“Forget press releases. Forget press agents, publicists. Forget advertorials and sponsored content and native content. Forget all of it.
If what you want for your company, your government bureau, is total control of a news story, why bother with the pesky journalists who are going to check the facts and get the other side of the story?
No. Here’s what you do: write your own news story.”
That’s the sardonic strategy Jesse Brown, reporter and host of Canadaland, recently outlined on a show dedicated to News Canada, a federally-funded public relations body and news wire service which was recently awarded $1.25 million to distribute hand-out news content meant to “inform and educate Canadians on public issues.”
The story of News Canada receiving a 25 per cent increase in government funding from Public Works Canada was first reported by Blacklock’s Reporter Tom Korski.
News Canada Ltd. president Shelly Middlebrook told Korski the service provides content to media editors and that “journalists either pick it up or they don’t.”
Middlebrook added the republished content must be labeled “News Canada” (or sometimes simply “NC”) to give credit to the service, “just like the Canadian Press,” she said.
“This is educational, informational, lifestyle news,” she said. “It’s not breaking news.”
Middlebrook said a significant portion of Canada's dailies, community newspapers, cable news broadcasters and radio stations across the country publish News Canada content.
Is it propaganda?
Some question the role the news service plays in the Canadian media where ever-constrained newsrooms are desperate for content – something News Canada provides to outlets completely free of charge.
But there still may be a cost – it’s perhaps just offset onto the public and its need for balanced information.
As Korski details, some of the ‘stories’ produced by News Canada are decidedly pro-government. As in the case of these features about Canada’s Space Agency and the federal government's “win-win solutions" for First Nations.
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.”
Other stories are used to promote Public Works Canada, the body that funds News Canada. In addition to providing the $1.25 million to News Canada, Public Works also said it will edit story scripts and provide officials in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal for “in-person interviews or testimonials.”
When asked if the content was propaganda, Middlebrook said simply, “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.”
But Sean Holman, founder of Public Eye and a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, sees things differently.
When it comes to government publicity, “this is no different in a lot of ways from what has come before,” Holman said.
“The only difference is that a) there may be more receptivity to publishing this material because of a desperate need for content by media organizations, and b) it is being packaged in a way that resembles news, that resembles journalism and reporting,” he said. “Those are the only two principled differences.”
“But it’s certainly not journalism and it’s certainly not reporting,” he added.
“So is it propaganda? Sure, it’s propaganda in the same way that everything the governments puts out there, from their public relations arm, their communications arm, is propaganda. It is trying to convince people of a certain position. It is omitting certain information that would not benefit the client, etc.,” Holman said.
Public Works coordinator of Harper Government PR
Public Works Canada is the body that oversees and coordinates Canada’s advertising.
The Harper government has also been criticized for too-strictly controlling federal communications, most especially in regards to the restrictions placed on federal scientists often prevented from speaking with the media, the general public and at academic conferences.
As Public Works states in its last annual report, its work is meant to “ensure that advertising activities align with government priorities.”
Government of Canada advertising process from the Public Works 2012-2013 annual report.
According to the most recent annual Public Works ad report, released in 2014, Canada spent more than $14 million on advertising Canada’s Economic Action Plan (which was called "propaganda" by survey respondents) and an additional $8.2 million on its Responsible Resource Development campaign (which was, in part, responsible for Canada's severely weakened environmental legislation). Both advertising campaigns placed heavy emphasis on the Alberta oilsands as central to Canada’s economic future.
These two campaigns were Canada’s most expensive advertising projects for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, dwarfing the amount of money spent on any other advertising effort.
The $1.25 million supplied to News Canada for publicity work falls outside the disclosed advertising funds mentioned in Public Works annual report, meaning this is additional money devoted to government communications above and beyond its advertising efforts.
DeSmog Canada reached out to Public Works for additional information and comment but no response was given at the time of publication.
Not clear to audiences News Canada is a publicist
According to Korski, it is important News Canada is seen as a publicity outlet that works on behalf of clients, in this case the Government of Canada.
Yet News Canada might not be doing enough to distinguish itself as a PR firm, as opposed to an independent press outlet like the Canadian Press.
News Canada content is “identified with a credit slug to News Canada,” Korski told Canadaland.
“Now whether that’s an Orwellian term or not I guess is a subjective matter of opinion. Whether a viewer, a reader, or a listener would understand that News Canada is a publicist, or whether they would confuse that with an actual news organization that covers Canada, is a point of discussion.”
Screenshot of News Canada webpage.
Korski said that a further layer of obfuscation is added by the fact that News Canada does not disclose on whose behalf the content is produced.
“News Canada would not identify to readers, viewers or clients the source of the material, in this case the department of Public Works,” he told Canadaland.
“I think it’s designed that way.”
Image Credit: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Photo Gallery.