A Question of Semantics Over Libya Mission Cost

Tom Clark of Global's The West Block interviewed Defence Minister Peter MacKay over the whole how-much-did-he-know-about-Canada's-Libya-spending brouhaha. I don't know if MacKay is a lawyer or not, but he sure speaks like one.

I don't mean that he speaks out of the side of his mouth or that he says one thing but means another. I mean he is extraordinarily precise about what he's saying and his answers are specific and literal. Journalists don't seem to know how to handle it.

It's pretty simple really: watch what words you use in your questions and listen carefully to the answers so that you ensure you and the lawyer, uh, I mean Minister of the Crown are speaking about the same thing.

And so MacKay was apparently asked back in October 2011 how much the Libya mission cost. The operative word is "cost." MacKay picked up on that. He didn't answer the question that is in the minds of the journalists now, which I suppose the journalist back then was asking in that non-specific way of the English language, namely: how much we going to spend in total on Libya? No, MacKay answered the literal question about cost, that is, back in October, how many dollars have we actually spent? MacKay gave a specific date and used the word "cost" in his answer.

Now journalists are all in a frenzy that he didn't give the total estimate. They're basically saying he lied back then. To back up their thesis, they asked the DND guy when MacKay knew about the total estimate, except in all the clips I've seen, the DND guy doesn't give a precise date, only "October," which the journalists all interpret to mean MacKay knew the estimate at the time of the question. I don't see that. When in October did he know? We need precision people.

Anyway, it's irrelevant when he knew. He was talking about actual costs, not estimates, and the journalist at the time apparently didn't ask about estimates.

Still, today, journalists are upset that the Minister denies he knew the total estimate at the time of the interview or October, whichever date you prefer; they're upset he didn't give the total estimate and gave the cost of the mission to mid-October instead. They claim he was trying to mislead the public. Maybe so, after all he was trying to convey the impression that the Conservative Party of Canada was spending less than the original estimate, that they're good fiscal managers. But he wasn't lying in his answer. It isn't his fault that the journalists were not listening carefully, that they didn't phrase the original question precisely or rephrase upon his answer.

If they had listened carefully then and now, they would have heard that up to mid-October, long before the Libya mission was over, Canada had spent in actual dollars $50 million. Instead they are interpreting that now, and reporting to the public, that MacKay said that Canada would spend in total $50 million on the Libya mission beginnging to end. They are misinterpreting what he said because they had and have in their heads a different question than he was asked.

If journalists learnt how to ask questions like a lawyer and listen to the answers like a seasoned psychiatrist or trial lawyer, they would not be in this lather now.