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News and Noise in the Capital
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 But the idea that they should be digging furiously like a bunch of hounds digging for badgers is too simplistic and outdated.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 materialize?
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 work.
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?"
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.
This article originally appeared in Sources,
23rd Edition, Spring 1989.