By Margaret Munro Postmedia News, Sep 16 2010
Federal bureaucrats are going to extraordinary lengths to create a “zero-surprise environment” for the Harper government, according to documents obtained by Postmedia News.
Media requests that used to be handled by government experts and communication staff across Canada now require a small army in Ottawa to answer, say the documents obtained this week under the access-to-information law.
They show how it takes seven – and often more – “subject matter experts,” including media officers, senior bureaucrats and political staff, to craft and approve responses.
“MR (media relations) works with the respective regional communications manager, the spokesman and, if required, the sector communications manager, to develop the response which is then sent for appropriate approval by MR (media relations),” says a summary of the new “media relation process” at Natural Resources Canada that went into effect this spring.
“Required approvals can include, but are not limited to: appropriate sector director general, director general communications branch – PAPMS (public affairs and portfolio management sector), director of communications – minister’s office, PCO (Privy Council Office).”
The summary stresses in bold type that: “Approval from the minister’s director of communications must always be sought – no exceptions.”
It then goes on to conclude that “there are exceptions to every rule, but the one rule that holds true in every case is to ensure that there are NO SURPRISES.”
Shirley Pegler, Atlantic regional communication manager for Natural Resources, says in a June 18 email: “Richard Walker in the minister’s office wants to approve ALL media requests. He’s new to NRCan and wants to get a handle on everything.” Walker is director of communications for Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis.
In another message, Pegler highlights the dangers of reporters’ queries and told the Atlantic staff to contact media relations before responding to any questions. “What may appear to be a simple request for facts may actually relate to policy or high-profile issues,” she said, noting that a media “officer” in Ottawa is available “24/7.”
Stephen Locke, director of Natural Resources Canada’s Atlantic office, also reminded his staff in a June 28 email of the need to follow the media “process, ” noting “senior management at EES (Earth science sector) and NRCan want to operate in a `zero-surprise’ environment.”
Natural Resources scientists study everything from minerals to permafrost and have long been cleared to speak with reporters about their findings. “In the regions the practice generally was that staff could speak to reporters directly,” says one March 20 memo from the Western communication branch asking for clarification on the new rules requiring pre-approval of interviews by the minister’s office.
In one case in March, a senior Natural Resources Canada scientist had to wait a week for “pre-clearance” from political staff in Paradis’ office to speak about a study on a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13, 000 years ago.
Critics and editorial writers are calling on the Harper government to stop muzzling scientists, whose work is often of significant public interest – be it about the last ice age, mercury pollution in the Athabasca River, or fish stocks.
“It’s Orwellian,” Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria, says of the way the government is controlling and scripting what scientists are allowed to say. The public, he says, has a right to know what federal scientists are discovering and learning.
He says the micromanagement shows “incredible disrespect” for both scientists and the taxpayers footing the government’s multibillion-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.”
Micheline Joanisse, acting manager of Natural Resources Canada media relations, said in a recent email exchange with Postmedia News that the department’s media policy has not changed. But the documents show her telling colleagues the rules changed in the spring.
“The department’s media relations process now has us (MRU – the media relations unit) taking a more active role in the process,” Joanisse writes in an April 27 email.
“Essentially the biggest change is that we act as the go-between,” Joanisse says.
“We obtain the questions and ask sector reps to put together a response,” she says. “We then take these responses to MINO (the minister’s office) for approval.”