Charm will get you only so far
The new government is more open with reporters, but there’s no guarantee it will keep its promise to fix the flawed ATI act
The video is tightly framed around Justin Trudeau in the middle of a Montreal crowd, days before last fall’s federal election. Off-screen, a reporter’s voice says, “As recently as yesterday evening, your party was defending Mr. Gagnier’s actions—” Trudeau nods “—saying essentially that he played by the rules.” Trudeau nods again, tight-lipped and wide-eyed.
Dan Gagnier, the party’s campaign co-chair, resigned days before the election amid a scandal over an email he wrote providing lobbying advice to a pipeline company. “This morning—” the reporter continues, but boos from the crowd interrupt him. Trudeau extends his arm boldly, palm flat like a stop sign. He looks off-camera to where the boos began. “Hey,” he says. “We have respect for journalists in this country. They ask tough questions, and they’re supposed to, okay?” He turns back to the reporter. “Sorry, go ahead.”
That attitude is a welcome change for journalists, but what reporters need more than a friendly face is an upgrade from ancient legislation that’s making their jobs harder. Since the October election, the prime minister has charmed reporters in a way his predecessor rarely tried to do. Last November, he even emerged from the private cabin of a plane en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila to converse with journalists travelling with him. Charm aside, however, many journalists are wondering if he also has the guts to tackle the flawed Access to Information (ATI) Act.
Under the Conservatives, Newspapers Canada’s annual audit of the freedom of information system gave the feds a failing grade for speed of disclosure in 2015. The audit tracks how well governments comply with their respective freedom of information legislations and compares practices among jurisdictions. In the most recent audit, almost 450 access requests were sent to various levels of government, and 70 percent were answered within the standard response time of 30 days. But many came back in non-machine-readable formats, making them difficult to work with electronically. Newspapers Canada considered these requests denied in part. In Ottawa, over half of the requests for electronic files took more than 60 days.
Often, requests come back so censored (anything from names and dates to full pages can be blocked out) that journalists have no access to the information they should have the right to see. Some reporters used Twitter and the hashtag #cdnfoi to show their dismay. This January, Dean Beeby, senior reporter for CBC’s Ottawa Parliamentary Bureau, tweeted, “Need laws to suspend ‘routine’ destruction of gov’t docs frm day of elxn [right] to day next gov’t takes office.” A week later, Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, retweeted the J-Source article “Why Saskatchewan is Canada’s black hole of policing information.”
During the election, the Liberal platform boasted important changes to the ATI act. The party proclaimed that government data and information should be open by default and planned to give the Information Commissioner power to issue binding orders for disclosure. It also proposed eliminating all associated fees except the $5 filing fee. Last year, the total assessed fees were $74,000. Notably, the Liberals promised to make the prime minister and ministers’ offices subject to the ATI act. In addition, the party vowed to review the act every five years.
Beeby files thousands of freedom of information requests a year. He’s still getting requests back that were processed by the Harper government. “The act has fossilized,” Beeby says. It hasn’t been updated since coming into effect in July 1983, when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister.
Re-evaluation of the act will help, but the government also needs to increase staff and make the operation more independent. Justin Ling, a reporter at Vice, says, “If anything, increasing the scope and breadth and reach of the ATI act without corresponding investment is going to just break the system further into disrepair.”
Trudeau’s flat-palm stop signal against silencing the press is going to turn into an unreturned high-five if his government is unable to keep the promises the Liberal Party made during its campaign. Holman is skeptical of how long Prime Minister Trudeau can last before he is “seduced by secrecy.” He said observers need look no further than the Harper government, which came into power in 2006, criticizing the Liberals and promising an open government. The Conservatives later tried to eliminate media scrums after cabinet meetings.
It’s too early to tell if Trudeau will be able to uphold his image as friend to the press. Susan Delacourt, a long-time Ottawa reporter for the Toronto Star who now does freelance work, noticed a change—basically overnight—once Trudeau was elected. “Look,” she says. “I lived near Harper. I never ran into him. Two days after Trudeau was elected, I bumped into him walking around.” As ministers’ offices are being filled with deputies and administrative staff, she is hopeful the change will stay.
But Beeby, Holman and Ling are wary of applauding the prime minister just yet. “Eventually, people will develop doubt and skepticism of this government as they did for the last,” says Ling. “And that’s good.”
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Stephanie Philp is the production editor of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.