In a campaign that warrants attention from Australian health services and bureaucracies, journalists in the US are demanding that the Food and Drug Administration become more open to genuine engagement with the media.

Eleven major journalism organisations have called for an end to requirements that journalists and FDA employees notify or obtain permission from an agency official in order to conduct an interview.

The Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Newspaper Association, the Radio Television Digital News Association and leading health journalists are among those who have signed a letter to the agency’s Transparency Task Force.

The journalists also object to public information officers listening in on interviews.

“These restrictions have become increasingly widespread in federal agencies and other organisations,” said Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Reporters are forced to make an application, usually through the public relations office, for each conversation, and often must wait days for permission to speak to a staff member, he said. Even then, they sometimes have their requests ignored or denied entirely.

Agencies also insist on tracking, controlling and monitoring interviews. “That practice chills communication and inhibits public servants from sharing information with reporters,” Ornstein said. “And it limits what the public is allowed to know about its government.”

In Australia, many health services and bureaucracies go a step further — insisting that journalists provide their questions in writing by email. It has become increasingly difficult to obtain direct access to health officials or those in the employ of publicly funded health services.

It was fashionable to blame the Howard government for tightening the screws on the information flow, but in my experience all jurisdictions, whatever their political flavour, have moved in this direction. If it’s a choice between acting as a bridge or a wall, then health public affairs departments generally go for the latter.

One contributing factor may have been the corporatisation of government operations. When politicians speak of Australia or jurisdictions as “brands” rather than societies — then perhaps it is not so surprising that government media units are more concerned with suppressing than informing debate.

In the long-term, however, suppression of debate will only damage the “brand” because ultimately it is bad for the “product”. Real progress and development only come through debate, even if it uncomfortable and confronting at times.

In his recent book on the role of departmental secretaries, former Federal Health Department secretary and Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger notes that one of the greatest changes in public administration during the past 30 years has been the increased importance, sophistication and sensitivity of communications management.

He said that senior public servants are now far less likely to speak directly to journalists, and that secretaries make fewer public speeches these days than in the past. “I think this is unfortunate, while agreeing firmly that care is needed not to betray the minister’s trust and accepting there is a risk of misrepresentation by the media in order to create controversy,” he wrote.

“Excessive political control can constrain the capacity of public servants to serve the public interest in making information available, publishing documents and giving speeches …  In my time, I saw too many secretaries spend too much time trying to please their ministers by exploiting exemptions under the FOI Act or not keeping records, rather than acting with genuine impartiality and in the public interest.”

But the problem lies not only with headline-sensitive politicians and politically conscious bureaucrats. Also to blame are the voracious appetite of the 24/7 media cycle and the “gotcha” mentality of much media coverage, focused more on political games than the complexities of policy.

And the NGO sector hardly sets a shining example. Many organisations and individuals who receive government funding or sit on advisory bodies are reluctant to speak their minds in public, often to the detriment of informed debate.

There has to be a better way, if we want real public engagement in and understanding of the complexities of health care and policy.

The FDA has its transparency taskforce. As COAG meets today to consider health reform, it’s easy for powerful vested interests to seize control of the public debate when most of the real discussions are taking place firmly behind closed doors.

It’s timely to wonder what could help push the health debate along in Australia? An investigation into the transparency of health services and bureaucracies, perhaps?

Maybe it would also help if we journalists were more transparent — declaring when our “interviews” have been via email Q and As, and documenting the other obstacles that are put in the way of the open flow of information. We need to start biting the hands that feed us.

Peter Fray

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