Straight from the horses message track

Pam
Pam Frampton
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"… paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people."
- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black (1886-1971)

Ah, the good old days. Back when I was a fledgling reporter, in St. John's and Ottawa, you could call up cabinet ministers nearly any old time - and I'm talking provincial and federal ministers - and actually have a reasonable expectation of getting them on the phone.
Yes - real live cabinet ministers, talking to you. (The idea of that now is so unorthodox, phone sex seems more mainstream.)
You could ask ministers questions and they would answer. Perhaps not as fully or frankly as you would like, but they'd answer something.
And this was in living memory, mind you. True, there were no BlackBerrys, no iPods, no Twitter. But the pterodactyls were long gone, we had cars then, and planes, and while the concept of government transparency was even more elusive than it is today, accessibility was real, and not just an election promise.
Pshaw, you say. That's crazy talk.
But it's true, I swear.
And according to an informal poll of newspapers across the country, there are pockets of civilization where politicians still are truly accessible, where not every word or soundbite is carefully crafted by communications professionals to within an inch of its life.

Pleased to meet you
Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen, reporters with the Winnipeg Free Press, cover the Manitoba legislature.
"We have had no difficulty getting ministers or even the premier to comment on stories we're working on," Owen told The Telegram recently.
"Yes, we have to go through a communications person first, but in most cases we get a call back from the minister, or premier, almost right away. Sometimes we also go to their offices to interview them. …
"Ministers are almost always made available right after question period when the House is in session. … We have had no problems with access to a minister or the premier. In most cases, the communications people who handle our requests make that access happen quickly and do not throw up barriers."
Contrast that experience with what often happens in this province, and keep in mind that these are just three examples among many.
After the provincial government took heat for interfering in the presidential search at Memorial University last year, the premier and education minister denied there had been any interference and quashed all further questions.
"Further commentary does nothing to promote the interests of the university," the premier's spokeswoman said at the time.
Conversation over. Case closed.
When cuts were announced to lab and X-ray services in Lewisporte and Flower's Cove and then-health minister Paul Oram started feeling the sting of criticism from physicians and other medical professionals who say they should've been consulted, he was suddenly "unavailable for interviews."
Recently, when a Telegram reporter was writing an in-depth story on conditions at Her Majesty's Penitentiary (HMP), she was told by Department of Justice communications staff that all of her questions would have to be e-mailed in advance and directed to the superintendent of prisons.
At no time was the superintendent or the minister of justice available for a live interview. The Justice Department subsequently e-mailed the reporter a prepared statement, and when she asked who had actually made the comment, she was first told it was assistant superintendent of prisons Don Roche, then that was switched to then-justice minister Tom Marshall.
So, whose comments were they? Roche's or Marshall's? Likely neither; the statement was probably prepared by communications staff, vetted by someone higher up the food chain, and the reporter was left to take the comments at face value and attribute them to "the department."
There was no opportunity for a real interview, for the reporter to ask followup questions, nor any chance for the reporter to gauge the level of concern or frustration of two men who presumably are quite familiar with the lamentable state of HMP.
Shortly after the reporter's article ran, a new justice minister was sworn in and, lo and behold, Felix Collins was available for a phone interview.
I suspect that honeymoon will be over the first time Collins is asked a question he doesn't want to answer, one that doesn't coincide with the provincial government's official message track.

Too often unresponsive
The provincial Tories promised in their PC Party Blueprint that "… people will continue to see a new and improved approach to governance that is open and responsive to input and interaction." (see website www.pcparty.nf.net/blueprint200702.htm.)
Well, we haven't seen too much of that yet as far as the media is concerned.
Instead, the Williams administration's approach seems eerily similar to that of Danny's federal archrival, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"The issuance of e-mailed statements, with no opportunity for direct questioning, has been a hallmark of the (Harper) government's communications since the get-go," says Tonda MacCharles, who covers federal politics in Ottawa for the Toronto Star.
"Most times, the e-mailed statements are answers to questions that are never asked, merely the pat answer that the government wants to appear in a given story. Often, and this was an instruction given to communications staffers, the e-mail is sent out on or as close to deadline as possible, so as to tie the reporter's hands for further enquiry."
Overtly controlling, manipulating or stymieing the flow of information that ordinary citizens and the media have a right to is not a hallmark of open and accountable government.
Is it too much to ask to speak to the superintendent of prisons about the prison? To ask the health minister about health cuts? To ask the education minister why she interfered with university autonomy?
Surely not.

Next week: why you should care that the media is often denied access to your elected officials.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com.

Organizations: U.S. Supreme Court, The Telegram, Winnipeg Free Press Department of Justice PC Party Blueprint Toronto Star

Geographic location: Ottawa, St. John's, Manitoba Lewisporte

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Recent comments

  • liz/aka/jane
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    i can see how this must cause reporters with a story deadline to make endless frustration. Not to mention a lot of gaps where there should be questions and answers. I truly think that once they get elected they think they are one step below God. They shouldn't be allowd to have so many helpers and experts to do their thinking and answering and putting up road blocks for them. to think that we the tax payer have to pay these flunkies salaries just so we can't get at the elected minister to ask a few questions which they should be educated enough to answer for themselves.

  • liz/aka/jane
    July 01, 2010 - 20:10

    i can see how this must cause reporters with a story deadline to make endless frustration. Not to mention a lot of gaps where there should be questions and answers. I truly think that once they get elected they think they are one step below God. They shouldn't be allowd to have so many helpers and experts to do their thinking and answering and putting up road blocks for them. to think that we the tax payer have to pay these flunkies salaries just so we can't get at the elected minister to ask a few questions which they should be educated enough to answer for themselves.