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City’s restrictive media policy ‘attempt to manipulate public knowledge’

City of Vancouver defends policy as standard practice for municipalities

On the morning of April 17 this year, Vision Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs sent a tantalizing tweet into the Twittersphere that piqued the interest of reporters who cover city hall.

He posed this question: Is Vancouver treating civic affairs reporters fairly?

The tweet’s link brought reporters to Meggs’ blog page, where he expounded on his question — somewhat cheekily — and acknowledged the city’s media policy isn’t like it used to be.

“In the good old days, back in 2007, [reporters] could call any city staff person and interview them on and off the record,” he wrote. “City hall was a reporter’s paradise, with spin doctors restricted to mayor Sam Sullivan’s office and senior city staff accessible at all hours of the day and night. And so on.”

He added: “Now, they say, it takes days to get a call back, if you get one at all from behind the closed doors of the city communications branch.”

Meggs wrote the blog post to inform his readers and Twitter followers about an update he received from city manager Penny Ballem on the media policy; the information was not sent to reporters or posted on the city’s website for the public to view.

In three separate memos, Ballem outlined how the policy adopted in late 2010 is effective and is in line with how other municipalities interact with reporters.

Ballem’s update was prompted by a request from NPA Coun. George Affleck, who says the policy imposed under Vision Vancouver’s regime shuts out reporters from information and limits the number of experts able to explain and comment on what are sometimes complicated topics.

“Staff are being completely disempowered by Vision and I think that’s inappropriate,” said Affleck who, along with Meggs, is a former journalist and seeking re-election. “We should let the people who are experts in the categories of which they are experts speak to media. If we can’t trust our staff, then who can we trust at city hall?”

While some might see the complaints of reporters as an internal matter best discussed with the city, Langara College journalism instructor Ross Howard believes the policy is an affront to democracy and should be of great concern to the public.

“It is outrageous in a democracy but not surprising that a political party in power tries to cut off direct access to both elected representatives and public servants by journalists who are a citizen’s frontline resource for finding out what’s going on, for presenting views and opinions for debate and for watchdogging those politicians’ integrity, including the handling of citizens’ taxes,” wrote Howard, a former Globe and Mail reporter, in an email to the Courier.

“While politicians may say it is more efficient to communicate this way, what they really mean is it is easier to manipulate public knowledge and debate.”

If Howard is right, then here’s the obvious question: Why have such a policy?

It’s a question the Courier put to Meggs, who responded by first telling a story of his days as the head of communications to Larry Campbell when he was mayor from 2002 to 2005.

It caused Campbell great consternation, Meggs said, when a staff member spoke to the media about an issue that the then-mayor wasn’t briefed on.

“People expect him to be accountable and be able to speak to these issues and he would wake up in the morning and read the paper and find people saying things that he wasn’t aware of,” said Meggs, who also served as former premier Glen Clark’s media handler. “I don’t expect to be notified every time anybody speaks to a reporter — God forbid, there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day. But it is good to know when important announcements are being made and people are talking about areas of concern.”

Meggs clarified he had “nothing to do” with changing the policy but believes the current arrangement is typical of media relations policies in the public and private sector.

“I’ve been a bit surprised by the outcry from some reporters about it,” said Meggs, who believes the role of the city’s communications department is “not to make reporters happy” but to serve them professionally and in a timely way. “It can’t be assumed that you’re going to like the answers all the time.”

Under the current policy, a reporter seeking an interview with a staff member or searching for information must send a request to a general email address that is monitored by the city’s communications staff.

Staff are then supposed to respond within an hour and set up interviews or provide information by the end of the day. The city has designated spokespersons for departments — usually general managers, who are not always available — which means the author of a report is often not allowed to speak to media.

The Courier’s experience, along with other reporters who cover city hall, is the system is flawed. Many times, staff don’t return calls before deadline and, instead, statements are sent via email that are often written in a bureaucratic tone and don’t answer questions. It’s also not clear whether the responses are drafted by communications staff or the person whose name is attributed to the statement.

Senior staff who have given public presentations at city council or at an open house, where they speak to the public, are also prohibited to speak to reporters in those settings.

Unlike other municipalities, the city doesn’t have a designated spokesperson in the communications department. Vancouver communications staff routinely emphasize the information supplied is “on background” and not to be attributed to them.

For the most part, city councillors are reachable on their cellphones but Mayor Gregor Robertson is rarely available over the phone, forcing reporters to track him down after meetings; his predecessors Sam Sullivan and Larry Campbell supplied their home and cellphone numbers to reporters who regularly covered city hall.

The complaints from reporters, however, are not related to accessing politicians but getting basic nuts and bolts information from city staff.

Howard pointed out that having public relations people direct questions to a city engineer or planner takes the spontaneity and scrutiny out of a reporter’s job and “reduces journalists to being repeaters, not reporters.”

Too often, he added, time-pressed reporters settle for whatever response they receive, regardless of its value to a story.

“To be truly progressive would be to reverse this regression to manipulation and throw open the doors of city hall to all direct inquiries by the media,” Howard said. “Yes, it might take a few staff and a few more hours for the journalists to access the right persons to put the hard questions to, and to report their answers or evasions, but that is part of what the public pays taxes for — to know what is really going on at city hall.”

An indication of the public’s need for information is represented in the number of requests made to city hall under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The City of Vancouver received 377 requests last year, according to one of Ballem’s memos to councillors. The Courier made a request under the Act in April for information related to housing and received a response five months later. That response came in 68 pages, 48 of which were totally or partially redacted.

The number of requests is an issue NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe addressed in his first news conference in July with reporters. LaPointe, the former managing editor of The Vancouver Sun, said “something is wrong with the system” when reporters and the public have to resort to Freedom of Information requests.

