Last week, allnovascotia.com reporter Paul McLeod revealed a new policy with the provincial government: All media requests to government PR offices must be cleared by premier Darrell Dexter's political staff. Any PR person who gets a request for information must pass it on to her boss who, in turn, passes it to Dexter's office, overseen by Dexter's personal political operative, Jennifer Stewart, who will "review the question and perhaps offer comment or messaging," writes McLeod. "The request then chugs back down the line to the original officer."
Appropriately enough, McLeod's article was headlined "Nova Scotia is the new Harperland," and McLeod drew a direct comparison between Dexter and prime minister Stephen Harper's micromanaging spin machine: Every request for information must be vetted for political implication, every release of information tailored to the ruling party's advantage.
This is, in a word, alarming. I've long written about our government's horrific over-the-top secrecy with regard to what should be public information---I began my career in the United States and have found that even the most backward, stereotypical ol' boy states like Arkansas are much, much more open than is Nova Scotia.
On paper, the Nova Scotia Freedom of Information Act is laudable, but in practice it's a joke; government agencies simply ignore it, both in particulars and in spirit, and no news outlet has the resources to mount the kind of sustained legal challenge needed to realize the act's potential. In opposition, all political parties have criticized the uber-secrecy of government and promised to reform the system; in power, every political party, Dexter's NDP included, has ignored its earlier promises and instead increased secrecy, making public information even less accessible. Accessing public information has turned into a Kafka-esque exercise in bureaucratic delay and paperwork seemingly designed to frustrate anyone who dares try.
But now, even routine requests for inarguably public info are an exercise in absurdity. Used to be, when a reporter wanted to find some information---McLeod uses the example "How much does X cost?"---she would simply call up the person in charge of X and ask.
Those days, alas, are long gone. We reporters can't call that person in charge of X anymore---we've got to go through an army of information gatekeepers. As hundreds of reporters have been laid off locally, the ranks of government PR offices have swelled---there are now 123 people working for Communications Nova Scotia and the city has 33 people on its communications staff. The people whose jobs used to be to dig into issues for the public's interest are now employed to obscure the truth and "message" information. There is even a group of ex-newshounds turned spinmeisters who jokingly refer to themselves as "hacks to flacks."
By its very existence, the PR gatekeeping system serves to obscure truth and distance the public from government information. Still, most PR professionals in government work with an open government ethic, and seem to understand that public information is, in fact, public. So, while working through a gatekeeper is annoying and time-consuming, and while we can't get information directly from the horse's mouth, the public's interest often gets served, after a fashion. But Dexter's change in policy amps up the distance between the public and public information to an intolerable degree---put simply, basic facts are now being contextualized and spun for political purposes. To their great credit, the province's PR staff are themselves alarmed and thus alerted McLeod to the issue.
When even PR people think we've got a communication problem, you know the situation is dire.
"It's a very natural thing, as staff who release information on behalf of the government, to learn about the direction the government is going," Dexter told allnovascotia.com. That's an attitude we simply cannot let go unchallenged. In any system claiming to be a democracy, facts are facts, and shouldn't be altered to reflect "the direction" of government.
Dexter should immediately end the policy and apologize to the public for implementing it.