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SCOOP: The government tried to spin us about Israel, and we have proof
Does it never occur to these people to just tell the truth? Must everything be crisis communication?
By: Matt Gurney
The war in Israel is, of course, a local story — local for the Israelis, and local for the Palestinians. The war is a serious and a tragic event and the attention of the world should rightly be upon the region and the human suffering that has already occurred and that is still to come.
But how Canada reacts to the crisis is also important, for Canadians. And I am disappointed to report that when The Line tried to find out more about that response, instead of being honest, the government tried to spin us. And in their public statements, they tried to spin you, too. This was dishonest. And on a lot of people, it worked.
Here’s what happened.
Over the weekend, as Canadians in Israel tried to contact the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv, they found it was closed and found no help. Reports of this spread over social media; The Line has directly spoken to several people over social media or by telephone with such stories. These were people who were either in Israel or outside of it but needed help getting a loved one back to Canada. They were unable to reach anyone at the embassy.
Last weekend, of course, was the long weekend — Thanksgiving weekend. The attack on southern Israel began early Saturday morning, local time — outside of business hours. The embassy had previously tweeted that it would be closed on Monday because of that. As Canadians tried and failed to get in touch with government representatives, people noticed the tweet, and they got angry. Don't they know this was an emergency?!
The Line commented on this state of affairs in our weekend dispatch. We were unimpressed. We noted then that we had sent Global Affairs Canada (GAC) an email requesting details, but received only a general response with updates on the overall situation.
Here is where things get interesting.
On Sunday evening (hours after we published our dispatch), I received a reply from GAC. This was the reply:
Since the beginning of this crisis, Canadian officials have been working around the clock to support Canadians. The missions in Tel Aviv and Ramallah remained operational through the weekend and will continue to be. Our missions will open on Monday October 9th, unless security conditions do not allow for it. We will be assessing the security situation daily, in coordination with our allies.
Okay! That seemed fair. But not having been born yesterday, and being in a profession where people try to spin me all the time, I noticed something immediately. The distinction GAC was drawing between "operational" and "open" stood out to me. I replied at once seeking clarification, and heard nothing back. Not even an acknowledgement.
This word choice mattered. The government publicly used the "operational" messaging. Members of the government repeated it. This was what they were telling the Canadian people: all is well, ignore those nasty media people and members of the opposition. Of course the embassies were “operational”!
See that tweet? The one pasted above? I checked out who was retweeting it. Lots of people did! And that included a bunch of Liberal MPs, a bunch of Canadian diplomats, members of the media, and what I’ll politely refer to as a group of “usual suspects” I recognize from online as being proxies for the Liberal government’s messaging (or at least really devoted True Believer Liberal partisans).
On Monday morning, having heard nothing back about what “operational” meant as opposed to “open”, I asked for a specific clarification in the terminology. What was "operational" vs. "open"? I also asked for specifics on what services were available locally from Canadian diplomatic missions in Israel over the weekend in real time, and how that would change when the embassy "opened" on Monday. I asked about the staffing level at the embassy on the weekend, and how that would compare to a normal workday, and also to a normal weekend.
I asked these questions for a reason. I wanted to be able to quantify, fairly and with accurate information, what had actually been going on. The impression was that Canada was asleep at the switch, and I wanted to give GAC a chance to convince me that that was not so. I concluded my email to them on Monday morning with this: "To be frank, 'operational' vs. 'open' reads like crisis comms spin. I request more details to understand better what these terms actually mean." I gave them until 2 pm Monday to reply.
GAC replied nine minutes later, just after 10 a.m. on Monday morning (a holiday Monday). This was their reply: "Hello Matt, Your request for clarification is noted. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible."
That was the last I heard from them. I followed up. I was ignored.
On Wednesday afternoon, at 3 p.m. Eastern time, GAC officials held a briefing for parliamentarians. The meeting was held over Zoom. The Line did not participate in the meeting, as it was not open to the public, but I heard shortly after it concluded from participants, who told us that during that briefing, a parliamentarian asked GAC almost exactly what I had: what was the difference between "operational" and "open"? The government's reply in this private, non-public briefing was that over the weekend, citizens were aided by officials in Canada at an emergency operations centre in Ottawa, that over the weekend, staff in Ottawa were in touch with staff in Israel, and that the Canadian diplomatic offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah opened on Monday.
This confirmed our suspicion that GAC was trying to pull one over on us — all of us. Remember: “operational” was part of the government's official public messaging: The embassy was operational! It was also their response to criticism by citizens, opposition politicians and the press. The embassy was operational!
