeed Premier John Horgan have invested in insisting that BC “is as transparent as any jurisdiction,” and shares just as much data, just as detailed, just as often. He doubled down on this approach today in Question Period.

It wasn’t ever true. And while this was always apparent – it only takes minutes to compare BC’s data with comparable jurisdictions – last week filled the void, and dispelled the notion that maybe it just wasn’t being collected, instead of not being shared.

On Friday, it got worse. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and deputy provincial health officer Dr. Réka Gustafson faced the media – and insisted there was nothing to see here. Every argument fell flat.

It wasn’t a leak, they claimed – except it was: the documents said “not for public distribution,” and weren’t being, y’know…distributed to the public.

Most of it was already public, they claimed – except it demonstrably wasn’t.

They release as much information as other provinces, they claimed – except…well, you get it.

(For a snappier and much better summary of the issues here, don’t miss this sad and devastating Twitter thread by CTV’s Penny Daflos.)

In other words, it’s one thing when the restaurant gets your order wrong. It’s quite another when they insist you’re mistaken, and the burger on your plate is actually the tacos you ordered. Who you gonna believe: your lying eyes; or me, a food expert? And I’m pretty sure you ordered a burger anyway.

It didn’t have to be like this.

I don’t mean sharing all the information from day one – that decision was made a long time ago, and may even have been the right call. But if it was defensible, then it shouldn’t have to be deniable. Once the leak happened, the “parrot is just resting” strategy on display at Friday’s press conference was disastrous.

If it was defensible, it shouldn’t have to be deniable.

Instead of putting Dr. Henry and Dr. Gustafson in the position of denying the plainly and painfully obvious, one of the government’s many and talented communications professionals could have suggested a different tack; a more honest and humble approach. Something like this:

“Early on, we had to make difficult decisions about sensitive information. Not only about a drain on human resources that we could not afford – and still can’t afford –  but we were concerned that granular data might lead to stigmatizing and blaming vulnerable communities. The recent increase of anti-Asian incidents in the Lower Mainland is sad evidence that all too often, the better angels of our nature get shouted down by fear, discord, and hate.”

I am convinced that explanation, or something like it, would have worked. First, because it’s (probably) true – or at least, much closer to the truth. Second, while it’s dwindled last summer, Dr. Henry still enjoys an enormous amount of public goodwill. Journalists in particular have been very careful and measured in their questions and even criticism, mostly from an abundance of caution, not wanting to undermine public confidence in a pandemic.

Alas, that’s not what happened.

Originally, Drs. Henry and Gustafson were going to be joined by Health Minister Adrian Dix, who probably would have fared better, having mastered the art of using many words to say very little. (Not a criticism - a valuable skill in this line of work.) Instead, he removed himself on short notice.

Knowing the strategy was (and apparently still is) to essentially pretend the leak never happened, was always public, and was not, in fact, a leak…I can understand wanting to be very, very far away.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca