Wanderings – One question, one follow-up

The phrase “One question, one follow-up” has been oft-used during the pandemic. It has been heard by many journalists since the COVID-19 pandemic began and signifies a further erosion of access to government officials.

Reporting the news during a pandemic has been a challenge to say the least. I’ve worked in the journalism field at various outlets for the past 25 years, and I have never seen an event radically affect society so much, so quickly.

The real risk to journalism has not been reporters working from home in makeshift newsrooms or dealing with the technology of FaceZoomSkypeTeams chats. It is the loss of access to officials at every level of government. Physical distancing guidelines and public building access restrictions limit our ability to ask questions and find answers. In many ways, government response to COVID-19 has become a shield of protection.

Look no further than Premier Doug Ford’s daily press conferences. There’s an announcement, several people talk, then the reporters via telephone get to ask “one question, one follow-up.” If the responder evades the question and follow-up, that’s it! No more chances that day to push that official for an answer.

A reporter can chase the story by phone, or by email. But there is little impetus for a ministerial handler to get back to you. Freedom of Information inquiries? Fuhgeddaboudit! Inquiries to quasi-government agencies? Look for the nearest brick wall and direct your forehead that way! The tight-fisted reins of government bureaucracy get to dictate what you are allowed to know.

Municipal council meetings have been dragged into the 21st Century with video streaming. It makes sense that South Dundas has a top-notch video system since a world-leader in the field manufactures their products here. Other councils have had varying degrees of success in streaming meetings online but with some challenges.

Last week’s SDG Counties Council meeting was streamed online, only elected councillors and staff were in-person. At the end of the three hour meeting, which viewers were able to hear and see everything that went on, “technical difficulties” plagued part of the Warden election. Viewers could see, but not hear what was going on. We guessed by the video that the first round of voting was tied, and a second vote was to occur.

Voting for the top position in the County, which comes with significant responsibility and a sizable pay increase, shouldn’t have any doubt cast over it because part of the election process could not be properly monitored by the press and public.

The audio was turned on for the thrilling event of picking names from a hat to break the second tie vote. How democratic that was!

What this all boils down to is that in a pandemic there is less access – physically or virtually – than pre-pandemic. Whether it’s a municipal council meeting, a provincial leader, or a federal cabinet minister, there is less access. Less access means there is a higher chance for abuse of power or position. It is more likely that a change may happen to a law, regulation, or bylaw, that impacts your life, and you won’t know until it is already passed.

Unless there is push-back – from journalists and citizens – these losses won’t be just for the duration of the pandemic, it will be permanent.

Once the right of access is lost, it is very difficult to get back.

Originally published in the October 28th edition of The Morrisburg Leader.