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Digging Up Ottawa's Gold
By Ken Rubin
Hidden behind the daily fare of Ottawa-originated newspaper stories and 30-second clips are scores of harder-to-get stories that consumers of Canadian news deserve.
Too many journalists accept the briefing, the deliberate leak, the off-the-record session, the freebie reception as their sources of news. These can be legitimate, of course, but too often they are strictly self-serving. The more penetrating pieces are likely to be more challenging to dig into.
They require a specialized form of digging, Ottawa style. This takes place in a town whose main business is production of information, a town of rumour-mongering, duplicated efforts, secrecy, and a fixation on Parliament Hill. A town with hundreds of agencies, tonnes of documents and printouts, and surprising few attempts to guide the non-Ottawa journalist through the maze.
What follows is one freelance researcher's guide. Keep in mind that, as a freelancer, I don't enjoy some advantages of staff journalists. Having access to daily information services within a news organization, for instance. Or having automatic access to some of the resources of the Library of Parliament (a privilege guaranteed for members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery). Or being invited to off-the-record sessions. On the other hand, I don't consider being invited to off-the-record sessions as necessarily an advantage - if tougher stories or investigative journalism is the goal.
In any case, many of my experiences are relevant to anyone who's trying to get a story out of Ottawa. If recounting some of them leads to one good story printed or broadcast, it will have been worth it.
First, don't expect a good story to drop into your lap gift-wrapped. My personal experience leads me to say that it takes a combination of hard work, persistence, negotiating skills and good timing to succeed in digging out solid stories. It helps if you've done government work previously. And then there's always luck.
When I wanted to find out about multi-million dollar expansion plans for Parliament Hill, a couple of obvious sources were the Department of Public Works and the National Capital Commission (NCC). While Public Works was forthcoming, after I filed Access to Information requests, with its preliminary plans for the area, the NCC hid behind a variety of rationales - a different one, it seemed, each time I asked - and refused to release the key DuToit consultant's report I needed. At one point, the NCC claimed it could not make the report public until the Speaker's Office approved its release. When I turned to the Speaker for help, I was first told that the office could aid in getting the report released, but was later rebuffed. Finally, I filed complaints with the Information Commissioner, who took initial steps to fight the NCC's secrecy excuses. When the report was eventually released, however, the Information Commissioner dropped her federal court action on my behalf, even though the NCC had clearly been in the wrong.
That's the kind of runaround you can expect on the Hill. But when your efforts result in several features in a major daily, as mine did in this instance, there's a great sense of accomplishment in having brought important issues to public light.
A lot of good media stories come out only when a reporter or researcher is willing to take some initiative. Back in 1985 I was reviewing data on buildings insulated with urea formaldehyde foam (UFFI), the insulating material banned by the government in 1980. I came across a reference to toxic moulds found in both UFFI and non-UFFI homes, a potentially more serious hazard than UFFI itself. Neither the problem nor possible solutions discovered through scientific research had, to my knowledge, been brought to public attention. To find out about research into toxic moulds and their potential health effects I had to deal with Health and Welfare, the National Research Council, Canada Mortgage and Housing, and Consumer and Corporate Affairs. Documentation was technical and had not reached the managerial or political level for review. Most scientists contacted had difficulty talking with a layperson. And the regular public relations personnel had not been briefed about the research. The formal access-to-information route helped me feret out some of the data; for the rest I had to rely on my own investigative talents and analytical skills.
Peeling back the layers of the government onion can be frustrating and time-consuming. But it can really be rewarding - in this case when front page stories in several papers made the public aware, finally, of the possible dangers and remedies associated with house bound toxic moulds.
Winding through the Parliament Hill information system can demand as much patience as does dealing with the government bureaucracy. For instance, obtaining the right reference numbers and then the actual document from a 1947 Question Period answer tabled in the House of Commons required checking through the Commons Journal Branch, its Sessional Papers Branch and the National Archives. A half day's work for sure.
