Danny, and the promise of glasnost

Pam
Pam Frampton
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"Call the 1-800 media line, wait days for a response. E-mail your questions in. The answers are vetted … often by the (Prime Minister's Office) directly, and that takes days." - Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, on reporting in the Harper era

Last week, I wrote about how difficult it is in many parts of the country - including here for journalists to get live interviews with cabinet ministers. Too often, reporters are asked to provide interview questions in advance and are fed carefully scripted and often unattributed pieces of information, with no opportunity for followup.

So, imagine my surprise when Premier Danny Williams dropped by The Telegram last week for a session with reporters and editors, and promised to make his cabinet ministers more accountable and available to the media.

Quick, somebody pinch me.

•••

Kevin Dougherty, the Quebec City bureau chief for the Montreal Gazette, said the only time he can get a cabinet minister on the phone is when the cabinet minister has information he or she wants to get out.

"More usually we catch them in the corridors of power," he writes via email.

" We stake out caucus meetings. As ministers emerge who we might want to talk to - for instance if there is a problem in the schools, the education minister; in health, the health minister; and so on - TV camera lights switch on and the minister stops. We talk for between two and eight minutes. … It isn't always satisfactory. … A minister who is in trouble might sneak out the back way."

Surely there's a better way to get information than having to stake out buildings. Surely cabinet ministers should be expected to talk to the media - not 24 hours a day, of course, and not for every little niggling question, but certainly to answer serious questions about issues in their portfolios.

How else can the public be expected to find out what their government is doing and saying and planning, if the media doesn't have access?

Just as not every single citizen has time to drop by the courthouse and observe the justice system in action, not everyone has time to sit in on sessions of the House of Assembly, or to pay attention to scrums and news conferences and council meetings.

That's where we come in.

The Williams government hasn't been the most co-operative of administrations when it comes to the media, but now the premier has signalled that might change.

"Cabinet ministers should be available most of the time," the premier told The Telegram Wednesday.

" When I see a comment that a 'minister wasn't available' and I know that person was in the province or whatever, I'm not very happy."

Nor are we. Because the public is not well served by a government that only pays lip service to the notion of accountability.

'Bad for democracy'

Mary Agnes Welch, who works for the Winnipeg Free Press and is the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says her members are concerned about government secrecy.

"I don't think we've looked at the real ramifications of this and how little information is trickling out. … It's bad for democracy," she said in a recent interview.

"It's become endemic in Canada and it's filtered down through. There's sort of this … spin culture within government. There's an automatic 'No,' a knee-jerk refusal (to media requests for information)."

Unfortunately, it's the public that suffers when journalists get tired of beating their heads against a brick wall.

" We just stop trying (to get answers), and that's fundamentally bad journalism," Welch said. "It doesn't do the reader any good not to know what their government is doing."

The fallout also leads to journalists resorting to access to information legislation to get even the most basic information, and that clogs up the system.

"It's the exact opposite of how access to information legislation is supposed to work," Welch said. "It's supposed to be your last resort, not your first."

Wayne Hunt, the head of political science at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., who specializes in politics and the media, agrees that it's readers and viewers who suffer - not politicians - when journalists are stymied in their work.

"In too many instances, the role of making the powerful uncomfortable is being overtaken by the normal pressures of deadlines, and going along to get along," he said.

"People in government too easily forget why they are there, and who put them there in the first place. From a government perspective, it always is more orderly to try to control the flow of information, but our system works best when you are called upon to answer questions face to face. This is the strength of the parliamentary tradition."

Danny Williams was unequivocal last week about wanting his cabinet to be more accessible to the media.

" Will you tell your ministers to be more accountable?" he was asked.

"Yes," he said.

We'll be sure to keep you posted.

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

Organizations: The Telegram, Canadian Association of Journalists, Quebec City bureau Montreal Gazette Winnipeg Free Press Mount Allison University

Geographic location: Canada, Sackville

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Comments

Recent comments

  • don
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    Jay from NL: You wrote that If Danny Williams WAS a dictator, you'd be arrested for posting what you did. Apparently, you either work for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and think everything it does is great or you don't have a clue what really goes on inside that Government. Ignorance is bliss. A Premier who would remove a cabinet minister from office for disagreeing with him or order the expropriation of private property in order to satisfy his cronies or who would state publicly, either out of frustration or in jest, that public servants should be shot is the very definition of a Dictator. If I am ever arrested for exercising my freedom of speech, what I know and can prove about the inner workings of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador would have the makings of a very interesting trial indeed.

  • don
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    Good luck with expecting more transparency and availability to questioning from Danny and his gang! Journalists would have an easier time getting information from the KGB and the Kremlin in Soviet Russia!

