Binkley Report — Harper's tightening muzzle

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ... 

The Binkley Report

Federal government muzzle gets tighter

There are more flacks hiding Harper than reporters trying to get the truth

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Largely overlooked in the flap over Vikileaks was the main theme of a science conference in Vancouver that laid bare as big a threat to an open society as the ham-handed Internet snooping legislation.

The Harper government has essentially gagged civil servants so they can’t talk to reporters or the public. Weather forecasts may be the only communication that doesn’t require approval in advance.

The example that came up at the conference was federal scientists who had discovered a new ozone hole, but couldn’t discuss it with anyone. However, the gag stretches across the federal bureaucracy. The most mundane request from a journalist takes days to get a response. It’s usually too late for the story, and most of the time, too general to be of any use.

One of the big issues at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference was climate change. While Harper and his ministers will use the term, there’s little in their policies that will either mitigate it or even encourage adapting to a warmer world and the unpredictable weather that will create. And it always takes a back seat to creating jobs. None of them seems to get that tackling climate change could create jobs.

So whenever anything critical of the government’s head in the sand approach filters out of the bureaucracy as happened recently concerning the tarsands, the denial machine goes into full gear.

The government seems to live in fear of having a rational discussion about anything.

In fairness, the Chretien government put the gag on the civil service and the Harper gang has made it a lot tighter. Civil servants were never allowed to criticize government policy, but as their expertise shaped the policy, they could usually best explain it.

Back in 1975, when this reporter joined the Parliamentary Press Gallery, it was normal to call a civil servant if he or she was the person to talk to. If the reporter wasn’t certain, you called the media folks to find out who the spokesperson was. You usually got connected to the expert within a couple of hours. In fact, the contact person was often listed on a press release.

This lasted through the Mulroney years.

Most reporters call people in government or industry or whatever for information to help them prepare a balanced report. However, asking the Harper government for information is mostly a waste of time. What comes back, with few exceptions, is generalized fluff. Through industry groups or the Internet, a reporter can get much better information. So rather than controlling the agenda, the Harper government has largely excluded itself. So it tries to bury the media in news releases as if they were all of equal importance.

It’s saved by the proclivity of the media to focus on personality issues rather than get into the heart of a complicated or technical subject where the political agenda of the day comes into play.

One journalist who’s had her fill of the control freaks is Margaret Munro, a celebrated science writer who could hardly be called a political axe grinder. She told the science conference the Harper government is suppressing scientific debate on issues of public interest. It certainly did with its clumsy withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

"The more controversial the story, the less likely you are to talk to the scientists,” Munro said. Government media relations staff, known to journalists as flacks, “just stonewall. If they don’t like the question, you don’t get an answer.”

If you do, it will be so long after your story was done that it’s of no use.

Munro pointed to the handling of a report by Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics for the Department for Fisheries, on why salmon populations in western Canada were declining. Her work raised questions about whether the B.C. aquaculture industry was creating viruses that decimated wild fish.

However, the government wouldn’t let Miller talk to reporters about her work, leaving the public in the dark.

“You have a government that is micromanaging the message, obsessively,” Munro says. Harper’s minions vet everything that goes out to the media.

Do they ever. Any reporter who covers a beat develops an expertise in the topic that goes well beyond what most media relations folks know.

But under the gag system, they want an emailed list of questions that they can get cooked up answers for.  Any self-respecting journalist can outline the topics he or she wants to cover, but only knows the first question. The second question will depend on the answer to the first and on and on.

Munro said when she requested an interview about the ozone hole, she had to put her request to government media relations officials in Ottawa.

“So I phoned up Ottawa and they just said no you can’t talk to the guy. A couple of weeks later, he was available but by then the story had been done. So they take them out of the news cycle,” she said.

The government currently employs 4,459 information officers, media handlers and strategists to do such work, Munro says. There’s nowhere close to that many reporters in Canada.

While reporters like to complain about flacks, it’s not a fun job. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge will understand the futility of the Harper approach, but the orders come from on high from people who don’t like to be second guessed.

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