Government scientists put in spin cycle

Apr 23 2012

By Margaret Munro  Postmedia News

Government media minders are being dispatched to an international polar conference in Montreal to monitor and record what Environment Canada scientists say to reporters.

The scientists will present the latest findings on everything from seabirds to Arctic ice, and Environment Canada’s media office plans to intervene when the media approaches the researchers, Postmedia News has learned.

Media instructions, which are being described as a heavy-handed attempt to muzzle and intimidate scientists, have been sent to Environment Canada researchers attending the International Polar Year conference that started on Sunday and runs all week.

“If you are approached by the media, ask them for their business card and tell them that you will get back to them with a time for (an) interview,” the Environment Canada scientists were told by email late last week.

“Send a message to your media-relations contact and they will organize the interview. They will most probably be with you during the interview to assist and record,” the email obtained by Postmedia News says.

The memo, signed by Kristina Fickes, an Environment Canada senior communications adviser, goes on to say that recordings of interviews are to be forwarded to the department’s media-relations headquarters in Ottawa.

Mark Johnson, an Environment Canada spokesman, says there is nothing unusual about the plan, which he describes as “standard practice” and consistent with the government’s communication policy.

Others see it as the latest evidence of the warped culture of obsessive information control inside the Harper government.

“Until now such a crude heavy-handed approach to muzzle Canadian scientists, prior to a significant international Arctic science conference hosted by Canada, would have been unthinkable,” says a senior scientist, who has worked for Environment Canada for decades.

He asked not to be identified due to the possibility of repercussions from Ottawa.

“The memo is clearly designed to intimidate government scientists from Environment Canada,” he says. “Why they would do such an unethical thing, I can’t even begin to imagine, but it is enormously embarrassing to us in the international world of science.”

Climatologist Andrew Weaver, at the University of Victoria, agrees.

“It’s going from bad to worse,” says Weaver, a vocal critic of the way the federal government has been muzzling scientists in recent years. He describes the email instructions to the polar scientists as “unbelievable.”

He also says the instructions are also “absurd” since anyone – including a journalist – is allowed to ask questions after presentations at scientific conferences.

It is also common for the media to conduct impromptu interviews with speakers immediately following sessions to clarify details before filing stories .

Having media minders take charge of arranging interviews and sending recordings to Ottawa is reminiscent of the way the Soviets used to send KGB agents to conferences with scientists during the Cold War, Weaver says.

There is growing concern in many quarters about what is being viewed as the government’s information control.

Last week, the Ottawa Citizen reported how a reporter’s simple question about a Canada-U.S. study on snow generated a blizzard of paper at the National Research Council.

While a NASA scientist was free to pick up the phone and answer questions in a simple 15-minute interview, the NRC declined to let anyone speak with the reporter about the snow study.

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