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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The construction zone remains for now at Clover Point, but plans for a new pedestrian zone and partially closed traffic loop were approved by Victoria councillors on Thursday. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
Victoria council compromises with partial closure of Clover Point

Option preserves parking 14 spots facing ocean, creates more pedestrian space

(Black Press Media file photo)
Trees Cannabis to reignite downtown Victoria location as licensed store

The dispensary will reopen its 230 Cook St. location on Saturday

A wind warning is in effect for Greater Victoria Thursday afternoon. (Black Press Media file photo)
Strong winds predicted for Greater Victoria

Environment Canada issues warning for Thursday afternoon

Sergeant Francis Dion with the box containing HMCS Calgary’s new secret mascot costume. (HMCSNCSMCalgary/Facebook)
Don Devenney is a Goldstream Gazette 2021 Local Hero as Community Builder of the year. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
West Shore volunteer’s efforts an exercise in adventurous pursuits

Don Devenney is the 2021 recipient of the Community Builder Award

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

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 Feb. 23

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

(Black Press Media File Photo)
POLL: Are you struggling with Greater Victoria’s cost of housing?

While Victoria remains one of the most expensive cities in the country… Continue reading

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools is preparing a rapid response team proposal for submission to the B.C. Ministry of Education. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district chosen as COVID-19 rapid response team

Team to consist of SD68 and Island Health staff, according to B.C. Ministry of Education

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Most Read