Secrecy, suppression and government games

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Marilla Stephenson’s column in today’s Halifax Chronicle-Herald should be required reading for anyone who cares about democracy. Stephenson describes how a 95-page municipal auditor’s report on a city financial scandal was withheld from journalists on Tuesday. The report was circulated to city councillors and during a lunch break,  journalists were “shuffled downstairs to a news conference, where only copies of the executive summary were circulated.” (Stephenson suggests the summary was a complete whitewash.) After that, they were told the full report would be posted later on the city’s website.

“Journalists were then left with the option of heading to a computer where they could actually read the document online or staying to hear the council debate. And by the way, reading a 95-page document online when deadline is looming and the absorption rate is expected to be high is difficult. There is no ability to mark pages and flip among sections to find pertinent information. It makes a tough, time-sensitive job even more challenging.”

In telling her story about the city’s attempt to “hamstring” reporters, Stephenson violated a rule in the mainstream media that journalists should not write about themselves. It’s a good thing she did because it’s important for people to know how governments routinely withhold, suppress and control information. Last week, Coast reporter Tim Bousquet wrote about how he stumbled upon a new gag order at Halifax city hall that prevents municipal employees from talking to journalists without first getting approval from the city’s PR director.

NS and Harperland

Government secrecy, manipulation and information control are not just municipal obsessions. Earlier this year, Paul McLeod, of the business news website allnovascotia.com, discovered that the provincial NDP government had quietly told its PR people to funnel all media requests for information through the premier’s office. The headline over McLeod’s story read: “Nova Scotia is the new Harperland,” a reference to the prime minister’s attempts to control (and suppress) the release of information to reporters. During the recent election campaign, for example, Stephen Harper refused to answer more than five questions per day from journalists — yet another move in his ongoing war with the Ottawa press gallery. His government has also weakened journalists’ (and the public’s) ability to pry public documents from the government using freedom of information laws.

Sad stories of my own

Yesterday, I ran into secrecy problems of my own after receiving a news release from two Nova Scotia environmental groups about a panel discussion on the proposed, multi-billion dollar Lower Churchill hydro dam in Labrador. That project could turn out to be both a financial boondoggle and an environmental disaster, so I made the 25-kilometre trek downtown to take in the panel, which included government officials, power company executives, academics and a representative from a local environmental group. The event was organized by a federally funded agency called the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

Don’t blame yourself, if you’ve never heard of NRTEE.  Its meetings are closed to the public! When I barged in, I was politely told to leave. Panel moderator Mark Parent, a former provincial environment minister, kindly gave me his cell number so I could call him for a chat later. He explained that the meeting was strictly private so that “stakeholders” could speak candidly.

Secret gambling report

So I drove back home and opened my e-mail to discover that the provincial government was finally releasing a 400-page consultant’s report on a politically sensitive subject: the social and economic impact of gambling in Nova Scotia. When the Canadian Press news agency tried to obtain the report through Access to Information legislation a year ago, the government refused to release it on the grounds it contained errors. In April, a review officer ruled there was no good reason to keep the report secret.

Yesterday, the government finally relented and released a version of the report with “errors” corrected. However, instead of simply giving the customary online link to the report, the e-mailed media release advised reporters that they could request a copy. The e-mail was sent at 3:29 p.m., the busiest time of day for journalists facing daily deadlines.

Oh the games people play.

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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