When discussing the weather is all you can do

The Bush administration has in recent years been in the news for massaging the climate science results emerging from federally-funded laboratories, and preventing government scientists from speaking with the media. See here for a tribute to one such outspoken researcher, Jim Hansen.

Now I’m very sorry to publish two negative stories about Canada within the space of a week, but the increasingly paranoid Tory government in Ottawa is asking for all the bad publicity it’s getting right now from journalists and bloggers.

This time it concerns the government’s instruction to scientists in the employ of federal agency Environment Canada to refer all media enquiries to Ottawa. The agency’s media office asks reporters to submit their questions in writing, and the researchers in turn respond in writing to the media office, which then seeks top-level approval before releasing the material. Interviews are still allowed, with appropriate clearance, but the researchers are told to stick to “approved lines”.

The only area exempted from having to go through all this rigmarole is the meteorological service, “due to the volume and technical nature of inquiries”. Well, that’s nice of the Canadian government to allow free discussion of the weather. It warms the cockles of my heart to see that our cousins across the Pond still keep to ancient British traditions.

Regarding PR and management interference in news gathering, I have to say that as a journalist I this to be more of a problem with large private corporations than government agencies. Of the latter, it’s mostly laboratories with direct national security responsibilities that are a bit funny about direct communication between scientists and journalists. On the whole, both scientists and PR officers are friendly and cooperative.

With large private corporations, on the other hand, it is often more difficult to speak with researchers. In some cases I’m forced to communicate exclusively through PR minders. What’s worse is that some companies refuse to cooperate unless I grant them copy approval. At that point I tell them where to get off, as copy approval is a gross violation of journalistic ethics.

I also recommend to the editors of publications for which I write that offending companies have their names entered into the little black book of shame (“I have a little list, and none of them be missed!”). But even where that advice is ignored, as it occasionally is for straightforward business reasons, I have never been asked to compromise journalistic ethics and grant copy approval in order to secure a story.

Over the past few years I’ve encountered a few cases of self-censorship and corporate paranoia. Here, researchers I approach for an interview apologise and state that they cannot speak to me without a minder. The PR office then responds saying that this is silly, and I can speak freely with their scientist. Quotes may have to be cleared with management, but that is an internal matter.

This post began with a reference to shameful political shenanigans in Washington DC. Going by Margaret Munroe’s article about Environment Canada, I would say that the Canadian government is going further than that of its southern neighbour in compromising science, and restricting the flow of information for political advantage.

Hat tip: Terry Glavin