I don’t make a habit of writing whole columns about letters to the editor — especially about letters to the editor that are cogent and to the point — but on the weekend, there was a short missive from Topsail’s David Murphy that included these two lines about this province’s recently limited freedom of information law.
© Joe Gibbons
Confederation Building under wraps. July 16. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
“And while you are at it, at least tell them to stop whining about Bill 29, get off their backsides, and start doing some real research and writing to uncover the information they want from government.
“Tell them to stop crying for crumbs, get out there and do some real work, like was done in ‘the old days’ by real hard-working journalists.”
If this seems like an “I’ve got more ink than you, so here’s a smacking” column, I apologize, because that’s not the point.
It’s just that Mr. Murphy makes an interesting argument: I’ve been working in this province as a journalist for a couple of decades (one of the first provinces in the country with freedom of information legislation — legislation, it’s worth noting, brought in by the former PC government of Brian Peckford), and one of the things that is clear is that it’s an extremely difficult place to do investigative journalism.
Because it is a small place where the provincial government — of any political stripe — has a long reach. It funds businesses, it partners with businesses, it “invests” in businesses, and often, it is a major customer of businesses. And he who pays the piper, calls the tune.
If I had a nickel for every outraged businessperson I’ve talked to about government issues who then turned around and refused to be even an anonymous source in an article, I’d be retired.
Some of this province’s toughest businesspeople are simply scared witless of even the chance of the government thinking they might have spoken to the media — because the risk of damage to the bottom line is too great.
Not long ago, former Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce president Barry Warren said that Municipal Affairs minister Kevin O’Brien had threatened the chamber.
Why, Warren was asked, aren’t other businessmen coming forward to support the story?
Easy, he said: they do business with government, and they can’t afford to talk.
It’s not only Mr. Warren who has made that point in recent days: former P.C. cabinet minister Shawn Skinner has expressed much the same sentiments when talking about Nalcor contracts going to foreign businesses inexperienced with conditions in Labrador.
Skinner has said his company considered the impact of speaking out before coming forward, and decided they were big enough — and broad enough — to shoulder the risk.
And it’s easy to understand why businesses take that position. When you’re doing business with an elephant, you worry about it rolling over.
One of the other options to address Murphy’s concerns? Perhaps backroom discussion with civil servants.
Tough. Successive governments in this province — again, of different stripes — have made it clear that even such contact is grounds for immediate firing.
Liberal Paul Dicks, years ago, made an interesting point when he suggested there was no need for whistleblower legislation in this province (a position that, by continuing to delay such legislation, the current administration seems to agree with).
Dicks said civil servants are government employees first: they owe their loyalty to their employers, and should deal with issues the way employees deal with employers.
Fundamentally, then, public servants in this province are not actually public servants — their loyalty is not to the public, but to whatever government signs their cheques.
Effective access to information legislation is not about making it easy for journalists: there’s nothing easy about the months it takes to make requests, winnow through mountains of documents and then go through the process of long interviews based on a partially carved up and redacted paper trail.
It’s not a shortage of reportorial shoe leather — it’s more about the imbalance of a small province with a very big, and very far reaching, provincial government.
Access to information legislation just does a little bit to level a seriously-tipped playing field.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.