PRIVATE INTERESTS SEEK PUBLIC RECORDS

 

Guess who is filing more access requests than the media. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Guess who is filing more access requests than the media. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

FOI FOR ALL? Journalists may make the biggest headlines for using Canada’s access law. But, as is the case in the United States, federal government estimates suggest most of information requests don’t come from those reporters – potentially compromising our right to know.

Between fiscal 1997/98 and 2013/14, the number of requests received by the Canadian government went from 12,206 in fiscal 1997/98 to 59,947 in 2013/14 – a 391.1 percent increase.

But the media’s share of those requests has remained relatively the same.

On average, during that period, 42.2 percent of requests came from business, 11.9 percent came from the media, 8.8 percent came from organizations and 1.3 percent came from academia.

By comparison, in  2013/14, 38.6 percent came from business, 12.3 percent came the media, 4.8 percent came from organizations and 3.2 percent came from academia.

The American government doesn’t compile similar estimates.

But, in that country, a Coalition of Journalists for Open Government analysis of requests filed with 11 cabinet-level departments and six large agencies in Sept. 2005 found that media accounted for just six percent of the total.

At the time, the coalition suggested that was because “many reporters say it takes too longer to get information through FOIA to make it a meaningful tool for news gathering.”

In a recent feature published during Sunshine Week, McClatchy reporters Kevin G. Hall and Kevin Johnson warned a comparative lack of media requests means “information obtained under FOIA may reach the public in a raw, less contextual form…Or it may not reach the public at all, remaining in the hands of the private interests that sought it out.”

And, in Canada, pretty much the same thing can happen – unless our struggling media uses the government’s list of completed access requests to obtain their own copy.

FEELING USED The frustration of dealing with government communications staff has pushed one Vernon, B.C. reporter over the edge…into editorial commentary.

Earlier, I wrote an open letter about how the non-answers those staff give reporters is 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.”

That letter was shared on social media by journalists across the country and resulted in coverage of the issue by CBC Vancouver, CBC Kelowna and, most recently, Halifax’s News 95.7.

Now, in a column entitled “Why I didn’t go to your government press event,” InfoTel News’s Charlotte Helston writes that its communications officials are not quoted in her stories because:

Either they didn’t call me back by deadline, they didn’t call at all, or they sent me a useless email statement that avoided every single one of my questions. I get better and more direct and courteous responses from organizations that don’t pay a designated entity to be available for media calls and to facilitate interviews (i.e. a communications officer).

The one exception to that rule is “when a press event is happening.” But Helston states, “Feeding government PR to the public is not what I signed on for. My job is to ask the tough questions about subjects you don’t buy cake and balloons for.”

The Vernon reporter didn’t respond to an interview request by deadline.

LATER BUT NOT NEVER Earlier, I reported on how British Columbia reporters didn’t pay much attention to a BC NDP proposal to fix the government’s broken freedom of information law – even though it would be in their self-interest to do so.

But Kamloops This Week’s Dale Bass and 24 hours Vancouver both picked up that story a few days later, with Bass cataloguing several reasons why the long shot legislation should be passed.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• “Treasury Board guidelines give bureaucrats free rein to wipe any non-work-related instant messages from their government-issued mobile devices,” the Canadian Press reports. “They are supposed to hold on to texts or PINs that mention government business for record-keeping purposes.” But, according to records obtained via an access to information requests, newer generation BlackBerry devices don’t allow users to forward PIN-to-PIN messages to email accounts for later archiving, leading to suggestions to abandon the use of that communication method altogether.

• A spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement has told the Toronto Star that the minister “believes the Canada Revenue Agency should not have deleted any instant messages if they were related to government business.”

• University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor Kevin Walby is in the middle of finalizing an edited volume entitled Access to Information and Social Justice in Canada. Walby, who worked on the volume with Jamie Brownlee, expects it will be published by ARP Books at the end of October.

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets a photograph of the Bank of Canada’s recent communications guide which advises new directors to “be transparent – up to a point.”

• CBC News reports consumer advocate Gábor Lukács has launched a constitutional challenge against the Canadian Transportation Agency, claiming that the regulator’s “failure to disclose evidence received while reviewing passenger complaints is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ open court principle.”

• The Politics of Evidence Working Group has launched a campaign that provides Canadians with letters asking “federal scientists and Ministers about the results of the government’s environmental monitoring and scientific research programs.” The group aims to send out over 1,000 letters by March 27.

• On March 25, Toronto-based think tank Samara will release a “report card that grades key areas of Canada’s democracy.” That report card will include public opinion data that “captures citizens’ perceptions of politics, as well as their political knowledge and behaviour.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• According to the Montreal Gazette, the Quebec government has released a 191-page discussion document that could lead to a potential reform of the province’s freedom of information system. That system is “known for being slow, secretive and over-protective of government.”

