13 December 2008

Purple Reign of Darkness

Danny Williams receives personal files on reporters who interview him.

He confirmed that fact, telling reporters the files are to help him prepare for those interviews.

"When I am provided with a personal file it's an information file to get me ready for an interview with the press," he told reporters at the news conference. "It is not the down and dirty on you or you or you or anybody else."

The Telegram learned of the files last December when one of its reporters received a government e-mail by mistake that asked a political staffer to prepare "purple files on both" that reporter and another who had also requested an interview with the Premier.

Not for both, as in for the interviews, but on both, clearly implying the files were to be prepared on the reporters.

Briefing notes and talking points are routine material prepared for interviews.  They include background information, suggested responses to questions and other similar information that focuses on the subject matter of the interview.

They typically don't focus on the reporter personally, unless the reporter has been following a particular - usually contentious -  issue for a while and hence has an understanding or interpretation of an issue that's already established. Even then, the clippings are only useful to get a perspective on how the issue has been approached, not on the reporter personally.

In the Telegram case, the interviews were for year-end wrap-ups. 

"A reporter basically came in the room one day and saw a purple file on the desk and assumed it was a purple file about that reporter... absolutely untrue," Williams said. "That insinuation, I've got to tell you, is really offensive."

What insinuation, you may ask?

As usual it's Williams who provided the sinister cast to the whole episode.  He suggested that the request by the Telegram for those purple files under the province's open records laws was based on the belief that the files contained personal profiles of the reporters.

The Telegram just went looking for the files, without specifying the contents.

The official response from the premier's department said that there were "no responsive records" meaning they had no such information or files.

Clearly that wasn't true, as the Premier admitted last week and as the Premier's communications director had already admitted to the Telegram via e-mail months ago.

Telegram editor Russell Wangersky focuses on this issue for his Saturday column, recounting much of what is presented above. He takes the cue from the notion of offensive to raise another point:

As offensive, say, as collecting files on political rivals to trot out in Question Period? "When the member opposite was minister, she bought two cases of wine." That sort of thing?


Nor hardly surprising from a politician who likes to talk about the amount of energy he spends on people who criticize his regime.

Or one who likes to call reporters to bitch about their columns and articles.  Like in this case where Williams called a reporter involved in the purple files controversy to complain that the reporter had appealed the case to the province's information commissioner.

Or a guy who calls ordinary citizens about their letters to the editor.

Politically, Danny Williams is in yet another hard spot on the subject of transparency and accountability, let alone free speech.

He likes to pat himself on the back for his supposed commitment to the virtues of open government, but whenever push comes to shove, his first response is to shove back hard and slam the doors shut on disclosure.

In this case, Williams' office has been caught both compiling personal files on reporters as interview preparation material.  Then his department has been caught denying the files exist, at least as far as the province's open records laws.  And let's be absolutely clear, under those laws, the contents of those files - irrespective of the colour of the folder - is accessible.

Now Williams' himself has compounded the problem by insisting on hiding the files he himself acknowledges exist based not on anything other than his own self-righteous indignation.

He will surely understand that a great many people are highly suspicious of his actions.

This is just the latest in a long string of secrecy issues for the Williams administration:

  • A couple of weeks ago, the Telegram revealed the extent to which the premier's department - Executive Council - controls what is released to the public under the open records laws.
  • Before that, we had the spectacle of the Premier making up excuses to keep the auditor general from reviewing files on a controversial business deal between the government and company's run or managed by his former business partners.  He subsequently relented, using the same discretionary power that many pointed out from the beginning that he held.
  • Then there was a health facilities report, which the government sat on for three years until the health minister accidentally revealed confirmed it existed.
  • And let's not forget the changes to the provincially- owned energy corporation's legislation that, in effect, shield the entire company from public scrutiny and limit the auditor general's ability to review the company's finances. Incidentally, that energy company unveiled its value statement this week alongside its grossly overpriced logo:  Accountability - Holding ourselves responsible for our actions and performance.  Yes, if you take the plain English meaning of those words, a public owned company will be accountable to nothing but itself.
  • Then there are changes this week to the province's public records management laws.  Under the old approach public records were managed by a committee of public servants. There were only public records and that included cabinet ones. Under the new approach, the government is creating a special category of files called cabinet records that it alone defines and controls. Watch out for an up-tick in shredder activity.

In this case, as in all the other cases, including the numerous reports the administration sits on in spite of the pledge to release them within 30 days of being received, the Premier and his staff deliberately fight any attempt at disclosure.  They kick and scream when - if things are really as innocuous as they claim - the simplest thing to do would be to release the documents.

Russell Wangersky makes an eminently sensible point in that respect.

But when a politician and his staff try to conceal things - as they obviously are - and when other public servants make false statements - there are responsive records in this case - you have to wonder what they are trying to hide.

You don't have to wonder why they try to hide things:  the administration has demonstrated repeatedly it does not believe in openness, transparency and accountability. 

If it did, people within it - including the Premier himself - wouldn't spend so much time trying to hide things from the public.