It was the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, who summed it up neatly, just yesterday, when he said: “The media and journalists have a more important role than ever to play at this time.”
On the same day, Jersey’s Chief Minister, Senator John Le Fondré, published one of his now regular night-time YouTube videos where he reads from a script and gives nobody, journalist or otherwise, the opportunity to question his words.
The contrast in approach is stark.
Guernsey also has been held up by many as an exemplar of good communications during this coronavirus pandemic.
Their two to three-times weekly press conference with the trio of the Chief Minister, Health Minister and Director of Public Health allow journalists to ask as many as questions as they wish on behalf of all islanders, including essential follow-ups for clarity. They are regularly joined by the States Chief Executive and Police Chief to add to that sense of transparency.
In Jersey, the Chief Minister has faced next to no public scrutiny, and even his recent attempt at engagement by answering questions on Twitter was a one-way street with no chance for anybody to holler the obvious: “you didn’t answer the question!”
So why does this matter?
Well, to a certain extent it doesn’t. If those in charge, and the politicians, are getting on with doing all the right things to save lives, then who can argue.
Except, without transparency, we just don’t know.
Guernsey openly publishes data about where outbreaks have occurred, about how many are in hospital, about who’s recovered, and regularly gives insights into their 24/7 ‘contact tracing’ operation to find anybody and everybody who may have come into contact with a positive case.
In Jersey, well, er, we just don’t know. There’s a headline “tested positive” figure, and little else.
Then there are the words of the Chief Minister which beg multiple follow up questions.
Last night, in his most recent YouTube video he said: “The measures we’ve introduced to slow the spread of COVID-19 appear to be working.”
On what basis?
Last Wednesday, in an even later night video he said: “There have been reports in the media saying that frontline staff don’t have access to the PPE they need. I want to be absolutely frank in saying this is not the case.”
I’ve heard a very different story from healthcare workers...
On 29 March, the night before lockdown began, he said: “Most islanders will need to contract the virus at some stage over the next few months. That is how we build immunity. There is no other choice.”
Those words would appear to be confirmation of a ‘herd immunity’ strategy. But is it? He tweeted a few days later to say that’s not the plan, thus even contradicting his own words.
This is why scrutiny matters.
Yes, I am a journalist who relishes getting face-time with our elected leaders, and I love getting a headline from those interviews. But now, more than ever, this stuff matters as it’s not about the latest States meeting to discuss the price of parking or whether to make a street one-way. This is about whether you or I might die.
Last month I wrote directly to the Chief Minister to ask for a long-form socially-distanced interview where we can calmly yet forensically go through the myriad lingering questions. I didn’t even get the courtesy of a reply.
I’ve asked, again, today – via his press office operation.