• “The commission of inquiry into Quebec’s construction industry received precise allegations of illicit political donations to former premier Pauline Marois’s husband,” reports the Globe and Mail. However, it “never brought them to the public’s attention, according to newly released documents.” (hat tip: Bruce Gillespie)

• CBC News reports the Newfoundland and Labrador government plans to pass new access to information legislation by June 1. That legislation will implement “90 recommendations contained in a comprehensive report presented earlier this month by an independent review committee.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Vancouver Sun reports the “issue of using personal emails for government business” hasn’t just be controversial for presumed Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton. It’s also “proven problematic for some B.C. MLAs, cabinet ministers and staff in Premier Christy Clark’s office.”

• The Toronto Sun reports it has obtained records showing Pan Am Games officials were “expecting some difficult questions” on the “lavish spending” revealed in “5,000 pages of expense documents” that were released to the media.

OpenNWT founder David Wasyclw writes that the Northwest Territories government “can, and should, take immediate action” on a proposal to create a lobbyist registry.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The City of Hamilton is refusing to release the surveillance video that shows Councillor Lloyd Ferguson shoving independent journalist Joey Coleman to CHCH news.” The station “requested a copy of the tape under the Freedom of Information Act. Officials cite the ongoing police investigation as the reason for refusing to release the tape.”

• CFAX 1070’s Ian Jessop reports that, earlier this year, he sent in “sent in a number of freedom of information requests to the Municipality of Saanich regarding the spyware put on Richard Atwell’s computer the day after he was sworn-in as mayor.” That spyware monitored keystrokes and captured what was on Atwell’s screen. But the British Columbia municipality has claimed it has no documentation responsive to those requests. (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

BC NDP ACCESS REFORM EFFORT TAKES PLACE OFF-CAMERA

Guess what these reporters weren't asking about last week (Photograph by Damien Gillis)

Guess what some of these reporters weren’t asking about last week. (Photograph by Damien Gillis)

DO YOURSELF A FAVOUR Greater access to government records is in the self-interest of journalists. But, in British Columbia, that self-interest resulted in few, if any, stories about a recent opposition proposal to reform the province’s freedom of information law.

Like its federal cousin, that law is in urgent need of reform, with reporters finding it evermore difficult to obtain government records and, by extension, hold politicians and public institutions to account.

So it should have been welcome news last week when the BC NDP introduced a bill that would require government to do everything from documents its decisions to routinely disclose executive calendars.

As an example of why those reforms are needed, Doug Routley – the MLA responsible for that legislation – told me one of his colleagues recently filed a request for information about government consultations to improve Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears.

But that request turned up no records, something Routley said, “crashes the border of ridiculousness.”

Despite that ridiculousness, as I’ve written before, there’s almost no chance of his bill becoming law since the BC Liberals control the legislature.

And, even if the New Democrats were to wrest away that control in 2017 and pass similar legislation, its likely their government would eventually become just as secretive as the one they replaced.

Such is the nature of Canadian politics.

Still, there’s value in journalists covering the opposition’s proposed reforms because such stories help inform the public about the flaws in British Columbia’s freedom of information system.

But a search of the Canadian Newsstand database and Google News turns up no stories about those reforms.

By comparison, when federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced a much weaker freedom of information initiative, he nabbed at least five stories about that proposal – including an editorial from the Globe and Mail endorsing it.

Asked about that apparent lack of coverage Routley deadpanned, “How nice of you to point that out,” theorizing reporters might not have had time last week to cover his bill.

VIRTUALLY MEETING In practice and in law, Canadian politicians and their staffers often appear to want to hide their communications from the public.

Indeed, in a tweet earlier this month, Scott Reid – who served as Prime Minister Paul Martin’s communications director – stated, “Everyone at every level of government, in every party uses private email,” reflecting a natural desire to “discuss stuff bluntly.”

But the councillors of a small Ontario cottage country town may be trying to restrain that desire.

Under provincial law, council meetings must, except under limited circumstances, be open to the public.

And now Leeds and the Thousand Islands has passed a bylaw stating those meetings “may include email exchanges” that are “addressed to all members of council” and “contain factual information germane to the business of the Municipality.”

In an interview, Mayor Joe Baptista said that, as a result, “all of our township emails and anything to do with township business that we are discussing” will be “compiled and made available to the public prior to council meeting.”

That news was first reported by the Gananoque Reporter.

Baptista said the details of how that compilation happens are still being worked out.

But he said he wants to see it “as automated as possible because I don’t want it to become an administration nightmare. And, from our perspective, if your corresponding with staff regarding council issues or if your corresponding amongst each other you don’t get to choose” which emails become public.

Baptista said the hasn’t heard of any other municipalities doing the same thing, although a number of mayors have already phoned asking about the bylaw.

“In some ways we’re the guinea pigs,” he added. “We’re going to learn, we’re going to put this into play and we’re going to see how it works.”

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• CBC News reports that, according to internal records, senior staff were “mystified” by Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s “dire warning” about why government’s can release electronic versions of certain kinds of data in response to access requests.

