Dear Mr. Prime Minister: We are very concerned about the changes being made by the federal government, whereby more and more scientists who work in our national “public” service are not allowed to speak about their work to the public and the media, and an ever-growing layer of “communications” staff has been created to control what they are allowed to say.
We appeal to you as a champion of transparency and openness in how government connects with the public, and as an advocate of smaller, more efficient government, to change this.
There are four considerations we feel are important:
1.) The work of government scientists, in most cases, should be available to the public in its purest form. There is no point in vetting, controlling, adjusting or massaging that information, especially when it is done by a “communications” person, who knows nothing about the subject.
2.) Canada has a wonderful democracy – as close to a free and open society as you can find on the globe. Under your watch that information is being tweaked or even altered to suit partisan or other aims, quite possibly that have nothing to do with the intent of the government. There is no way to control how this information will be altered or shaped. We are sure you would not want to see a future Liberal or NDP government exercise license to shape information to suit their objectives. It is a dangerous road to go down, and a precedent that must be avoided.
3.) A new, costly level of bureaucracy is growing in size, becoming entrenched, gaining power. More and more “communications” staff are being placed between government employees and the public so that the message is “properly presented” to the public. They have complete license with minimal controls. These are people with the same training, and often the same way of thinking, as journalists. Some are good; some not so good. The difference is that their work is not subject to public scrutiny. Information is power and in some cases can have great value. Under the current imbalance, spokespeople are able to wield it however they wish. This is very dangerous.
4.) Freedom of the press is important to our democracy. Journalists too often cannot do their jobs well because the situation, which demands they wait for and accommodate the needs and wants of communications staff. Simply put, it has become too encumbering. It gets in the way of the real story. We appreciate that you, personally, do not have a high regard for “the media.” The demands put on you and your colleagues and the way you are treated must be hard to take. We ask that you look beyond those experiences. In your world, with the spotlight of all of Canada constantly upon you, the media are voracious and unrelenting. Consider the value of journalists outside that “bubble” – those of us who serve towns and cities across the country. A free press has played a critical role in fostering most Western democracies, including Canada’s. “Freedom of the press” is a fundamental tenet in most constitutions, including our own. Having communications staff inserted between all aspects of the workings of government and the press and public encumbers that. The public can longer be informed. That is not good – for anyone.
The North is Canada’s hinterland – pure, pristine, special and rich with natural resources – future wealth that you have indicated will drive our nation’s economy for hundreds of years. Along with that is the evolving state of Northern people – notably Aboriginal Northerners, many of whom still live, and cherish, a unique lifestyle that is closely connected to the land. We want to tell those stories. In order to do so responsibly, we need to be able to access information from government scientists without having it interpreted or massaged by communications staff. Please see to it that your government makes that change. You must know that Canada will be a better place for it. Please Mr. Harper, restore freedom of information and freedom of the press to our federal government.