Column: Chipping away at democracy

We hear it all the time: too much sugar is bad for us. And yet, we continue to be spoon-fed sugary messages from Harper’s office.

We hear it all the time: too much sugar is bad for us.

And yet, we continue to be spoon-fed the sugary messages that are coming out of, or rather being filtered from, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office in Ottawa.

We’ve heard time again that he is controlling the message, keeping a tight rein on journalists by limiting the flow of information, and polishing up what little is released publicly.

Just hearing the words ‘federal scientists’ might prompt you to automatically think ‘gag order.’

Oh, we lament, what is the government trying to hide?

Oh, we cry, our own government is eroding our democratic right to freedom of speech.

I don’t have to tell you the harm caused by elected officials in their relentless campaign to control the message, as well as the medium through which it is delivered.

The flow of information is being funnelled and strained more than ever before because of our digital world, which should, in fact, be offering more freedoms of expression.

Instead, thanks to today’s technology, there are more ways to spin information – from press releases shelled out by public bodies to the 140-character blurbs sent out over the Twitterverse – into messages that ooze sunshine and lollipops.

On a positive note, social media channels are being turned to more often as an information-gathering tool. They’re a treasure trove of public opinions, photos and eyewitness statements that can be farmed, within reason, by journalists.

But these channels – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – are also being used to funnel polished-within-an-inch-of-their-life messages from governments at all levels, as well as other public and private entities.

Those channels are being used to deliver a sugar-coated message to journalists and the public. That pill might be sweet on the outside, but the message is still tough to swallow when it’s that sugary.

Gone are the days when announcements were relayed to media sources over the phone, through snail mail and via fax.

Today’s government-issued statements are delivered in a steady, non-stop electronic stream, meant to foster the appearance of open communication and transparency. But it feels like an illusion, one that runs the risk of alienating an already weary public.

The fingers of blame for the gradual erosion of democratic rights shouldn’t only be pointed at Harper.

This delicate fabric of rights is also being shredded by a persistence among provincial government communications staff, to provide ‘background’ information on a variety of topics, but refuse to be directly quoted.

There is only one spokesperson, they say, and that is the minister of each government department.

I’ve even received background information from a government communications staffer who simply cut, pasted and emailed a story to me that was written by a journalist from another media outlet.

Journalists are also under regular pressure from non-government sources who ask to read drafts of articles in which they are quoted, prior to publication.

Regardless of the reason – nervousness about being misquoted, or being associated with incorrect facts or portrayed in a negative light – I think it’s critical that the public know they are reading an unfiltered, balanced news story.

Imagine if every article you read in a newspaper was first vetted by the people who are quoted in the story. The story would, in essence, be a sanitized press release. And we get enough of those as it is.

This is a fast-paced electronic age, one in which the output of information from a bevy of sources is one-sided.

As such, it’s becoming increasingly important for the public to have access to content that isn’t simply processed sunshine and lollipop statements.

Sugar in moderation is okay, but too much and it can come back to bite us one day. That day may already be here.

Erin McCracken is a reporter with the Victoria News.

emccracken@vicnews.com

Just Posted

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.’s Indigenous language, art and culture

North Saanich advisor says initiative supports urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

General manager Lindsey Pomper says Sidney’s Star Cinema cannot wait welcome audiences when it reopens June 18, amid an easing of public health measures. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Sidney’s Star Cinema raises curtain for the first time after months in the darkness

Iconic theatre to reopen at half capacity for Friday night showing

A dogs in parks pilot study unanimously approved by Saanich council will evaluate how park space can best be shared between dog owners and non-owners alike. (Photo by Megan Atkins-Baker/News Staff)
Saanich to study park-sharing strategy between those with and without pets

District-wide People, Parks and Dogs study to produce recommendations by fall

Staff member Lena Laitinen gives the wall at BoulderHouse a workout during a media tour on June 16. (Rick Stiebel/News Staff)
BoulderHouse raring to rock Langford

Popularity of bouldering continues to climb across Greater Victoria

GardenWorks nursery in Oak Bay at its home until August. (Black Press Media file photo)
GardenWorks puts down new roots in Oak Bay this summer

Nursery shifts down The Avenue to fill former fitness studio space

The BC SPCA Wild Animal Rehabilitation Centre in Metchosin saw 16 fawns come through in May, with another four in the first four days of June. (Courtesy Wild ARC)
An abandoned fawn doesn’t mean it’s orphaned, reminds Greater Victoria wildlife expert

20 orphaned fawns turned in to Wild ARC in Metchosin so far this season

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: When was the last time you visited the mainland?

The films are again lighting the screens at local theatres, the wine… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of June 15

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stands outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after speaking to reporters, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Kamloops chief says more unmarked graves will be found across Canada

Chief Rosanne Casimir told a virtual news conference the nation expects to release a report at the end of June

A woman wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. ranks among highest in world in COVID-19 first-dose shots: health officials

More than 76% of eligible people have received their 1st shot

An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller

Canadian Armed Forces experts are on their way to North Vancouver after a local homeowner expressed worry about a military artifact he recently purchased. (Twitter DNV Fire and Rescue)
Military called in to deal with antique ‘shell’ at North Vancouver home

‘The person somehow purchased a bombshell innocently believing it was an out-of-commission military artifact’

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz have set their wedding date for February, hoping that more COVID-19 restrictions will have lifted. (The Macleans)
B.C. couples ‘gambling’ on whether COVID rules will let them dance at their wedding

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz pushed back their wedding in hopes of being able to celebrate it without the constraints of COVID-19

Most Read