How could Nigel Wright’s Duffy emails be ignored? Like this.

An average day at the PMO? That’s 500 to 600 e-mails. Stephen Harper’s ex-communications director explains the reality of top staffers’ inboxes

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Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, arrives with his lawyer Peter Mantas (right) at the courthouse in Ottawa on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015 for his second day of testimony at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy. (Justin Tang/CP)

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, makes his way through a crush of media as he arrives to testify at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy in Ottawa Wednesday, August 12, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, makes his way through a crush of media as he arrives to testify at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy in Ottawa Wednesday, August 12, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The author Andrew MacDougall was Stephen Harper’s chief media spokesman and director of communications from 2012 to 2013.

It’s an explanation that will convince no one. The ever-quotable Charlie Angus has already called it the 21st-century equivalent of a dog eating your homework.

“I didn’t read the email.”

It’s a sentence that has been uttered once in court and once on the campaign trail in relation to emails referencing a $90,000 payment from Nigel Wright to Mike Duffy. In the hothouse of electoral politics, it has been inflated into the million-dollar question: Did Ray Novak or Chris Woodcock read email traffic that flagged the expenses repayment?

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Now, I don’t know if my former colleagues read those emails. No one does but they. They’ve said their bit and people have made up their minds. But having spent five years drowning in PMO email, I know how it could happen.

Wait! Before you click away, allow me to give you an idea of some of my own inbox context.

When I hung up my spurs in September 2013, I had approximately 120,000 emails stuffed in my inbox. One hundred and twenty thousand. And that was after multiple archiving culls over the years.

Day after day, hundreds of emails (500 to 600 on an average day, 800 or so on a busy day) would pile up: transcripts of news broadcasts (each one a potential landmine); transcripts of newspapers stories (ditto); transcripts of scrums (super-duper ditto); emails from my department; emails from ministers and MPs; emails from journalists; emails from ministers’ offices complaining about journalists; emails from journalists complaining about ministers’ offices; and, yes, emails from my colleagues in the Langevin Block.

And then there were the hundreds of BlackBerry Messenger messages, PINs, and social media alerts.

Every morning, I would wake up to hundreds of news stories, a large chunk of them outlining something stupid or wasteful that the government had done. Each day, we had to pick out the big issues to wrangle (e.g., the effing F-35 program) while letting the ankle-biters take their tiny chunks of government flesh.

Thankfully, most issues would burn brightly and just as quickly fade away, victims of the 24/7/365 news stream. Other stories were damp squibs nobody followed. Some issues were herpetic, and would flare up from time to time (e.g., government advertising).

Anyway, you triaged as best you could, fought like hell, and rarely doubled back to reconsider your priorities, because there was always something new coming.

Oh, and most of this was done on the go, on the tiny screen of your ever-crashing BlackBerry.

Resolving an issue would often involve a round-robin of emails between colleagues. If I didn’t have a dog in that particular fight, or if one of my colleagues had the lead on the file, I would tune out and skim or ignore the traffic.

Other times, I had a direct stake in the outcome, so I made my case on email after email until I carried the day.

Related: Stephen Harper’s problem goes deeper than Mike Duffy

Not infrequently, I would get added to an email conversation 10 email exchanges deep and wonder why in the hell I was added to the email chain at all. This was usually a junior staffer adding daddy (i.e., me) to encourage a settlement to a dispute.

Sometimes an email from a colleague would prompt me to remember not answering his earlier email on another subject, and I would end up replying to his latest email with information pertaining to the older issue.

You probably get the sense by now that everything was a scramble and that I was running to stand still. Or I was drinking from a firehose. Whatever metaphor you choose, it was busier than you could possibly imagine.

You could step out of an hour-long meeting, or out of the House of Commons following question period, and have a hundred more emails waiting for you.

Not that you then necessarily had time to go through those in great detail, either because there was another meeting to go to, or a particularly pressing media inquiry to attend to. Reading email wasn’t the day’s only activity.

But surely I read the “important” emails, right? But important to whom? And important when?

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to believe the Duffy drama would take on its later importance, or that it was the only fire sucking up oxygen at the time. It wasn’t. There would have been several other issues competing for attention, along with the usual big-ticket matters of state (e.g., the budget, TPP negotiations, or Canada-EU trade).

For me, the immediate pain usually took precedence. If Bob Fife was emailing me in the morning, it was probably to shoot the breeze about the day ahead and ignorable. If he emailed me in the evening, it was because a hurricane was coming at 10 p.m. Nigel Wright could have emailed me the cure for cancer after I got evening-Fifed and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

It was usually late at night, after surviving the late-night newscasts, that I would have time to do a quick review of the day’s email. Every time I looked, I would find media requests that had gone unheeded over the course of the day.

That’s right: Every day I missed emails it was my job to handle. Sometimes, reporters would have followed up with a call; other times, I would wake up to read stories with the following: “The PMO did not respond to a request for comment.”

That’s when more than a few “whoops, sorry I missed this” emails would get sent to reporters. Most would be understanding in their replies.

They knew, and I knew, that’s just the way it was. Not that my former colleagues should expect any of that understanding now.