Journalism must break its silence on government secrecy

Tuesday is the Right To Know Day. It ought to be a celebration of information freedom. Instead it is more a day of mourning.

No matter where you look – to the left, to the right of the political spectrum, up the line to the federal government, down to the provinces, locally to the municipalities – the culture of secrecy prevails.

The federal Access to Information Act was introduced with great fanfare in 1983. It was supposed to enable citizens to request from government departments and many of its agencies significant information that otherwise would not be routinely disclosed.

For a time, there was optimism.

But the practitioners of the federal act and its provincial and municipal offspring now know their ambitions were a mirage, a cynical pretense, even a fraud.

The Right To Know is often called the Right To Know Little or the Right to No. The freedom-of-information law is often called the Denial of Information law.

Well-intentioned researchers, including journalists, spend hundreds of thousands of hours each year trying to extract from government what government will not willingly supply. Governments, meanwhile, spend millions of dollars to build their barricades. Public servants are routinely caught using their personal email or texts to avoid putting significant information on the public record. Records are overwritten or deleted to expunge embarrassment or controversy.

There are plenty of peppy mice, very few effective cats to chase them.

We have seen this culture of denial play out profoundly in the pandemic at municipal, provincial and federal levels in the miserly sharing of data, most of it arriving too late to be of relevance to our understanding of public safety or of government handling of the coronavirus.

Almost any day provides an example, like the latent admission that pandemic hospitalization numbers have been understated in British Columbia. It is a characteristic of governments to fudge information rather than free it.

While there are many well-meaning public servants, there remain far too many protective of their institutions. The guarded nature prevails.

The laws are not only cumbersome and lumbering but increasingly expensive to use. Citizens are asked, particularly at a provincial level, to make their cases for disclosure up against taxpayer-paid lawyers to deny them. The provisions and exemptions on what can be withheld amply ensure that very little makes it through the filter.

We have justifiable protests on Indigenous, environmental and economic issues, but none on the public right to gain access to the information that would help us understand how our governments operate.

Freedom of information laws are, like blood pressure problems, the silent killers of us. We do not fuss about what we do not know.

In opposition, every aspiring political entity claims it will change the system that restricts the release of important information for our well-being and our constructive participation in democracy. They fulminate in high dudgeon and sanctimony any time the government across the aisle builds a barrier.

In power, they then do everything they can to shield the facts.

It is impossible to name one administration in the laws’ four-decade presence in Canada that has loosened the grip. The few amendments to the laws build far more walls than they tear down.

Indeed, energy is applied to find new restrictions, fight for new precedents to guard the palace secrets – and, far worse, to construct systems to deliberately keep the public in the dark. It is one of the best examples of government arrogance with public funds, and it is even more galling that public money is used to thwart public access.

This has been made worse by the internet. The laws were built for the days of paper in filing cabinets, not for the smartphone, hard drive, encryption and remote server, and no government has truly tackled modernization. Why would it? It will only cause distress.

Can anything change this? It is difficult to see how.

The typical treatment of this issue by government is to review the law, establish a range of recommendations, take sweet time to propose legislative amendments, then place the changes on a low enough priority to expire at election time. After the vote, of course, it’s time for a new review.

Journalists have been among the most visible users of the law, but very few tackle the time-consuming and treacherous series of trials and errors in producing results from requests. It proves to be a chore of persistence and patience. But when a request is rejected, as most are, most people give up. Which is exactly – exactly – what every government wishes.

But journalism is not beyond prescriptive need. It is a failure of the craft to chronicle the trials and tribulations of the law – what is sought, what is withheld, and why. We will note in routine stories when an official won’t comment, but we rarely tell our audiences about the information we are seeking, why we think it’s important, what roadblocks have been thrown in our way, how long it is taking to get an answer, and how that answer often isn’t sufficient.

If there is anything to take from this year’s Right To Know Day, it is that journalism needs to apply more attention to helping the public know what it is missing. Maybe that will lead somewhere.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.