Monday, June 14, 2010
Harper's Stalinist Control of Information. Is the Press Gallery's Patience Finally Fraying?
The Harper years have not been anything for the Canadian media to be proud of. Harper wasted no time in severing their access to information and cowing them into submission. With barely a whimper the Canadian media have abandoned their responsibility to be the "watchdog of government" to transform into Harper's lapdogs instead.
Finally a few of them are coming clean about what they've allowed Harper to get away with on their watch. From "Helen Buzetti and Press Gallery colleagues" via The Tyee:
Most Canadians are aware of the blacked-out Afghan detainee documents and the furor over MPs' secret expenses. But the problem runs much deeper.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the flow of information out of Ottawa has slowed to a trickle. Cabinet ministers and civil servants are muzzled. Access to Information requests are stalled and stymied by political interference. Genuine transparency is replaced by slick propaganda and spin designed to manipulate public opinion.
The result is a citizenry with limited insight into the workings of their government and a diminished ability to hold it accountable. As journalists, we fear this will mean more government waste, more misuse of taxpayer dollars, more scandals Canadians won't know about until it's too late.
...It's been four years since Harper muzzled his cabinet ministers and forced reporters to put their names on a list during rare press conferences in hopes of being selected to ask the prime minster a question. It's not uncommon for reporters to be blackballed, barred from posing questions on behalf of Canadians.
More recently, information control has reached new heights. Access to public events is now restricted. Photographers and videographers have been replaced by hand-out photos and footage shot by the prime minister's press office and blitzed out to newsrooms across Canada. It's getting tougher to find an independent eye recording history, a witness seeing things how they really happened -- not how politicians wish they'd happened. Did cabinet ministers grimace while they tasted seal meat in the Arctic last summer? Canadians will never know. Photographers were barred from the fake photo-op.
Those hand-out shots are, unfortunately, widely used by media outlets, often without the caveat that they are not real journalism.
In the end, that means Canadian only get a sanitized and staged version of history -- not the real history.
Meanwhile, the quality of factual information provided to the public has declined steadily. Civil servants -- scientists, doctors, regulators, auditors and policy experts, those who draft public policy and can explain it best to the population -- cannot speak to the media. Instead, reporters have to deal with an armada of press officers who know very little or nothing at all about a reporter's topic and who answer tough questions with vague talking points vetted by layers of political staff and delivered by email only.
A Call to Arms
Last month, reporters gathered in Montreal at the Canadian Association of Journalists' conference to discuss these issues. On behalf of our members, we are calling on journalists to stand together and push back by refusing to accept vague email responses to substantive questions that require an interview with a cabinet minister or a senior civil servant. We are also asking journalists to stop running hand-out photos and video clips.
We are also calling on journalists to explain better to readers and viewers just how little information Ottawa has provided for a story. Every time a minister refuses to comment, a critical piece of information is withheld or an access request is delayed, Canadians deserve to know.
Look, there's no two ways about it. When Harper appointed political commissars to the PMO to filter enquiries that would be permitted to pass to the public service and to shape (propagandize) those responses that would be permitted to go back, it was a direct and powerful, not to mention, disgraceful attack on Canadian democracy. That's what Joe Stalin did. It's an outrage that I've written about many times and it ought to have been one that the Conservative-Lite Party of Canada used to club Harper over the head again and again and again - but didn't.
Fortunately there is reason to hope that the parliamentary press gallery may be finding the spine that the none-too oppositional Opposition Leader lacks. It's about damned time.