THE WEEK THAT WAS — MARCH 29, 2014

Who is calling the shots in today's newsrooms. A Quebec survey has some answers. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Who is calling the shots in today’s newsrooms? A Quebec survey has some potential answers. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

• A survey of 397 Quebec journalists, commissioned by Quebec’s press council and obtained by Le Devoir, raises troubling questions about the state of journalism in Quebec. It found that 32 percent of respondents believe that advertising influences journalistic content. A quarter believe that some of their colleagues have censored themselves in recent months. But 57.5 percent of respondents felt otherwise. Twenty percent of respondents from Quebecor Inc. said advertising sales staff are regularly or are often involved in newsroom decisions. Thirty percent of respondents from Transcontinental Inc. said the same thing.

• Tory backbencher Michael Chong has said the second reading of his Reform Act will happen in early June. It’s still uncertain whether that private members bill — which is meant to curb the power of party leaders — will pass. But, between now and then, public and press support for its passing could increase thanks to the publication of Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy.

The book, co-written by Samara founders Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, draws upon exit interviews with 80 former MPs to “unearth surprising observations about the practice of politics in Canada.” Among those observations was “how decisions from their parties’ leadership were often viewed as opaque, arbitrary and even unprofessional.” A tour supporting the book will take place between April 7 and June 16.

• The Canadian Political Science Association’s annual conference includes a number of sessions and workshops that could be of interest to those concerned about the democracy in this country. Topics under discussion will include the “uncivil behaviour” of MPs in the Canadian and British Parliaments, how to hold political advisors accountable and the ways in which federal elected officials represent the needs and wishes of their constituents. The conference will take place at Brock University between May 27-29.

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

THE WEEK THAT WAS — MARCH 22, 2014

Government is zipping the lips of non-partisan sources of information. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Government is zipping the lips of non-partisan sources of information. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

• Before becoming a journalist, I was a communications advisor for the British Columbia government. In that role, I regularly scheduled interviews between reporters and bureaucrats — providing the media with an opportunity to access detailed information about public interest issues that they couldn’t get from cabinet ministers. Fifteen years later, those kinds of interviews, in my experience, appear to have become a rarity. Now, journalists are only allowed to speak with politicians and spin doctors. Nor am I alone in noticing this trend.

In a column for the Ottawa Citizen, University of British Columbia political science PhD candidate Stewart Prest argues that, “in field after field…politically relevant, yet non-partisan expertise is being removed from public discourse.” According to Prest, that’s a problem because “access to alternative sources of information is a prerequisite of democracy.” And “in modern democratic states one of the most important sources for non-partisan information and expertise is the government itself.”

• Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is right that Alberta’s provincial political system — like those elsewhere in Canada — is too secretive. He’s also right that it is too partisan. But I can’t see that system being the reason why Premier Alison Redford was forced to resign. Yet that’s exactly what the Calgary mayor is claiming.

Speaking with reporters, Nenshi said Redford’s resignation is “the story of a system that takes someone like that, chews them up and then spits them out.” But one could argue, as I did during an interview on CFAX 1070 last Thursday, that this is the story of a system that worked as it should. It’s a story where Redford’s caucus — elected officials — succeeded in holding to account a premier who had become both unpopular and misspent taxpayer dollars.

• Nenshi may not like Alberta’s secretive provincial political system — “one where where party and caucus, a bunch of unelected people, a bunch of people who meet only behind closed doors, make decisions about the future of this province.” But it’s worth remembering that Calgary’s city council has also been criticized for its secrecy.

A report published this past September by the Manning Foundation found that nearly a fifth of that council’s meetings have happened in secret since Nenshi swept into office. But it’s also worth remembering local governments across Canada have confronted similar complaints. And the foundation is seen as being opposed to Nenshi.

• The Hill Times reports Ottawa’s Parliamentary Press Gallery — in response to the Harper administration’s clampdown on government information — has passed a motion “asserting the right of journalists to ask questions ‘in all photo-ops and availabilities with the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, and all Parliamentarians, to fulfill our functions as journalists in a democratic society.”

