Saturday, May 11, 2013

Truer Words - Governments Hide in Silence

Today's Times Colonist editorial goes straight to the heart of the darkness that lurks within the Harper government.

A group of professors at the University of Victoria has asked the federal information commissioner to investigate the muzzling of government scientists. The university’s Environmental Law Centre is concerned that experts employed by the federal government have been prevented from speaking about their work.
A brief filed by the centre notes that media calls to federal agencies are routinely diverted to a central communications office. Scientists themselves are not allowed to talk with reporters.
The complaint is entirely accurate. That is indeed what happens.

...By imposing a code of silence on public servants, politicians make themselves unaccountable. By ensuring that only their version of events is heard, they stifle meaningful inquiry.

And they imply that the basic working mechanisms of government are wholly within their command and control. This is a subversive doctrine. It turns a public interest — the running of programs we all own and pay for — into a political franchise.

The editorial laments that this contagion is spreading and has been adopted by the neoconservative B.C. Liberal government and institutions beyond government.

The policy of silence is not confined to Ottawa, and scientists are by no means the only ones being muzzled.

Phone any branch of the B.C. government from a newspaper desk, and the inquiry will be routed to a media-relations specialist. If by chance you get through to ministry program staff, you will be told they can’t speak to you.
Even if the matter is purely factual and devoid of political ramifications, the rule has no exceptions. Public servants may not speak to reporters. Other provinces also enforce this policy, and it extends much further than government.

 Our politicians value their curtain of silence: They won’t give it up without a fight


Anonymous said...

That's really odd.
I worked for local government in Scotland a while back and we were expected to answer press inquiries. In fact we were also asked what other arenas we were engaged in so that if the press called on a subject that was tangentially related we could be involved. Of course this local government was socialist in nature and had a transparent and pro-active approach to dealing with the public.
The line was if you want to know about roads speak to the roads department not the person who doesn't work there daily.
trange hey?

The Mound of Sound said...

Actually, HB, that's not particularly odd at all. We used to have something akin to that same openness in Canada.

As a reporter you could go through a press officer but usually they were a last resort for cases in which you couldn't track down the right subject yourself. That sometimes led to hilarious but frustrating results when you got "referral shuffled" into a great circuit only to arrive back at the first person who had started the referral cycle. In any event you could freely access just about anyone whose number you could dial save, of course, some senior cabinet ministers.

When Harper shut down that process the parliamentary press gallery types protested - symbolically - but submitted in no time to this new, undemocratic regime.

I have been writing for several years about Harper's "political commissars" installed in the PMO for the purpose of severing the public's free access to their armed and civil servants. It's a Stalinist regime in which Harper loyalists vet communications, determine what may and may be asked and of whom and then filter responses to ensure that they conform, not to reality, not necessarily factually or even honestly, but only to government policy.

In this way, I have argued, Harper has transformed the public service and the armed services into his personal, partisan agencies.

Finally, at long last, a bunch of law students from U Vic have launched the attack on this tyranny that ought to have been done at the outset by our media or our political parties. What does their complacency tell us?