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Jimmy Thomson is a freelance investigative journalist and journalism teacher based in Victoria. He is the author of the newsletter One Day, I’m Going to Write for The New Yorker.

I did the unthinkable on a recent Monday afternoon: I picked up the phone and called a government biologist.

Even more unthinkable: She answered on the second ring. It was like talking to a ghost.

For Canadian journalists like me, this simply does not happen. But she picked up because she works in Montana, where government experts are encouraged to share their expertise with the public. Meanwhile, when I e-mailed a Canadian counterpart of hers in the British Columbia government – a biologist who is an expert in his field – he replied with a familiar answer he’s likely given dozens of times before: “Yes I would have time but you would have to touch base with the public affairs folks first.” It would take more than a week to get approval to schedule an interview.

It’s not hugely surprising, and maybe even understandable, that a wildlife biologist working in B.C. would have to jump through hoops to provide his expertise to a journalist. It’s a province where the survival of endangered species such as orcas, caribou or spotted owls are constantly at odds with the lucrative harvest of forests, fish and minerals, and precision and care are important in discussing these issues. But the forced deference to a growing number of communications staff has become the de facto rule in dealing with governments at all levels, from municipalities all the way to the federal government. The noxious fear of speaking publicly that permeated the public service during Stephen Harper’s days as prime minister and outraged many Canadians has not dissipated, despite the promised “sunny ways” of Justin Trudeau; instead, this culture has only become more entrenched.

Today, there is no way to talk directly to the people who know what they’re talking about without first talking to those who don’t. That’s by design. When image management is the primary concern of decision makers, there’s an implied reputational risk if they’re seen to be ignoring their own expert staff – never mind that that’s what our elected governments are routinely doing, on files ranging from the Greenbelt to salmon farms. The most important thing isn’t to give citizens the information they are rightly owed, particularly if it involves the government they elect and the decisions it makes that affect their lives; it’s not getting caught making a mistake.

When I was investigating reports of threats and harassment faced by the government’s at-sea observers, who help maintain the sustainability of the trawl fishery off the coast of British Columbia, the federal agency responsible for their safety – Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) – declined every interview request I sent. When I later obtained records that showed what it had done internally to respond to those claims of abuse, communications staff finally agreed to an interview with the person who had directed an overhaul to the observer system, only to cancel at the last minute without explanation. After three stories and countless requests, I have still never (officially) spoken with anyone at DFO.

It’s not just happening at the higher levels of government. When I requested excruciatingly banal – and ostensibly publicly available – development documents from the City of Victoria’s planning department this summer, I received a familiar deflection to a communications manager instead of the documents I’d asked for. Everyone along the way was polite, professional and competent, but the fact remains that public information should be readily accessible, and not a political hot potato to be tossed into someone else’s lap.

The Globe and Mail has been reporting on Canada’s broken access to information system with its important Secret Canada series, which is premised on the belief that information is the bedrock of democracy. The obstacles that the fourth estate faces in getting information and disseminating it to Canadians is related to that problem. Adding a layer of communications approval to every single question from the media isn’t producing better information, more timely responses or more transparency from governments – it’s strangling the media’s effort to bring reliable information to Canadians. It’s an extra source of daily friction that dumps sand in the gears of a newsgathering engine that’s already barely chugging along, thanks to shrinking budgets and newsrooms. In fact, it only further undermines the work of journalists, at a time when our work is increasingly becoming politicized by bad-faith actors.

The solution isn’t complicated. Leaders, from politicians to local managers, need to pro-actively empower their expert staff to answer questions from the media directly. The answers they give may not always support the government’s agenda, but they will add to Canadians’ understanding of what governments deal with every day, and how they make trade-offs between the values that we all know are behind their decisions.

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