Gaining Access to the
Westray Inquiry Transcript

What does it mean for a document to be "public",
if the cost is so high that nobody can afford it?

Everything but the Text:
Gaining Access to the Westray Inquiry

What Does it Mean for a Document to be "Public",
if the Cost is So High That Nobody Can Afford It?

By Michelle Walters

This article appeared in NovaNewsNet
School of Journalism, University of Kings College
Halifax, Tuesday, 29 October 1996

This was found on the Internet, at
In 1992 the Westray Inquiry made a deal with Verbatim Inc., which had won a tender to provide transcripts for the inquiry. Under the agreement, Verbatim provided copies of the transcript to the families involved in the inquiry as well as the media. Other copies went to public offices in Stellarton, Pictou County, and Halifax. Verbatim owns copyright and right of sale of the transcript. Margaret Graham, president of Verbatim says if an individual wants to buy a copy, she or he must pay 15 cents a page for the inquiry and 25 cents a page for the trial.

So while the Westray transcripts are accessible, the real question is whether they are actually attainable.

Brian Hebert, an attorney for families of the Westray victims, agrees that the cost is prohibitive. He also thinks the commission should buy the copyright of the transcripts back from Verbatim and make them more accessible to the public by making them more affordable. Hebert says the current situation "seems to be hampering rather than fostering access to these documents."

Hebert and Smith do not suggest that Verbatim is to blame for the high price. Both men agree Verbatim has been as helpful and generous as possible under the circumstances. Indeed, Verbatim says it will donate another copy of the transcripts to the public library in Stellerton once the inquiry is completed.

Smith believes that the best way to make the document truly available to the public is to post it on the Internet. But because Verbatim owns the copyright, he has no legal authority or right, to do it himself.

But Dean Jobb, author of Calculated Risk, a book about the Westray disaster, doesn't believe this is a cut and dried problem of public access.

The transcripts cost money, he notes. It cost Verbatim a lot of money to produce them. If the commission had produced the transcripts, it would have cost taxpayers more money. Cost is a reality; somebody has to pay.

"We confuse access with dollars," says Jobb. "Freedom of information — the freedom part does not mean that it is free of cost; access doesn't mean right of access in any form. If I go to the library and photocopy something, I still have to pay," he adds. "There is no free lunch in the information age."

CPAC, the parliamentary channel, televised both the trials and the inquiry. Newspapers covered them. People could go to the trials and record them themselves. They were broadly accessible, but only for a limited time. Smith argues that the technology of the Internet ought to be used to make the documents accessible to millions of people whenever they want to read them.

"I was hoping that the Supreme Court's example of posting documents on the Internet would carry weight with the Westray Inquiry Commission," says Smith. "That it would persuade the commission to take similar steps and make the inquiry transcript available on the Internet."

Thus far, however, he says nothing has been done.

"Frankly my dear," says Smith, "they don't give a damn."

NOVANEWSNET is written and produced weekdays,
excluding holidays, during the academic term
by students at the University of King's College School of Journalism
in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

[ICS (webmaster) — Here is some additional information, relevant to the above:

¶ The Inquiry transcript has 16,816 pages, and one copy is priced at 15¢ per page, plus 15% HST (Harmonized Sales Tax). Thus, one — just one — complete copy of the Inquiry transcript costs $2900.76.

¶ The Trial transcript has 6,719 pages, and one copy is priced at 25¢ per page, plus 15%. Thus, one complete copy of the Trial transcript costs $1931.71.

¶ One copy of the two transcripts is available to anyone who is willing and able to pay $4832.47. I have been told that all I have to do is go to the nearest public library, and read the library copy. The difficulty with this is, no public library I know of has been willing to allocate $4832.47 from its meagre budget to buy a copy of these documents.

¶ Keep in mind that, even after you have bought a copy, you are legally prohibited from making a copy, even of a single page, for any purpose.

¶ These are so-called "public documents." Everyone says these are public documents. But they are available only to those people who are willing and able to pay these prices. So much for the Nova Scotia Government's understanding of what a "public document" is, or should be.

Go To:   Westray Scrapbook Fifty clippings about the Westray coal mine disaster
Go to:   Main Westray Coal Mine Disaster page
Go to:   Westray Public Inquiry online transcript of testimony
Go to:   Home Page

Counter started 13 July 2000
Counter reset to zero by hosting service on 10 May 2002

First uploaded to the WWW:   1998 January 11