FOI laws and government actions shouldn't be made with the likes of Alex Jones in mind.
In a political climate where a public figure’s every word and breath is evidence of one wild theory or another, it’s tempting to want to give the conspiracy detectives a little less to work with.
Given the amount of air-time devoted to the theory that Hillary Clinton has a body double, given the attention paid to conspiracy pundit Alex Jones, and given Donald Trump, who isn’t frustrated with the Poirots of fantastical plots right now?
We have some experience with that sort of thing up here, in a city where people seriously believed someone had CGI’d a video of the mayor smoking crack because he wanted to cut the plant watering budget at City Hall.
You can’t argue logic with them, not really. So, what do you do?
In a recent Vox column, U.S. political journalist Matthew Yglesias makes a suggestion that’s extremely out of character for a journalist—he argues that his country should make government emails off-limits to the public.
One of the reasons he’s “against transparency” is that these days anything, even a single banal email, can easily be “spun into a scandal.”
It’s a fascinating and totally backwards idea: the public discourse has gone to crazy town, so let’s give it fewer facts to work with.
To be fair, his argument is a bit more nuanced. In the U.S. (as in Canada), government officials’ emails and text-based messages are subject to freedom of information laws and can be obtained, within legal limits, by journalists and the public. Phone calls don’t create the same written records, so they aren’t disclosed under the same transparency laws.
Yglesias sees the contradiction there—why give the public access to the content of emails when the public can’t get access to the same content if it’s created by a phone call?
This arbitrary distinction, he writes, led to politicians and public servants using the phone to dodge transparency laws, even when email would be better to conduct everyday business.
And that’s the same up here, too.
To resolve that contradiction, he would take away the right of FOI access to email.
He goes on, and the implicit argument throughout his thinkpiece is that none of us can be trusted to debate the issues like rational people anymore, so decision-makers need to be able to debate the issues internally, in secret, in order to get things done.
But then we’d be without the public interest news generated when someone stupidly emails something they shouldn’t and gets caught—the Chris Christie bridge scandal and the Flint water crisis are two U.S. examples.
Hoping that someone’s lazy enough, or stupid enough, to email something incriminating, and that it eventually comes to light, isn’t a foolproof system for rooting out corruption, but sometimes it’s all we have.
And without freedom of information laws giving us rare glimpses into unguarded internal communications, we’d be left relying more on parsing public media appearances and checking online photos for signs of body doubles and hidden ear pieces. The conspiracy detectives can’t be starved away. In fact, they feed on secrets.
Canada’s taking some steps in the other direction. This year, the federal Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics undertook an extensive review of Canada’s transparency law and proposed sweeping changes to strengthen it.
One recommended change deals with Yglesias’s phone-email contradiction. The committee recommended Canada develop legislation that would give government officials a legal duty to document their decision-making. So, if you hash something out on the phone, you take notes, and they’re subject to the disclosure laws. Intentionally dodging the law by failing to document something would be a serious crime. It’s a measure against the “oral culture” of government that’s developed to hide from law.
It’s been recommended by privacy commissioners in this country for over a decade.
The other recommendations would bring ministers’ and the prime minister’s offices, the institutions of parliament, and any organizations that receive substantial government funding under the Access to Information law and give the Information Commissioner real teeth—the power to order the government to comply with her rulings and disclose documents. There are also recommendations aimed at making the whole system function properly, without the well-known delays and bureaucratic snafus.
The review was an election promise of the federal Liberals, and the reforms are expected to come in two phases—easy legislative changes soon and a complete overhaul in a couple of years.
Beaches—East York MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who sits on the committee, hopes the changes are thorough and swift.
“Almost unanimously, the witnesses who came forward said the same thing: The Act hasn’t been updated since the 80s, it’s in need of reform and it’s been in need of reform for years, and it’s an obstacle to transparency,” he said.
There are many details to be worked out, and ultimately the details will determine how thoroughly the legislative changes will open the federal government to Canadians. If that change comes, we can hope it rolls downhill to Ontario’s Freedom of Information law and law that covers the province’s cities.
It could be important, because the only way for the public discourse to keep it together when the world goes to crazy town might be transparency.
It took extreme transparency—secret wiretaps were used in the police investigation that ultimately surrounded Rob Ford—to finally settle the truth of our former mayor and the (totally not CGI’d) crack tape. There’s still a wide gulf of opinion on the late mayor, but no one really doubts how those events unfolded anymore.
Not everything is a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime situation, and only very rare situations call for tapping phones (don’t worry, Mammo). For the rest of the time, Canada may have some less dramatic solutions, and it starts with more transparency.
FOI requests cost money. If you’d like us to do more frequent and bigger requests, then you can show your support by funding Torontoist on Patreon.