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Too Close For Comfort

JOHN MORRISS

EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

YouTube is a wonderful thing. Need to know how to change the battery for your car’s key fob, or figure out the bass line for a Beatles tune? Look no further. You can watch cute cat videos all afternoon and still look like you’re working. And now you can watch Prime Minister Harper’s speeches livestreamed on YouTube.

According to the PM’s press release last week, “Canadians, especially younger Canadians, are no longer getting their news from just television, radio and print media.

“Social media is changing the way Canadians interact with politicians,” says the release. “It allows Canadians to have unfiltered and immediate access to information.”

Apparently politicians don’t want media “filtering” their information. Perhaps we do that occasionally. Back in the day, when we phoned a minister of agriculture and he actually called back, maybe we “filtered” the message by not quoting the whole conversation verbatim.

These days, getting a call back from a federal minister is a fond memory. Most of the time, we’re calling for facts, clarification and the minister’s comment, not to uncover the latest scandal. But you must put in the call through a ministerial assistant, who with all due respect, is probably a young appointment from the party faithful and knows little about farm issues. After your question has been filtered by the assistant, you receive an email response which gives you the minister’s quote for use in the story. Or what someone says should be the quote, and that’s not necessarily the minister. So much for “unfiltered and immediate.”

It would be one thing if this sham of direct access were confined to the politicians. It’s been a steady process which began before the current government, but has now spread into the Public Service. Agriculture Canada staff are not allowed to talk about their work without first checking with communications staff in Ottawa. We’re phoning to ask about wheat varieties and tillage practices for heaven’s sake, not the scientist’s opinion on the war in Afghanistan.

Even more annoying is how the Harper government likes to appeal to the public tendency to assume the civil service is underworked, overpaid and inefficient. If that’s true, and the government is looking to improve things, it might try ending the atmosphere of fear which causes civil servants to cover their butts six ways from Sunday.

We’ll avoid names to spare the unfortunate employees involved, but on Feb. 22 one of our reporters called a government department for clarification of data posted on its website.

On Mar. 2 he received an email which said, “No conclusions could be drawn from the data set.” The attached document indicated that this message had been approved by a program specialist on Feb. 26, an acting national manager on Feb. 26, a program manager on Mar. 1, and an associate executive director Mar. 1.

So much for “unfiltered and immediate access.”

These individuals aren’t going to work every day and figuring out how to create a bureaucratic tangle. They want to do a good job, but they’re working in an atmosphere where direct action and individual initiative are not tolerated. The responsibility for that lies with the politicians, who have no business interfering with access to information from the “Public Service.” There’s a reason for that name.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if it were the politicians themselves doing all this meddling. It’s not. Individual MPs and even cabinet ministers operate under the same reign of terror, run by a shadowy bunch of political assistants directed by the prime minister’s office. They’re the ones writing the prime minister’s “unfiltered” speeches on YouTube. As for the claim that “Social media is changing the way Canadians interact with politicians,” they’ve got that right. Do you really think that Mr. Harper is updating his own Facebook page?

And why this is called “social media” is a mystery; “anti-social” would be more appropriate, given the nasty, bitter and frequently obscene tone of the back-and-forth remarks on political Facebook pages. It’s disturbing that those participating actually believe they’re influencing politicians. In reality it’s just a way for politicians to allow the citizens to let off steam. Or worse, to steam them up about imaginary issues, rather than having them “filtered” by media checking the facts.

In George Orwell’s novel 1984, about a totalitarian state ruled by “Big Brother,” the citizens are trained to go into a rage at a daily two-minute speech by a fictional enemy of the state. The subject is freedom of the press, and the speech is delivered by a “telescreen,” a two-way device to keep citizens under constant surveillance.

This is getting a little too close for comfort. Let’s leave YouTube for cute cat videos and Facebook for staying in touch with high-school friends. They may create the illusion that they’re a way to influence politicians, but in reality they’re a much better way for politicians to influence – and keep track of – you. [email protected]

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