"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 email@example.com.