Democracy dimming in darkness
By Jim Poling Sr.
Here’s a follow-up-up to last week’s column about how angry, autocratic politicians are working to turn voters against journalists.
Journalists ask questions about questionable government affairs. They dig out facts and write stories that autocratic politicians don’t like because they are neither flattering, nor favourable.
So the autocrats call the journalists names, such as losers and enemies of the people, and urge voters to turn on them. That thinking seeps down into the government’s agencies and their bureaucrats, important sources of information about a government’s work.When its employees follow the government’s lead, journalists are cut off from the help they need to produce the stories that the public wants and needs.
The Ontario government provided an example of this with its non-helpful approach to journalists trying to cover the story of two teenage girls missing in Algonquin Park.
I was involved in that story, having been asked by some southern Ontario newspapers to drive to Algonquin Park to assist with the reporting.
I arrived at Smoke Lake air base on Highway 60 and saw the parking area jammed with police, paramedic and volunteer searchers’ vehicles. I went through the open gate and into the aircraft hangar where three OPP officers sat at a table.
I asked them if this was the search command centre and whether the news media would be allowed here. One officer, a polite and respectful young guy (he even called me sir!), said he did not know but he would ask his sargeant on my behalf.
As he left, I was grabbed by the arm and yanked around. I found myself looking at a belligerent Algonquin Park ranger who demanded: “Do you not know how to read?”
That I learned later was a presumed reference to a No Unauthorized Persons sign out by the open gate.
My first thought was to say: “Yes, I can read: enough to have written and published 10 books despite being blind in one eye. Now get your paws off and let me finish my business with the OPP.”
But experienced reporters understand that their job is to stay focused on the story, not to fight with people in authority. Their editors have lawyers to do that.
As I was being escorted off the property an OPP officer ran up and told me that reporters would not be permitted at the search command area but could get information about the search through the OPP media office in Smith Falls. I thanked him for his help, while resisting the temptation to ask him if he would mind giving human relations lessons to Ranger Bob.
The result was that myself, and a few other media types who arrived later, stood on the Highway 60 shoulder hoping to pick up bits and pieces of what was happening with the search. That created a dangerous situation in which the media people, and passing motorists, could have been hurt.
One reporter, trying to read her cellphone screen in the bright sunlight, backed into the traffic lane. If a couple of others had not shouted at her, she could have been hit by a passing car.
The authorities at Smoke Lake were just doing their jobs, although the park ranger could use training on how to do it without the storm trooper tactics.
Their bosses, the autocrats at Queen’s Park, were not doing theirs. If there had been an accident out on the highway, the blame would have rested solely with them.
This is a government that despises the media, in fact is afraid of it, and will do whatever it can to stop journalists from doing their jobs.
Professionally-run governments know how to handle these situations. A professional government operation would have had an information officer at Smoke Lake; someone to organize journalists into a safe area where they could view comings and goings without bothering search teams.
That’s how it works in a democratic world.
But angry autocrats know nothing better than shouting slogans about journalists being “the enemy of the people” and scumbags working “in the weeds.”
The Washington Post masthead warns that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
I see our democracy dimming every day, and it has nothing to do with advancing age, or having one blind eye.