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.

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