That’s all well and good. In fact, it’s exactly what I would do. But it’s important to remember journalists often don’t get actual answers to those questions. Instead, politicians usually give statements that repeat their party’s talking points. Those statements are then sometimes published or broadcast verbatim by Canada’s news outlets. So just how much value is there in journalists asserting their right to access what can amount to little more than propaganda?

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

THE WEEK THAT WAS — MARCH 15, 2014

Are "overzealous PR practices" poisoning democracy? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Are “overzealous PR practices” poisoning democracy? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

• I’ve long been of the belief that information is less accessible in Canada than it is south of the border and in other parts of the Anglosphere. Certainly, that was my experience as a legislative reporter in British Columbia. And that belief is borne out by the Open Data Index, which assesses the state of open government data in 70 countries.

According to that index, Canada ranks behind nine other countries on that list including the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand and Austria. Canada’s weak points include a lack of accessibility or availability to government spending data and national statistics.

• Part of the blame for Canada’s overall lack of access to information may rest with some of the public relations professionals who work for government.

Commenting on the impact “overzealous PR practices” have had in the United States, National Press Club 2013 president Angela Greiling Keane and Society of Professional Journalists president David Cuillier, write that government agencies are “increasingly controlling what information the public receives, threatening the very foundations of democracy.”

As a result, Greiling and Cuillier have called on American elected officials to “allow journalists and the public to contact government employees directly for information without PR specialists intervening.” Such interventions are now standard practice at most public bodies in Canada.

• The adage “access delayed is access denied” has oft been repeated in reference to the months and sometimes years it takes for government agencies in Canada to respond to freedom of information requests. So it’s troubling that, thanks to a recent court ruling, those delays may soon get even longer.

The Canadian Press reports a Federal Court judge has said she can’t legally censure the Department of National Defence for giving itself a 1,110-day extension to provide records requested under the Access to Information Act.

Commenting on that ruling, Ottawa lawyer Michel Drapeau — the author of a textbook on that act — said, “A lot of champagne will be uncorked in many institutions…because they are going to say, listen, why did we only ask for 1,000 days? Next time we’ll ask for 10,000.”

• Prominent British Labour politician and reform advocate Tony Benn died last week at the age of 88. Among his most memorable quotes were his five questions for the powerful. During his final speech in the House of Commons, Benn advised that such people should be asked, “‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?’ If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

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

THE WEEK THAT WAS — MARCH 8, 2014

If the federal government has it's way, Canadians won't be getting a dump truck load of information about what mining companies are up to abroad. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

If the federal government has its way, Canadians won’t be getting a dump truck load of information about what mining companies are up to abroad. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

• Last week, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver announced the federal government wants to see mining companies reveal when they make payments more than $100,000 to governments at home and abroad. According to CBC News, that disclosure is meant to “curb potential corruption and bring greater sunlight to companies securing contracts or resource rights in developing countries.”

But, in an op-ed published by the Toronto Star, open data advocate David Eaves wrote that Oliver’s announcement didn’t go far enough. For example, those disclosures won’t be inputted into a central registry. Instead, they will be posted on company Websites, forcing “anyone interested in actually figuring out what is going on to go and track down each [record] individually. We call this secrecy by obscurity. It makes a mockery of the notion of transparency.”

• More educated countries consistently have better governments. And, according to The Atlantic, the authors of a new paper published in the Journal of Law and Economics believe that’s because more educated citizens complain about public officials who mistreated them. For example:

“…policemen who beat them up, officials who demand bribes, teachers who do not show up…A public official choosing to break rules must trade off the risk of being disciplined, no matter how small for each individual complaint, against the benefits of misconduct. As citizens’ complaints proliferate, the risk of an investigation and disciplinary action rises…As education levels in a country rise, so does the number of complaints when officials misbehave, which raises the expected costs of misconduct and thus encourages better behavior — asking for fewer bribes, avoiding abusing people, showing up to work.”

• Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May will be delivering a lecture entitled “The Crisis in Democracy” later this month at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. In an interview with the university administration’s newspaper, May gave a sneak preview of that talk, saying:

“It’s arguable that we now live in a dictatorship, punctuated by manipulated elections. The symptoms of the problem are easy to spot – low voter turn-out, with worryingly low levels among young people with no sign they will start voting once they are over 30, a less than vital Fourth Estate, undermined by an alarming level of concentration of media ownership in very few hands, public apathy, indifference bordering on antipathy toward the whole process, excessive power in the hands of the few (or the one, since I refer to PMO), a loss of respect for the fundamental principle of the supremacy of Parliament, misuse of the talents of Members of Parliament of the large parties as MPs are expected to toe the party line on every issue, big and small, and its flip-side, excessive control by the unelected top party brass in all three main parties.”

• In 2010, Times Colonist reporters Rob Shaw, Lindsay Kines and Louise Dickson exposed how British Columbia’s court system routinely and wrongly denied access to information. According to Shaw, as a result of the series, then attorney general Mike de Jong promised to “revise aging court access policies so they have a ‘presumption in favour of releasing information.’” But, four years later, this was one Canadian Press reporter‘s recent experience with that system:

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

THE WEEK THAT WAS — MARCH 1, 2014

Police shield themselves from the public's right to know in Canada. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Police shield themselves from the public’s right to know in Canada. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

• Saskatchewan’s municipal police aren’t subject to the province’s freedom of information legislation. And the government hasn’t yet committed to do anything about it.

In a series for the Leader-Post, Mark Melnychuk quotes top cops in that province providing a range of excuses as to why the public doesn’t have a right to their records.

For example, according to Regina Police Services Chief Troy Hagen says, “There are a host of questions that I suppose that someone may ask that really would compromise, to a large extent, the integrity of the police service, and the operations and most importantly the independence of the police service.”

But, when asked about bringing police forces under the province’s freedom of information legislation, Minister of Justice Gordon Wyant said, “We’re going to have to give it some very serious consideration.”

• Canadians now have less access to information about wrongdoing in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Postmedia News reports that the “RCMP’s top brass are requiring disciplinary decisions related to misbehaving Mounties be vetted first for certain sensitive materials before they can be released to the media, even though these reports were typically released unredacted for years.”

Evidently, “the office of the federal privacy commissioner was OK with these changes.” But “the office of the access-to-information commissioner took a ‘contrary position,’” according to a briefing note obtained by Postmedia.

• Passing Tory backbencher Michael Chong’s Reform Act isn’t the way to improve democracy in this country. Samara Canada has posted a roundup of 50 other proposals,  which includes redesigning the House of Commons’s seating plan and creating Constituency Parliaments — a “citizen-engaging deliberative body to advise and direct individual MPs.”

• The Canadian University Press, the country’s oldest student newspaper organization is in crisis, according the Calgary Herald. But, in an interview with the paper’s Trevor Howell, I pointed out the opportunities for campus media have never been greater because major news outlets no longer have the resources to cover many major stories: “I would love to see a much more aggressive student press, not just focused around student issues but issues that are of concern to that particular demographic.”

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

OPEN DATA IN THE UNKNOWABLE COUNTRY

Mapping the borders of the unknowable country at the Open Data Summit in Vancouver. (Photography by OpenDataBC)

Mapping the borders of the unknowable country at the Open Data Summit in Vancouver. (Photograph by OpenDataBC)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of speaking to the Open Data Summit in Vancouver about the political and cultural barriers to transparency and accountability in Canada — and what those barriers mean to the open data movement. That talk appeared to be well-received, with audience members describing it as “powerful,” “thought provoking” and “fascinating.” So I’m pleased to share the text of it below.