Alberta Inquiry Commissioner Steve Allan (Photo: Alberta Order of Excellence).
Alberta Inquiry Commissioner Steve Allan (Photo: Alberta Order of Excellence).

One Alberta story that didn’t get nearly enough attention in the past few days, and none at all from mainstream media, was Alberta Inquiry Commissioner Steve Allan’s risible complaint to the CBC Ombudsman that the broadcaster’s journalists hadn’t treated him fairly.

Commissioner Allan’s gripe with two CBC investigative reporters, which the broadcaster’s Ombudsman examined in detail and politely dismissed, was that their accurate Jan. 14 account of how his so-called Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns purchased three reports peddling discredited conspiracy theories about climate science didn’t include a disclaimer that he took no position on the papers’ claims.

Now, remember, the reports in question were not only commissioned by the inquiry, with their authors arguably considerably overpaid for their questionable efforts, but they were the only reports paid for by the Kenney government’s $3.5-million effort to prove a vast conspiracy theory by U.S.-based charities was funding Canadian environmental opposition to oil sands development.

Within hours of Allan revealing their existence in an “engagement process update” last January, University of Calgary law professor Martin Z. Olszynski publicly tore into them on the U of C Law Faculty’s respected legal-issues blog as “textbook examples of climate change denialism.” 

The bluntly worded story by CBC investigative reporters Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell thereupon skewered the reports as “junk climate-denial science, bizarre conspiracy theories and oil-industry propaganda” that were part of “a politically motivated witch hunt.”

Those are strong words, but under the circumstances, fair. 

Two of the papers advanced such bonkers theories as the notion scholars who study environmental philanthropy are mostly Marxists, international journalists are plotting together to coordinate and distribute climate change propaganda, and that there’s an environmentalist plot to overthrow “modern western industrial capitalist society.”

Well, if Allan proved anything, it’s that you can make this stuff up, and be well paid for it too! 

The third report was a fairly standard piece of fossil-fuel-industry spin doctoring by a petroleum industry advocacy organization. That 38-page document relied on common tricks known to all public relations people to give a misleading impression without actually telling any outright lies.

So it seems a little rich for the commissioner to be whining about how omission of his meaningless pre-emptive disclaimers saying “the information and opinions expressed in the reports and other content provided to participants for commentary do not represent findings or positions taken by the inquiry” was an unfair assault on the inquiry’s credibility. 

Allan argued in his complaint, as CBC Ombudsman Jack Nagler put it, that Russell and Rusnell’s reporting “amounted to ‘misrepresentation’ because it ‘failed to accurately capture’ the relationship between the inquiry and the reports it had commissioned.”

Never mind that the inquiry spent nearly $100,000 on this nonsense and platformed it to give it considerable credibility. As Olszynski said at the time, “it is troubling that the inquiry did not commission any reports from the alternative perspective and, with respect, is suggestive of bias.”

Well, when in retreat, as the Navy used to do, throw smoke! 

Nagler went on at length — you can read his report for yourself here — to gently dismiss Allan’s complaint. 

“I do not concur with your assertion that the omission of the disclaimers from the original article and the morning radio interview amounted to a misrepresentation of the inquiry’s relationship to the reports,” he wrote mildly. 

After all, he explained, “having been posted before any of the public criticism, (they) could not be deemed a response to that public criticism.”

If the commissioner wanted them to be considered essential to the story, the disclaimers would have “needed to provide insight into why these particular reports were commissioned.” They did not. 

Nagler also noted, importantly, that when the reporters asked Inquiry Communications Director Alan Boras for a comment from Allan or someone else associated with the inquiry, he declined, and didn’t provide a written statement or any additional information. 

When the inquiry published a statement the next morning, “that made it relevant and essential to report. And CBC did just that, by promptly inserting that information into the story.”

(“You are correct that the inquiry had no obligation to provide an interview or a statement,” Nagler observed in his response to Allan. “That does not equate to an obligation that CBC regurgitate whatever you put on your website.”)

Ergo, the Ombudsman concluded: “There was no violation of journalistic standards in either the article, or the radio interview.”

That’ll be the end of that story, I expect, although it illustrates why the inquiry is discredited before the public has even seen it, and like the premier that commissioned it is all but down for the count.

After five deadline extensions, Allan handed his homework in to the Alberta government on July 30. Its contents have not yet been made public, although the government says they will be eventually. 

David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...