THE NEWS MEDIA NEEDS UNMEDIATED ACCESS The Canadian Association of Journalists wants Ottawa to “allow civil servants to freely speak to members of the media without interference or involvement from communications staff” — a reform news media representatives in the United States also want their government to adopt.
On June 30, in a letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the Canadian Association of Journalists stated such limitations have been compared to censorship — which would be at odds with the Harper administration’s open government ambitions (disclosure: I drafted and then, as one of the association’s regional directors, co-signed that document).
Now, 46 open government and journalism organizations south of the border are also asking the United States government to remove such restrictions. In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, the groups urged “changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communication with staff without going through public information offices, requiring PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.”
According to the letter, “when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a ‘press vs. government’ issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its government institutions.”
BACK IN THE GOOD ‘OL DAYS Civil servants in the United States and Canada haven’t always been so restricted in speaking with the news media. As an example, the Canadian Association of Journalists cited guidelines issued by then-prime minister Joe Clark in 1979.
Those guidelines stated that talking to reporters “was part of the duties and responsibilities of managers in the public service.”
That directive, which was upheld by Pierre Trudeau when he succeeded Clark as prime minister, was meant to “encourage open and responsive behaviour among public servants in their day-to-day dealings with the public, including particularly members of Parliament and representatives of the news media.”
The Globe and Mail reported those guidelines “made no mention of [civil servants] having to get prior clearance from press officers” to speak with journalists.
So there was a bit of a hue and cry five years later when Clark, as then-prime minister Brian Mulroney’s external affairs minister, tried to forbid his bureaucrats from discussing “’any aspect of policy formulation or implementation or any departmental activity or operation with any member of the media, unless the departmental employee has been designated to do so by the press office. This directive applies to all contacts with the media, including social.”
Soon after that directive became public, it was superseded by a somewhat looser government-wide gag order on civil servants.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT? In Canada, as in many other Western democracies, there’s been concern about declining youth voter turnout. But haven’t young people always been less likely to show up to the polls? And aren’t they simply engaged in politics in different ways?
Well, according to Maria Grasso, a lecturer in politics and quantitative methods at the University of Sheffield, the answer is no and no to both those questions in some European countries.
Grasso “applied cutting-edge statistical analysis to data from the European Values Study 1981-2008, which tracked the political activity of individuals born in ten advanced Western European countries, Belgium, Denmark, France, West German, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.” Here’s what she found:
While it’s true that in general younger generations are less likely than older groups to engage with traditional political parties, when it comes to participating in social movement organisations, demonstrating, or signing a petition, the 1960s-70s generation is more active than the 1980s generation, which in turn is more active than the 1990s generation. Coming of age in the radical and ideologically polarised period of the late 60s has left its mark on the 1960s-70s generation. But what this means is that older people are not merely more likely to be involved in formal politics, they are also more engaged with informal politics too.
INFORMATION RIGHTS BLOCK BUSINESS GROWTH? Opponents of openness and accountability often try to thwart Canadians’ right to know by arguing that privacy is a necessity for public and private institution to function properly.
The latest examples comes to us from Hamilton, where there is a proposal that would require those trying to influence city decision-makers to publicly disclose their activities.
That may not seem like a controversial idea. But, in a column for Hamilton Business, Flamborough Chamber of Commerce executive director Arend Kersten questions whether that lobbyist registry — represents another “nail in the coffin of economic development” in the city. Specifically, Kersten states:
Within the context of a global economy, municipalities face fierce competition in the race for new commercial and industrial economic development, complete with additional jobs and tax revenues.
One essential component of that competitive process is absolute confidentiality.
The draft bylaw for the lobbyist registry allows for exemptions (at the sole discretion of the registrar). But many in the “real world” fear those who desire to invest will simply bypass Hamilton for a more business-friendly jurisdiction where absolute confidentiality is a sacred trust.
PRESS PROBES POLITICIAN’S BEDROOM Speaking of privacy, when can journalists invade it if they are reporting on the lives of public officials?
In an interview with Vancouver-based freelancer Bob Mackin, I stated, “It’s too easy to say, ‘Well we don’t want to go down the pathway of the U.K., we don’t want to go down the pathway of the U.S.’” where those lives are on greater public display.
“But we also have to ask what not going down that pathway costs us, because there is a cost and the cost is that some things that should be reported on, may end up unreported.”
You can read Mackin’s full article, which analyzes the controversy over the coverage of Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson’s marital woes, here.
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: Given the slowness of the summer news cycle, I’ll be publishing this column biweekly instead of weekly until September.
In terms of media access to public servants, I support your premise. But it’s rarely as simple as posted, and in fact requires some cooperation from reporters. A case in point; I had a reporter call frustrated and short-tempered after failing to connect directly with a specific air quality expert. The reporter had attempted, based on that outlet’s contact data base, to call a staffer who had retired almost a decade earlier, and when advised of that, then went to their second choice – another retiree. It is a fact in public service that staff change positions and areas of responsibility, and having reporters simply troll through their directories calling multiple people seeking answers to the same query can not be very efficient for the reporter and is certainly not for the public service staff involved. Effective media relations adds value by seeking to ensure reporters have access to the appropriate spokespeople on a given issue – and that, for a variety of reasons (not all nefarious!), will not always be the person the reporter thinks it is or should be. I consider the function to be one of a doorman (let me get you to the apartment you are looking for) rather than as one of gatekeeper. All that said, the growing focus on message control at the political level has done much to create unnecessary barriers between journalists and public servants, to the detriment of communications with the audiences we both serve.