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Alberta's energy 'war room' is spreading disinformation

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Oil pump jacks in Alberta. Image: Jeff Wallace/Flickr

Should we be worried about operatives employed by the Alberta government's public-private "energy war room" masquerading as journalists?

Of course we should. But it's also OK to be amused by the astonishing ineptitude with which they're going about the task.

As King Solomon is said to have observed, pride goeth before destruction, so it's unlikely the prideful United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney will do the smart thing and quietly move its so-called Canadian Energy Centre to the back burner of the stove.

But, good lord, you have to ask how long the three stooges who supposedly call the shots at government-owned but putatively "private" Canadian Energy Centre Ltd. -- Sonya Savage, minister of energy; Doug Schweitzer, minister of justice; and Jason Nixon, minister of environment -- are going to put up with management that seems to seriously mess up a couple of times every week.

The centre's "punchy communications experts," as Savage once called them, clearly aren't cookin' with gas, as the expression goes!

I speak, of course, of the Christmas Day revelation that the subject of one of the centre's lame puff pieces, a Vancouver chef who really does cook with gas, is furious that a writer for the taxpayer-bankrolled digital fossil-fuel-industry propaganda house didn't bother to explain exactly what the centre does when she called about a story on why professional chefs prefer to cook with gas, which is not exactly news. (Hint: You can set the heat just right.)

If the purpose of this exercise is to persuade Canadians in other provinces that the Alberta government is an honest broker, just setting the record straight on misleading statements about the province's fossil fuel industry, making new enemies in British Columbia is surely not the right way to go about it.

In the normal course of events, in the normal sort of media, this kind of story would pass unnoticed on any day of the year, not just Christmas.

But when Donald Gyurkovits, who is also president of the Canadian Culinary Federation, publicly roasted the centre because he felt he'd been burned by the writer's failure to tell him what the organization actually is, it quickly became a national story.

"I never knew it was a government agency -- never," Gyurkovits told the Globe and Mail. "I wouldn't have commented if I knew it was a political play."

Naturally, as a restaurateur in Vancouver where anti-pipeline sentiment runs high, Gyurkovits needs to be sensitive about not offending his customers. "I live in British Columbia," he told the Globe. "I don't want an oil pipeline or a gas pipeline going though my backyard."

Also naturally, actual journalists don't want ninnies like the ones in Kenney's "war room" pretending to be journalists. After all, the ability of real reporters to get folks to tell them stuff -- people who have no legal obligation whatsoever to talk to reporters or tell them anything -- is endangered by fake journalists in the pay of governments, be they the Centre's "reporters" or cops pretending to be TV crews.

What's more, this is not the first time this has happened. This is an operation that's only been around for a couple of weeks and there's been a fresh embarrassment almost every couple of days! And this is costing us taxpayers $30 million a year?

The Canadian Association of Journalists has already fricasseed the centre for letting its operatives call themselves "reporters" -- an ethically questionable practice that centre spokesperson Grady Semmens nevertheless deems acceptable.

Then there was also the matter of the centre's apparent inability to come up with a corporate logo that doesn't actually belong to someone else, another story that's left egg on the face of Tom Olsen, the former UCP candidate who is the operation's CEO and general manager.

It was quite natural that this latest fumble would become a bigger story than it might have if some garden-variety non-governmental scamster had been pretending to be a reporter for whatever purpose. That's because the journalists who still get to decide what's news, and what isn't, are concerned about their diminishing ability to do their jobs in this age of fake news. That, in turn, is why mainstream media have decided this situation is newsworthy. They will now be watching the centre carefully for fresh missteps.

It's important to note that it's never really been all that clear if journalism is a profession, a trade or, as Hunter S. Thompson famously and profanely put it, just a cheap catch-all for a couple of words unsuitable for a general-readership blog.

An argument can be made it's important in a free society that anyone -- bloggers, for example -- have the right to report and interpret news.

Nor is the CAJ anything like a regulatory college that sets enforceable standards for members of a profession and can decide who is or isn't a practitioner. Its ethics guidelines are entirely aspirational.

Indeed, many people who make a living as journalists have never had anything to do with that organization, and never will. The CAJ doesn't seem to publish membership numbers itself, but Aboriginal Peoples Television Network says it has 600 members, so it's safe to say a majority of working journalists are not members.

However, it's not as if there's a legitimate debate about whether the people working for the centre are "reporters." Obviously they're not. The whole exercise reeks of fakery. But it's a sad commentary on the times that there's not much light between the drivel the "war room" publishes and what appears when the credulous folk generally considered to be "real" journalists report on the same stuff.

Sill, it's bizarre the centre's employees would do anything except apologize and meekly back away. If they're such crackerjack communications experts, it should be obvious to them they can't win because it's not in the interests of the commercial media they've been hired to woo to let them win.

As Mark Wells, former head of the Alberta government's Public Affairs Bureau, tweeted yesterday: "How long until this $30 million propaganda/patronage experiment is deemed too embarrassing for the UCP to continue funding?"

If they're smart, of course, CECL's directors will turn down the gas and move this whole dumb idea to the back burner.

As Wells pointed out, the only good thing about this continuing gong show is that it makes the evasion from Freedom of Information laws baked into the "war room's" corporate structure entirely gratuitous. "It's been public failure after public failure."

(Enough cooking metaphors! -- Ed.)

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Jeff Wallace/Flickr

Editor's note, December 27, 2019: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a former journalist. He was Hunter S. Thompson, not Thomson.​

Editor's note, December 28, 2019: An earlier version of this article misidentified the media outlet Donald Gyurkovits spoke to about his experience with a writer from the Canadian Energy Centre. Gyurkovits was interviewed in the Globe and Mail, not The Canadian Press.

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