“So I would put the onus on elected and unelected officials to disclose,” said LaPointe, who echoed Affleck’s points about city staff being muzzled under city hall’s media policy. “People need to know where money is being spent, why it’s being spent. They need to know the views, the perspectives of those who are in positions of some authority. And I think in a lot of ways, they need to be able to anticipate the direction of policy so that they can then participate in it better. And without full, free disclosure, that isn’t going to happen.”

In Ballem’s update to Meggs and others, she supplied information on the number of staff in the communications department and cost to run it.

Overall, there has been an increase of $100,000 over the past four years, with the office staffed by 22 full-time people at a cost of $1.94 million a year. Communications staff receive an average of 12 to 15 media calls per day and have a list of more than 60 spokespersons to speak to reporters.

“A large number have received media training and may be asked to provide actual interviews,” Ballem wrote.

But Ballem pointed out that communications staff are responsible for a variety of tasks and projects, not just handling media requests.

That includes graphic design, writing, editing, proofreading, in-house video production and advertising.

Communications staff also provide “public engagement” advice to various departments and have helped roll out initiatives such as the Transportation 2040 plan, the Year of Reconciliation, the Vancouver Economic Action Strategy, the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability and Greenest City 2020.

To learn how other municipalities’ handle media, the City of Vancouver sent a survey to 20 cities in Canada and the United States.

Only 40 per cent responded, including Burnaby, Surrey, Richmond, San Jose, Calif. and Charlotte, N.C. The information received was enough for Ballem to conclude that Vancouver’s media relations policy was consistent with other municipalities.

But what the Courier learned is neither Burnaby nor Surrey has a central media line and reporters are free to directly contact staff members.

“Why is that?” said Karen Leach, who works three days a week as Burnaby’s only communications staffer. “Because it works for us. In fact, there is no media department.”

In Burnaby, where the biggest issue these days is Kinder Morgan’s plan to build an oil pipeline through the city, Leach said city staff are directly available to reporters.

“And if there are calls for the mayor’s office, the calls go through his assistant and he takes the calls directly,” she said, noting many reporters have Mayor Derek Corrigan’s cellphone number.

In Surrey, Oliver Lum is that municipality’s sole employee working in media relations. Lum described his role more as a facilitator to those reporters unsure of which staff member to contact for information on a story.

“You don’t have to go through me or the city manager’s office,” he said, noting many veteran reporters have established relationships with staff members and routinely call them for information. “It’s not a centralized thing.”

In Richmond, the media relations policy is similar to the centralized system set up in Vancouver. As Ted Townsend of Richmond’s communications department explained, the rationale is “to make sure that whatever information does go out is correct and complete. And that benefits both parties.”

That said, Townsend acknowledged general managers have leeway to speak directly to reporters, as occurred when the Courier contacted city manager George Duncan’s office; his assistant forwarded the message to Duncan and followed up with a phone call the next day to say he was out of town but available at a later date.

On the day Meggs released Ballem’s series of memos on his blog, Mayor Gregor Robertson’s schedule included a police board meeting.

After the meeting, the mayor agreed via one of his media handlers to take questions from the Courier on the media policy.

When Robertson campaigned in 2008 and 2011, he promised a more transparent and open government than under the NPA.

So what was wrong with the old system?

“There were concerns that there wasn’t follow-up that was tracked from one central place,” he said. “There was also concerns around the time required of different staff to respond to many requests — that departments and staff were running their own communications hub rather than having a more efficient system like other cities have.”

Added Robertson: “I totally respect the challenges media have with timing and getting the news out. But the city’s trying to do all we can to have a good reliable system that responds and shares information openly.”

Three longtime civic affairs reporters, Jeff Lee at The Vancouver Sun, Frances Bula at The Globe and Mail and Charlie Smith at The Georgia Straight, all used their blogs to weigh in on the new policy when its implementation suddenly became a reality in late 2010.

Lee: “What sometimes seems forgotten in these increasing debates over lack of public transparency is that this is the public’s government. It is there to serve its citizens, not the other way around.”

Bula, on calling planners to explain a report: “It’s the kind of call I’ve made hundreds of times over the past decade and a half, as have many in the city, which the city has always made easy for anyone to do by printing the names and phone numbers of the people who wrote the report at the top. But I didn’t get a call back from any of those planners, as I normally would. Instead, I got a call from [now former] communications officer Wendy Stewart, who explained to me that I wouldn’t be getting any calls back.”

Smith: “This is incredible. Bula and other journalists, including myself, have spoken to staff countless times to get them to explain their reports. It’s a sad day at Vancouver city hall if Vision Vancouver and its hired gun, city manager Penny Ballem, have decided to silence these public servants.”

Though Ballem has boasted about the city’s communications staff ability to handle a wide-ranging workload, she acknowledged improvement was needed on the media relations front.

“There is full agreement that more can be done to work with reporters in the current media environment and strengthen existing guidelines in relations to process and service expectations, as well as ongoing need for improvement,” she wrote in one of her memos. “The responsibility is ours to address the issues of evolving communications practice and seek guidance to build strong relationships.”

At the time of writing this story, the Courier emailed the city’s communications department at 10:23 a.m. on a Tuesday to request an interview with Ballem to discuss the media policy.

The Courier gave Ballem until noon the next day to respond.

Two days after the request was made, Tobin Postma of the city’s communications department left a phone message:

“Apologies, we missed your deadline regarding your request to speak to Penny about the media policy. I wanted to give you a ring to see if you’re still interested in chatting with her.”

The election is Nov. 15.