Examples abound, but one recent BC news story was especially frustrating, because the issue affected local journalists-making it all the more striking they never asked the obvious questions.
First, a recap.
In April, the Liberals introduced radical changes to BC’s freedom of information laws. They held no discussion of innocuously named Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act (No. 2), simply slipping the FOI revamping in amongst clarifications to clerical procedures under Land Title Act section 168.722 and grammar corrections to the Utilities Commission Act.
Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis poured his fury into a 4-page public letter (a letter since removed from the web, but Google thankfully made a rudimentary copy), protesting the amendments could drop an iron curtain of secrecy over the expanding public-private service sector. Other experts and opinion writers concurred, firing barrages of condemnation. Most suspected the government was surreptitiously and fascistically moving to prevent us from hearing any more about Maximus-MSP performance-target boondoggles, deadly forestry deregulation, or Olympics “not-really-the-Olympics-budget” budget over-runs.
For the government, Labour and Citizens Services Minister Michael de Jong repeatedly countered that the amendments, in fact, did the exact opposite.
“My intention, and the government’s intention here,” de Jong proclaimed in the Times-Colonist, “is to facilitate disclosure of information, not constrain it.” Evidently knowing full well most voters want governments open and accountable, in interviews and letters, de Jong characterized the growing conflict as a legalistic “difference of opinion”, while insisting his goal, too, was “greater transparency”.
Selected quotes from the legislation hinted the critics might be right, and overall, the media coverage seemed thorough and generally critical.
Then I read the legislation myself. And I was aghast. Astounded. How propagandistic, how biased in support of de Jong all the coverage actually was! No one was asking the obvious questions!
You see, the specific amendment under discussion went like this: A clause allowed the government to arbitrarily designate virtually any public-private service arrangement as a “joint solution project”. Then, “If a project has been designated as a joint solution project… the head of a public body must refuse to disclose…” This was followed by a long list of everything the government “must refuse to disclose” to the public, including financial, technical and labour information.
Well now, there’s not much room for difference of opinion here, is there? The words couldn’t be clearer: not “must disclose”, but “MUST REFUSE TO DISCLOSE”. No qualifiers or baffling legalese. The intent couldn’t be clearer: increased secrecy, not “greater transparency”.
That’s what the commissioner saw. That’s what everyone saw.
So, pondering de Jong’s insistence that the legislation actually said the opposite of what the legislation said, I think just about any ordinary, rational, thoughtful, reasonably-objective person (or reporter) would naturally have the questions that were spontaneously emerging in my own mind in those moments.
Namely, in a professional, unbiased manner, I found myself wondering the following: Has Michael de Jong completely LOST HIS MIND??? Is he stupid, or blatantly lying? Or is this man who writes legislation functionally illiterate?! What in god’s name is GOING ON??
These questions weren’t fully discussed in any news coverage. Couldn’t be done impartially? On the contrary, based on the way similar stories of extremely peculiar and arguably immoral public behaviour are usually handled by our media, we would have expected them to be exhaustively explored.
For example, we logically should have seen interviews with psychologists, right? Experts pontificating compassionately about why our minister would act so bizarrely and inexplicably.
After all, what do our media do after they film someone running naked down the street screaming, “Petty humans, nothing is what it seems!”? And how is this situation different? Indeed, where were the psychiatrists worrying aloud about our minister’s belief firmly held in spite of invalidating evidence, his speech disassociated from reality, and the danger his behaviour presented to the public?
Then there’d be comments from caring family and friends: “Michael is an honest, intelligent man. But the brutal hours and pressure of governing have been catching up. So really, the public has no one but themselves to blame for this.”
A former school teacher might have shed some light. “He was ambitious, a ‘big picture’ kid looking ahead. But I was constantly having to remind Mikey not to neglect the details along the way, like learning to read. Unfortunately, he’d disregard independent experts like me, and now, tragically, he’s paying the price.”
“No one has the time to investigate truth,” a professorial pundit may have commented. “So politicians’ claims merely have to sound plausible enough to mirror what the public wants to believe.”
And the official ministerial astrologer would’ve countered that de Jong’s position was rooted in cosmic truth. “Neptune and Saturn will be in direct opposition soon. Neptune’s the archetypal self-deceiver. Saturn represents constraints of reality. Our leader’s naturally embodying the clash of these galactic forces.”
These discussions never appeared, but as the stars would have it, a week later the minister did do the Saturn-Neptune flip-ola, and scrapped the amendments. De Jong appeared soberly in the Times-Colonist explaining, “I take, and the government takes, what the privacy commissioner says about these pieces of legislation seriously.”
Our government responsibly listened, learned, and changed. A victory for intelligent debate, watchdog media and democracy itself!
But wait. How seriously could the government have really been taking him, since by law the commissioner gave them his feedback confidentially before they even tabled the legislation? Meanwhile, Loukidelis’ public rant actually said little more than, to paraphrase, “Your stupid legislation states ‘must refuse to disclose’.” It’s hard to imagine how the government “seriously” learned anything from, or was surprised by, the predictable critics telling them what their own legislation said.
So what really made the government retreat? Unfortunately, we don’t know for certain because no reporters asked the obvious questions. No one asked the truly serious and penetrating, investigative questions like, “Did little ‘fraidy chicken face get scared by all the negative media coverage bawk b-b-b-bawk baaaawwk??? And for gawd’s sake, could you possibly please answer at least this one simple question HONESTLY???”
Of course, they didn’t ask these questions, because reporters have to appear somewhat “impartial”. And be careful regarding defamation.
Nevertheless, they frequently don’t hesitate to build stories around weirdly prejudicial comments made by casual acquaintances about, for instance, teen delinquents (“He was scary, always listening to Goth.”) or let psychiatrists judge a schizophrenic’s “lack of insight”.
So what’s different here? It’s easier to challenge the weak and disreputable than the powerful and respected. Our confidence in our own observations can bend under pressure. Deep down, I suspect many of us feel almost childlike belief that respectable folk simply couldn’t or wouldn’t lie so completely and blatantly to us. And like anyone, reporters prefer to maintain good relations with people they’ll need to talk with again.
But even more, we’ve come to accept such deception or disconnect in politicians as normal, haven’t we? Discovering a lie doesn’t significantly change how we treat them, unlike if your doctor blamed your breast cancer on an alien abduction.
Yet what happens when we knowingly and continually give politicians’ bizarre statements of utter unreality equal weight alongside other people’s reasonable thoughts and perspectives? In effect, by not confronting them with the obvious questions, we give charlatans precisely what they can exploit: a modicum of credibility.
From Focus magazine, June 2006. Copyright by Rob Wipond.