Managed Democracy - Control of Information
The Transition to Uncommunication
Danny Williams turned the provincial government’s public information services into a partisan weapons system.
The bureaucracy assimilated the lessons.
Inertia did the rest.
A wealthy, popular lawyer, Danny Williams entered politics with the three qualities needed for success in a political culture already bred to give political authority to people of higher social status.
Williams was also aggressive, insecure, and arguably the angriest person ever to enter local politics.
The 2003 Pea Sea election campaign built on the image of Williams as a scrappy leader that he had crafted before running for the party leadership in 2001 and that carried him through the convention that year and into a seat in the House of Assembly. Williams’ campaign team kept him away from news media during chunks of the election campaign except in carefully planned events.
The first real sight many had of Williams as the Premier was an interview on CBC’s supper-hour news show Here and Now during the transition. Despite having swept to power with a decisive majority, Williams was not smiling and friendly. He slouched in a chair opposite the calm, professional, gentlemanly host Doug Letto, elbows propped, his hands together in front of his face, one clenched in a fist hitting the palm of the other.
Williams was naturally abrasive. In the transition, Williams asked former Tory cabinet minister and retired judge Bill Marshall to sit on his transition team to keep an eye on the Liberals and make sure they didn’t make off with the silverware. A couple of years before, he told the Nova Scotia Liberals Confederation was a Liberal plot to suck the life out of Atlantic Canada.
This was not just partisan bluster. Williams loved going after his opponents or declared enemies personally. Most townies knew the story of Williams catcalling incumbent mayor Andy Wells as Williams campaigned in a failed bid to put his law partner Jack Harris in Wells’ chair.
In politics, Williams and his team transformed government communications. They cleared out the communications staff, hiring a combination of personal friends of the Premier’s own comms director, reporters who had written supportive stories during the campaign, and people with far less experience than the minimum the job ad wanted. All sorts of people fell by the wayside including people with 15 years of experience in some of the toughest markets in North America. Another was a 30 year veteran of the provincial government’s own news service who was only a couple of years short of a pension.
More significantly, they changed the tone and content of government communications to reflect Williams’ natural style. Strategically, Williams style had three key features.
First, the Pea Seas dialed down the information content in government news operations to near zero and dialed up the propaganda techniques like ad hominem attacks, intense repetition, appeals to emotion, fear, and prejudice, or sorting people into us versus them, friends versus enemies categories.
Many of the themes Williams used naturally because he and his audience were familiar with them. Foreign enemies were especially popular. In 2004, he fought with the federal government over transfer payments. Williams and his team built their messaging on old nationalist animosity over Confederation ands popular myths about foreign exploitation of Newfoundland. They never released a statement of any kind that explained the provincial position, something Premiers had typically done since the 1960s in fights with Ottawa over resources.
Williams would fight anyone over anything at any time. In 2005, he attacked the United States government and NASA over plans to launch a satellite into orbit along a trajectory that never came near the offshore oil rigs on the Grand Banks. NASA and the US Air Force had been doing that since the 1950s, but Williams decided it was something worth fighting over.
In 2006, Williams fought with ExxonMobil over an equity stake in the Hebron project. No description of what the province wanted and why it wanted it. Just Williams lambasting the oil companies.
Williams 2009-2019 diatribes about Quebec touched on prejudices dating from the 1970s over Churchill Falls. He had used the 1969 power contract during the campaign, promising never to sign a deal on the Lower Churchill as Roger Grimes had been prepared to do, without redress of the 1969 grievance. He went back to the grievance again in 2009 to distract from his own failed efforts to cut a deal without redress and then screwing with the water rights that underpinned the 1969 contract.
Those rhetorical techniques supported the second feature of Williams’ strategy: suppressing challengers or alternative perspectives. Suppression took two forms. One involved active measures to silence critics. Williams created a friends and enemies dichotomy within the province. People who criticised government’s approach on any issue would quickly find themselves labelled as traitors or quislings. No one was too small for Williams to call out. A lawyer in Grand Falls-Windsor. Public servants. Directors of a local offshore industry association. Bloggers. The guy who wrote a letter to the local paper in Port aux Basques complaining about roads. Some got threats. Some got labelled. Some just got a phone call asking them to shut up. The method varied. The goal was the same.
