Ottawa: Where local reporters face federal roadblocks

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What is it like covering local news in a city that is home to the federal government? It's no walk in the park, as Holly Gordon explains.

Local reporters everywhere deal with governments that are stingy with information and masters of spin. Mostly, they deal with people at City Hall, the epicentre of local politics. But in Ottawa, local reporters face a whole different challenge. In the midst of asking questions about our city, we run up against the communications behemoth that is the federal government. It's an often frustrating process, and my last month is no exception.

It started with two simple questions. First: Would it be plausible to transform the Government Conference Centre into Ottawa’s central library? Second: In light of the announcement that the public will need to get permission from Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose to book space at Library and Archives Canada as of 2013, and that federal bureaucrats will receive LAC meeting space priority, why does the government need so much meeting space now?

Those questions seemed simple at the beginning of November, when OpenFile Ottawa decided to pursue them. But a couple weeks of phone calls, back-and-forth emails and waiting periods have revealed that it takes about two weeks to answer the first question and, well, we're still waiting for answers on the second.

The problem is that both stories are fielded by Public Works and Government Services Canada, since PWGSC owns the Government Conference Centre and will take charge of bookings at Library and Archives. Public Works, however, has a stringent communications policy that requires media to email questions that request information or interviews for a story—no phone calls.

After learning this protocol during a second phone call to the PWGSC media line, I sent two separate emails—as instructed—to request information and an interview for both stories. That was all on Nov. 10. Between that day and Nov. 21, I received one email response for each story, after having to push to get answers a few times. Neither email gave me the option to talk to a person, and the information I received regarding the LAC story was vague.

What makes this process so frustrating is that the questions were simple. The GCC questions were concerned with capacity—e.g. how many meetings are held in the building, what’s the square footage, etc. The LAC questions required some more thought, but were still fairly straightforward. The answers I received fell far short of what I wanted—a symptom of dealing through email instead of over the phone.

It’s a faceless system, an unnecessary hindrance when everything’s so local. Calling a communications department is part of my job, but receiving mostly unsigned emails and access to general email addresses doesn’t seem right. There are plenty of stories addressing the“Harperization” of government, but what about how nameless and faceless the government has become?

The funny thing is that when I called the National Capital Commission media line to talk to someone about the Government Conference Centre, I did make contact almost immediately—but was quickly shut down, because “that’s Public Works’ [responsibility].” Well, I know it is now, but it wasn’t always. Thanks for the help, folks. Now I have to go call Public Works.

 

Holly Gordon is a freelancer living in Ottawa. She has worked for Halifax alt-weekly, The Coast and Ottawa's The Wig. She also writes for OpenFile Ottawa, where this piece was originally published

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