Spin control: Mark Bourrie’s new book on muzzling scientists, manipulating media, and stamping out dissent in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa

March 4, 2015 by · 3 Comments 

Kill_the_Messengers_Mark_BourrieFor anyone interested in the federal Conservatives’ preferred method of getting unpopular legislation through the court of public opinion, Bill C-13 is instructive. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act received Royal Assent on December 9, 2014, though its passage was not without hiccups. Sparked by uproar over the heinous cyberbullying that led to the deaths of teenagers Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the bill sought to stiffen penalties for crimes such as non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images, child pornography, and so-called revenge porn.

Fair enough.

But, bundled in with those laudable goals were a whole raft of other changes to the Criminal Code that will, in aggregate, have the effect of eroding citizens’ privacy by, in part, allowing police to request that internet service providers voluntarily hand over user information without having to secure a warrant or any kind of judicial approval.

Some of the opposition to the bill was predictable. University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs last November; Geist pointed out that the Supreme Court’s Spencer decision had likely already rendered parts of Bill C-13 unconstitutional even before it had become law. Secondly, Geist suggested that the provision for voluntary disclosure of user data has dangerous implications for privacy and the expansion of state surveillance powers: “The provision unquestionably increases the likelihood of voluntary disclosures at the very time that Canadians and the courts are increasingly concerned with such activity. Moreover, it does so with no reporting requirements, oversight, or transparency.”

Resistance, however, also came from less obvious sources. Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association – a group that could reasonably be counted among the Conservatives’ support base – was quoted by the CBC as saying that Bill C-13 comprises “the most draconian step towards police interference in people’s lives since George Orwell revealed the potential for it when he wrote 1984.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, appeared before a House of Commons committee to voice significant criticism. Though she applauded efforts to protect victims of online abuse, she stopped short of endorsing the new sweeping powers of surveillance and warrantless spying:

I don’t want to see our children victimized again by losing privacy rights. I am troubled by some of these provisions condoning the sharing of the privacy information of Canadians without proper legal process. We are Canadians with strong civil rights and values. A warrant should be required before any Canadian’s personal information is turned over to anyone, including government authorities. We should also be holding our telecommunications companies and Internet providers responsible for mishandling our private and personal information. We should not have to choose between our privacy and our safety.

If someone like Carol Todd – who has every right to be fully supportive of enhanced tough-on-crime legislation – is willing to voice such criticism of a proposed crime bill, people should listen.

Todd’s testimony is quoted in Mark Bourrie’s new book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, a blistering, lacerating account of the Conservative government’s attempts to solidify power in Ottawa and to eradicate criticism or opposition to the sweeping changes it has been imposing upon the country. Bourrie systematically lays out the various ways in which Harper has centralized power around the Prime Minister’s Office in an attempt to control the government’s message and reduce criticism. These include (but are certainly not limited to) the imposition of a taxpayer funded government propaganda machine, which spent in excess of $100 million on ads promoting the Tories’ Economic Action Plan between 2009 and 2014 and saw the launch of a YouTube channel, 24 Seven, run by the government and intended to “replace the mainstream media with words and images that are under the complete control of the prime minister and his staff”; the revision of history by focusing assiduously on Canada’s martial experience as a warrior nation (what author Noah Richler has termed “the Vimy Myth”) and slashing budgets at Library and Archives Canada; the assault on evidence-based decision making, in part by dispensing with the mandatory long-form census; and the attack on scientists – even those in the government’s employ – who contradict the party’s core message.

Bourrie-Mark

Author Mark Bourrie

This last area has become extremely important to the Harper Tories, especially given one of their core constituencies: the oil companies working to mine Alberta’s bitumen-rich tar sands. In her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “It has become routine … for the federal government to prevent senior environmental and climate scientists from speaking to journalists about any environmentally sensitive subject.” Bourrie provides specific examples of this phenomenon in action, including the infuriating case of David Tarasick, a researcher with Environment Canada, who published an article in the esteemed journal Nature detailing his discovery of “one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic.” “Media handlers in Tarasick’s own department gagged him for two weeks,” Bourrie writes. “When a Canadian reporter asked for an interview, Tarasick wrote back in an email: ‘I’m available when Media Relations says I’m available.'”

Perhaps even more infuriating, though the government’s media relations department was unwilling to provide access to Tarasick himself, they were more than happy to supply the media with sanctioned talking points, which they then indicated could be ascribed to the scientist. “The department, it seems, wanted to interpret the scientist’s findings and write them into its own words, then put those words into Tarasick’s mouth.”

Bourrie also details the ways the Harper Tories manipulate the rules and regulations of parliament to ensure compliance with their agenda, repeatedly proroguing the House – including once, in 2009, when the minority Conservatives were all but assured of a non-confidence vote as the result of a threatened coalition between the Dion Liberals and the Layton NDP – and invoking closure to limit debate “on almost every important piece of legislation.” The list of bills subject to closure that Bourrie provides is chilling, particularly given that the Conservatives employed this tactic again around Bill C-51, the government’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has called the act “sweeping, dangerously vague, and ineffective,” and, in a staggering show of unity, no fewer than four former prime ministers have come together in opposition to the bill as written.

All of this, Bourrie convincingly argues, constitutes nothing less than an assault on the democratic principles this country was founded upon. To his credit, Bourrie, an historian by training, does not ignore the fact that other governments have acted in similar ways, citing in particular the federal Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Mike Harris’s conservative provincial government in Ontario. However, Harper’s Conservatives and their counterparts around the world are taking this style of governance to a new and dangerous level.

The problem, as Bourrie suggests in the opening pages of Kill the Messengers, is that once these systems of governance become entrenched, they will be practically impossible to dismantle easily. If citizens care about continued access to the mechanisms of a healthy democracy, the time to act is now, in a federal election year. Otherwise, we can resign ourselves to continued erosion of our freedoms and decreased availability of the kind of unbiased, impartial information required to make informed decisions about our future and its leadership.

Absent that, we can expect more propaganda disguised as news, increased corporate influence on public policy, and fewer and fewer democratic freedoms. And as Bourrie implies, it isn’t as if the Harper Tories don’t fully understand what they are up to. Communications Security Establishment Canada, the government agency tasked with cyberspying, has a budget of $300 million annually and last year was the beneficiary of a new 72,000-square-metre headquarters in Ottawa.

The CSEC mailing address, Bourrie points out with a straight face, is Box 1984, Station B, Ottawa.