Writing about science a bureaucratic nightmare due to Harper media relations policies, journalist says
Margaret Munro, a senior writer for Postmedia news, has been a passionate science writer for over 25 years. From her office in Vancouver, she has written stories about Canada's innovative and world-renowned scientific research.
She has been to the Arctic to report on global warming, to Cape Canaveral for space launches and into laboratories where researchers dream of growing human body parts and creating paint-on solar cells. An award-winning journalist, Munro is intrigued with the way science, society and politics intersect.
But since Environment Canada quietly introduced a new media relations policy four years ago, writing about science has become a bureaucratic nightmare.
The policy has drastically changed how journalists communicate with federal government scientists, Munro told the Vancouver Observer in a recent interview.
“All of a sudden, when you phoned an Environment Canada scientist they’d either not call you back, or they’d say: ‘I can’t talk to you now, you have to go through Ottawa. We’ve had a change of policy,’” Munro said.
Called the New Media Protocol, Environment Canada stipulates that because it is "one department," it will have "one website” and “one voice,” according to access-to-information documents Munro attained from the department.
“Invariably, you’d end up in the hands of media handlers in Ottawa who would phone you back, or send you an email. They’d say: ‘Ok, what’s the story? Submit your questions.’ They’d want your questions in writing,” Munro said. “They’d get back to you and often give you approved lines, or scripted lines, that you could use.”
What the policy means for journalists
The protocol for contacting government scientists about research was once very open. Journalists could call a scientist and within hours interview them about recently peer-reviewed research. And scientists felt free to discuss and voice opinion on controversial subjects such as climate change.
But now media relations at government headquarters in Ottawa coordinate the media's calls to the department. Like something out of a dystopian George Orwell novel, scientists must respond with scripted and approved "media lines."
Calls to Environment Canada, for example, are received by staff who inform the direct supervisor, who contact media relations. Media relations then work with individual staff to decide how to respond to the call and then respond to the journalist with the approved lines.
“So basically, now we’ve got the PR people telling the scientists, working with the scientists,” Munro said. “They seemed to have jumped ahead of the scientists in who’s making the decisions.”
Environment Canada explains "one department, one voice"
In an inquiry to Environment Canada about the reasons for the new PR policy, the department addressed the topic in a similar fashion to how it would when a reporter calls for an interview with a scientist.
The department staff member asked for the questions to be written out. She then said the response would likely be returned in a day or two. A person-to-person interview was not granted.
Two days later, a response to the inquiry returned in an email. But the questions answered were not those asked by the journalist. Instead, the email listed four different questions about the topic and included five short paragraphs as answers.
The answers focused on explaining the policy and how it works, not why the extra control is now necessary, which was the journalist's intent.
"The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada holds that we provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective, and complete information about the government's policies, programs and services. As members of Canada's public service, and employees of the Government of Canada, Environment Canada scientists are subject to this policy," the response said.
But journalists and bureaucrats obviously have different ideas of what is "timely," Munro said.
"The Canadian government's idea of a 'timely' response seems to be very different from the media's and many other people's idea of timeliness," Munro said later in an email.
"While university and U.S. researchers are usually quick to respond to media calls, phoning and emailing back within minutes, or hours to do interviews. It can take days for government agencies to decide whether a researcher will even be allowed to give an interview."
The department's email response also mentioned that because government scientists are public servants, who are non-partisan and professional, they can't comment or express opinion on government policy, which it says is a "fundamental tenet of our public service."
Munro cited an early 2007 article in the Times Colonist that quoted Ken Denman, a federal scientist, who "felt free to gives his own personal opinion that we have to act now to reduce greenhouse gas admissions," she had told an international audience at an American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Vancouver in February.
Now, in light of the cutbacks at government agencies, especially at Environment Canada, scientists are even more afraid to speak their mind, Munro had said.
Mystery of the muzzled scientists
Green Partly Leader Elizabeth May documents the Environment Canada policy changes back to when John Baird, now minister of Foreign Affairs, was Minister of Environment.
In her blog post titled, "Mystery of the Muzzled Scientists," May wrote about the first time she heard of the Conservative government's new media strategy.
"I remember it well, as friends in the department told me the weather service folks in Toronto didn't know what to do about an approaching blizzard. Were they allowed to use the storm warning system, or did they need Baird's permission?"
Government scientist Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics for Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Nanaimo, was issued a gag order in 2011 after her research on the possible causes of dwindling sockeye salmon numbers was published in the prestigious international journal, Science.
The journal sent out a note to 7,400 reporters worldwide, but DFO did not grant a single interview because of the government ban.
Documents attained by Munro revealed that the highest levels of the Fisheries approved interviews. But when the request reached the Privy Council Office, which gives advice to the Prime Minister's Office, it was denied.
The PMO had stopped Miller from talking about what was considered one of the most important discoveries to come out of a federal fisheries lab in years.
In a recent case in April 2012, the Ottawa Citizen's Tom Spears asked the National Research Council a question about the joint study on snow it was conducting with NASA.
The federal government didn't grant an interview. Instead, it sent an email with technical details on equipment, but very little information on what the study was about.
An access-to-information document revealed that it took 11 staffers to decide how to answer the newspaper's request, discuss its motivation, develop a response and script its text, the article said.
NASA, however, took every phone call and answered questions, which took 15 minutes.
Government's obsessive media control
The policy change fits with the Harper government's tendency to micromanage government media relations, according to its critics.
In fact, the prime minister is not accommodating to the media in Canada at all. In 2006, he stopped giving news conferences to national reporters because some walked out of an event after he refused to answer their questions.
What likely triggered the journalists' unscheduled departure was a protest against the announcement that questions would no longer be allowed during photo ops with the prime minister in his office.
Furthermore, at news conferences, Harper's staff would pick who and when asks questions based on an assigned list of reporter's names.
A war against science. A war against the environment.
Last week, scientists marched through Ottawa in the thousands to protest widespread changes resulting from Harper government policy, and in particular, the government's ideology.
One of the policy changes occurred in May when the government said it had cancelled funding for the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario. For decades, the lakes project produced groundbreaking research on how pollutants like acid rain and phosphates affect lakes.
These examples, including muzzling government scientists, have scientists saying the government promotes an ideology of economic development that completely disregards decades of environmental research and preservation.
For years, the Canadian science community has, through internationally recognized research, revealed the dangers of pinning economic development on resource extraction, said Miriam Diamond, an environmental scientist at the University of Toronto.
But the government seems to have thrown out that warning with its "particular ideology of resource extraction without environmental protections," she said.