Lies and damn statistics*
Something in Munir Sheikh's testimony before the Commons industry committee this morning made me think of the coalition crisis. I know, maybe a stretch, but bear with me.
It was when Sheikh was talking about his decision to resign -- prompted, incredibly, by what he was reading in the paper.
Here's a bit of what he said:
"I think if you go back to the day that I resigned, there were stories in the media, particularly in The Globe and Mail, which had a headline on page four, which said that the chief statistician supports what the government is planning to do."
"I don't really know what the minister said. What I'm going on is the stories that emerged in the media, regardless of what the minister said... In the media, and in the public, there was this perception that Statistics Canada is supporting this decision that no statistician would, it really cast doubt on the integrity of that agency and I, as the head of the agency, cannot survive in that job."
"The point is that Wednesday morning, when I read the stories in the media, they started to cast doubt on StatsCan's integrity. It is what I read in the Globe and Mail... It doesn't matter what the minister said. It is what the perception is out there and what Canadians believe in, that will have an impact on whether or not I can do my job."
This made me shudder. In essence, one of Canada's top public servants believed that he had only one option for fighting back against the media perception -- resignation. You want to talk about feeling threatened by misuse of information? Someone, spreading this interpretation of StatsCan's stand, was deliberately taking advantage of the fact that Mr. Sheikh wouldn't speak publicly -- neither to confirm nor deny the alleged support of the government's census decision.
So what does this have to do with the coalition crisis? In that case, the battle was also over perception versus reality. By the time the matter landed in the Governor-General's lap, the public had been whipped up into a frenzy about separatists running the Canadian government. There was no public debate or education campaign about the realities of the coalition and minority parliaments. The Governor-General was spun into a corner and again, unable to speak directly to the public, because of ancient codes of silence and discretion. From what I understand, the GG was also worried about public perception, fearing that any decision to deny prorogation would unleash a PR campaign against the institution of governor-general itself.
Dutiful silence is an honoured tradition in Canadian public service, but if it becomes a weapon in someone else's hands, that should make us all worried. And it might make public servants reconsider whether discretion is always the better part of valour. If Mr. Sheikh had another option -- specifically, refuting things said about him publicly -- maybe he didn't need to resign.
And we in the media, yes that means me too, should be careful about allowing mischievous spin to fill a duty-bound silence. Sheikh essentially said this morning that StatsCan was outgunned by a whisper campaign against it, much in the way that the GG was, and that cannot be right. In a larger sense, I think this tension between perception and reality is the biggest problem facing political journalism and politics in general. Perception shouldn't be a trump card against facts.
*Sorry for the inevitable headline.