Jack Knox: In anti-information age, all requests go through Ottawa

Jack Knox mugshot genericLightning flashed over Victoria on Friday, but I sacrificed a goat and it went away.

This is how you respond when your grasp of science is not as firm as that of, say, Nathan Kuehne, the Glenlyon Norfolk School student whose national science fair victory is told on the front page of today's paper.

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Of course, Kuehne’s teachers were then arrested and shipped off in chains to Industrial Development/Re-education Camp No. 5 (formerly Jasper National Park), punishment for filling young minds with too much dangerous book learnin’ and such.

This will not come as a surprise to those who watched federal scientists rally across Canada last week. The scientists want their professional integrity enshrined in their contracts. They have been muzzled, not allowed to discuss their work in public without permission, since 2007. As a result, Canadians aren’t hearing all sorts of stuff about, say, climate change or declining fish stocks.

This is painted as part of a War on Science, though some think the Orwellian description a tad paranoid. The feds aren’t trying to control the release of scientific information in particular. No, they’re trying to control the flow of ALL information, from anywhere in government.

Young journalists think ol’ Uncle Jack here is telling tall tales when he sticks in his false teeth and tells them how it used to be in the olden days, when a reporter could actually ask any public servant a question — AND EXPECT AN ANSWER.

Back then, if you had a question about, say, earwigs, you would call the government’s earwig expert, who would usually be so excited that someone actually wanted him to talk about earwigs that he would natter on until you faked a medical emergency to get off the phone.

No more. Now every contact has to be run through the ministry’s communications professionals. In Ottawa, these professionals are usually A) startled/ offended to be contacted by someone from “the regions,” as the hinterland west of Sudbury is known (“B.C., is that one of the flat ones that grows oil and meat like Saskatoba?”) and B) unable to spell their own names without the permission of whatever 22-year-old political aide/pit bull is playing Machiavelli in the minister’s office.

So, you never get to speak to the earwig guy. In fact, you never get to interview anyone at all. If lucky, about five minutes before deadline you get a carefully crafted, astonishingly useless one-paragraph emailed statement that bears little relation to the subject you wanted to talk about.

(In March, Toronto Star political reporter Joanna Smith used Twitter to characterize her experience with federal communication shops — Q: “Why is this banana rotten?” A: “We are committed to the promotion of fruit salad.”)

One of the best examples came from the Ottawa Citizen, which in 2012 asked the National Research Council about a snowfall study it was doing with NASA. It was a straightforward question, nothing political at all. Yet the feds wouldn’t allow anyone to talk, replying only with a vague message outlining some irrelevant technical information.

Documents turned over after a subsequent access to information request revealed that even that vapid response took the efforts of at least 11 federal staffers who exchanged dozens of emails before replying to the Citizen’s snowfall question with their non-answer answer.

Happily for the newspaper, it got all the snow-study info it needed with one 15-minute phone call to NASA.

Alas, in practice, the federal strategy works. At a time when all deadlines are yesterday, passive-aggressive obstruction is an effective story-killer. “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 per cent,” stated an internal Environment Canada document leaked to Canwest after 2007’s muzzling of the scientists.

That’s unlikely to change, given the ease with which we’re all distracted today. According to newly released Microsoft research, the attention span of the typical Canadian has fallen to just eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish (really). If we can’t stay focused for the duration of an entire rodeo ride, it’s unlikely we’ll remain angry with Ottawa long enough to hey, did you see Bill Murray on Letterman?

Forget the old-style protest rallies. Nobody pays attention to those anymore. If the federal scientists want attention, they’ll have to resort to social media clickbait: “Stephen Harper muzzled me AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT” or “They gutted federal research libraries AND THE RESULTS WERE AMAZING.”

Have to be faster than lightning, even if you don’t understand it.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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