I don't know what “operational” means. No one will answer that. But what came out at this briefing was that, in fact, over the weekend, while insisting publicly that the embassy was “operational,” the work was being done in Ottawa. This was openly admitted at the meeting. It’s nice to know GAC will answer questions from parliamentarians, even if they won’t answer mine.
So. My suspicions had been correct. After learning this, just to be sure, The Line contacted a series of people we guessed were probably watching the Zoom, asking for confirmation of what I had been told. Not everyone contacted had been present, but multiple people who were present confirmed it. Further, The Line then obtained audio copies — note, copies plural — of the meeting, and checked them. The copies all confirmed what I had been directly told by multiple sources. Whatever "operational" may mean, the embassy was not open over the weekend as the attack unfolded and Canadians in the area begged for help.
So that’s not great.
I am choosing not to reveal more about this meeting, even though I have several audio copies of it (thanks, guys, you can stop sending them now). This is a sensitive situation and the safety of Canadians in the region is very much on my mind. The point here is not to leak sensitive info.
But I have heard the audio recordings, and they are clear and incontrovertible: the embassy was closed outside of regular hours, but opened on Monday, a day earlier than planned. Calls between the start of the attack on Saturday and the opening on Monday were fielded in Canada by staff at the emergency operations centre in Ottawa during that time. Extra staff were brought in after the weekend to augment the operations centre.
And this is actually ... totally fine? This probably isn't the best way to manage a crisis, but it isn’t a disaster, either, and the government did not need to spin this. The plain truth wasn’t that bad and they could have just stuck with it.
But GAC did spin me. It spun me directly in its reply. It spun other media outlets (The Line has seen the "operational" claim reported in other outlets in essentially identical language to what we were provided). It spun on social media, in language that was quickly picked up and used to defend the government's performance by Liberal supporters online, including Canadian diplomats and elected members of the Liberal caucus.
But it was bogus. Spin. Message management. It was — dare I say it? — disinformation. The embassy was closed on the weekend; it opened on Monday. Saying that it was “operational” wasn't exactly a lie, but it was absolutely an attempt to deliberately mislead.
The government didn't need to do this. It could have simply said, "Our staff aren't at the embassy due to the long weekend, but we'll open a day earlier than planned and in the meantime we have activated an emergency operations centre in Ottawa to assist Canadians in the region right away." But instead, as Israelis were being slaughtered and Canadians begged for help, the government was gaming out how best to communicate with the public to deflect criticism. And they settled on dishonesty.
Compared to the war in Israel, this is a minor issue. I grant that. I have even been pleasantly surprised by how the prime minister and other officials have communicated about the war: clearly and effectively saying that Hamas's attack was brutal and that Canada supports Israel's right to defend itself.
But at the same time, while Canadians in and outside of Israel were desperately trying to find help from their government, rather than give an honest answer, the government workshopped some spin that would be better for itself.
Canadians deserve better than this — Canadians in Israel, Canadians in the Palestinian Territories and Canadians at home. Yet again, this government tried to communicate its way out of a problem that they could have just been honest about instead.
This is disappointing. But is no longer surprising.
The Line gave the government one hour to respond to our allegations contained above. I told them we had the audio, and promised to append any response they sent to the bottom of this article. After days of ignoring me — and yes, I did send polite, professional follow-ups — the government responded within minutes of me disclosing what I intended to publish. Weird how that happened.
This was their statement in full.
Thanks for reaching out. Minister Joly answered a similar question today on this, please feel free to check the recording. A brief excerpt of her words below.
…there has been a surge of asks, of demands because of the situation that took everybody by surprise on Saturday and that's why quickly we reacted and the team in Israel needed support and that's why the embassy in Egypt, in Jordan and Lebanon and also of course, the office here in Ottawa stepped up and helped.
The embassy, contrary to what certain people were saying, was open on Thanksgiving and it had also some interruption over the weekend based on what was happening on the ground and that was a similar situation as what the UK embassy did, the, the German embassy and also the Swedish embassy did. So we were working along with allies and also looking at where the Canadian embassy is located in Tel Aviv.
Now Marieke, I know that people are, are scared. Nobody knew this would happen. This is one of the worst terrorist attacks in, in Israel's history, so that's why we're presenting options today and that's why our consular services have been 24/7 at this…
I offered them one more chance to clarify any language they wished to around “operational” or “open” and even slightly delayed publishing this to give them that chance.
I received no further reply.
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