By BJ Bjornson
There�s a conference under way in Montreal to celebrate the recent International Polar Year, under whose auspices there was a major amount of scientific work completed in the Arctic. Given Canada is the host of said conference, I can�t help but be more than a little embarrassed by the antics of our Republican North party�s efforts to avoid having Canadian scientists say anything that might put the Canadian government in a bad light. Which, given we are talking about the Republican North party, would be just about anything the scientists say, so better to make sure they can�t say much of anything.
Government media minders are being dispatched to an international polar conference in Montreal to monitor and record what Environment Canada scientists say to reporters.
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�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,� says the email obtained by Postmedia News.
It was also noted that recordings of the scientists� interactions with the media will be forwarded to the media relations office in Ottawa.
There is more than a little bit of threat implicit in these instructions. As is the case most everywhere these days, austerity and spending cuts to offset the tax breaks our Conservatives lavished to their supporters were part of the budget the Conservatives are pushing through. Though they�ve been often tight-lipped about just where all of these cuts are coming, they do seem to be concentrated in areas such as environmental monitoring, food safety, support for minorities and the disadvantaged, and pretty much any other of the regular Con hobbyhorses that may interfere with their vision of a Conservative utopia by presenting unwelcome facts to the mix. Not all of the pink slips have gone out to the civil service quite yet, so the Environment Canada scientists performance at this international conference just may mean their jobs.
Although it is important to note that this latest outrage is part and parcel of the pattern the Cons under Harper have been implementing since they first came to power.
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. Instead 11 people in the Canadian agency eventually produced a list of equipment used in the study � information of little use in the story.
Environment Canada�s media office also often takes hours if not days to answer reporters� questions, and to decide whether interviews will be granted.
I�ll leave the last word to Andrew Weaver from the University of Victoria.
�It�s going from bad to worse,� says Weaver, a vocal critic of the way the federal government has been silencing and 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 on tight deadlines.
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, says Weaver. �It�s an affront to democracy.�
But then democracy is such a bother when an ideological agenda is at stake.