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Perils of BC's New Freedom of Info Policy

Revised FOI approach may look good on surface, but dig deeper and it's bad news.

Sean Holman 31 Aug 2011J-Source

Sean Holman wrote this for J-Source, where it first appeared. Holman teaches journalism at the University of Victoria. He's also a syndicated columnist, talk show host and the editor of Public Eye, a prominent online journal covering provincial politics. In fiscal 2009/10, he was responsible for 24 per cent of the 446 freedom of information requests filed by the media. Find his other Tyee stories here.

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Government secrets: media now has less incentive to chase after them.

British Columbians may soon know a lot less about what's happening in the government's backrooms, thanks to a recent change in how it responds to freedom of information requests. 

In the past, those records -- which have revealed everything from secret contracts awarded to the premier's supporters, to which ministry has the worst performing bureaucrats -- have only been given to the individuals who asked for them.

But now those records are being posted online for everyone to see -- three business days after they're given to the applicant, on or after 8 p.m. 

Premier Christy Clark's administration claims that change will make her government more accessible.

In practice, however, I believe it will dampen the incentive for journalists to file freedom of information requests.

Killing media's incentive

While most of us in the media are civic-minded folks, we don't go on the hunt for internal government records solely to serve the public interest. We do so to obtain exclusive access to information our competitors don't have.

The resulting scoop is our reward for the time it takes to research and write those requests. But, for reporters at weekly or monthly news outlets, the government's new freedom of information release policy gives faster competitors a chance to steal that reward.

For example, Vancouver's the Georgia Straight has a 1 p.m. Wednesday deadline for news items appearing in its Thursday paper. That means the dailies could have first crack at printing information from freedom of information responses the Straight receives later that same day or on Thursday. And the dailies will have a chance to match the weekly's coverage in the case of responses received on Friday.

The Straight could publish such stories on its website to make sure it beats the competition. But most weeklies have an Internet viewership that's smaller than their print readership. And, in any case, their business models are still based on selling ads in print, not online.

So why assign newsroom resources -- including footing the occasional fees associated with freedom of information requests -- to work that, quite literally, might not pay off or might benefit a competitor?

Too fast for safety

Weekly and monthly news outlets aren't the only ones disadvantaged by this policy change. Journalists at faster outlets now have a limited amount of time to read through and report on what can amount to hundreds of pages of information before their competitors can access them.

Sometimes it will be impossible to meet that deadline, or even legally hazardous in the case of stories that could damage someone's reputation. And what happens if we receive a response while we're on vacation?

This should be a concern for both journalists and members of the public.

After all, it's members of the media who are usually the most effective filers of public interest freedom of information requests, exposing government wrongdoing in the process. And if we're discouraged from doing that work, there are few others in society who have the inclination, resources or expertise to replace us.

Below the radar

Disturbingly, there's been little public reaction from journalists to this decision. In part, I think that's because many members of the media don't file those requests anymore, having been frustrated by the government's record of slow and heavily censored responses.

Others may recognize the problem this new policy creates but are concerned the public will see the airing of those concerns as media whining. And then there are those who think it would inappropriate for reporters to express their opinions on this or any other government policy -- even if it directly affects them.

But this issue could also directly affect the public, impairing their ability to find out everything the government doesn't want them to find out.

Reporters should be demanding the government wait a minimum of one week before publicly posting freedom of information request responses, with an opportunity to ask for an extension.

If we don't, the readers and viewers we're supposed to be serving won't know what they're missing.  [Tyee]

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