Media Interviews to be Pre-approved by the Minister

This is the latest in my “It boggles the mind” series. I’d like to give the federal Conservatives a break, I really would. There are other things to write about, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’ve got some insatiable bone to pick with these guys, from our Own Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MP Larry Miller to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa.

Last week the first in the series was about Larry jumping off the deep end in Colpoys Bay and making a big splash in the media about Aboriginal commercial fishing nets that weren’t there. Apparently he still thinks they were, maybe. But I’ve said my piece, no hard feelings, not as far as I’m concerned anyway. It’s all in a day’s work. I could run into Larry at a local Tim Hortons, sit down for a coffee, and reminisce about our days at Grey County Council, him as a member who never hesitated to speak his mind, me as an ink-stained media wretch trying to keep up. It would be “hail fellow and well met” all ‘round.

The same with Stephen, or can I call you Steve?

You could show up at my door here at Hope Ness and, just like you were anybody else, the welcome mat would be out. It would be, “pull up a chair on the front porch, Steve, and make yourself at home. How ‘bout a beer, or a nice cup of tea?” We’d talk about the unusually hot, wet weather this summer in these parts, though out of common courtesy I likely wouldn’t allude to global warming. That would be rude, knowing that’s a topic you hate to discuss, at least that’s what I hear. Nope, we’d steer clear of politics, breath in the fresh air, and enjoy the peaceful moment, just like a cup of regular guys.

Sure, Steve, I’ve called you a “control freak.” But that was in print. It’s like I told Larry, “it’s all in a day’s work.”

And sure, I’ve told people, virtually begged them, not to give you a majority in the next election because if you’re such a control freak with a minority government, what would you be with a majority. And, honest, I really don’t want to pick on you or Larry or Stockwell Day and your government every week, or so it must seem to many of my readers. But you keep asking for it.

I mean “it boggles the mind” the extent your government (And it is your government after all, Steve. Everyone knows who’s in charge) will go to control what you think the Canadian people should have a right to know.

The latest thing I’ve heard about – and only because a Vancouver Sun reporter made what was supposed to be a routine call to interview a Canadian government scientist about a study he had co-authored – takes it to a new, incredible extreme.

Scott Dallimore is a scientist who works for Natural Resources Canada. He co-authored, along with two British scientists, a study about massive flooding in northern Canada 13,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. As the ice caps melted and retreated, massive ice dams broke, creating huge, inland seas.

The study was published early this past spring in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. Two British universities thought it important enough to send out a media release. The release was picked up by an alert reporter at the Vancouver Sun. That prompted a call for an interview to Dallimore, who works at NRCan’s laboratories near Victoria. But Dallimore was told he would first have to get clearance from the office of the Minister in charge of the department, Christian Paradis.

Suddenly the reporter was on to another story, the extent to which the Harper government has now gone to muzzle scientists working at public expense for the Canadian people. The Vancouver Sun filed a Freedom of Information request and recently obtained documents that show just how far.

An article by Margaret Munro in the Sept. 12 edition of the newspaper quotes from copies of emails notifying NRCan staff in March of the “new” policy requiring interviews and even “media lines” to be pre-approved by the Minister if they involve requests from national or international media, and if they’re about sensitive issues.

The ice-age flooding study was deemed to be such an issue, for reasons that defy, well, reason. Dallimore tried to argue the flood study was anything but politically sensitive. For one thing it didn’t touch on climate change. But the bureaucrats in Ottawa insisted he had to have approval from the Minister’s office before going ahead with the interview.

“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,” the Vancouver Sun article noted.

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

So, there was a frenzy of bureaucratic activity for a couple of days in Ottawa, at public expense, to make sure Conservative-friendly spin was put on the ancient ice-age flooding story. When all that nonsense was said and done Dallimore got the go-ahead, and presumably the approved script to be interviewed. But by then the reporter’s deadline had passed and the story that was written was based on interviews with the uncensored British co-authors.

The Harper government needs to give its collective head a shake, starting right at the top in the PM’s office. They need to remind themselves who these people they’ve muzzled really work for, the Canadian people, not members of a government seeking to control the information spin to help themselves get re-elected, with, heaven help us, a majority.

Drop by the farm some time Steve. Take a seat on the porch, have a beer, or a nice cup of tea. Loosen up, you’ll feel better.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

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