A group of professors at the University of Victoria has asked the federal information commissioner to investigate the muzzling of government scientists. The university’s Environmental Law Centre is concerned that experts employed by the federal government have been prevented from speaking about their work.
A brief filed by the centre notes that media calls to federal agencies are routinely diverted to a central communications office. Scientists themselves are not allowed to talk with reporters.
The complaint is entirely accurate. That is indeed what happens.
We would add only this: The policy of silence is not confined to Ottawa, and scientists are by no means the only ones being muzzled.
Phone any branch of the B.C. government from a newspaper desk, and the inquiry will be routed to a media-relations specialist. If by chance you get through to ministry program staff, you will be told they can’t speak to you.
Even if the matter is purely factual and devoid of political ramifications, the rule has no exceptions. Public servants may not speak to reporters. Other provinces also enforce this policy, and it extends much further than government.
Many health authorities now direct employees to keep their mouths shut. Some universities do the same. Professors at UVic might be surprised to learn that their own institution employs a version of this rule.
Municipalities are getting in on the game. Last month, the Canadian Association of Journalists gave Whistler its annual Code of Silence Award.
The town council has decided that only three people may speak to the press: the mayor, the senior administrator and a “public information officer.” George Orwell would have approved of that title. The role of this officer, and the entire purpose of this policy, is to prevent information becoming public.
Of course there are some matters that civil servants should not get involved with. If the question is hypothetical or speculative in nature, discretion may be required.
But no such distinction is made. All inquiries must be routed to the command centre.
Since communications staff are rarely program experts, this means, at a minimum, that a good deal is lost in translation. Days can be wasted getting an answer that line managers could provide on the spot.
Notably, this policy of silence cannot be laid at the door of any one party. Governments of every political stripe have embraced it.
It might be argued that public-sector organizations are not an exception; many businesses do the same. Yet this is hardly a defence.
Governments compel corporations to disclose extensive information about their products. And companies are answerable to shareholders who expect detailed responses to their questions.
But there is a more fundamental issue here. By imposing a code of silence on public servants, politicians make themselves unaccountable. By ensuring that only their version of events is heard, they stifle meaningful inquiry.
And they imply that the basic working mechanisms of government are wholly within their command and control. This is a subversive doctrine. It turns a public interest — the running of programs we all own and pay for — into a political franchise.
And it will take much effort to undo. None of the parties in the current provincial election campaign has promised to address this issue. There is no impetus to reform.
It will be interesting to see what comes of the complaint filed with Suzanne Legault, the federal information commissioner. Legault has promised a ruling.
It’s possible that external pressure of this kind will do the trick. But a broader campaign may well be necessary.
Our politicians value their curtain of silence: They won’t give it up without a fight.