As It Happens

Dean Beeby trusts new generation of journalists will fix 'dysfunctional' access to information laws

As the parliamentary press corps says goodbye to a master of access to information request, Dean Beeby informs us on how a little bit of legislation has been used to crack some this country's biggest stories.

CBC's master of the Access to Information and Privacy request is retiring

Dean Beeby says the next generation of journalists will fight to make Canada's access to information laws better. (CBC News)

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It's great news for the power-brokers in Ottawa — especially the ones with secrets they'd sooner keep. 

CBC News journalist Dean Beeby retired Thursday as a reporter for the parliamentary bureau.

Beeby is one of the masters of Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests, and throughout his career he used them to wring story after story out of reluctant governments. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Beeby about how he became such an expert at using the legislation and the challenges ahead for the generations of journalists who are keen to follow in his footsteps.

Here is part of their conversation.

Dean, what are we going to do without you?

There's a whole generation of journalists who know exactly what to do and I'm sure they'll do an even better job than I ever did.

I saw some journalists who were mentioning that they just have to look at you and think they should run away and file an ATIP request for something.

Yeah, well people look at me and run away. But that's a good reason to run away. If they're going to go away and file an access request, then I feel I've done my mentoring and teaching and encouraging. 

I think there is a new generation that's caught the bug and is not going to let the government off the hook.

Beeby retired Thursday as a reporter for the CBC News parliamentary bureau. (Catharine Tunney/CBC)

How did you first get into this racket of using access to information?

The [Access to Information Act] came into effect in 1983 and shortly after that a friend of mine and I decided we're going to try and write a book — a book about a spy case involving a Canadian ambassador in Moscow.

We were two young people. We didn't have any connections. We didn't have any sources. We were just sort of brand new to writing and researching.

And so we filed some access to information requests to get the inside spy files on this case.

And lo and behold, we actually got them. I mean, this was sort of the golden age of access to information. We actually got useful material and we were able to produce a book out of it — a book that had all sorts of fresh information.

It was like a drug. I was hooked. It kind of opened my eyes to the power of this legislation — that even a grunt like myself was able to get a pipeline into CSIS at the time to understand and eventually write a book about this case.

Beeby says 'it was like a drug' when he first used Access to Information Act to work on a story. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

So that was the golden age of transparency in government. How long did it last?

Well, just to be clear, at the time, we didn't think it was so golden because there were still a lot of obstacles. But in fact, what happened is the system has got worse and worse over the years.

Back then, bureaucrats were uncertain about what would happen to them if they didn't apply the law to release more information and a lot of court cases and a lot of experience taught them that, actually, there are no consequences — or very few consequences.

So they got better and better at finding the loopholes in the act and using them. Until today, where really the deck is tilted against the user, against journalists and the public and anybody else who wants to use it, in favour of the bureaucrats.

We have a really dysfunctional system that needs to be fixed. So, we're in the age of lead.

Didn't the Liberals say they are going to fix it?

They said in the 2015 campaign they were going to do five or six fixes to the act. They haven't delivered any of them.

In fact, they delivered a bill, which is still going through the Senate, which is going to make things worse — in the opinion of myself and many others. 

It's sort of ironic because the Liberals have fretted about the decline of the news business and they've talked about how can we restore the ability of journalists to do their investigative work.

Well, here's one thing they could do. And they're just washing their hands of it. They're just giving us sort of a very tepid response to a very serious problem.

The public has a right to see what governments are up to and this act was supposed to be a conduit. And, in fact, it's an obstacle now. 

You broke, I suspect, your last story, a very good story about Revenue Canada, this week. What was that?

I got a document that referred to all of the write-offs that the Canada Revenue Agency had approved. This is write-off of tax money that was owed by various taxpayers.

It was heavily blacked out, let me tell you, so it was really, you know, a job of deciphering. But miraculously left unblacked out was the reference to a single taxpayer who had gotten a $133-million write-off.

I don't think we would have known that without the act. The act is imperfect and frustrating. But I think there are glimmers of the information that's lying behind that barrier and here's a good example of one of them.

You said you're hopeful for the next generation of young journalists who are hungry and eager to bring down the governments, as they say, or to expose the government. But with what you're describing, the obstacles, how difficult is it going to be for them to do that work?

It's going to be really tough. It's going to be super tough. The thing I would say, though, is that that generation, unlike mine, expects information to be freely available.

They're the internet generation and I don't think they're going to put up with governments that insist on secrecy, that will not share information that is publicly owned. 

Written by Kevin Robertson and John McGill. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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