News and Noise in the Capital
Researching on Parliament Hill
By Iain Hunter
Newspaper editors who have never been to Ottawa and a few prematurely-retired
Parliament Hill reporters lounging in journalism schools across
the country are fond of lamenting that press gallery members today
are lazy and don't dig for information.
It could be debated whether the lazy reporters of today are any
less productive than the flamboyant drunks in the press gallery
of yesteryear. But the idea that they should be digging furiously
like a bunch of hounds digging for badgers is too simplistic and
outdated. What's apparent immediately to anyone assigned to the
Hill for the first time is not that there isn't enough information,
but that there's too much. What becomes apparent a little later
is that most of it isn't true.
Let's deal with the truth factor first. It can be a shock for a
reporter used to covering courts to encounter his first federal
politician or bureaucrat. These guys, he or she soon finds out,
aren't speaking under oath; if they had to they would probably self-destruct.
They don't all lie, mind you. They don't have to: Saying nothing
is second nature to politicians and public servants with velcro
lips. "I'm not going to answer your question," a senior
bureaucrat told me a few weeks ago,"because if I do, you'll
quote me and I'll be wrong." See? They don't all lie.
The government takes great pains to ensure that whatever information
is given out puts the government in the best light. It also takes
care to time the release of information for maximum effect, or,
like the announcement that the space agency will go to Montreal
instead of Ottawa, for minimum damage. Some of us on the Hill have
experienced the warm sensation of receiving a "leak" from
inside government. Some genuine leaks are the result of judicious
and relentless prying from journalists; others are motivated by
self-interest more than anything else. Bureaucrats have been known
to leak information to try to save programs slated for the axe or
to keep programs with their handsome budgets and person-years from
being transfered to other branches or departments. Then there's
the deliberate "leak", authorised from ministerial offices
or the prime minister's office, usually designed to test the wind
of public opinion or to confound enemies in the opposition or in
the provinces. The recipient of information clandestinely passed
would do well to ask himself a simple question: "Why is this
guy telling me this?" The answer might well be the basis of
an even better story.
Reporters assigned to the Hill for the first time can suffer from
information overload. There are press releases spilling out of their
mailboxes, press conferences (when parliament is sitting) practically
every hour and up to a half-a-dozen committees meeting at a time
even while debate drones on in the Senate and Commons. A one-person
or even three-person bureau can hardly cover everything that's going
on. It can be frustrating to try.
It's a shock, sometimes, to find the big story of the day on the
Hill isn't of any interest to the editor back home. When I was sent
to Ottawa by The Sun in Vancouver - it was shortly after
the ballpoint pen was invented as I recall - I was prepared to fill
columns of the newspaper as I had when covering the provincial legislature
in Victoria. Ottawa, though, was too far away: If it didn't have
a "local" (that is, Vancouver) angle I couldn't get a
story in the paper. Exasperation drove me to pick up the phone one
day on The Sun's main deadline to bark: "Vancouver voters
will go to the polls October 30th to elect a new federal government.
Period. Paragraph. So will voters in other parts of Canada."
The editor on the desk was quite rude about it.
It shouldn't take a Hill reporter long to realize that some of
the "information" distributed by the government is in
fact misinformation. How else to describe the "seasonal adjustment"
used by Statistics Canada to pretend fewer Canadians are out of
a job than really are; how else to describe government spending
estimates released each year that bear little resemblance to what
actually will be spent by departments; how else to describe budget
background documents crammed with fudged figures; and how else to
describe repeated announcements of government projects that never
Since the mid-1970s reporters and anyone else who wants to use
it have had a new tool to extract information from government. It's
called the Access to Information Act, a misnomer most of the time
if ever there was one. Reporters who use it have to meet bureaucrats
on their home ground. Files of correspondence build up (and frequently
fall over or are lost), weeks and months go by before anything is
regurgitated, and when documents are produced the juicy bits have
usually been expunged. One can appeal, of course, to the Information
Commissioner's office, but it's full of bureaucrats too. Finally
there's the Federal Court, but everyone knows how fast the courts
It takes someone with the tenacity of Ken Rubin, the amiable pest
who appears elsewhere
in this publication, to make the access laws produce results. Hill
reporters, too, have been able to get front page stories by using
it, but they usually deal with trivia like the extravagances of
ministers furnishing their new offices. Good stories are often history
by the time they hatch in the Access to Information incubator, and
ministers are capable of breaking the law to make sure information
is suppressed so long that it is no longer embarrassing.
A case in point: I submitted an Access request in November 1986
for all reports and studies upon which the government based its
decision to give the CF-18 fighter maintenace contract to the Quebec-based
Canadair consortium. An interdepartmental evaluation team had found
the bid from the Winnipeg-based Bristol consortium both cheaper
and technically superior. When the documents were released they
showed clearly the pressure from cabinet on bureaucrats to justify
a decision that had already been made: the contract had to go to
Quebec for political reasons. But it took to April of 1988 to pry
the records out of the government's clutches with the assistance
of the Information Commissioner's office. It was still a good story,
but had it been printed before mould began growing on it, it could
have been a great one.
There is another frustration with the Access law: Reporters who
finally get government records by using it have spent so much time
and effort that they may overrate the importance of what they have.
It's a shock to have the fruits of your labour chopped to bits and
tucked among the truss adds on page E47. Still, there's some satisfaction
in knowing that simply by asking for government documents under
the Access law you've probably created quite a stir in several offices,
caused committees of public servants to convene in alarm and given
a minister or two a moment of panic. The reaction is normal: "What
the hell is he asking for, and what's he going to do with it?"
Hill reporters are better advised to spend most of their time using
the simpler pre-Access tools of the trade. Opposition MPs and most
backbenchers, if stroked the right way, are unable to keep their
mouths shut.Cabinet ministers are naturally less outgoing, but their
offices are full of minions who are usually prepared to talk off
the record. They must be treated with caution, though: Their sole
interest is not truth, but to present their boss in the best light.
Many bureaucrats scuttle for cover like cockroaches hiding from
light when asked for information. But there are some, usually in
the more senior jobs, who are confident enough of their own security
to talk and even be quoted. It is a mistake not to approach bureaucrats
for information on the blanket assumption that no public servant
will ever talk, ever, on anything. It can be as much in their interest
as the reporter's to have their point of view included in a story.
Where can these helpful sources be found among the 570,000-plus
federal employees? Funnily enough, the government telephone book.
It's true that when reporters start calling around in a department,
sometimes it isn't long before the public relations officers call
up to ask what they want. But sometimes phoning around produces
the ultimate source: The official who knows the full story and is
prepared to give an off-the-record background briefing. Another
tip: Officials sometimes answer their own phones after their secretaries
have gone home at 5 p.m.
Hill reporters should never throw their old government phone books
away. They mark the career path of senior mandarins or those who
have left government to take big jobs in industry. Former public
servants are useful sources too often overlooked: retired generals
can be enticed into bemoaning the introduction of women into the
trenches; retired finance department officials can provide a lot
of information that would add perspective to an upcoming budget.
Which brings us to one of the real information problems on the
Hill: Reporters don't have enough background information to cover
with sufficient depth the stories that are breaking around them.
Maybe there's just too much going on, but what isn't going on enough
is research. The sources are there, and it doesn't take a shovel
to get at them - just persistence, common sense and a little luck.
Iain Hunter is a parliamentary reporter for the Ottawa Citizen who's
been on the Hill since 1972.
This article originally appeared in Sources,
23rd Edition, Spring 1989.
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