• A Canadian Press access to information request for a briefing note about a proposed marketing agency for raspberries yielded nothing more than an almost completely censored page.

• The Toronto Star’s Alex Boutilier tweets that, in response to a freedom of information filed with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, he received a “copy of the releasable material” – an empty envelope.

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that he just got back an access to information request response “about how to deal with surges in access requests. But their advice is (surprise) blanked out.”

• The Tyee reports on a dearth of information about what half of Canada’s temporary foreign workers actually do.

• The Huffington Post reports on an “ongoing tug-of-war between realtors and customers who want to be able to access in-depth real estate data online, and the country’s industry associations, who want to maintain their monopoly on that data.”

• “The Canadian Forces has retreated in its attempt to put a cloak of secrecy over its response to concerns raised by a special commission looking into the suicide of an Afghan veteran,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• “Amazing.” That was the reaction from James McLeod, a political reporter with the Telegram, when Newfoundland and Labrador’s finance department returned the $5 application fee he had paid to file an access request. The province’s government recently announced it would be implementing the recommendations of an independent review of its freedom of information legislation, which include eliminating that fee.

• The Tyee reports that, thanks to a ruling by an adjudicator working for British Columbia’s information commissioner, the public may soon get a chance to see the BC Lions’ contract to play at BC Place Stadium.

According to InfoTel News, a survey of journalists by British Columbia’s Interior Health Authority found just 36.2 percent of respondent were satisfied with using spokespeople for comment, while just 40 percent would accept a written statement rather than wait for a live interview.

• The Chronicle Herald reports Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has resisted calls by that province’s freedom of information and protection of privacy review officer to increase the independence of her post. And now the newspaper has learned McNeil’s government is considering merging her office with that of the province’s ombudsman.

• The Montreal Gazette reports a new position at Quebec’s health establishments – which combines the roles of a human resources, legal affairs and communications director – could put transparency at risk. That’s because, according to a spokesperson for one Montreal hospital, “public-relations staff often struggle to get information out to the public over the objections of the legal affairs department.”

• The Toronto Star reports, “A privacy analyst at Trillium Health Centre is being investigated by Ontario’s privacy commissioner and his own hospital over allegations he tried to block a probe by the provincial watchdog into a privacy breach.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• CBC News paraphrases Harout Chitilian, the vice-president of Montreal’s executive committee, as saying, “Montreal is looking to change the rules and regulations in order to release more of the city’s data.” But “In some cases, that could mean changing laws and taking away privacy safeguards.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

BLUNT TALK ON PUBLIC OFFICIALS USING PRIVATE EMAIL

Should the public really be able to look inside this metaphorical envelope? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Should the public really be able to look inside this metaphorical envelope? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Is using private email standard operating procedure for those working in government?

Why is British Columbia’s government removing penalties for document destruction?

And how come journalists in Vancouver weren’t allowed to broadcast pictures of the room where a telephone town hall was being run?

Those are just some of the many questions raised by stories about freedom of information that made headlines and twitter posts in Canada last week.

My column, which usually accompanies this news roundup, has been delayed due to teaching commitments. It’ll return next week.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

Scott Reid, who served as a senior advisor and communications director to Prime Minister Paul Martin, tweets this observation about how public officials communicate: “Everyone at every level of government, in every party uses private email. It’s SOP. Reflects nat desire to discuss stuff bluntly.” (hat tip: Merv Adey)

• CBC News reports, “Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s dire warning about why the government can’t release certain electronic data under access to information requests seems to have left his senior staff mystified, newly disclosed documents show.”

• “A New Democrat MP is asking the federal information watchdog to investigate a former Conservative ministerial staffer’s systematic deletion of emails,” according to the Canadian Press.

• The Canadian Press reports, “The Federal Court of Appeal has sent a stern message to government institutions: you can’t just make up any old deadline for responding to requests under the Access to Information Act.” (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• Everyone “has called for more transparency” in the Canadian Judicial Council’s proceedings. But, according to Canadian Lawyer magazine, “no one can agree on what that means, especially as the CJC clings to extreme confidentiality at the early stages of investigations.”

• The Military Police Complaints Commission “has gone to court to challenge the secrecy of Canada’s Defence Department and its refusal to make public its response to the investigation into a solider’s suicide,” according to the Toronto Star.

• University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist writes that “the privacy commissioner of Canada set out to audit the RCMP in the hope of uncovering the details behind” warrentless requests for telecom subscriber information. “What it encountered instead was inaccurate data and an effort to downplay” the commissioner’s public reporting of those problems.

• “The bad news for any Canadian politician inspired by Hillary Clinton to set up a do-it-yourself email system is that it could potentially involve the Mounties, handcuffs, and a two-year sojourn in the slammer,” according to the Canadian Press.