  • don
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    Jay from NL: If you have ever submitted an Access to Information Request or had to meet with Government officials in Newfoundland and Labrador to seek out information, you would soon discover the level of obfuscation, unreasonable delay, deceit and obstruction which you would quickly encounter. Unless, of course, you are one of Dictator Danny's buddies, in which case, all barriers would be quickly removed and your request would be fast tracked. Of course, if you were one of Danny's buddies, you wouldn't need to file an Access to Information Request, they would have already told you what you wanted to know. I wonder, what would be the reasons for such difficulty in obtaining information from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador? Too lazy to process it! Can't find the file! Dog ate their homework! Or, could it be that they don't want the public to know or find out what they're really up to? I'd bet on the latter.

  • Jay
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Pam: comparing the current feud between the media and the Provincial Government to the situation in the USSR in the late 80s is at best ignorant and at worst petulant.

    Yes the government has been less than forthcoming on many items. Does any blame fall on the actions of media representatives? Of course. It takes two to tango.

    Glasnost? Please. Such unnecessary drama.

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    Yes, we'll be sure to keep you posted, and crap on the Williams administration every chance we get.

  • Jay
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    Don: again, you are attributing things to me that I didn't say. If you want debate, great. But at least read what I wrote.

  • Jay
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    Don: I didn't defend any of the actions you speak of. If you have a beef with the Govt then fine, but don't attribute it to me.

    You make my point for me. You fly into hysterics screaming DICTATOR when you don't know what that really means.
    If Danny Williams WAS a dictator, you'd be arrested for posting what you did. Sure glad we live in a free society where people may have differing opinions.

    Has the Conservative government been kind to media requests? No. And I do not defend their record. However, NO ONE is a dictator, a communist, a facist, or anything of the sort. To suggest otherwise just overshadows the point you are tring to make.

    I stand by my point. Unnecessary Drama.

  • Norman
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Sorry to say, Pam, but Danny is not the solution to the restricted media/public access to information and ministers. But that's only becuase Danny is the cause and source of restricted media/public access to information and ministers.

  • don
    July 01, 2010 - 20:12

    Jay from NL: You wrote that If Danny Williams WAS a dictator, you'd be arrested for posting what you did. Apparently, you either work for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and think everything it does is great or you don't have a clue what really goes on inside that Government. Ignorance is bliss. A Premier who would remove a cabinet minister from office for disagreeing with him or order the expropriation of private property in order to satisfy his cronies or who would state publicly, either out of frustration or in jest, that public servants should be shot is the very definition of a Dictator. If I am ever arrested for exercising my freedom of speech, what I know and can prove about the inner workings of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador would have the makings of a very interesting trial indeed.

  • don
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    Good luck with expecting more transparency and availability to questioning from Danny and his gang! Journalists would have an easier time getting information from the KGB and the Kremlin in Soviet Russia!

  • don
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    Jay from NL: If you have ever submitted an Access to Information Request or had to meet with Government officials in Newfoundland and Labrador to seek out information, you would soon discover the level of obfuscation, unreasonable delay, deceit and obstruction which you would quickly encounter. Unless, of course, you are one of Dictator Danny's buddies, in which case, all barriers would be quickly removed and your request would be fast tracked. Of course, if you were one of Danny's buddies, you wouldn't need to file an Access to Information Request, they would have already told you what you wanted to know. I wonder, what would be the reasons for such difficulty in obtaining information from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador? Too lazy to process it! Can't find the file! Dog ate their homework! Or, could it be that they don't want the public to know or find out what they're really up to? I'd bet on the latter.

  • Jay
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Pam: comparing the current feud between the media and the Provincial Government to the situation in the USSR in the late 80s is at best ignorant and at worst petulant.

    Yes the government has been less than forthcoming on many items. Does any blame fall on the actions of media representatives? Of course. It takes two to tango.

    Glasnost? Please. Such unnecessary drama.

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    Yes, we'll be sure to keep you posted, and crap on the Williams administration every chance we get.

  • Jay
    July 01, 2010 - 19:55

    Don: again, you are attributing things to me that I didn't say. If you want debate, great. But at least read what I wrote.

  • Jay
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    Don: I didn't defend any of the actions you speak of. If you have a beef with the Govt then fine, but don't attribute it to me.

    You make my point for me. You fly into hysterics screaming DICTATOR when you don't know what that really means.
    If Danny Williams WAS a dictator, you'd be arrested for posting what you did. Sure glad we live in a free society where people may have differing opinions.

    Has the Conservative government been kind to media requests? No. And I do not defend their record. However, NO ONE is a dictator, a communist, a facist, or anything of the sort. To suggest otherwise just overshadows the point you are tring to make.

    I stand by my point. Unnecessary Drama.

  • Norman
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    Sorry to say, Pam, but Danny is not the solution to the restricted media/public access to information and ministers. But that's only becuase Danny is the cause and source of restricted media/public access to information and ministers.