EXTRA! EXTRA! FOI WATCHDOGS DON’T MAKE HEADLINES!

The title information commissioner doesn't make many headlines. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The title information commissioner doesn’t make many headlines. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

PRIVACY GETS BIGGER BILLING THAN FOI In Canada’s provinces and territories, a single official is responsible for protecting the public’s information rights, as well as their privacy rights. But even when those officials are talking about information rights, some headline writers only refer to them as “privacy commissioners” or “privacy watchdogs.”

According to my count, there have been at least 84 such headlines published between 2003 and the present. For example, on August 15, the Globe and Mail reported British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner would be looking into whether the provincial government should have told the public about the state of the Mount Polley Mine prior to the collapse of its tailings pond. But even though that story has little to do with privacy rights, it appeared in print under the headline “Privacy watchdog launches mine probe.”

By comparison, I only found 40 headlines between 2003 and the present that referred to those watchdogs using a title that was about their information rights protecting responsibilities. And that makes me wonder what impact this difference is having on how the public views privacy versus access issues.*

LEGAL BILLS ABOVE FOI LAW? British Columbia’s justice minister doesn’t think the public should have a right to know what lawyers working for the government are making. During an interview on the public affairs show Voice of BC, the minister, Suzanne Anton, was asked by BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek if her administration would stop blocking the release of that kind of information. Her response: “When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.” The following is a complete transcript of that segment, which include show host Vaughn Palmer.

Gogolek: Minister, we’ve been hearing a rising number of complaints from FOI requesters who are trying to get information on how much lawyers or law firms are charging the government and the usual excuse is that somehow either handing over invoices or sometimes even just the total amount billed would violate solicitor-client privilege. Will you commit your government to stop blocking the release of this kind of information?

Anton: When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.

Palmer: What about total billings by a law firm for a prominent case like the BCTF case? Is the public entitled to know what the government has spent fighting the teachers’ union in court all these years?

Anton: I think it’s a complicated question because there’s government lawyers – it’s mainly government lawyers on that case. As a matter of fact, there’s one outside counsel right now. These are not things that are generally released.

Palmer: Well, I think the public’s entitled to know something like that don’t you?

Anton: I think it’s a very interesting case and we will see where it gets to. But in terms of the bills we have policy in legal services that we follow.

THE CLOSED DOOR CLUB Why do so many Canadian politicians appear to feel so comfortable making decisions out of the public eye?

In a letter published in the North Shore News earlier this month, retiring North Vancouver district councillor Alan Nixon suggested this rationale: “I, along with many others, believe effective and efficient administration and stewardship of the taxpayers’ best interest is more important than whether the meeting gets held in-camera or in the council chamber.”

Nixon was responding to an earlier column by former councillor Trevor Carolan, who criticized how much of the district’s public business has been happening in private.

According to Carolan, in 2013, “a total of 22 regular council meetings equalled 49 hours of open business; 47 closed meetings resulted in 81 hours of closed door sessions.

But Nixon has wrote, “The meetings that have been ‘secret’ or ‘in-camera’ have been fully justified under the rules which we operate, namely the Local Government Act and the Community Charter.”

THE POWER OF THE PSA The Inter American Press Association has passed a resolution calling on governments in the Americans to tell citizens about their information rights — something our own federal access watchdog can’t do. As I earlier reported, Canada’s first information commissioner wrote about the need to raise public awareness about those rights back in 1984. But, 30 years later, the current commissioner Suzanne Legault still doesn’t have that authority.

THE TRUTH AS A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE If religion is the opiate of the masses, is freedom of information their stimulant? That’s what Josh Gordon, state political editor for the Australian newspaper The Age, has suggested in his latest column. Writing about an attempt to withhold records about ambulance response time for people having heart attacks, Gordon states that information in the State of Victoria ‘is all too often treated as a dangerous drug, to be carefully meted out in controlled doses. Get the dose wrong and it might provoke an outbreak of ‘unnecessary debate.’ God forbid.”

SQUIBS

• American authorities told American journalists the name of Parliament Hill shooter Michael Joseph Zehaf-Bibeau long before Canadian authorities released the same information. According to Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell, that may be an example of the “difference in fundamental philosophies about democracy” between the two countries. (hat tip: David Mayhood)

• A request by Prince Edward Island’s information commissioner for more government money prompts Holland College journalism instructor Rick MacLean to write, “There are many ways to hide things. Underfunding those who hold you to account is one.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Calgary Herald reports a care home provider is trying to block the release of records that would tell the public how much money it makes from its contract with the Alberta government. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Embassy’s Carl Meyer covers his frustrating experience filing access requests for information about Canada’s relationship with Vietnam.

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

* = I searched the Canadian Newsstand database for headlines that included the words “privacy commissioner,” “privacy watchdog,” “privacy ombudsman,” “privacy ombudsperson,” “privacy officer” and “privacy review officer” above stories that included the words “freedom of information” or FOI. I also searched the same database for headlines that included the words “information commissioner,” “info commissioner,” “information watchdog,” “info watchdog,” “FOI commissioner,” “FOI watchdog,” “information ombudsman,” “info ombudsman,” “info formation ombudsperson,” “information ombudsperson,” “information review officer,” “info review officer,” “information officer” and “info officer.” But I excluded from that later search stories that included the names of federal access commissioners Suzanne Legault, John Reid or Robert Marleau.

3 thoughts on “EXTRA! EXTRA! FOI WATCHDOGS DON’T MAKE HEADLINES!

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