Public Works Canada is awarding a $1.25 million contract to a publicist to distribute government-vetted “news” to publishers and radio and TV stations. The budget for handout “news” increased 25 percent from a previous contract. The department said it wanted to “inform and educate Canadians on public issues”.
The publicist, News Canada Ltd., said it gives editors handout stories free of charge bearing a “News Canada” credit – “just like Canadian Press,” said president Shelley Middlebrook. “We help distribute content,” Middlebrook said. “Journalists either pick it up or they don’t”; “Nobody pays to publish this. We follow Canadian Press-style rules of writing, and articles have to be marked as ‘News Canada’ just like CP.”
Handouts include standard 400-word newspaper stories for dailies and weeklies, and prepackaged broadcast items downloaded from the company’s website. Recent articles scripted for the Government of Canada and other clients include, “Supersize Your Tax Refund”; “Farmers Are Interested In The Environment”; “Food & Beverage Industry Raises the Bar On Nutrition”; and “Hey New Graduate, Check Out The Insurance Industry!”
The client list for News Canada handouts is not known, though the Department of Public Works said it expects audits of actual publication and broadcast of “news” items. “This is educational, informational, lifestyle news,” said Middlebrook. “It’s not breaking news.” The profile of media users is “a real mix”, she added: “With daily newspapers we get 71 or 72 percent of dailies; in community newspapers, there have been a lot of closures but we average 60 percent.”
Middlebrook said handout stories are also carried by some 350 radio stations nationwide. “TV is smaller,” she added. “It used to be a bigger portion of our business.” Public Works said television clients were unnamed cable news broadcasters.
“It Has To Be Balanced”
Samples of pro-government TV handouts including one item lauding the Canadian Space Agency, including “interviews” with two officials; and another celebrating cabinet’s record on Aboriginal land claim settlements. The script reads: “How do you right a past wrong? Well, the Government of Canada has been working towards finding solutions to do just that.” The report continues, “Canada has made a commitment to reconciling relationships with First Nations people”; “The future looks bright. More win-win solutions are in the works to bring closure and justice for all.”
Another “news” story promotes Public Works’ own program to have Canadians surrender bank account information to the department for electronic deposit of benefits cheques. “This convenient service can help manage hectic schedules by depositing government payments directly into their bank accounts,” viewers are told; “It’s fast, secure and convenient – so there is more time for families to play together.” A similar item features an “interview” with Lorraine and Roch Beauchamp, identified only as a “retired couple”.
The public works department said, in addition to paying $1.25 million, it would edit all scripts and make officials available in Ottawa, Toronto and Montréal for “in-person interviews or testimonials”. Middlebrook, asked if the handouts were propaganda, replied: “I don’t think so”; “If it is, editors won’t pick it up. It has to be balanced. If it was too propaganda-based, editors wouldn’t use it.”
By Tom Korski