Federal departments and agencies since 2016 have spent $1.76 million on fake news content ghostwritten and edited by government employees, say newly-released accounts. Staff distributed unsigned stories free of charge to newsrooms.
“They shed crocodile tears for print media and say, ‘We’re on your side’, and then do things like this,” said Conservative MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka). “The government is always looking for ways to make sure the news is in their favour.”
Cabinet in an Inquiry Of Ministry tabled in the Commons detailed scores of contracts with News Canada Inc., a Toronto-based broker that distributed ready-to-use content to editors. Stories were attributed to News Canada without identifying the government’s authorship. Blacklock’s earlier identified weeklies from Alberta to Québec that republished stories without advising readers they were produced by federal employees.
“The government is trying to buy its way into the good graces of Canadians,” said Clement. “I think there should be a general review of government promotions to make sure they are in line with what Canadians expect.”
Large contracts awarded to News Canada Inc. included $316,735 by Health Canada; $298,201 by Statistics Canada; $256,594 by the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation; and $198,309 by the Canada Revenue Agency. No agency cancelled its news contracts, though the Department of Immigration wrote it allowed its existing arrangement with News Canada Inc. to expire on March 31.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which sponsored $9,440 worth of content, denied the practice amounted to fakery. “The Agency uses services provided by News Canada Inc. to provide factual information of public interest on important matters of health or safety,” wrote staff. “Contracting with News Canada Inc. has proven to be an effective means of supplementing all the various techniques used to reach Canadians.”
The Department of Canadian Heritage in a 2017 Memorandum To The Minister described fake news, including “state-sponsored” content, as a public policy issue. “Creators of fake news are non-traditional sources, i.e. not journalists; individuals on social media; individuals not preoccupied with facts,” said the memo obtained through Access To Information.
“Characteristics of fake news” include content that writers are “quick to create and share, and are not constrained by research or fact-checking,” wrote staff; “The issue is complex and there is not likely one single, easy solution. (There are) limitations to actions that governments can take, e.g. cannot decide what is fake news.”
“Access to accurate information from diverse perspectives underpins our democratic institutions,” said the memo.
Examples of ghostwritten stories included a Financial Consumer Agency of Canada item, Achieve Your Long-Term Financial Goals With Your Home Equity, that advised homeowners on how to apply to banks for lines of credit. The item did not disclose the federal Agency draws 77 percent of its $17.6 million annual budget from banks and other lenders.
Health Canada distributed an article Pesticides In Canada that told readers: “When used properly, you can be assured there is no risk to human health or the environment.” The story failed to note ongoing Agency reviews of three common neonicotinoid pesticides regulators have cited as environmentally toxic.
By Jason Unrau