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Journalism prof on crusade for better access to information

Current legislation requires improvement for transparencyAsk Sean Holman about his dogged interest in reforming the country’s antiquated access to information laws, and he’ll tell you it goes back to his upbringing.

“When I was a kid, my mom always explained to me why we were going to do the things we were going to do,” said Holman, assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University.

“She wasn’t a parent who said, ‘Do this because I’m asking you to.’ “She said, ‘Do this because of this particular reason.’”

The seasoned muckraker applies this line of thinking to government bodies, which he feels withhold too much information from the public. He demands to know why government decisions are made — and strongly believes the public deserves to know, as well. 

Sean Holman

Professor Sean Holman of MRU’s Department of Broadcasting and Journalism says that Canadians are missing the “why” when it comes to government decision-making.

~Photo by Christina Riches

The federal Access to Information Act came into force in 1983. After a review in 1986, the legislation has since sat stagnant for the subsequent 30 years. As part of the Trudeau government’s mandate, the Act is currently undergoing a comprehensive review, which has so far seen Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault put forward 85 recommendations.

As vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and a scholar on the subject, Holman has recently been asked to speak about needed improvements on a number of occasions. In the summer, he was in Ottawa to present to the House Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee. In September, he was back in Ottawa to speak at Right to Know Week at Carlton University, and has spoken at Right to Know Week events in Alberta as well. Also, a featured Cable Public Affairs Channel commentator, the former investigative reporter has written and produced a documentary called Whipped about party discipline.

Finding out how government actually comes to decisions is extremely difficult, Holman says, adding it is easier to find what government knows (information compiled through censuses, surveys and monitoring), and what government is doing (committees and legislation).

The “why” remains elusive.

“The way in which our government works is that you have a decision that is made in cabinet, which is a secret space,” he says. “Decisions are articulated, but not debated, in a public space, such as Parliament.

“So when you have that kind of structure it creates the assumption that privacy is necessary for all kinds of decision-making.”

When the Access to Information Act was created and debated during the late ’70s, there were massive societal forces demanding more freedom of information in Canada, the U.S. and other Anglospheric countries, says Holman.

There was a general belief that society was becoming “unhinged,” and that there were real threats against the state. The development of the Act was seen as necessary to address a deepening gap between government and the people. The environmental, participatory democracy and consumer movements (to name just a few) all wanted better answers than had been offered.

“It was thought that this apathy, this disengagement, this unrest could actually result in violence,” Holman says.

The government wasn’t unsympathetic, Holman says, but against all these forces was a desire, an “institutional favouritism,” towards private decision making, which continues to manifest itself in government’s very structure.

“The legislation has essentially conformed to, rather than confronted, the contours of secrecy that are inherent in our political system.”

There is a misconception that Canada has been a leader in the realm of access to information, when the reality is that it has always been a laggard, Holman says. Promises by the Harper government to rejig the legislation were not fulfilled, and Holman says there is a very real possibility that could happen again.

“Because we misunderstand how our country works, we keep on making the same mistakes,” Holman says.

“Secrecy is for those people who cannot rightly explain why they are doing what they are doing. And that bankrupts our democracy in the process.”

Access to Information and its impact on journalismCiting the fact that freedom of information legislation is stronger in the U.S., Holman says there’s a reason why Canadian media can seem yawn-worthy at times.

“If you wonder why Canadian news is boring, it’s boring because we don’t have access to the same kind of information that the U.S. does,” said Holman, who teaches in the School of Communication Studies.

Without the proper information, journalists simply can’t write anything interesting. And that’s a fundamental problem with Canadian media.”

Many see our national media centres as collapsing because of economics, but Holman argues that it’s actually more of a cultural problem.”

“There is a profound lack of civic literacy in this country,” says Holman, saying that the vast bulk of Canadians don't understand what journalists write about. And even if they do understand, they usually can’t do anything about it. And finally, even if you have the literacy and can do something about it, because of a lack of access to information, journalists are not able to provide what is necessary to do what is needed.

“Freedom of information is one of three cures that have to be administered to create not just a healthier democracy, but also a healthier media ecosystem.”

Brad Clark, chair of the Department of Broadcasting and Journalism at Mount Royal, applauded his colleague for being a leading voice in the conversation around the media’s role in society.

“Sean is not just an expert in the area of access to information, but he's a strong advocate for journalists,” Clark said. “He really understands the importance of transparency in a democracy.

“We're at a place in time where the need for strong journalism has never been more important and Sean is right there speaking out for better access to the materials people need to understand how their governments work.”

Freedom of Information and Privacy – Alberta and MRUAlberta’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP) has been under review since 2013. At the start of the review, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta submitted a report providing their recommendations.

Jeremy Duffin, information management and privacy advisor at Mount Royal University, is responsible for processing, and responding to, formal access-to-information requests submitted to the University by any individual or organization. Part of the response process involves reviewing public body records and then determining whether information should be redacted, or severed, prior to releasing the records, and in accordance to the exceptions to an individual's right of access as provided under the FOIP Act.

Duffin says that in the digital world of today, provincial legislation is increasingly not aligning with public body operations, or with citizens’ expectations of services that might be provided by the public body.

“Public bodies, especially post-secondary institutions, encounter a constant need to still protect privacy (in accordance with an older Act), and balance that with the use of social media by all Albertans in their daily lives, including students,” he said.

Nov. 8, 2016 ― Michelle Bodnar