So, you’re angry about the sad state of affairs when it comes to Canadian government PR. Now what?
By Sean Holman
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
That was how some journalists seemed to respond last week to an open letter I wrote about how government communications staff are helping to kill democracy.
But if we want to save it, we’re going to need to do more than just throw open our windows, stick our heads out and yell about the non-answers we often get from those spin doctors.
In that letter, which was published in J-Source, The Tyee, DeSmog Canada and the Yukon News, I wrote about how those non-answers are actually a refusal to “provide the public with information. And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.”
Those words were shared on Facebook and retweeted hundreds of times, with one reporter in the Yukon stating, “I think it’s fair to say the frustration levels of journalists in this country are rising.” That frustration has been well-earned.
Compared to the United States, Canadian governments release fewer public records that reporters can use to find stories that don’t come from a news release or news event.
Our governments also confound access to the records they don’t release by having weak freedom of information laws. And many public bodies have policies that restrict or prohibit their employees from speaking with reporters.
That means communications departments (the spin factories and propaganda shops of government) can be one of the only sources journalists have for timely information.
Opacity is winning the war against transparency. And if Canadian journalists want to turn the tide, they must do more in the fight against that secrecy—something some American news outlets expressly allow their reporters to do. For example, in a recent statement to Politico, a New York Times spokesperson stated the newspaper is “not neutral on the issue of press freedom. We have vigorously opposed actions that inhibit legitimate reporting.”
Meanwhile, National Public Radio’s ethics handbook, which prohibits political activities, makes an exception for “issues directly related to our journalistic mission (e.g., First Amendment rights, the Freedom of Information Act, a federal “shield law”).”*
Here in Canada, I simply recommended in my letter that journalists should let our audiences know when spin doctors don’t respond to our questions, provide non-answers or interfere with attempts to interview public officials.
Perhaps journalists should even include that protocol in the emails we send to government spokespeople, letting them know that we also won’t be using their non-answers for the sake of false balance?
If it’s going to be a hard story, one of the things I always say is, ‘This is going to be a really serious story and I’m asking very serious questions and it behoves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself… And if they don’t engage, I just tell them, ’Well you know what, you better put the nut cup on because this isn’t going to be pleasant for anyone.’
If we did the same thing with government communications staff and their tactics, they won’t surprised when a reporter such as the Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick thinks about writing a sentence such as this: “A [Canadian Border Services Agency] spokesperson repeatedly ignored questions and read unrelated bullet points written by an anonymous spin doctor.”
And that way, maybe we won’t hear those unrelated bullet points at all.
Postscript: Last week, CBC Daybreak South succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to address complaints about the state of government communications (including my open letter).
Provincial flacks “initially declined” to respond to those complaints. But Wilkinson made an appearance on Daybreak South after the program tried contacting “each and every MLA” in its listening area about that issue.
You can listen to the interview for yourself on Soundcloud. But suffice it say Wilkinson, somewhat appropriately, appeared to have his own talking points for that conversation. So, just as appropriately, I’ve filed freedom of information requests to obtain them.[node:related]
FOI NEWS: FEDERAL
• The Canadian Press reports that a new government policy requires all possible breaches of cabinet confidentiality—“however slight”—to be “immediately reported to the Prime Minister’s Office or officials in the Privy Council Office, the government’s bureaucratic nerve centre.”
• In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette said he wants a “coercive baseball bat” that will force government departments to provide him with economic and legislative data “on a timely and free basis.”
• CBC News reports: “A former top adviser to then-Employment Minister Jason Kenney has had his knuckles rapped by the federal ethics watchdog for accepting gala tickets from companies and interest groups registered to lobby his own department.” During that investigation, Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson also found the adviser, Michael Bonner, “could not provide me with any emails related to my examination because he had deleted them, as his usual practice was to delete emails every two weeks. He added that deleted emails of ministerial staff remain on the server for about four weeks, but are then lost forever as they are not ‘archived.’” (Hat tip: Mike de Souza)
• Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaigner Keith Stewart has two suggestions for the bureaucrats running the system that allows Canadians to file access-to-information requests online. First: “Why not let us set up accounts so we don’t have to re-enter all my deets each time?” Second: “It’d be awesome if the receipt for the $5 fee included the text of our ATIP request.”
• The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin writes that even though Stephen Harper “may well hold some sort of record for prime ministerial secrecy and attempts to stifle access,” many of his predecessors have also “held the fourth estate in low regard.” (Hat tip: Ian Bron)
• Harper isn’t known for “being terribly accessible to journalists,” reports the Huffington Post. Nevertheless, he sat down for an interview with Costco Connection, the “lifestyle magazine for Costco members”—something that “raised some eyebrows on Twitter.”
• Vice Canada reports the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has denied an access request for the amount of money it paid to cellphone and Internet providers to informally obtain customers’ personal information. Such informal requests were deemed unconstitutional following a June 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. (Hat tip: CJ Ciaramella)
• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that a recent access-to-information request yielded 15 pages from the Privy Council Office. But the only page that wasn’t exempted was the one with the Government of Canada’s logo.
FOI NEWS: PROVINCIAL
• The Toronto Star reports Ontario still lacks a “standard notification system” to alert journalists when court-ordered publication bans are being considered.
• The Vancouver Sun reports: “Poultry marketing boards are refusing to release biosecurity audits of farms after the avian flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley citing, in part, the potential for farmers to be targeted by animal rights activists.”
• The BC NDP have introduced a Whistleblowers Protection Act that would safeguard “people reporting government mismanagement, negligence or wrong-doing. It also calls for more routine public disclosure of government operations.” As an opposition private member’s bill, the Act has almost no chance of passing the province’s legislature.
• CBC News reports New Brunswick’s access commissioner Anne Bertrand has launched one of two investigations into “controversial trips to Larry’s Gulch, the government-owned fishing lodge…The controversy started when a newspaper editor accepted a free trip to Larry’s Gulch in 2013 with Daniel Allain, the chief executive officer of NB Liquor.” Bertrand is looking into whether documents related to that trip were “deliberately altered before being released.”
• “Ontario’s independent budget watchdog is finally being unleashed—21 months after the New Democrats forced the Liberals to create the post,” according to the Toronto Star.
• In response to a freedom-of-information request by freelancer Bob Mackin, the British Columbia government writes there were no briefing notes or issue notes prepared for the province’s transportation minister when he announced the delay of a major transit project.
FOI NEWS: LOCAL
• The City of Winnipeg’s administration is refusing to “make public any of the reports” that justify the need to “expropriate 20 acres of land it sold to a developer four years ago,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press.
Have a news tip about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
* I am indebted to an article by The Atlantic’s David Graham that cites NPR’s impartiality policy, as well as the New York Times spokesperson’s quote. All the credit for finding that article goes to my department’s librarian Margy MacMillan.