Politics

Flubbed federal release caused diplomatic flap

Documents show the government's well-oiled information machine broke down on a Sunday night with a erroneous press release on Isreal's response to the Gaza flotilla raid.

A Foreign Affairs news release that popped up on a Sunday night was jarring, considering the pro-Israel stance of the Harper government:

"Canada Concerned by Israel's Decision to Set up Independent Public Commission Concerning Flotilla Incident," its headline announced last June 13.

The Mavi Marmara ship was the lead boat of a flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip and was stormed by Israeli naval commandos in a predawn confrontation in May, 2010. It is seen in Istanbul, Turkey, Dec. 26, 2010. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP File Photo)
But the release underneath actually said the foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, welcomed Israel's decision to examine what went wrong when its soldiers boarded a ship leading a flotilla carrying supplies to the Gaza Strip.

Internal documents released under the Access to Information Act show that the government's well-oiled information machine broke down that night as the rogue release slipped through the political filters.

The erroneous headline was inserted in error by a rushed editor. The faulty text then eluded the watchful censors at the Privy Council Office, the prime minister's own department.

The misleading missive was finally distributed digitally at about 7:30 p.m. ET through the  parliamentary press gallery and on the government's website.

Horrified bureaucrats realized the gaffe within minutes. "Am I obtuse, or is the title wrong?" one public servant said in an urgent email.

"The title went under radar," came the reply. "My deepest apologies. ... It was so much in rush ... very sorry."

The Privy Council Office ordered that urgent calls be placed to the Israeli embassy and to Ambassador Miriam Ziv, to apologize and explain that Canada's relations were unchanged.

Civil servants stuck on the weekend shift, meanwhile, made best efforts to eradicate the bad version from the government website, and to alert the parliamentary press gallery, all within an hour.

But the flubbed-then-fixed release was nevertheless featured in several blogs and some news reports.

More than 25 people were involved in the creation of the news release over more than five hours, the email chains show.

Rushed releases mangled

The Case of the Twisted Title is just one of many examples from the hurly-burly of public affairs in Ottawa, where rushed news releases are sometimes inadvertently mangled:

  •  In March 1998, the Canadian Heritage Department issued a release announcing the visit to British Columbia of the "Prince of Whales" and his two sons. The misspelling was especially stinging given that the department, then under Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps, is supposed to be Canada's authority on protocol.
  • In August 2009, the Prime Minister's Office announced a five-day Arctic trip by Stephen Harper that included a stop in "Iqualuit." The capital of Nunavut is actually spelled Iqaluit, which means "many fish" in Inuktitut. That extra "u" radically changed the meaning, to "people with unwiped bums." Harper's office quickly apologized.
  •  In October 2009, the Liberal party issued a news release entirely in Latin, leaving journalists scratching their heads. Oxford- and Harvard-educated Michael Ignatieff had assumed the leadership that year, but it turns out the party was not adopting a classics approach to communications. Rather, the release was a template with a standard Latin passage — used by  publishers for hundreds of years — to hold the place of the English or French text to be inserted later. The party had accidentally sent the template instead of the intended release.
  •  And just last week, the Prime Minister's Office sent out a release announcing the unveiling of the official portrait of Canada's ninth prime minister, the obscure Arthur Meighen. In its efforts to raise the profile of this little-known Conservative politician, the PMO managed to misspell his last name as "Meighan." A correction was quickly issued.

The erroneous Foreign Affairs release about Israel may have slipped past the censors at the Privy Council Office, but they were on high alert when The Canadian Press filed an Access to Information Act request for details of the gaffe. Foreign Affairs released documents only on Nov. 15, five months after receiving the request — and following extensive consultations with PCO.

The released package included a section heavily censored at the direction of PCO. The blacked-out documents were made available only last week, with the censoring finally removed, after a successful complaint to the information commissioner of Canada.

Corrections

  • Clarification: The Canadian Press reported in a story Feb. 19 that a ship boarded by Israeli soldiers last year was delivering supplies to the Gaza Strip. The story should have reported that the Israeli government says the ship, the Mavi Marmara, did not carry humanitarian aid but was part of a flotilla that did. This story has been edited to reflect this.
    Oct 10, 2013 1:24 AM ET