The banality of spin

One problem with living in Ottawa is that if you go away you might miss something important. Especially these days. By "important" I don't just mean so awful it's also funny. The word usually carries a quite different meaning here. And I can prove it.

You see, one of the peculiar pleasures of my job is to be inundated with press releases that routinely plumb new depths of banality, hypocrisy and vanity, often simultaneously. Like one from Foreign Affairs on May 20 that said "Minister Bernier Concludes Successful Visit to Croatia".

At the time I wondered what it would take for them to categorize a visit as unsuccessful. Would he have to fall down the steps of the plane, call publicly for the resignation of a senior official, dispatch planes we didn't have or show up with a "spouse" to whom he isn't married who'd forgotten her shirt? Obviously it has since become clear that when it comes to foreign ministers the bar had been dramatically lowered, raised or otherwise placed somewhere unexpected. But let us not dwell on spilled confidential documents. My topic is important things in Ottawa and you cannot imagine how many of them there are unless you, too, get these press releases.

In case you don't because you have a life, allow me to explain. As an important journalist I am informed on an almost daily basis that some minister or other will make an "important announcement" on, say, infrastructure in Hampton, New Brunswick (April 24), the transfer of the federal gas tax to Saint-Elzéar, Quebec (May 20) or some other thing I might otherwise have overlooked.

For instance, on May 1 I was told that in just one more day "The Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Health, along with the Honourable Doug Currie, Prince Edward Island Minister of Health, will announce an important health investment for the people of Prince Edward Island." Which maybe they did. It seems more likely than that Rick Dykstra, MP for St. Catharines, actually managed on May 9, "On behalf of the Honourable Josée Verner, Minister of Canadian Heritage, Status of Women and Official Languages," to make "an important announcement ... concerning the Niagara Folk Arts Festival" or that the next day Mike Allen, MP for Tobique-Mactaquac, contrived to do so "about the Carleton-Victoria Arts Council." Again one wonders what they would categorize as an unimportant announcement on these topics.

My favourite in this genre was the April 30 notice that "The Honourable Beverley J. Oda, Minister of International Cooperation, will make an important announcement" on a subject they didn't even bother to specify later that same day. Regrettably I had trouble persuading myself the Hon. Beverley J. Oda would under any circumstances make an important announcement about anything and I confess that I never did discover what it was. If you don't pay attention in this town you can miss a lot.

Including that Ottawa is a darn exciting place where important people are forever doing important things or at least saying important things or, cynics might assert, saying they're saying important things in case no other evidence of this fact could be unearthed even by trained experts. If I didn't know better I'd think some PR hacks in drab cubicles had hit upon an uninspired strategy of routinely inserting hyperbole into boring press releases because they had to do something to justify their salaries or because their employers needed a new way to annoy us after finally getting as tired as we were of the phrase "Canada's New Government".

Probably the powers that spin will consider me a crank for airing this possibility. And yes, I'm also the sort of person who doesn't react well to the adjective "delicious" on a menu. Years ago I encountered a sound rule of thumb that lots of adjectives on menus are bad; if they tell you their alfredo sauce is "creamy" it amounts to admitting you might well have different expectations after seeing the restaurant and talking to the waiter. But "delicious" is doubly bad because (a) as the customer I should decide after tasting it and (b) to tell me so pre-emptively implies that I look like such a chump you don't feel any need to hear my opinion before disputing it.

Sorry, I lost focus there. And as a result almost missed two ministers of the Crown going to Lima for, they announced pre-emptively, "an important announcement to advance Canada's trade relationship with Peru" - as opposed to an unimportant announcement on that subject which a trained journalist might have carelessly assumed he could ignore.

So I hate to go away because I might miss something important. Especially given how often it happens even when I'm here.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]