• National Post’s John Ivison writes that Canada’s parliamentary system is “stacked against any meaningful review of spending, at least until the Public Accounts of Canada are tabled, 200 days after the fiscal year they cover.

• The Winnipeg Free Press’s Mary Agnes Welch makes an argument against bureaucratese, writing, “If we citizens don’t demand clear, simple, precise language from our elected officials, then it’s our own fault if they continue to snow us with words designed to thwart our right to know.”

• The Lobby Monitor’s Alyssa O’Dell had this reaction after filing a few freedom of information requests with the European Union via email: “15 day response deadline. Madness?!” Canada’s own Access to Information Law gives the federal government 30 days to respond. (hat tip: Jeremy Nuttall)

• The Globe and Mail has become the first Canadian media organization to use Secure Drop, a “channel for anonymous and encrypted Internet communications that can link potential sources withy investigative journalists.”

• The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has published its first report on “Internet-related issues of access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy, and the ethical dimensions of the Information Society.” (hat tip: Kirsten Smith)

• Ottawa-based investigative researcher Ken Rubin writes that users of Canada’s Access to Information Act have “come up against the brutal limitations of what is provided [under that legislation] and what is not.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association reports that British Columbia’s government has introduced a law that will remove existing penalties for destroying government records.

• CBC News reports, “Major changes are coming to access to information laws in Newfoundland and Labrador following the much-anticipated release Tuesday morning of a report prepared by an independent commission.”

• The Toronto Star reports, “A provincial panel has recommended sweeping changes to controversial legislation that allows Ontario hospitals to investigate critical incidents of patient harm and death in secret.”

• Northwest Territories MLAs have passed a motion to “investigate the implementation of a lobbyist registry that would be publicly accessible online,” according to the Northern Journal.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

According to the StarPhoenix, a report into a Saskatoon city hall leak reveals “bizarre levels of secrecy that hint at how much our municipal government is shielding from citizens.”

• Global News reports a public telephone town hall on Vancouver’s upcoming transit plebiscite was “not as public as some would like. The number to dial in was not immediately available and while journalists were allowed to record an audio feed of the proceedings, they were not allowed to broadcast pictures of the room.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets that a spokesperson was copied on freedom of information request correspondence he received from the City of Vancouver. But, in an email, the spokesperson – Marcella Munro, who works with the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation – stated, “I have nothing to do with FOIs and I have no idea why it was sent to me. As far as I know it was a mistake by the office in Vancouver.”

• The Globe and Mail paraphrases Chris Bejnar, the co-chair of a Brampton, Ont. watchdog group, as saying “he has been disturbed by lack of openness he’s seen between city staff and the public. When filing freedom of information requests to find out the square footage of a building in the downtown redevelopment plan, or how the city had calculated the cost per square foot, he was rebuffed by staff and eventually got the information only after complaining to the province’s privacy commissioner.”

• Gerard Daly, a board member for New Brunswick’s Regional Services Commission 11 “wants the organization to be more transparent and forthcoming with public information.” The Daily Gleaner paraphrases Daly as saying “a good example of information not being made available centres around a hike that occurred in the rate of the tipping fee – the price paid when delivering refuse to the landfill site. Daly said RSC 11 staff recommended the fee be increased by $10 but, at the end of the day, it was raised by $1.50. No one on the board was prepared to approve it, he said. But none of the circumstances that led to the matter being voted down was ever made public.”

• The Telegraph-Journal reports Saint John’s councillors have “unanimously approved” the city’s first open data policy. During that process, they “also gave a green light to a pilot project that will see city staff start to post data online related to six key categories: public safety, energy and utilities, recreation, financial information, municipal planning and economic development.”

• CBC News reports Greater Sudbury, Ont. “has joined a growing number of governments to launch an open data program…The first release in Sudbury is three data sets on the city transit system, including the real-time movements of buses.”

• City councillors in both Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, B.C. are “looking for engaged citizens to help jump start a conversation on making municipal government more accessible and transparent.”

• The Sachem reports Haldimand County, Ont. has “opened an online Open Data Repository” that will provide “residents and those beyond our borders with the opportunity to view maps and other geographic data.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

WHEN JOURNALISTS GET MAD

Are Canadian journalists having a Howard Beale moment? (Photograph by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Are Canadian journalists having a Howard Beale moment? (Photograph by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

“I’m 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 open 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?

In some way ways, that would be similar to David Carr‘s approach to reporting. Speaking to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, the late New York Times media critic explained:

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.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Canadian Press reports 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 campaign 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 requests 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.

SQUIBS (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 has 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.

SQUIBS (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 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 which 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.

THE TYRANNY OF THE TALKING POINT

Government spin doctors control what information government does and doesn't release. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Spin doctors control what information government does and doesn’t release. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Dear government spin doctor

I am working on a story about how the job you’re doing is helping to kill Canada’s democracy.

I know that your role, as a so-called communications professional, is to put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

That means you often don’t respond the questions I ask, you help elected officials do the same thing and you won’t let me talk to those who actually have the answers.

