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Muzzled media spells bad news for democracy

Fiscal conservatism It doesn’t seem to apply when hiring 
communications staff to screen questions

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This is supposed to be the era of instant communications but you wouldn’t know it when dealing with the federal government these days. Accessing even the most mundane information has become tedious and time consuming.

In the past, communications staff facilitated information gathering by answering media requests with an expert or source who could best explain a topic of news relevance. The journalist would then interview the source, and that information was relayed to the public through the media.

And then things changed. There were fewer interviews, and more email answers, often with useless and shallow content. Media requests were screened, and questions had to be pre-submitted. And the whole process began to take an unbelievably long time, often too long to make deadline, leaving many stories dead in the water.

Yet, in an age of fiscal conservatism, budget cuts and economic prudence, evermore taxpayer dollars are being spent on communications staff. The emperor isn’t only wearing no clothes, he’s building an elaborate closet to hide them in too.

I hadn’t realized how bad it had truly become until last month when I requested an interview with a research scientist. The subject was agriculture and the questions were simple but technical, and too complicated for an email from a generic spokesperson to copy and paste from a website.

When I expressed my frustration with the communications staffer I was dealing with, I learned that media requests are dealt with in a manner that Korean dictator Kim Jong-il would envy. Questions must be pre-submitted, so that the expert can pre-answer the pre-screened questions. And then, both the questions and the answers are then screened, edited and eventually approved by between five and 11 people.

That’s not communicating — it’s scripting and the answers given are propaganda, not information. In a democracy, it is the means that will ultimately determine the end.

Some Conservatives will defend this administration’s draconian assault on freedom of the press as a necessary response to the “liberal, left-wing media.” First off, that’s simply not true — Canada’s media offerings are diverse, much like its people. And even if this administration were so afflicted by its own persecution complex, such a response to the media would be akin to shutting down Parliament to avoid criticism from the official Opposition to avoid backlash from public.

In agriculture especially, it is imperative we remain open and transparent in homage of our traditions to maintain our global reputation and to protect international trade. Our government should lead by example, and we should hold our Ministry of Agriculture to at least as high a standard as we hold our friends and neighbours.

We have a duty to honour the values of democracy that Canada has always cherished, and the media checks and balances the government’s power and control in the interest of the people. Any government that seeks dominion over the media doesn’t only desire control of the information — it seeks to control the people.

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