Freedom to Read Week: Mark Bourrie on our Right to Know

Freedom to Read Week Banner 2015

Freedom to Read Week is an annual event that encourages Canadians to celebrate and reaffirm our commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed to us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is also an opportunity to discuss and debate threats to free expression on all levels (from the library book objected to in a small town to a tragedy played out on the world stage, such as the shootings at Charlie Hebdo). 

In conjunction with Freedom to Read Week 2015, we discuss censorship and information-access issues with Mark Bourrie, author of Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know. Mark Bourrie appears this Friday, February 27, at the Toronto Reference Library as part of The Decline and Fall of Investigative Journalism event, with all proceeds going to PEN Canada. 

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49thShelf: In Canada, Freedom to Read Week has always been rung in with a note of triumph. We don’t ban books here, and it’s funny to learn about the reader in Edmonton who challenged Ziggy Piggy and the Three Little Pigs because of porcine bad behaviour. But your book suggests that Canadians shouldn’t be so smug. How is our freedom to read (to learn, to know) being infringed upon by government policy?

Mark Bourrie: Books and articles do get printed, but the government does what the press censors suggested they do at the end of the Second World War: make sure embarrassing material never see the light of day, rather than padlock print shops.

This government has, in fact, gone much farther. It has tried to shut down anyone in government who might give out information that conflicts with the government’s positions on climate change, veterans’ affairs, the state of the country’s finances, and anything else that might prove the least bit inconvenient. The Harper government has prevented Parliamentarians from understanding the legislation that they’re expected to debate by hiding important legal changes in the dense texts of omnibus legislation. They have also, for almost all intents and purposes, choked off access to federal ministers and government-side MPs. Even requests for the most basic and nondescript information are screened by the Prime Minister’s political staff.   

49thShelf: Does the current government’s approach have a precedent? Were the wheels in motion before they took power in 2006?

Book Cover Kill the Messengers

MB: They were, somewhat. But the Harper government very quickly accelerated the process, overwhelming the media with new access rules that, each on their own, would have been unheard of in previous administrations. The idea that cabinet meetings would be held in secret locations to thwart reporters who might try to interview ministers coming and going from the meetings, or decide which reporters get to ask the Prime Minister questions would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Now they are normal. This government has worked hard to delegitimize the media as an important feedback system in the political process. It has tried to replace the media with its own shills and even its own YouTube TV programming. It also pays some media to publish what is, essentially, propaganda.

49thShelf: Is the government’s clamping down on information a means to an end, or an end in itself? How do they justify it amongst themselves?

MB: It seems to be a means to an end, a manifestation of Tory disdain for the media and the Prime Minister’s control-freak tendencies. They justify it by saying it works: the Harper government has a majority and may well win another one. Some MPs, however, are starting to show signs of rebelling. Expect grumbling to become louder if Tories start looking like they’ll have serious trouble winning the next election.

49thShelf: How are they getting away with it? (Or perhaps this is the “end” from the previous question …)

MB: Like Jean Chrétien in the 1990s, they have been very fortunate to have a divided and often stumbling opposition. And for decades, politicians and the media itself—especially television shows and movies—have portrayed reporters as celebrity-chasing contemptible opportunists and voyeurs who really have no right to pry into the business of others, even the government. That is one of many problems faced by political reporters. They have very little public support. Harper knows he loses few votes by treating the media poorly.

49thShelf: Is the average Canadian powerless? What can we do? 

MB: It’s probably too much to ask people to subscribe to a newspaper. They can, however, at least put their candidates on the spot about open government. They can ask Tories why they have not kept their promises to be accountable, and push opposition candidates to make a clear commitment to deal with what can still be called a democratic deficit. They can also support organizations like PEN and Writers’ Union that push back against information control.

Mark Bourrie is a journalist, historian, and lecturer at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. He is the author of several books, including Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know.

Freedom to Read Week is organized by the Book and Periodical Council's Freedom of Expression Committee, sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts and receives support from readers, writers, publishers, librarians, educators, booksellers and other organizations. 

February 23, 2015
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