A few weeks ago, many journalists nodded knowingly at this Tweet by Canadian Press reporter Jennifer Ditchburn.
“My Friday giggle… a spokesperson who emails me “on background” and then says: I can’t answer your question.”
It’s a bit of gallows humour about a problem that began as a minor annoyance for reporters working on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and has grown into a genuine and widespread threat to the public’s right to know.
Most Canadians are aware of the blacked-out Afghan detainee documents and the furor over MPs’ secret expenses. But the problem runs much deeper.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the flow of information out of Ottawa has slowed to a trickle. Cabinet ministers and civil servants are muzzled. Access to Information requests are stalled and stymied by political interference. Genuine transparency is replaced by slick propaganda and spin designed to manipulate public opinion.
The result is a citizenry with limited insight into the workings of their government and a diminished ability to hold it accountable. As journalists, we fear this will mean more government waste, more misuse of taxpayer dollars, more scandals Canadians won’t know about until it’s too late.
It’s been four years since Harper muzzled his cabinet ministers and forced reporters to put their names on a list during rare press conferences in hopes of being selected to ask the prime minster a question. It’s not uncommon for reporters to be blackballed, barred from posing questions on behalf of Canadians.
More recently, information control has reached new heights. Access to public events is now restricted. Photographers and videographers have been replaced by hand-out photos and footage shot by the prime minister’s press office and blitzed out to newsrooms across Canada. It’s getting tougher to find an independent eye recording history, a witness seeing things how they really happened — not how politicians wish they’d happened. Did cabinet ministers grimace while they tasted seal meat in the Arctic last summer? Canadians will never know. Photographers were barred from the fake photo-op.
Those hand-out shots are, unfortunately, widely used by media outlets, often without the caveat that they are not real journalism.
In the end, that means Canadian only get a sanitized and staged version of history — not the real history.
Meanwhile, the quality of factual information provided to the public has declined steadily. Civil servants – scientists, doctors, regulators, auditors and policy experts, those who draft public policy and can explain it best to the population — cannot speak to the media. Instead, reporters have to deal with an armada of press officers who know very little or nothing at all about a reporter’s topic and who answer tough questions with vague talking points vetted by layers of political staff and delivered by email only.
In addition, the Access to Information system has been “totally obliterated” by delays and denials, according to a scathing report by the country’s information commissioner. Requests are met with months-long delays, needless censoring and petty political interference — the most cringe-worthy recent example involves a bureaucrat forced to make a mad dash to the mailroom to rescue a report on Canada’s real estate holdings after a senior political aide ordered the report “unreleased.”
Politicians should not get to decide what information is released. This information belongs to Canadians, the taxpayers who paid for its production. Its release should be based on public interest, not political expediency.
This breeds contempt and suspicion of government. How can people know the maternal-health initiative has been well thought out or that the monitoring of aboriginal bands has been done properly if all Canadians hear is: “Trust us”?
Reporters have been loath to complain about this problem. But this needs to change. This is not about deteriorating working conditions for journalists. It’s about the deterioration of democracy itself.
Last month, reporters gathered in Montreal at the Canadian Association of Journalists’ conference to discuss these issues. On behalf of our members, we are calling on journalists to stand together and push back by refusing to accept vague email responses to substantive questions that require an interview with a cabinet minister or a senior civil servant. We are also asking journalists to stop running hand-out photos and video clips.
We are also calling on journalists to explain better to readers and viewers just how little information Ottawa has provided for a story. Every time a minister refuses to comment, a critical piece of information is withheld or an access request is delayed, Canadians deserve to know.
Finally, we are asking editors to devote the time and money it takes to dig beyond the stage-managed press conferences to get to the real story.
This is not about ideology or partisanship on the part of journalists. Journalists aren’t looking to judge the policies of the Conservative government. Rather, we want to ensure the public has enough information to judge for themselves.
Journalists are your proxies. At our best, we ask the questions you might ask if you had a few minutes with your prime minister or with Environment Canada’s top climatologist. When we can’t get basic information, we can’t hold your government to account on your behalf. In order to have a genuine debate about matters of national interest, people need information. In order for citizens to be involved and engaged and make smart choices at voting time, they need information. It’s time we got some.
President, Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery
Mary Agnes Welch
President, Canadian Association of Journalists
President, Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec
President, Alberta Legislature Press Gallery
President, New Brunswick Press Gallery
President, Newfoundland Press Gallery
President, Quebec Press Gallery
President, Press Gallery of the Prince Edward Island Legislative Assembly
President, Saskatchewan Legislature Press Gallery Association