While this may work out very well for you, it doesn’t work out so well for my audience who, by the way, are taxpayers, voters and citizens.

So your refusal to provide me with information is 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.

That just doesn’t seem very democratic to me. Does it seem democratic to you?

I understand you’re just doing your job.

I did that job before myself before I became a journalist, working as a communications officer for the British Columbia government.

So I don’t think you’re a bad person.

But you should know a few things about me.

My job isn’t to help you put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

My job is to tell the truth.

And, because that’s my job, you should know a few other things about how I’m going to report this story.

First, if you don’t respond to my questions, I’m going to let my audience know that.

Second, if you respond to my questions with non-answers, I’m going to let my audience know that too.

Third, I’m not going to put those non-answers in my story for the sake of false balance.

That’s because me asking questions about what the government is doing wrong isn’t an opportunity for you to simply tell the public about what government is doing right.

You have a big advertising budget for that.

Instead, it’s an opportunity to explain to the public why the government is or isn’t doing that thing I asked you about.

And, finally, if you refuse, ignore or interfere with my requests to interview public officials, my audience will also find out about that.

This may sound like hardball at best and blackmail at worst. But it’s actually the last and only defense I have against you and your colleagues.

Public relations professionals outnumber journalists more than four to one in this country – and for good reason.

It pays to promote and protect the powerful but it doesn’t pay to hold them to account.

My hope is that more journalists will also start routinely telling their audiences about the strategies and tactics you use to frustrate the public’s right to know.

If that happens then the public might start caring about the damage that’s doing to our democracy.

And, maybe, just maybe you might start rethinking what you are doing.

After all, there was a time when journalists could actually talk to public officials without having someone like you always watching over their shoulder and telling them exactly what to say.

I know it’s a long shot.

But it’s the only shot I can take against the tyranny of your talking points.

Sincerely,

Sean Holman, Journalist

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Maclean’s magazine reports the Department of National Defence is withholding information from the Parliamentary Budget Officer about Operation IMPAC – Canada’s mission in Iraq – on the grounds of cabinet confidentiality. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The National Post reports a Federal Court judge has ruled “media fighting for access to Omar Khadr have failed to show a prison-interview ban was politically motivated and violated their constitutional rights.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• CBC News reports, “Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has personally ordered that documents from all general freedom of information requests be publicly posted, despite serious concerns from the civil servants responsible for implementing the new policy. Critics say the plan – if implemented – represents a major policy change that will seriously undermine the ability of opposition parties and the media to hold the government accountable.”

• “The province is not tracking how many inmates are overdosing in jails across Ontario,” according to the Hamilton Spectator.

• The Vancouver Sun reports, “Soon-to-be mandatory ‘independent’ review boards for tailings dams at B.C. mines may not be answerable to government or open to scrutiny by the public.” The boards were recommended by a government-appointed panel that was struck following the breach of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley Mine.

• The Telegram hopes a committee reviewing Newfoundland and Labrador’s controversial right to know law will recommend a “much needed laissez-faire approach to the release of information.” That committee, led by former premier Clyde Wells, “has missed a couple of promised deadlines. At last check, it was supposed to release its report by the end of January.”

• Kinder Morgan Inc., the company that is looking to expand a pipeline that carries crude oil to the West coast, “has engaged in a protracted fight with the province of British Columbia in an effort to keep its oil spill response plans a secret.” But, according to DeSmog Canada, Kinder Morgan has “willingly disclosed” such plans “south of the border for portions of the pipeline that extend to Washington State.”

• The Globe and Mail reports, “B.C.’s Ministry of Health is withholding the results of scientific research on how oil and gas operations in the province’s northeast communities are affecting human health.” Independent MLA Vicki Huntington’s freedom of information request for that research was denied because its release could be harmful to the financial interests of a public body.

• CBC News reports Saskatchewan’s information commissioner has ruled a 15-page proposal to create a premier’s library in that province can stay secret because it would disclose a cabinet confidence.

• Saksatchewan NDP MLA Warren McCall has told the Regina Leader-Post that the creation of lobbyists registry in that province as proceeding “slower than molasses, uphill, in February.”

• Manitoba’s “Opposition Progressive Conservatives say they’re getting the runaround in finding how much taxpayers have paid to put up at-risk youth in hotels,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News reports DemocracyWatch founder Duff Conacher’s concerns that “New Brunswick’s right to information law is weak and the fines for breaking the laws are so low, they are meaningless”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Winnipeg’s interim chief administrative officer has resigned after the mayor claimed he had lost confidence in the bureaucrat. But, according to the Winnipeg Free Press’s Dan Lett, no further details have been provided because the resignation is a personnel matter – a “trump card” that is “played way too often in situations in which government doesn’t want people to know what happened.”

