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.
What does living in an unknowable country mean for those trying to increase access to government data and information? I tried to answer that question on Friday, during a speech at the Open Data Summit in Vancouver.
I’ll be posting the text of that speech online early next week. But I’ll also be sharing some of those thoughts with the Canadian Bar Association Alberta Branch. I’m scheduled to talk with the branch’s privacy and access law section (south) in Calgary this coming Monday.
Meanwhile, my weekly summary of news about the people, the press and the powerful in Canada will resume next week.
Last year, the country’s freedom of information commissioners called for a modernization of the antiquated laws that are supposed to allow, but in many cases now frustrate, journalists’ access to public records.
Indeed, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy, 55 other nations have stronger information rights laws than we do.
Anecdotally, our reporters have also complained about their shoddy access to public officials, with senior members of the governing federal Conservative Party making statements that discredit the media.
Nevertheless, according to a report by Reporters Without Borders, Canada continued to enjoy one of the highest levels of press freedom in the world last year.
But we don’t know exactly why that is because the advocacy group won’t release the data underpinning that ranking.
Reporters Without Borders has been compiling its press freedom index since 2002. A country’s position on that list is partially determined by the amount of violence (including imprisonment and arrests) against journalists within its borders. But the results of a survey — which is sent to 18 freedom of expression groups, Reporters Without Borders’s 150 correspondents, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists — also factor in.
That survey asks questions about six different topics:
• the degree to which different opinions are represented in the media;
• media independence;
• media self-censorship;
• press freedom, freedom of information and freedom of expression legislation;
• the transparency of the “institutions and procedures that affect the production of news and information;” and
• the “quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.”
But, when I emailed asking for the results of the Canadian surveys, this is the response I received from Camille Soulier, head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk:
“I’m sorry but in the interest of our sources protection and so as to not jeopardize the independence of our work, our questionnaires are confidential. I know sources in Canada are not seriously at risk, as opposed to those in Honduras or Iran, but we apply the same rules to all. This is clearly unfortunate considering you are writing a column on transparency… but I hope you understand and I do apologize.”
It’s understandable Reporters Without Borders would want to protect its sources — which, according to Soulier, usually amounts to a panel of around five experts per country. But why doesn’t the group release the results of its questionnaires?
Well, according to Soulier, it’s because those results could be used to create different indexes about the survey’s topics. So Reporters Without Borders keeps that information “confidential in the interest of publishing one single index.”
But that’s just one of several of limitations associated with that single index.
Reporters Without Borders acknowledges their rankings “should in no way be taken as an indication of the quality of the media in the countries concerned.”
The group has also changed its method of compiling the index over the years.
And, as the Washington Post’s Max Fisher observed in an interview with NPR’s On The Media, “Most of the criteria [in the questionnaire] are actually subjective. And they send these forms out to hundreds of people around the world and ask them to rate things like self-censorship, how hard is it to get a T.V. license on a one to ten scale. And the thing that a few political scientists pointed out to me when I started asking questions about this is that somebody in the U.S. and somebody in Russia or Namibia is going to have a very different ten point scale.”
None of this is to say Reporters Without Borders isn’t doing laudable work. It is. And the very existence of the Press Freedom Index should be applauded.
But the group seems to be asking reporters to take the accuracy of that index at their word — something any journalist should be loathe to do.
And that puts into question whether Canada has the 18th freest press in the world or something else entirely.
The British Columbia government’s BC B-Sides Website is another West Coast experiment in brand journalism — a public relations technique where communications staff publish content that look like journalism, smells like journalism but is actually just advertising.
In this particular case, the stories on that Website are reworded government news releases that will “benefit, entertain and inform the public,” according to a communications plan for the project.
But even though B-Sides is meant to position the province as a “leader in using digital communications for public engagement,” a “thorough search” has found no correspondence about that Website sent to or from the government’s most senior communicators.
This, according to a response to a freedom of information request I filed on December 23, 2013:
Needless to say, I’ve asked the office of the information and privacy commissioner for British Columbia to review that search — as well as the government’s refusal to release information on how B-Sides “benefits BC Government’s long-term strategic communications.”
In the meantime, I’d encourage you to read the Times Colonist’s Les Leyne earlier take on that initiative — and others like it that were launched during the recent British Columbia election.
Leyne writes, “Media and political campaigns have been arguing with each other since time began, but the long-running feud is pretty much over. And we lost. The strategists don’t have much to complain about when it comes to media coverage in Election 2013, because they’ve taken over the job themselves.”
• Newsrooms cutbacks aren’t just affecting investigative coverage of what happens in Canada’s legislative chambers. Those cuts are also affecting coverage of what happens in the country’s judicial chambers. In an article published in The Lawyers Weekly, Jeremy Hainsworth quotes media lawyer Dan Burnett as saying, “In the good old days, the media would fight anything that infringes freedom of the press.” But nowadays, sealing orders and closed courts are challenged “less and less.”
• Four years ago, an article published in the Canadian Parliament Review encouraged political parties and universities to develop a “proactive strategy” to encourage scientists and engineers to participate in parliamentary life. But, in a post written for Democratic Audit UK, the University of Cambridge’s Mark Goodwin points out “parliamentarians [in the United Kingdom] with scientific backgrounds don’t tend to vote any differently from their non-elected counterparts, suggesting that either efforts to improve the number of scientists in the House are either pointless, or that they make their expert contributions in other, less visible, ways.”