The second effort was passive, but no less it important. Williams and his staff fought public requests for information from government records under the access to information law. The main co-ordinating office within government was in Executive Council. That gave the Premier’s Office the ability to influence responses to access requests across government. Williams eventually appointed a partisan and personal ally as access commissioner, who wasn’t above ruling against access requests using ridiculous arguments.
Most importantly, the Premier’s Office set the tone on access requests. That tone was firmly against disclosure even if the law said the public had a right to access records. In his first year in office, Williams fought against a request for polling data commissioned by the Premier’s Office monthly. The law said the information could not be withheld. Williams resisted and eventually lost. Williams and the Pea Seas fought against poll data release throughout the administration, returning to it once again in later years with the nonsense claim that the polling data commissioned by government was the private property of the polling firm.
No argument was too preposterous. Williams’ office fought against a request for copies of public speeches the Premier delivered, including drafts. One of the ways his office controlled access to information was by withholding copies of speeches, something that other politicians and other governments routinely provided free of charge on the government website. Williams’ office claimed it would cost $10,000 to process the request as officials would have to print out the speech, redact it, then rescan it to send to the applicant. The best that the access commissioner’s staff would do is pare the cost down to a little over three grand.
Another way they fought access was by simply lying about things. During an interview, one reporter noticed Williams referring to a purple folder, which the reporter learned Williams had prepared for every interview. Another accidentally received an email asking officials to prepare purple files *on* reporters coming for interviews. It contained not only notes on the subject but also the reporter. Although Williams acknowledged the purple files existed during an interview, Williams’ office denied the record existed - the “no responsive records” ploy - when the reporter submitted an access request for copies of the purple files.
Bureaucrats didn’t need help coming up with absurd reasoning to withhold information. During the Cameron inquiry into the breast cancer scandal, the Cabinet Secretariat access co-ordinator described censoring news stories that formed part of a government record. She routinely crossed out names of people mentioned in a story, like the name of a judge and lawyers representing parties in a case heard in open court.
The third element of Williams’ communications strategy involved the creative use of polls to manipulate public opinion. For the first year in office, Williams spent just under $5,000 a month with a local market research firm to poll on everything from the fight with Ottawa over federal transfers to the provincial flag to the flag episode in January 2005. The contract amount flew just below the public tendering act trigger for putting a job to tender. Williams wanted his own pollster to get the work for him, exclusively.
When Williams lost the fight to keep those polls secret, Williams team focused on framing the opinion environment They did this the one polling firming that did government work and also released some results of its own polling to local news media. Corporate Research Associates polled every quarter, charging clients to add questions to its omnibus survey. CRA also asked three questions of its own about support for political parties, party leaders, and government, which CRA released to market itself.
Since Williams and his staff knew when CRA would be in the field, they could manipulate the poll by flooding the province with good news announcements during the polling period. They would also task cabinet ministers, backbenchers, political staff, and a small army of volunteers to blanket the major local call-in shows to praise the government and attack enemies.
While the pollster denied that this could skew his poll, there was no doubt of what the Pea Seas were doing and that it was effective. Both Sir Robert Bond Papers and university academics documented the behaviour using officials records. After Williams retired, local conventional media picked up the story using leaked emails.
Williams himself inadvertently confirmed what they were doing, though. During a call to a local morning radio talk show about a good news announcement that happened after polling started, the host asked Williams about what came to be known as poll-goosing. Is this announcement a way of influencing the poll? Nothing could be further from the truth, Williams scoffed. If we wanted to skew a poll, he replied, we’d start the good news about a week or so *before* the polling started. Of course, what he didn’t say and what the host didn’t notice was that the government *had* made a major energy announcement a week before the pollster started collecting data.
Williams and his staff also goosed as inconsequential a poll as VOCM’s question of the day. They started out used the legion of astroturfers from the open line beat to click the button as many times as possible. Eventually, they using software to drop in thousands of votes to skew the poll whatever way they wanted. Famously, the whole scheme collapsed when someone else started countering the Pea Sea scam using the same kind of vote dumping software. Together, they crashed VOCM’s servers.
The value of all this poll goosing wasn’t just the poll results themselves. They were just a part of the process. The polls became a simple propaganda message using circular logic: Williams was right because he was popular and popular because he was right. That satisfied his supporters and tied up anyone else in logical knots.
All the positive news served its own purpose. Together with the absence of negative news - often the result of suppression - it created the impression things were far better than they were. Most importantly, they also gave Williams free rein to do as he pleased, free of accountability.