• 24 hours Vancouver’s Kathyrn Marshall writes that White Rock, B.C.’s city council has “voted to scrap question period. Just like that, White Rock has obliterated a hallmark of liberal democracy. White Rock residents will no longer have the opportunity to pose public questions to their elected representatives following council meetings.”

• In October, TransLink – Vancouver’s regional transportation authority – began “re-examining current [freedom of information] practices and exploring options for easing the burden on staff.” That review, which was expected to take three months, was announced in a memo signed by the authority’s then-chief executive officer Ian Jarvis and obtained by freelance journalist Bob Mackin.

• The Vancouver Courier reports, “When the provincial government set the rules for the non-binding plebiscite on a sales tax hike for TransLink expansion, it didn’t include any campaign fundraising or reporting regulations.”

• “Toronto police met the mandated [freedom of information] response deadline of 30 days in 52 per cent of requests last year,” according to the Toronto Star. “That’s nearly a 30 per cent drop from 2005 – when 80 per cent of FOI requests were completed within the 30-day timeframe – and down almost 15 per cent from 2013, which saw a compliance rate of 65 per cent.”

• Alberta’s information commissioner has ruled Cold Lake, Alta. was right to release records that disclosed unit prices and hourly wage rates for the companies responsible for a highway twinning project. According to the Cold Lake Sun, a third party had argued that disclosure was harmful to business interests.

BILL COVERAGE GIVES FALSE HOPE FOR DEMOCRACY

Liberal MP Ted Hsu's bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census had no real chance of passing. Too bad not every news outlet let their audience know that. (Photograph by Ted Hsu)

Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census had no real chance of passing. Too bad not every news outlet let their audience know that. (Photograph by Ted Hsu)

Small, tiny and slim: these are all words that describe the chances of an opposition private member’s bill actually becoming law. Yet, when reporting on those bills, news outlets don’t always tell their audiences that, potentially giving a mistaken impression of how much democracy we have in Canada.

The government sponsors most of the bills that become law. But parliamentarians can also propose their own bills without government backing. These so-called private member’s bills could be a powerful means of dealing with issues the government doesn’t want to deal with.

I say “could” because few of them ever become law.

For example, according to the Parliament of Canada’s LEGISInfo research tool, 3,224 private member’s bills have been introduced or re-instated in the House of Commons between Jan. 17, 1994 and Friday last week. But, by my reckoning, only 69 or 2.1 percent of them bills received royal assent.

If that sounds bad, just wait because it gets even worse.

Opposition MPs sponsored just 21 of the bills that received royal assent, with over half of them concerned with issues of little controversy – such as renaming constituencies or creating commemorative days.

In part, that’s because parliamentary rules make it difficult to debate and vote on such legislation.

But, thanks to rigid party discipline, MPs rarely against their own party anyway. And, thanks to rigid partisanship, governing parties rarely vote for legislation introduced by their competitors. Which is why so few opposition private member’s bills get passed when a governing party holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Nevertheless, not all of the reporting on private member’s bills lets Canadians in on that open secret and some even inadvertently cover it up.

For example, according to the Canadian Newsstand database, newspapers and the Canadian Press wire service have published at least 25 articles covering Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s proposal to restore the mandatory long-form census.

Thirteen of those articles dutifully reported that there was, in the words of a Globe and Mail editorial, “almost no chances it would pass.” But others didn’t mention that possibility or led readers to believe there was a chance it would pass.

One major daily published an editorial describing Hsu’s bill as a “golden opportunity” that the Tories should “jump on” to make amends for eliminating the long-form census. Meanwhile, another ran an op-ed lamenting the loss of “granular data on jobs and wages” that came with that survey but stating, “Not all is lost” thanks to Hsu bill.

Of course, that bill went on to be defeated earlier this month by a vote of 147 to 126, with all but one Conservative MP opposing Hsu’s bill.

But much more is at stake here than getting Canadians hopes up before dashing them.

Most MPs, especially those who belong to an opposition party, don’t have much say in making our laws. As a result, those who voted for them (in other words, Canadians) don’t have much say either, making democracy between elections a bit of a sham.

That has everything to do with our system of government and nothing to do with our sitting prime minister, who is just exercising the power afforded to him under that system.

One way reporters can help Canadians better understand that is by simply remembering to add an extra line in their coverage of opposition private member’s bills.

It could even be something like this: “A snowball has a greater chance in Hell than this legislation does of becoming law.”

Well, maybe not quite that. But you get the idea.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• FactsCan.ca, a Website that will fact-check the 2015 federal election, has succeeded in crowdfunding the $5,000 it needs to launch. The Website’s team includes RainCity Housing and Support Society community support worker Jacob Schroeder, Democracy Watch coordinator Tyler Sommers and Ryerson University senior research associate Dana Wagner.

