Stephen Harper government builds stone wall around information

By Kathy English Public Editor
Published on Friday October 19, 2012

George Orwell wrote the book on information control.

“I was appalled, but perhaps not really surprised, to learn of the quote approval practice you reveal,” reader Frances Smith told me in an email this week in response to my last column about the increasingly common practice of U.S. journalists allowing politicians to vet their quotes before publication.

“How politely you put it: ‘quote approval,’ ” Smith wrote. “There’s another not-so-polite word for it — Censorship.

“This is so ‘1984’ it’s creepy. The Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue, is upon us.”

As I wrote last week, it is a very good thing that Canadian journalists who cover politics, government and public affairs are not facing the same pressures as their American counterparts to agree to demands to allow politicians and public officials to vet, edit or approve their own words before publication as a condition of being interviewed.

But that doesn’t mean everything is tickety-boo here. Indeed, some alarming aspects of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” as described in his classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, are the all-too-real truth for Canadian journalists whose role it is to hold the Stephen Harper government to account.

It is no secret that the Harper government has gone to extraordinary lengths to seek to control the agenda and thwart journalists’ dual purpose of holding politicians to account and making government more transparent to citizens.

In an open letter published in April 2010, nine Canadian journalism organizations contended that under Harper the flow of information has “slowed to a trickle.

“Genuine transparency is replaced by slick propaganda and spin designed to manipulate public opinion,” the letter stated.

Those who control information in Ottawa have various means of managing the message. A common tactic is the email “interview” (and I use that word loosely), now largely the only way that the Star’s Ottawa bureau staff can reach government ministers, deputies and other public servants, including, often, even government “spokespersons.”

As Ottawa reporter Susan Delacourt wrote in a July column: “It is now standard, for instance, for reporters to submit questions in writing to the government only to wait hours, days, or even weeks for a committee-approved response.”

Journalists in the Star’s Ottawa bureau tell me they resist sending questions in email. Diligent reporters aim to go directly to the source and seek an interview, in person or on telephone. That’s still the reporter’s best tool for gathering information.

But too often the only information reporters in Ottawa can get comes from email responses from government spokespersons that don’t actually address the questions at hand.

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