A bigger fight about “muzzling” information

This past Thursday, Chris Knight reported on NCPR that former New York State DOT employee Mike Fayette felt forced to resign in the face of disciplinary proceedings – prompted by giving a press interview without proper authorization.

Knight’s full article first appeared in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Knight followed up on Friday with further coverage, including forceful comments on the case from a Cuomo administration representative, as covered by NCPR and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

The story has since been picked up by national outlets like the New York Times, and ABC (and counting). Brian Mann weighed in with two In Box posts, a Thurs/Fri thread and a late Friday follow up.

The Fayette case includes specific details – and competing narratives – that need not be re-visited here.

I’d like to hammer harder on the broad topic of controlling access to information.

In Box reader Jim Bullard described his own experience with the PR game – which he points out has become pretty standard:

This is not new or unique to Andrew Cuomo. When I worked for NYS DOL and supervised operations in St. Lawrence county the rule was that if the press came to me for information on a local DOL matter I had to refer them to our public information office in Albany. 99% of the time the PI office knew nothing about the situation so they would tell the press “we”ll get back to you”, then they’d call me to find out what the situation was. I’d tell them, they’d run it by the politicos and call the press back with their “spun” version.

At least half the time they didn’t get the basic info right (ever play the parlor game called ‘Rumors’?) and then they would mess it up further with their spin. It didn’t matter which party was in office. They both play that game. I personally disliked the Republicans more because of their penchant for patronage over merit in hiring but that’s another line of complaint.

Canada has its own access to information woes on a national scale – a three-way dance between politicians, scientists and the press.

Contrary to previous custom, many federal scientists in Canada are no longer permitted to give interviews without prior approval. (Bullard has already aptly described how well this works – whatever country or agency is involved.)

Frustration on this issue has been mounting in Canada for years, in the news media and scientific circles at least. I wish I could say the general Canadian public is deeply concerned too, but the issue still hoovers rather faintly on that horizon.

Now, as Margaret Munro reports, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre and the non-profit group Democracy Watch are backing a lengthy report entitled “Muzzling Civil Servants: a Threat to Democracy?” The two organizations have formally requested an investigation by Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault.

From Munro’s article:

Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the UVIC’s Environmental Law Centre, says “the name George Orwell comes to mind.”

He said the policies undermine and violate different sections, as well as the spirit, of the information act that provides a right of access to government information.

He and his colleagues also say it “impoverishes” public debate.

Munro’s article quotes a response sent by email from Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear: “we reject the premise of the accusations.” Goodyear also said the “government provides significant access to federal scientists.”

Not surprisingly, the greatest tension surrounds the hot-button topics: climate change, oil sands, pipelines, environmental issues, GMO research and so forth. Scientists who work in non-controversial fields (the ‘boring’ ones – with apologies!) face lower levels of scrutiny and supervision.

It seems fairly clear that private companies can and do control media access and retain the right to fire employees who violate company policy in that regard.

It’s perfectly possible to make the case that public agencies – like the police, the military, (New York’s DOT?) – need a coherent way to communicate, by way of official spokespersons, etc. 

But where does that line get drawn, particularly if control of access to civil servants seems to be driven by partisan politics, as is sometimes alleged?

Without a doubt, the press has a dog in this fight. Reporters always want access to researchers and information. Reporters also want the opportunity to ask actual sources and experts direct questions and get unfiltered answers. Media advocates argue that access to information serves the public interest and is essential for a healthy democracy.

This shift toward tight control could be defended as political necessity. For all the claims of journalistic objectivity, the press can be fairly selective, even biased – to call a spade a spade. What gets covered – how stories are presented –  is not always agenda-free. If journalists are playing games to shape public opinion, why shouldn’t politicians fight back by circling the wagons and controlling access to researchers?

And some might add “Don’t forget the corporate overlords and their compulsion to run the world”.  (My point being many factions have favorite threats they fear.)

I contend the press/politician conflict in Canada has become destructive.

Right now, many federal scientists in Canada feel less free to discuss their work, which is frequently very relevant to current challenges and policy issues. The public has reduced opportunity to hear from Canadian researchers. Science itself suffers, if open discussions and exchange of ideas become career-limiting risks. 