• CBC News reports, “U.S. legislation requires American universities and colleges to be open about the number of sexual assaults on their campuses, warn students when they could be at risk and provide adequate security and prevention measures.” But no such legislation exists in Canada. (hat tip: Bruce Gillespie)

• The Toronto Star reports a lawyer for the media is arguing that “barring journalists from interviewing Omar Khadr, a federal prison is violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that he’s received 84 blank pages from the Department of Finance in response to a request for the cost of the government’s expanded child fitness tax credit. The reason for that redaction: it’s a cabinet confidence.

• Beeby tweets the Canada Revenue Agency is now responding to access requests with “password-protected CDs. But password failed – one more [freedom of information] obstacle.”

• CTV News’s Jon Woodward tweets that Health Canada “claims a new record for latest ATIP provided to me! Two years, 6 months, 25 days. Way older than my daughter.”

• Journalist David Akin tweets that it’s ironic that the federal government has announced $143,288 in funding for Self-Counsel Press Ltd. – which recently published an access to information guidebook.

• Planned Parenthood Ottawa president Lauren Dobson-Hughes tweets this interaction with an access to information officer: “Your ATI is 1,000 days late. Can we just drop it? If you don’t reply in five days, we’ll take that as a yes.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The British Columbia government has introduced legislation that will see government records digitized and stored in an electronic archive. But the BC NDP and information commissioner Elizabeth Denham are concerned the bill doesn’t legally require government to document key actions and decisions.

• The Toronto Star reports a court-ordered publication ban is preventing the media from naming a 45-year-old mother who was sentenced to 20-months in jail for pressing a hot iron against the arms of her 10-year-old son.

• The Tyee reports British Columbia’s former lobbyists registrar is now lobbying that province’s government on behalf of a company that publishes school yearbooks.

According to the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatchewan government has amended its freedom of information legislation to allow the release of “personal information included in a report stemming from a Municipalities Act inspection or inquiry.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The three hospitals caught up in the Rob Ford privacy breach saga boast they are ‘transparent and accountable.'” But, according to the Toronto Star, those hospitals are “refusing to disclose how many staff members snooped into his records or how they were disciplined.”

• The Georgia Straight reports on nuggets from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games’s archives – much of which is still under lock and key.

• Kitchener, Ont. Coun. Frank Etherington writes that fellow politicians “across Waterloo Region are in the process of abandoning voter accountability, government transparency and the public’s unquestionable right to know how $8 million of taxpayers cash will be spent.”

• “The secret documents behind a secret deal to build an NHL-size arena in Markham will stay secret – even though the project was defeated by council more than a year ago,” according to the Toronto Star.

• The Vaughan Citizen has renewed its call for the Ontario city to introduce a lobbyist registry.

• Maple Ridge, B.C.’s council has voted to increase the number of meetings it broadcasts on the Internet and disclose all of the contracts the city has entered into, according to the Maple Ridge Times.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

Author’s note: Publication of this column was delayed due to Family Day. Its regular publication schedule will resume next week.

ANTI-TERROR LAW AND MINISTER’S EXIT GET EQUAL BILLING

Conservative cabinet minister John Baird's resignation got more coverage than a bill that could potentially turn Canada's spies into "secret police." (Graphic by Government of Canada)

News of Conservative cabinet minister John Baird’s resignation got the same amount of coverage as a bill that could potentially turn Canada’s spies into “secret police.” (Graphic by Government of Canada)

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING? Few Canadians can pick John Baird out of a lineup and even fewer can be certain of the influence he had as our foreign affairs minister.

Yet many news outlets appear to have paid around the same amount of attention to his resignation as they did when the government’s controversial anti-terror bill was first introduced – another example of how our ailing and flailing media have a tendency to put personality and politics on par with or ahead of policy and the public interest.

News of that resignation broke on Feb. 2 with CBC News’s Terry Milewski getting the jump on the announcement.

Between that date and Feb. 7, at least 115 columns, editorials and reports were published about Baird’s departure by news outlets listed in the Canadian Newsstand database.* Eight of those articles were given front-page treatment and there were five segments on CBC’s The National covering Baird’s exit.

Yet that coverage was likely the first time many Canadians had even heard of the Ottawa-area MP. After all, in 2011, 64.6 percent of the Canadian Election Study‘s more than 4,000 respondents said they didn’t know who the country’s current finance minister was (Jim Flaherty, if you’re too embarrassed to ask).

The study didn’t quiz respondents about the name of our foreign affairs minister. But if a majority of Canadians can’t identify who holds the purse strings attached to their tax dollars, what are the chances they know who commands Fort Pearson – the nickname for the headquarters of our country’s diplomatic corp.

Moreover, it’s unclear whether Baird was just another actor on the world stage or if he actually got to pen his own lines.

Following his resignation, he was variously described as being a “transformative” foreign affair minister, having “tilted Canada strongly towards Israel” and “played an important role” in “seeking warmer and more profitable relations with the Asian giant.”

But since much of our government is practiced in secret – with policy advice and cabinet records being kept under lock and key – can we really be sure which parts of that supposed legacy were authored by Baird and which parts were ghost written by his boss Stephen Harper or someone else?

