• 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.