No Canadian government has had a restrictive media policy like the current Conservative government, according to Andrew Potter from Maclean’s. At the Concordian we have had similar experiences.
While working on a recent story about the ongoing negotiations between the federal and Quebec governments in regards to the new Canada Student Grants, the responses we received from the federal government were evasive at best.
When we asked about the current state of the ongoing negotiations, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development Canada responded that: “the Government of Canada pays alternative payments to the provincial and territorial governments of Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut for student financial assistance, which they use to support their own financial assistance programs. Each year, the Government of Canada and these provincial and territorial governments hold discussions to clarify the impacts of changes in both federal and provincial/territorial student financial assistance on alternative payments.”
Not only did they fail to answer the question &- or even confirm that the negotiations were currently taking place &- but the canned response was not even written as a specific reply to our questions. We have seen some of the exact same words, verbatim, in stories written by other media organizations on this issue.
The email was unsigned, perhaps fittingly, as if coming from the faceless department itself and not from a human being.
And judging from what we have heard from other journalists, as well as our own personal experiences, “answering” questions with cut and paste boilerplate in anonymous emails is now standard practice in Ottawa.
It is a strange day when spokespeople no longer speak.
Contrast this with the response we received from the Government of Quebec. While they did not give us information on the state of the negotiations, their spokesperson did confirm the negotiations were ongoing. The answers were given in response to the questions asked, by a real person, who has a name.
At times we have thought the lack of meaningful comment from federal officials was a result of our being student journalists. But in conversations with professional journalists we have discovered that this is not the case; all media receive similar treatment from federal departments. In fact, when we are seeking information or comment we are often directed to look at departmental websites, despite the fact we are usually looking for more detailed or specific information than is made publicly available online.
Our Prime Minster rarely speaks to media, his cabinet ministers even less. The Prime Minister gave Peter Mansbridge and the National Post less than 20 minutes each for year-end interviews. In fact, interviews with the Prime Minister are so rare that they become news stories themselves, with news organizations covering the interviews of their rivals.
Sadly, we expect that this will be the new status quo for media contact with our government and its agencies in the foreseeable future.
It is perhaps understandable why Stephen Harper keeps his members of Parliament on such a short leash 8212; when they stray off message it often goes badly.
But we feel this situation is unacceptable. In a democracy our elected leaders and their employees need to be accountable and answerable to the public.
In a large society this duty falls partially to media, which act as the surrogate of the public.
No one seems to know what Harper is doing, or is going to do, except for Harper. When the media is played like this it leads to an unpredictable government.
It is time for media to step up. We have all become far too complacent and unwilling to rock the boat, instead we simply wait for statements to be released and media events to be scheduled. While we must remember we are not the opposition, we cannot forget we have a duty to inform which goes beyond the crafted messages of spin-doctors.