Ten federal agencies last year paid a national broker almost $577,000 to distribute newspaper stories ghostwritten by government employees. The payments came as Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly lamented “fake news” in Canada. Joly’s office yesterday did not comment.
Records show agencies paid $576,623 in seventeen separate contracts to News Canada Inc., a Toronto-based broker that distributes “ready-to-use, timely lifestyle content that is free of charge and copyright”, according to a management statement. Unsigned stories were identified only as “News Canada” content. Blacklock’s found weeklies from Alberta to Québec that republished items without any advisory they were written by communications staff with government departments and agencies.
Examples included Achieve Your Long-Term Financial Goals With Your Home Equity, a story placed by the Financial Consumer Agency advising 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.
Pesticides In Canada, a story written by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, 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.
Debunking The Latest Health Fads And Myths, a News Canada item ghostwritten by the health department, said: “If you think cannabis can help relieve symptoms you are experiencing, talk to your doctor about cannabis for medical purposes”. A separate Health Canada story Teaching Your Kids To Make Healthy Choices advised readers to “start having conversations” about cannabis with children as young as 12. Neither story identified Health Canada as the author or co-sponsor of legislation to legalize marijuana.
Watch These Five Real Estate Trends placed by Statistics Canada told readers: “The condo boom continues”. An item written by staff at the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman headlined Taxpayers’ Ombudsman Reveals Top CRA Service Issues read, “You have probably heard of someone getting frustrated with the CRA” and explained how to file a complaint. The story failed to mention the Ombudsman dismissed 3 out of 4 complaints last year.
Minister Joly in a 2017 interview with La Presse described fake news as a “concern”. Other government members publicly expressed similar worries. “What is a journalist? Today with issues like fake news and so forth, there is a great deal of concern about that,” Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North), parliamentary secretary to the Government House Leader, told the Commons last September 19.
“Freedom of the press is something we should never take for granted,” said Lamoureux. “We understand it is a fundamental pillar to good governance, to the whole issue of democracy.”
The Department of Canadian Heritage did not comment. Staff in a July 6, 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 Joly’s staff; “The issue is complex and thre 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.
Joly’s department did not pay for distribution of ghostwritten stories in 2017. Others that did were Health Canada (spending a total $239,741); Statistics Canada ($61,071); the Department of Public Safety ($47,331); Industry Canada ($41,420); Commissioner of Official Languages ($37,064); Canada Revenue Agency ($35,166); the National Research Council ($30,307); Department of Immigration ($26,600); Commissioner of Privacy ($21,974); and the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada ($16,950).
By Tom Korski