Dean Beeby is an investigative journalist and freedom-of-information specialist.
The two worlds of Canadian journalism and of access to information have become hideously out of sync.
The flow of daily news accelerated sharply in the digital age, with 24/7 reporting cycles and minute-by-minute deadlines. A fresh generation of reporters now expects to tap instantly into web data for story research.
Access to information, meanwhile, has decelerated. The process has ground to a halt in some government departments, and otherwise has become a dreary waiting game lasting months or years. And it’s mired in yesterday’s technologies – paper, DVDs, thumb drives, and zombie computer programs from the era of the Commodore 64.
No wonder so many harried journalists throw up their hands in frustration, and simply give up on filing requests. To do otherwise risks them becoming chroniclers of history rather than watchdogs over live governments.
This fast/slow divergence between modernity and access to information is killing a vital branch of document-based journalism even as another mismatch tilts the playing field against reporters.
For years, governments have tightened their grip on information. They hire media spokespersons, public affairs officers, and Instagram, Twitter and Facebook specialists. They commission public opinion polls. They contract image consultants, even makeup artists. A vast army of information workers is now deployed to insulate ministers from criticism, to burnish their records, to promote their agendas.
On the other side, Canada’s legacy newsrooms are shrinking and digital news startups are struggling. The ranks of reporters have been decimated. Resources to uncover fraud, scandal and malfeasance are drying up.
Local news reporting is extinct in some large communities. Many reporters are exiled in the gig economy, never sure of their next assignment or paycheque. Journalism’s army has been reduced to a ragtag platoon.
Access to information could help right the balance, equipping reporters with cogent and probing content derived from internal government documents. But the steady deterioration of access has played into government hands at just the wrong cultural moment, shutting down an important tool of accountability. Politicians are spending bigger and bigger sums with less journalistic scrutiny than ever before.
So the geriatric access-to-information regime, once touted as a window on government, has actually become a brick wall. It sucks up the time and energy of a diminishing number of journalists, who in the end have little to show for their trouble. It diverts precious reporting resources into too many dead ends.
How can we fix it?
In my view, a grand overhaul of the access-to-information system is simply not in the cards. No government is ever interested. Even opposition parties lose their appetite for transparency once an election victory puts them in the driver’s seat. So giant, overweening blueprints for access-to-information reform are a surefire recipe for yet more study and no action.
So let’s dispense with the 85, or 139, or 206 recommendations for reform outlined in many well-intentioned reports over the years. Instead, we should focus on just a few things that might actually be accomplished.
First, let’s chip away at cabinet secrecy. Canada has the most restrictive legal framework of any Westminster-style democracy for protecting the deliberations of cabinet ministers. We need a shorter protection period – 10 years instead of the current 20. And we need a referee – the information commissioner – instead of the “just-trust-us” vetting protocol of the Privy Council. And all cabinet documents peripheral to actual deliberations should become available now.
Second, we need to light a fire under that referee. Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard is supposed to defend citizens’ rights of access. But she takes much too long to do the job, 10 years in some cases. Impose a hard deadline of six months. If she takes longer, allow complainants to head to court.
Third, let’s tackle delays. The law gives institutions 30 days to produce requested records, but for journalists, that’s the exception, not the norm – which now is measured in months and years. Hold institutions’ feet to the fire. They should forfeit their right to invoke exemptions if they blow past deadlines. And consultations with other institutions should be time-limited. There’s much more that can be done to incentivize quicker turnarounds.
Finally, let’s do away with the black hole of “advice,” a catch-all in the Access to Information Act that gives a wide latitude to withhold anything that might educate a minister on a given issue. Restrict the legal definition of advice to just a few tightly proscribed categories.
Canada long ago was a leader in freedom of information. That’s well out of reach today, but we certainly can do much better. Our democracy, more than ever, needs it back.