• It looks like journalism, it smells like journalism but it isn’t journalism. It’s advertising. That’s brand journalism in a nutshell. And, as reported by freelance journalist David Ball, it’s a public relations technique that’s now being used by the BC Liberal Party. In a story for Vancouver 24 hrs, Ball quoted me as saying that technique is “meant to create the appearance of objectivity where there is none.”
• Last week, I speculated that increasing job insecurity within the news industry may affect reporters’ willingness to produce investigative journalism. After all, it’s not uncommon for reporters to end up working for the officials and institutions they once covered. So how willing will those officials and institutions be to hire someone who makes rather than just follows the news? Will those journalists be seen as prizes or troublemakers? And how many journalists are asking themselves the same question? But, in a series of twitter postings, Sun Media’s David Akin questioned just how much news media downsizing is really happening…at least on Parliament Hill:
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
There will be fewer hands to file access to information requests, fewer eyes to read public records and fewer minds to think of questions that aren’t being asked.
That’s a blow to Canada’s democracy, given that Postmedia publishes the National Post, the Canada.com Website and nine newspapers in major cities.
Indeed, CTV Power Play host Don Martin has already eloquently made a similar point.
But I also wonder whether such layoffs, which have become endemic in the industry, will eventually compromise the willingness of journalists to do that investigative work without fear or favour.
Let me explain: in my experience, it’s not uncommon for reporters to end up working for or trying to influence the officials and institutions they once covered. For example, journalists on the politics beat have been known to eventually become government staffers and lobbyists.
So it’s reasonable to assume that, given the instability of the news industry, some journalists may increasingly come to see the subjects of their stories as potential employers. In doing so, those same journalists may come to wonder how their coverage will affect their chances of being hired if they are downsized.
True, most institutions and officials understand that journalists have to report on news releases and news events. They may even understand that journalists need to ask tough questions as part of that coverage. But how do those institutions and officials feel when a journalist initiates a story rather than responds to what others are publicly doing and saying?
Do those institutions and officials think the journalist is just doing their job (true) or do they think the journalist is just making trouble (false)?
When attempting to answer those questions, it’s worth remembering that as the news media’s ability to produce such investigative reporting declines, so to may its frequency. In other words, that reporting will likely become even more of an outlier on the nation’s news pages and broadcasts than it already is.
As a result of this rarity, some institutions and officials may increasingly come to see investigative journalism as not part of a reporter’s job — in practice, if not principle.
So how willing would those institutions and officials be to hire someone who has, in their opinion, been making trouble? How many journalists — who are working under the threat of unemployment — are asking that same question And how might that affect the news media’s willingness to investigate the powerful, rather than just repeating what the powerful have to say?
Of course, I don’t necessarily have the answers to any of these questions — or the many others that may arise if journalists increasingly start thinking about their job futures rather than their present jobs. Moreover, it’s important to remember there are many reporters for whom the public trust will always come before any personal considerations.
But as the number of people guarding the bulwark of liberty continues to forcibly decline, these are important questions worth asking.
• Behold the brand new but far from brave new world of Canadian journalism revealed in a presentation Postmedia Network Inc. delivered to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. In that presentation, which was first reported by the Vancouver Observer’s Jenny Ulechi and Matthew Millar, the media company was trying to convince the oil and gas lobby group to sponsor energy “channels” on it’s newspaper Websites and purchase other advertising.
One of the slides quoted National Post publisher Douglas Kelly describing his daily, which is part of Postmedia, as being “one of the country’s leading voices on the importance of energy to Canada’s business competitiveness international and our economic well being in general.”
“We will work with CAPP to amplify our energy mandate and to be part of the solution to keep Canada competitive in the global marketplace. The National Post will undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation.”
• Canada has less freedom of information than many other countries. And Alberta is tied with New Brunswick for having less freedom of information than any other province. So you’d think journalists would be unanimous in their support for the Alberta government’s proactive release of the salaries for well-paid bureaucrats — something six other provinces already do, according to the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation. But apparently not.
In the Edmonton Journal, columnist Paula Simons writes that “discussing our pay is one of the last social taboos.” As a result, she argues, “We have to ask the cost of shaming individual public servants for being good at their jobs. We have to ask whether this data will help make better decisions or simply incite our envious voyeurism. We have to ask whether Tories are presenting this data in a punitive — rather than accountable — way to intimidate the public sector in a time of budget stress.”
• A little independence can go a long way — at least in the United Kingdom, which has weaker party discipline than Canada. The Times’s Tim Montgomerie writes that without Tory rebel MPs the country would “be at war — and have dearer petrol.” Meanwhile, the BBC’s Gary Connor reports Crossbenchers — members of the House of Lords who have no party affiliation — have “been crucial in defeating the coalition [government] in the vast majority of cases” involving votes in that chamber.
• Ryerson Review of Journalism senior editor Luc Rinaldi has given a thumbs down to the Nova Scotia government’s decision to suddenly — and without explanation — terminate its freedom of information watchdog Dulcie McCallum. A spokesperson for the province’s justice minister simply advised the Globe and Mail that decision was a personnel matter. But, for Rinaldi, it’s also “a reminder that progress on the FOI front is fleeting. We can’t sit back and hope things will get better. Otherwise, next time a freedom-of-information commissioner gets canned, we may not even hear about it.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.