At first, a top Environment Canada official seemed game to discuss “unmuzzling” government scientists during an international science conference earlier this year.
“I would be very interested in participating,” Karen Dodds, an assistant deputy minister, said by email to colleagues when she received an invitation to sit on a panel aimed at opening the lines of communications between the news media and federal scientists.
Instead, she sat in the audience as a spectator during the session at the Vancouver conference, and was informed she should refer questions about the government’s strict communication policy to Ottawa, where a government “tactics” committee was working on a response, according to documents obtained by Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act.
The response – that Environment Canada is “exemplary” at responding to media inquiries – was eventually released as a letter to the editor signed by Paul Boothe, then the deputy minister of environment, after it was edited and pre-approved by Environment Minister Peter Kent’s office and the Privy Council Office. The Privy Council Office, or PCO, reports to the prime minister.
The federal government is so involved in supervising messaging that even officials defending its communications policy use lines “preapproved” by their political masters, the documents show.
They show both Dodds and David Grimes, another assistant deputy minister at Environment Canada, were supplied with “media lines” okayed by Kent’s office when they headed to Vancouver in February 2012 for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was attended by thousands of delegates from around the world.
A panel discussion at the conference dealt with “unmuzzling” and improving access to Canada’s federal scientists, who currently require permission from the government to discuss their work with the news media. (Postmedia News reporter Margaret Munro made a presentation to the panel discussion.)
Dodds and Grimes had the “latest MinO (minister’s office) approved” lines with them in Vancouver, say the documents.
But as the conference began, the Privy Council Office in Ottawa decided it would be “taking the lead” in responding to the concerns, and did so in a letter to be signed by Boothe.
The documents, which are heavily redacted, say the letter was drafted by Environment Canada’s media office using content “preapproved up to PCO.” It was edited by Boothe and several officials, then revised by both Kent’s office and the Privy Council Office before it was released to the Ottawa Citizen, Le Devoir, CBC’s The National and several other media outlets.
“The text in green is what the MO (minister’s office) added,” Mark Johnson, in Environment Canada’s media relations office, noted to colleagues in a Feb. 17 email marked “for urgent approval – letter to the editor.”
The OK from the Privy Council Office came three days later with Johnson noting in a Feb. 20 email that “the letter has been approved by PCO, slightly modified. Changes indicated below.”
The five-paragraph letter, which took four days to draft and approve, said Environment Canada disseminates information about environmental science in “an open and timely way.”
Canada’s federal scientists used to be encouraged to openly discuss their work with both the media and public. That changed under the Harper government, which the newly released documents indicate controls access to scientists and pre-approves their responses. They show Kent’s office prevented one scientist from speaking to the reporters about a study on the unprecedented Arctic ozone hole in 2011. Other federal scientists have been prevented from talking about prehistoric floods and salmon diseases.
Kent, a former broadcaster, has defended the government’s approach, saying “communications management is a widely respected and essential tool of any large organization.”
The editors of the British journal Nature, one of the world’s top science journals, earlier this year called the government’s media policies a “Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.”
The government was not willing to publicly discuss its policy at the Vancouver conference in February.
Dodds was one of several federal officials invited to sit on the panel about “unmuzzling.”
The documents indicate Dodds was initially keen. “I would be very interested in participating,” she said in a Jan. 18 email to Brian Gray, assistant deputy minister at Natural Resources Canada, who was also asked to participate. But both declined as did other federal officials.
Dodds still went to the session as a spectator. “I’m waiting for the session on unmuzzling scientists to start,” Dodds emailed four colleagues in Ottawa, suggesting they might want to watch the session that was webcast and had attracted international attention.
Dodds did not respond to a request for comment but Mark Johnson in Environment Canada’s media office says she did not participate in the panel because “the premise of this panel discussion was inappropriate.”
“Our record is clear,” Johnson said by email. “Environment Canada scientists speak to journalists every single day.”
The documents say almost half the media calls to Environment Canada relate to the weather, which meteorologists are allowed to discuss without preapproval.
Boothe’s “approved” letter says “in 2011, Environment Canada received more than 3,100 media calls, with our officials completing over 1,200 media interviews, as well as responding in writing to media questions.”
Asked for the list of the 1,200 interviews, Johnson said “no such list exists.”
“While numbers of interviews are tracked, a complete list of interviewers and interviewees is not available.”
- Environment minister’s office kept scientist from speaking, documents reveal (vancouversun.com)