The rise and rise of government propaganda
Think about it for just a minute and you will see a pattern has emerged over the past 18 months — a pattern of voices critical to the Government being silenced and of independent organisations being dismantled or subjected to political interference.
At the same time, there has been a massive leap in taxpayer-funded government messaging masquerading as news. It has become a multimillion-dollar propaganda machine at a time when there are apparently insufficient funds for more litigation guardians to ensure our vulnerable children are properly represented in court.
First, some examples of silencing or political interference:
• The chief executive of the Bermuda Health Council is removed
• Ministerial interference in the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission
• Ministerial interference clauses inserted in the Bermuda Tourism Authority Act
• Planned removal of the democratically elected representatives of the corporations of St George and Hamilton
Then there is the Department of Child and Family Services, which deserves a deeper dive.
Michael Weeks, then the Minister of Social Development and Sport, was made aware of allegations of abuse, and responded by launching an investigation and suspending the director. He was then removed as minister by the Premier and was not allowed to give a personal explanation in the House of Assembly, despite two requests to do so from One Bermuda Alliance leader Craig Cannonier.
Questions asked in the House during the Budget debate were not answered as the Attorney-General, and new minister responsible for the Department of Child and Family Services, sits in the Senate and supposedly wanted to answer them there.
During debate in the Senate, the Attorney-General expanded her statement so as to consume all the allotted time and thus avoid any direct scrutiny. Yes, she spoke for the full two hours allotted to avoid public scrutiny.
Second, let’s look at the money being allocated to additional “communications”:
• Political PR consultants and Minister without Portfolio, with special responsibility for communications: while full figures were not provided on the consultants, from what was shared we can estimate that somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 is being spent annually on six political PR consultants as well as the “Minister of Propaganda”
• Communications (page A-8 in the Budget Statement) has experienced an increase of $950,000 in annual spending between the 2017-18 actuals and the 2019-20 Budget
• Over the same period, money spent annually on advertising and promotions (A-8) increased by $764,000
• The Department of Communications, the Government’s press office, had a net increase of $280,000 annually over the same period (A-5)
These four areas alone account for an increase of up to $2.7 million between the 2017-18 actuals and 2019-20 Budget. To put that into perspective, the Department of Education received the same amount in spending increase.
However, once you factor in that the Department of Education’s capital development (school safety works, bathroom renovations, etc, on C-4) and capital acquisitions (computers, IT equipment, etc, on C-11)) combined are $1.42 million less in this year’s Budget than the 2017-18 actuals, then the actual amount of additional resources for the Department of Education is $1 million less than the increased funding for the “Propaganda Machine”.
Again, in the past two years this government provided more than $1 million more in additional funding to PR than to supporting teachers and making schools safer.
Third, let’s look at the communications structure to understand where and how some of that money is being spent:
• At the top, we have the Minister for Cabinet Office responsible for communications as well as a Minister without Portfolio with special responsibility for communications
• There are 30 employees at the Department of Communications, including a six-strong team of writers
• The government website
• A request for information was recently issued by the Government to find ideas to increase ways to get its messages out — it is a given here that if media are being paid to promote government messages, they will not question those messages
• A Pati disclosure showing that at least $50,000 — note, we do not know the full amount — is being spent with Inter-Island Communications, owned by former Progressive Labour Party MP Glenn Blakeney
• Social-media pages. How many sponsored Facebook posts have you seen from the Government?
Despite all that existing machinery, the Government still appointed six political PR consultants and a Minister without Portfolio for communications.
The increase in spending on the communications apparatus is a telling measure of this government’s priorities when compared with other items, as we see with education.
Coming full circle to the Department of Child and Family Services, despite the allegations of abuse and various investigations, a mere $242,000 was budgeted in 2019-20 for litigation guardians and we were unable to get answered if anything was budgeted for actual legal representation for those same minors in court.
To make matters worse, Inter-Island Communications talk radio host Sherri Simmons is being paid $105,000 per year as a political PR consultant for this same ministry. And yet the self-proclaimed “people’s party” cannot find enough money to ensure vulnerable children receive legal representation before being sent to overseas facilities.
Again, more than $2.5 million was found for increased paid messaging and political PR consultants, but less than $250,000 was found to fund litigation guardians.
I ask you, Mr and Mrs Bermuda, is this how you want your money spent?
• Nick Kempe is the Shadow Minister of Finance and the Opposition Senate Leader