A lesson in the art of non-communication

What happens when you mix climate change, Premier Christy Clark, a mysterious tin foil covered device and a company bent on building a nuclear fusion generator?  
We have no idea, because we never got an invite to Clark’s press event at General Fusion in Burnaby on Tuesday morning. You would think her office would alert the local paper, but no, nothing.

I called the premier’s office, and was told to email her handler, which is fine, but the event had already started, so time was of the essence. When I pressed for details, I was repeatedly told this man had no information, and I would have to email my query. It’s very hard to believe one is working in the premier’s office and has no knowledge of such things or at least access to someone who does.

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I received an emailed reply with a sincere apology and a promise to look into why we never received an invite – but still no info on the actual event. Then we were told the newspaper had to “opt in” somewhere to receive emails, and we’re still waiting for the link for that. Meanwhile, Clark is long gone, and our deadline has passed.
This is just one example of the daily frustrations reporters face when dealing with the provincial government. Senior levels of government are harder and harder to reach, making it more difficult for reporters to get the information we believe you need to meaningfully participate in a democratic society. It also makes it extremely difficult for us to do one of the most important facets of our job: hold elected officials accountable.

How many times have you read the following line in our paper: “We received this emailed statement in response to a request for an interview.” Every time you read that, know that a reporter is very likely angry, and that’s a not-so-subtle clue to the readers that they are not getting the answers they deserve.

The “statement” is often attributable to “the ministry,” which goes against our key practice of naming sources, and often ignores the questions we were asked to email. Oh, and if you give a deadline of, say, 5 p.m., you’ll likely get a response between 4:50 and 4:59 p.m. Want to talk to an actual person? Forget it. Ministries only let the ministers talk on record, and good luck getting them on any subject remotely contentious.

Think I’m the only one complaining? Check out Sean Holman’s blog, Unknowable Country. He’s the journalist who used to run Public Eye Online, and he recently wrote about how awful the provincial government’s media responses are.

I also run the Vancouver Press Club, where TV, radio and print journalists meet regularly for drinks, and we have a Facebook group of more than 400 reporters. Lack of access is a common complaint, not just for the provincial government either, the feds are worse. We also wonder if this is something the public actually cares about or if it only irks the ranks of ink-stained wretches.

Some reporters, like Travis Lupick at the Georgia Straight, insist on interviews and refuse to print these emailed statements. The Vancouver Sun has refused to run the statements, as well. Our reporter Janaya Fuller-Evans sends the emails back, saying she can’t use them unless there’s a name attached or she talks to someone. CTV’s Jonathan Woodward ignores the irrelevant statements, while Bob Mackin files FOIs on how the messaging was concocted. North Shore reporter Brent Richter and I drop that passive-aggressive line in our stories, saying we asked for an interview and got this statement instead, hoping the readers get it.

The thing is, reporters aren’t really an organized group that’s about to storm the legislature, waving placards, demanding better access to politicians. Although sometimes we’re tempted.

Let’s hope the wider public is concerned come election time, because that’s when politicians are most vulnerable and likely to hear our grievances. In the meantime, all they hear is the sound of our heads banging against our desks. 

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