Ottawa’s media rules muzzling federal scientists, say observers

Rating: 
0

Margaret Munro – September 12, 2010

The Harper government has tightened the muzzle on federal scientists, going so far as to control when and what they can say about floods at the end of the last ice age.

Natural Resources Canada scientists were told this spring they need “pre-approval” from Minister Christian Paradis’ office to speak with national and international journalists. Their “media lines” also need ministerial approval, say documents obtained by Postmedia News through access-to-information legislation.

The documents say the “new” rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply to not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

They also give a glimpse of how Canadians are being cut off from scientists whose work is financed by taxpayers, critics say, and is often of significant public interest — be it about fish stocks, genetically modified crops or mercury pollution in the Athabasca River.

“It’s Orwellian,” says Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at University of Victoria. The public, he says, has a right to know what federal scientists are discovering and learning.

Scientists at NRCan, many of them world experts, study everything from seabeds to melting glaciers. They have long been able to discuss their research, until the rules changed this spring.

“We have new media interview procedures that require pre-approval of certain types of interview requests by the minister’s office,” wrote Judy Samoil, NRCan’s western regional communications manager, in a March 24 email to colleagues.

The policy applies to “high-profile” issues such as “climate change, oilsands” and when “the reporter is with an international or national media organization (such as the CBC or the Canwest paper chain),” she wrote.

The Canwest papers are now part of Postmedia Network Inc.

Samoil later elaborated, saying “the regional communications managers were advised of this change a couple of weeks ago.”

The documents show the new rules being so broadly applied that one scientist was not permitted to discuss a study in a major research journal without “pre-approval” from political staff in Paradis’ office.

NRCan scientist Scott Dallimore co-authored the study, published in the journal Nature on April 1, about a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago, when massive ice dams gave way at the end of the last ice age.

The study was considered so newsworthy that two British universities issued releases to alert the international media.

It was, however, deemed so sensitive in Ottawa that Dallimore, who works at NRCan’s laboratories outside Victoria, was told he had to wait for clearance from the minister’s office.

Dallimore tried to tell the department’s communications managers the flood study was anything but politically sensitive. “This is a blue sky science paper,” he said in one email, noting: “There are no anticipated links to minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change.”

But the bureaucrats in Ottawa insisted. “We will have to get the minister’s office approval before going ahead with this interview,” Patti Robson, the department’s media relations manager, wrote in an email after a reporter from Postmedia News (then Canwest News Service) approached Dallimore.

Robson asked Dallimore to provide the reporter’s questions and “the proposed responses,” saying: “We will send it up to MO (minister’s office) for approval.” Robson said interviews about the flood study needed ministerial approval for two reasons: the inquiring reporter represented a “national news outlet” and the “subject has wide-ranging implications.”

Emails flew at NRCan as word of ministerial “pre-approval” rules spread.

“Gosh this is news to me . . . shouldn’t we have something explaining all this by an email from the upper ups,” Dallimore wrote in one message. His work on gas hydrates and permafrost in the Arctic has attracted national and international attention, and until this spring Dallimore had been free to discuss his research with reporters.

His boss was also baffled. “Can you direct us to the new media interview procedures?” wrote Carmel Lowe, director of the Geological Survey of Canada in NRCan Pacific region, on March 29 to Michael Buzzell, manager of NRCan’s ministerial communications branch in Ottawa.

Lowe said in a telephone interview that she never did receive clarification on the new procedures.

Robson has switched jobs and Micheline Joanisse is now acting media relations manager at NRCan. Joanisse says the “new media interview procedures” referred to in the documents fit with the government communications policy introduced in 2006.

“The minister is the primary spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada. As such, he needs to be made aware of issues in the media which involve the department so he can effectively fulfil his role,” Joanisse said in a prepared statement.

“Departmental officials speaking on behalf of the department are to consult the minister’s office in preparing responses,” Joanisse says. “While this may have been misinterpreted as being a new policy, it has been in place for years.”

The documents show several communications managers, policy advisers, political staff and senior officials were involved drafting and vetting “media lines” on the ancient flood study.

Dallimore finally got clearance to talk to reporters from Margaux Stastny, director of communication in Paradis’ office, on March 31, a week after NRCan communications branch was told the study was appearing in Nature, and two days after reporters began approaching Dallimore for interviews.

By the time Dallimore and the “media lines” got the OK, the reporters’ deadlines had passed and they had already completed their stories about the ancient flood. Canwest News Service, CBC, ABC, Reuters, and other organizations based their reports on interviews with co-authors of the study from other universities outside Canada that responded to interview requests promptly.

This effectively “muzzled” Dallimore by not allowing him to do timely interviews, says Weaver, at the University of Victoria, who says the incident shows how “ridiculous” the situation has got in Ottawa.

“If you can’t get access to a nice, feel-good science story about flooding at the end of last glaciation, can you imagine trying to get access to scientists with information about cadmium and mercury in the Athabasca River? Absolutely impossible,” says Weaver, in reference to growing controversy over contaminants downstream from Alberta’s oilsands.

Environment Canada and Health Canada now tightly control media access to researchers and orchestrate interviews that are approved. Environment Canada has even produced “media lines” for federal scientists to stick to when discussing climate studies they have co-authored with Weaver and are based on research paid for through his university grants.

“There is no question that there is an orchestrated campaign at the federal level to make sure that their scientists can’t communicate to the public about what they do,” says Weaver, adding that the crackdown is seriously undermining morale in federal labs. “Science is about generating new knowledge and communicating it to others.”

The control and micro-management points to a high level of “science illiteracy” in the upper ranks of the federal government, he says, and “incredible disrespect” for both the researchers and the taxpayers footing the government’s multi-billion-dollar science bill.

“The sad reality is that these guys in Ottawa think federal scientists work for them,” says Weaver. “They don’t, they work for the people of Canada.

“This is science funded by Canada for the public good,” he says. “It is not science funded to produce briefing notes for ministers so they can get elected in the next federal campaign.”

Original article on Canada.com website