According to this Feb 15 story from CBC, the effort to control information is no longer limited to Canada’s federal scientists: some recent contract language attempts to constrain non-Canadian researchers in collaborative studies too. (See the link for specific contract language.) The article quotes Jeffrey Hutchings, a fisheries scientist at Dalhousie University, as saying the following on “As It Happens”:

“And what this will lead to, almost inevitably, is a situation where international scientists will be less likely to work with Canadian government scientists.”

The public has a right and responsibility to work it out for themselves if they are being lead by the nose by advocacy journalism. (Or by politicians.) I can’t say the public always does that well. But in theory at least, citizens are better suited to that task than political gatekeepers with a self-serving agenda.  

The current political attitude in Canada’s federal leadership seems to be “Don’t worry, we’ve got this. There’s no real issue. If you still don’t like what we’re doing, vote us out next time around.” That’s a long time to wait and a pretty narrow window of comment.

Many critics would lay this all at the feet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with some application of the phrase “control freak”. But leaders come and leaders go – be they prime minister, president, governor or mayor. The important thing is to establish – and defend – good policy that can withstand any politician’s foibles.

My bias is for open access to information in a free marketplace of ideas. Values (one might suppose) that are cherished by liberals and conservatives.

What do you think? It’s understood that federal researchers do not own work, research or inventions produced on the taxpayer’s dime. So who does own/control that work? The current office holder, or the public? Should there be anything special or different regarding scientists and their work – in terms of media access?

Or do all government employees work for some random leader and his/her partisan purposes? 

I can’t say this is a dead easy line to draw. It’s a busy, conflicted world – with a long history of struggle between the elected and civil service branches of government.

But the current line in Canada feels like a chokehold on information the world could really use.

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6 Comments on “A bigger fight about “muzzling” information”

  1. dbw says:

    Canada is not the only one. A few years ago the Congress passed preventing the CDC from releasing gun death and injury information. That might be useful factual information to have in the current debate. More recently the federal government has stopped tracking certain fossil fuel data. Fortunately, there is enough information out there from other sources to point to the long term trend for cheap conventional oil sources. All this does of course is to further undermine the credibility of governments that are withholding information other than that which is clearly in the interest of national defense.

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  2. Rancid Crabtree says:

    The problem is summed up by Jim Bullard in one phrase- “…then they’d call me to find out what the situation was. I’d tell them, they’d run it by the politicos and call the press back with their “spun” version.”

    The spun version isn’t always accurate. My good friend the retired Trooper tells me that the news media would call the station for information and it would be provided. However, the news stories often were found to contain errors and information that was entirely inaccurate or even seemingly made up by the reporter. Or look at any of the agenda driven studies and reports, just how accurate do we expect studies paid for by, say, the solar industry about solar power to be?

    I don’t know folks. Is it better to have an underling provide raw data to the media and let the media spin it or is it better to let gov’t take the data, spin it and them give it to the media to spin? Classic example- when Clinton wanted to rebuild the Balkans he gave Haliburton a no bid contract and no one said a word about it. When Bush used Haliburton it was a dirty deed. Spin…it’s whats for dinner.

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  3. Pete Klein says:

    The problem isn’t just government. Companies big and small like to control the information and will fire an employee who speaks to the press without permission.
    Not to justify “the problem” but when you work for someone, you work for them, not the press.

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  4. Jim Bullard says:

    It’s all about control and it isn’t limited to government. For centuries the church controlled education and discounted or persecuted anything/anyone that contradicted their view of the universe. The reformation fought back but now fundamentalist protestants have their own “truth” and woe to those who question those beliefs.

    It seems that humans think we can control reality by controlling information. I recall reading where one Neocon political operative a while back said something to the effect that while their opponents were trying to determine reality they were creating reality. The problem is that occasionally our constructed view of reality runs headlong into actual reality, like it did in the housing bubble for example.

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  5. dave says:

    If accurate information and clarity is the goal, I can assure you that allowing mid to low level government employees talk to the press unfiltered will not achieve that.

    Having to run things up the chain of command is cumbersome and exposes information to spin, certainly, but it is the only way I can think of that any organization can be certain that the correct information is being presented.

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  6. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Correct by what standard Dave?

    Something else to consider- Here we are lamenting who should be spinning the news. Meanwhile 6 news organization/corporations deliver something like 90-95% of our news. So pretty much everything we get is pre-digested, judged, spun, re-spun and finally spoon fed to us. And we sit here thinking some underling will give us inaccurate portrayals of what really happened?

    Control the news and you control the discussion. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…….

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