The Right to Know

It is the mantra of media: “The right to know.” The hymn every reporter and editor sing when probing questions are being asked; when “confidential” government reports are being pried loose, begged, borrowed or glowingly welcomed in plain brown paper envelopes.

“The right to know,” sometimes sung with religious fervour, sometimes bayed like hounds on the hunt for a politician wounded by allegations of scandal and ripe to be brought down and savaged.

Pure in the search for truth and justice, “the right to know” is battle cry, shield and protector against all who would brand editorial writers and reporters slavering jackals and enemies of “the people” and columnists like yours truly as “they who come down from the hills after the battle is over and bayonet the wounded.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in August 2003, I wrote a column on the findings of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) meeting in February in Perth, Australia, to discuss Parliament and the Media, with “the right to know” a high priority. Its findings – Recommendations for an Informed Democracy – were surprisingly free of harsh criticism of the media, and courteously understanding of the role of the press in a free society.

Far more, understanding, I suggested, than we in the press were of the politicians we bayonet.

There was a clear recognition by the politicians that a public figure automatically sacrifices much of the private life the rest of us cherish. The study declared: “The public’s right to know must be balanced against the individual’s right to privacy – which must sometimes be sacrificed by public figures to the extent that their private lives impinge on their public roles. The responsible determination of the balance between the public’s legitimate right to know and public curiosity is a matter for the media initially (then) for the public itself, and if necessary, ultimately for the independent judiciary.”

Clearly, politicians recognize their loss of privacy; equally clearly, they place a heavy responsibility on the press to differentiate between “the public’s legitimate right to know” and prurient “public curiosity” which all too often dominates coverage of events involving political personalities. To both sides, the CPA study group sent the reminder that there should always be an “independent judiciary” from which to seek a ruling.

The government of British Columbia has just moved into that judicial zone with a request to a retired but “independent judiciary” to sort out accusations and denials in what might be titled the Speaker Plecas affair which led to the suspension of Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

The CPA study findings and recommendations were forwarded to all Commonwealth members with the aforementioned decision in BC being an indication that the CPA recommendations registered here.

The Commonwealth parliamentarians pushed beyond the “right to know” and “public curiosity” into the much harder-to-decide issues when “the public interest” clashes with “the national interest.” The SNC-Lavalin issue springs to mind as the fixed photo-op smile on PM Justin Trudeau fades to sunset frown.

The CPA solution, now 16 years old but still worth listening to: “When ‘the public interest’ is claimed by government to be in conflict with the demand for secrecy in ‘the national interest’, the determination of what constitutes ‘the national interest” and when it should take precedence over the ‘public interest’ should be assigned by law to the courts.” If adopted, that recommendation would strip governments of the all too often used safety blanket of political expediency – the blanket the PMO now appears to be reaching for.

A few other thoughts from the CPA under the heading Freedom of Expression: “The media’s right to criticize and express opinion, as well as to report, must be guaranteed and no legislation should be passed which impinges on that right.”

The study recommends serious due diligence and considerations by all politicians for media rights before launching libel lawsuits but acknowledges that sometimes such suits may be justified. But, if they are, and if the courts rule libel and/or defamation have been proven, the CPA study urges the courts to be careful when assessing damages because “excessive or disproportionate levels of damages in legal actions have a chilling effect on free speech and should be discouraged” – for which all media workers say “thank you, we’ll try to be kinder.”

And, should we – writer or politician – ever have to apologize, may our regrets be as skillful as those offered by Irish politician R.B. Sheridan who said, when asked to say he was sorry for calling a fellow MP a liar: “Mr. Speaker. I said the honourable member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The honourable member may place the punctuation where he pleases.”

One comment

  1. So many issues! I’ll comment on two. The right to know or the public interest must in a democracy be paramount and if the national interest is to be invoked the onus must be on government to justify it in a court of law and in the court of public opinion. Otherwise we divide the government and the people into them and us, a separation that is contradictory to democracy.

    As for politicians’ right to privacy and prurient “public curiosity” we’ve come full circle in my lifetime. Kennedy had mistresses and the press didn’t bat an eye. Clinton had mistresses and the press and the Republicans thought it was a big deal. Trump has mistresses and everyone seems to have gone back to sleep. Prurience is simply a fashion of the times.

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