Courthouse Culture

Linden MacIntyre calls it courthouse culture, but it’s not limited to courthouses.

Linden MacIntyre calls it courthouse culture, but it’s not limited to courthouses.

It’s the kind of thinking that 30 years ago led a court clerk in Nova Scotia, when MacIntyre asked to see the affidavits supporting a search warrant, to say no. The kind of thinking that, when MacIntyre pointed out that both the police officer who had executed the warrant and an assistant deputy minister in the provincial Attorney-General’s department had told him he had the right to see those affidavits, led that clerk to tell him, according to MacIntyre, “I don’t care. Get out of my office.”

On the way out, MacIntyre found 25 cents in his pocket, stepped up to a pay phone and called a lawyer. The resulting case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. MacIntyre – now host of the CBC program the fifth estate – won.

That victory helped a bit, MacIntyre said during a panel discussion on government secrecy at Ryerson University on Friday. But courthouse culture is alive and well. Though it has become harder for officials to refuse journalists’ requests for court documents outright, “they’ve also learned where to hide these things.” Documents relating to a search warrant executed in one city are often filed in another courthouse altogether. “You never know where to find these things and they don’t have to tell you.”

The courts have no monopoly on this. Panellist Fred Vallance-Jones, a University of King’s College journalism instructor who also prepares Newspapers Canada’s annual Freedom of Information Audit, said requests from journalists and politicians (read opposition politicians) take longer to process than those from the general public, and despite legislation that in most cases calls for answers within 30 days, extensions to six months, nine months or a year are not uncommon.

Suzanne Craig, integrity commissioner for the City of Vaughan, ON, said lack of people, money and information systems accounts for many of the delays, but the political sensitivity of some requests can make a differentce too.

“Where we’ve had a mayor who believed in openness, where we had a minister and a deputy minister who believed in openness, the access works,” Craig said. But that’s not always.

The panellists looked for answers to the problem. Vallance-Jones blamed it in part on the British Parliamentary system of government, which he said has for hundreds of years embraced “this idea that everything is done in secret” – a point that Paul Knox, an instructor in and former chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, echoed from the floor during the question period.

“Somehow we have to achieve a cultural change,” MacIntyre said in replying to Knox’s comment. “It has to happen, or we are going to see the rise, and I don’t want to be a fearmonger, but we are seeing this increasing trend toward authoritarianism.”

Bruce Gillespie, who teaches journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University at its Brantford, ON campus, said journalists need to do a better job of explaining to the public why access to information is important.  “If we don’t explain what is at stake,” he said, “I think we kind of feed into this public apathy.” And increased media focus on celebrities and trivia is not helping the public’s understanding of the media’s role as watchdogs, he added.

Craig had the last word, urging reporters simply to expose what isn’t working in the access to information system. “Do what you do best,” she said. “Research and write.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Gillespie taught journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, ON.