The Binkley Report


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

Not a journalism lesson

Policy of secrecy begun under Chretien government taken to extremes by Harper's - and Canadians poorer for it
By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

It’s rather rich for a minister in the Harper cabinet to complain publicly about the way the news media covers a story considering the lengths his government has gone to make it as difficult as possible for reporters to get information.

The complaint came in an open letter that Immigration Minister Jason (reply-all) Kenny released about coverage by La Presse of Montreal of the case of a Colombian woman who failed to secure refugee status in Canada.

Kenny said it’s the responsibility of journalists to get both sides of a story before publishing a story. Believe me, we try all the time. But when one side, especially this government, isn’t co-operative, then we find other ways to get the information we need to present a balanced story. Our interest is in informing the reader, not appeasing some vested interest.

Getting an answer out of this government often takes days or weeks because of an idiotic system it has created to screen media requests. And when you get an answer, it’s often little better than mush.

“Stories presenting only one side of a story can lead to public distrust of the rule of law,” Kenny’s letter states. Heck, it might even create cynicism about the government.

Kenny also released a lot of personal information about the woman in the La Presse story that surprised her as well as legal and journalism experts.

As much as that crossed the line, what needs to be addressed is his complaint about “factually incorrect or incomplete reporting.” This from the minister whose department staged a phoney citizenship ceremony.

La Presse editor Eric Trottier told reporters that his newspaper does immigration stories with some regularity and has previously requested background information from the government, but was denied.

Trottier said his paper stands by the accuracy of the story. “But as you probably know when we do call Immigration Canada they have always the same answer, that we don’t comment on those stories. That’s why we didn’t this time ... we had all of the information that we needed. Kenney and his office are doing politics,” he said. “We are doing journalism.”

Basically, what happens when a reporter calls a government department or agency with questions about a policy or announcement is that he or she is usually greeted with a voice mail that promises a return call. Sometimes that happens the same day, often not.

Then you get to explain your request. Although I’m usually wasting my breath, I normally ask for someone to interview for more details especially when it’s one of the subjects I cover on a regular basis.

I rarely get to talk to anyone and if I do the media person always asks for a list of questions in advance. I always say I can only tell the first question because the second one depends on the answer to the first. But I do outline the issues I’m interested in.

Almost always, I eventually receive a sanitized email response that’s been approved by some functionary in the prime minister’s office. By then I usually have written the story. There’re plenty of knowledgeable people working for national associations or in academia who can explain the government’s position.

Having been in the Parliamentary Press Gallery since the mid 1970s, I remember a much better system where a government announcement not only included the phone number for the minister’s spokesperson as well as the department’s media person but also the civil servant in charge of the issue. And they would gladly talk with you.

I would debate with anyone how that system is infinitely superior to the current closed door policy. It worked well for the Trudeau and Mulroney governments who had their spats with the media, but didn’t try to so overtly control reporters.

The end of open relations with journalists started under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien who praised a cabinet minister for saying nothing when he answered reporter’s questions. The Harper government has taken the policy to extremes.

And Canadians are the poorer for it.

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