What we do know for sure is the government’s proposed new anti-terror law has been described in the media as a “dangerous policy” that could create a “secret police force” and raises “worrying questions about freedom of expression.”

We also know that, between Jan. 29 – when the bill’s details started rolling out – and Feb. 3, there were 111 articles in the Canadian Newsstand database covering it.** Nine of them made front pages, while The National broadcast three segments on the law.

I make this comparison not to throw stones from my glass house but rather to hold a mirror up to a habit that is also a dangerous addiction.

When I was at British Columbia’s legislature I, like many other political reporters in this country, spent too much time writing about personality and politics and too little time covering policy. It’s easy and of interest to the audience we’re most familiar with – the bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicians and staffers we cover.

But the consequence is a public that’s less and less informed about our government and less and less interested in what journalists report on. We’ve helped turn a subject that should be the concern of the many into something that’s a concern for the few – political partisans and profiteers.

In doing so, journalists are undermining both our audience and what passes for democracy in this country. And that’s a legacy that going to with us long after Baird is gone.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• “The federal environment minister’s office tried to hide the fact a grizzly bear was struck on the Canadian Pacific Railway line in Banff National Park in May 2014,” according to the Rocky Mountain Outlook. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• “With a $10,000 per week per reporter price tag to follow political parties on their election campaigns and limited access to their leaders who are tightly scripted,” the Hill Times reports, “media outlets are reassessing how they will report on the upcoming election with smaller budgets.”

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that it took the Canadian Border Services Agency “826 days to respond” to an access request he filed on Oct. 30, 2012. The irony: that response stated the agency is “committed to providing the highest level of client service.”

• Byran Smith, a former policy advisor to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, is looking to cash in on the open data movement. The Globe and Mail reports Smith’s company, ThinkData, “collects and cleans up government datasets which in their raw state can arrive in any number of conflicting formats. The service parses each one, and hosts a clean copy on its servers, which clients can access.”

• Maclean’s reports Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census was defeated “by a vote of 147 to 126. Every opposition MP voted in favour, but nearly every Conservative voted against  – Michael Chong was the only Conservative to vote in favour.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Rocky View Weekly reports Chestermere, Alta. officials are “working with a number of groups, including the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, to push through some changes” to the province’s freedom of information law. According to the newspaper, the proposed changes would allow governments to “recoup some of the costs associated with expensive requests.” Mayor Patricia Matthews is quoted as saying, “The average person like me wants to be able to keep taxes down, so we are hoping that by bringing this to the attention of our residents, it puts some pressure on their elected officials to say it can’t continue.”

• The Globe and Mail reports police allegations that “former premier Dalton McGuinty’s chief of staff took steps to keep government information secret – ‘double deleting’ e-mails and communicating by BlackBerry messenger to avoid leaving public records of his discussions” According to the newspaper, “Livingston, through his lawyers, has maintained that he did nothing wrong. No charges have been laid and the allegations have not been tested in court.”

• IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis writes that, since July 1, 2013 there have been only two references to “open government” on the B.C. government’s Website – even though Premier Christy Clark promised she was going to lead the most open and accountable government in Canada.

According to the Province, the B.C. government “says legal and privacy considerations prevent release of a full version of a scathing report into the mistaken firings of several health researchers in 2012.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets that Vancouver transit authority executives met to discuss its upcoming electronic fare card but “kept no minutes.”

• Concerned Residents Association of North Dumfries executive director Tamara Brown tweets that Cambridge, Ont. is asking for more than $60,000 in response to an access request for “info that should normally be public” regarding urban sprawl.

• CBC News reports several Winnipeg, Man. civic corporations aren’t subject to the province’s access law.

• Surrey, B.C. is “rolling out its ambitious Open Data Calogue” which “gives residents and business owners access to “economic indicators, business licences, commercial and industrial vacancy rates, population projections and availability of employment broken down into specific areas.” In an interview with Business in Vancouver, the city’s information technology Geoff Samson said the catalogue is the largest offering of this type of information by any city in Canada.

• “On the heels of criticism of its secret budget meetings,” the Waterloo Region Record reports Waterloo, Ont.’s local government is “pledging to get the public more involved in its 2016-2018 budget.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

* = Canadian Newsstand features articles from 270 of the country’s newspapers, as well as the Canadian Press wire service. Among the papers are those published by Postmedia Network Inc. and Brunswick News Inc., as well as FP Newspaper Inc., Glacier Media Inc., Torstar Corp.’s dailies and some of the properties owned by Black Press Group Ltd. Among those excluded are papers owned by Quebecor Inc. and Transcontinental Inc.

** = I searched Canadian Newsstand for the terms “Bill C-51,” “anti-terror law,” “anti-terrorism law,” “anti-terror bill,” “anti-terrorism bill,” “anti-terror legislation,” “anti-terorism legislation” or “Anti-Terrorism Act.”