Just try tracing the making of a regulation or the evidence submitted by all parties at a regulatory hearing if you want a practice run at figuring out how Ottawa operates.
One key bit of advice I would offer is that you spend some time familiarizing yourself with official and other sources of Ottawa information. If you know what information is readily available and how to access it, you can save yourself a lot of energy and time that could be better spent on stories that require real digging.
Something as simple as checking back over an M.P.'s attendance and voting record may seem daunting to a newcomer. But this information can be had with just a few minutes work by reviewing back issues of Votes and Proceedings and Hansard.
On the other hand, deciphering official promotions of food irradiation, for instance, requires knowledge of public and private sector players, foreign contacts and manoeuvring, various committee reports and responses, review of various rules, and discussions with groups favouring and opposing the initiative. Serious stories require in-depth research. That means acquiring some background. And that means knowing where to turn for solid information.
Electronic or printed recordings of Question Period debates can be a useful place to start researching a story, but they are just a start. Beyond that you'll find a variety of official information sources that can help you penetrate deeper into an issue. Some of these are:
- The Main and Supplementary Estimates and Public Accounts for government expenditures.
- The Canada Gazette for recent appointments and the status of regulations and legislation.
-The enquiry or reference centres of Statistics Canada, the National Archives and the National Library.
-Consumer and Corporate Affairs' online corporate information system.
-Supply and Services' contract information.
-Library of Parliament Reports on issues of the day (contact your local M.P. or an Ottawa bureau colleague who's a member of the Parliamentary Press gallery for current lists of these.)
Just remember that even the most official sources of information should be verified. Even those supposedly accurate balance of trade or unemployment figures may be far from complete.
There is also a host of semi-public data, ranging from department publications and telephone directories to hard to find limited circulation consultants' reports and internal working papers. More and more of this information is computerized and will likely require some careful analysis to make it useful.
Various evaluations of government performance can also be helpful. These are produced sporadically by opposition parties, the Auditor-General, advisory councils like the National Council of Welfare, task forces, commissions of inquiry, courts of law, voluntary groups, think tanks, special interest groups, and some subscription newsletters such as Publicnet's Ottawa Weekly Update or Walter Grey's Parliamentary Alert.
In these days of increasing privatization, don't be surprised when you find that some of the "government" information you want is essentially in private hands to distribute or provide. And, of course, there are still many data in the supposedly "public" sector considered secret unless the agency is covered by the Access to Information Act and decides, usually at its descretion, to release the information. A host of useful documents from inspection reports to briefing notes may be available only to the journalist who's willing to really work for a story, to overcome such hurdles as time delays, fees, information denials or the lodging of complaints.
I've used the Access Act to obtain data, for example, on military sales, baby stroller safety and ministerial office renovation expenses, all of which led to great stories.
Most often, however, journalists do not go out of their way to get at this kind of hard-to-access information. Sometimes this is due to time constraints or to pressures from "above" to stick with traditional methods and sources such as interviews and readily available information banks. Sometimes it's because journalists lack necessary back up research resources. But too often, the failure of journalists to really dig for information is due to plain laziness. Which is too bad. Because going the extra mile can really pay off for you, and for your reading public.
Unfortunately, not many starting fifth estate members are going to enjoy the luxury of great assignments or enough time to penetrate much beyond the official goings-on in the capital. Journalists and researchers, full-time or freelance, are expected to get on-the-job training or already have experience in Ottawa's ways. The onus is on you to prepare yourself, to get to know the capital's information resources and dynamics beforehand.
What you get out of the cocktail circuit and swirls of official
statements is just a place to start; and it's not necessarily even
the best place to start if what you're after is a big story. Hard,
critical news stories are the result of careful digging and fact-checking,
using a wide range of sources. There's gold in Ottawa, but it's
got to be mined.
This article originally appeared in Sources,
23rd Edition, Spring 1989.