Access to misinformation

So here’s a situation. You’re a reporter and you are invited to attend a photo-op put on by some government department, let’s say…hypothetically…DND. So you go to this thing and you are astounded: They rented out the entire Congress Centre, brought in nearly 1000 of the top brass, marching bands, AV equipment, catering and VIPs etc. etc. So you say to yourself hmmm I wonder how much this gala photo-op actually costs.

Well sure you can call the good folks at public affairs and they can give you a number, but if you really want to see the actual documents, there’s a helpful, but rarely used journalism tool called the Access to Information Act.

As soon as you return from the photo-op you sit down at your computer and write a simple letter asking for, oh say, “All records regarding the CF Transformation ceremony of 31 Jan O6, to include but not limited to seating plans, guests lists, speeches and draft speeches for the ceremony, receipts for all expenditures related to the ceremony including but not limited to the rental of Ottawa Congress Centre rooms, catering services, AV equipment, lighting services and guest travel/accommodation.”

Attach a cheque for $5, send it off and wait.

Now for those who aren’t aware of how this works by law the ATIP coordinator has 30 days to respond and acknowledge that they received your letter and are doing something about it. After that, you are back in the waiting game until your documents arrive. This can take one month or several, you never really know.

According to the DND ATIP website, “The Access to Information Act is one way that Canadian citizens, people who live in Canada, and corporations resident in Canada can access federal – government records that are not of a personal nature.” What this means is you should be able to access anything related to the government, provided it doesn’t break the privacy act or violate national security.

Thus, as long as you’re not asking for the security blueprints for a military weapons barracks, you should be ok.

So let’s return to the hypothetical ATIP request made earlier. Finally it arrives two months later and you receive a package of 159 pages. You are giddy. You start scrolling through it. You see guest lists, seating plans, copies of e-mails telling people when the event is and copies of the program for the event. But wait – not a single receipt or expenditure list or even cost estimate is included. You read through the entire document and you find only two dollar figures casually mentioned, but in no way official. There isn’t even a copy of the speeches from the event.

How can this happen? This is what you specifically asked for.
Now you do have one year to complain, so you write a letter to the information commissioner accusing the government of non-disclosure. But expect a year to see if you will get any more documents.

Welcome to the Access to Information Act.

As I said before this can be an extremelly useful tool to use but it can also be very time consuming and frustrating. On occasion some journalists, I will say Dave Pugliese and Jim Bronskil, snag some great documents and make excellent stories out of them, but on the whole this is a tool that in the deadline-driven daily news cycle enironment it is rarely used. As such, those who control the information are not held accountable by pissed off journalists who can complain and demand a better flow of information.

Instead the minority is left to try to make small cracks in the system with complaint letters, while others shake their fists, stamp their feet, fight with security guards and complain about a lack of press scrums.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *