Public Servant Falsely Accused in Muzzling Story

An article in the Toronto Star has seriously misinformed readers, provoking unwarranted attacks on a federal bureaucrat.

On 19 March 2016, a Toronto Star journalist made a sensational claim:

“Senior civil servants warned the new Liberal government that ‘unmuzzled’ scientists still need a tight leash, internal documents show.”

The public servant in question was named, provoking angry letters from readers arguing that scientists must be allowed to speak. I have been cc’d on emails to the Prime Minister arguing that she should be fired. These were not unreasonable responses given what was reported.

Unfortunately, the claim was false, and potentially libellous.

It is much as I feared when I first read the article. I obtained a copy of the document in question, and find it does not support the journalist’s contention. Read it and see for yourself.

As seen in the Toronto Star.
As seen in the Toronto Star.

The document is titled “Moving Forward on ‘Unmuzzling’ Scientists”. It is a brief prepared for Treasury Board president Scott Brison to inform him as the government revises Harper-era policies. The document summarizes what is currently written in the Communications Policy and the Values and Ethics Code of the Government of Canada. It notes that the Treasury Board president is responsible for both, and that while some scientists are unmuzzled “the public service has not yet developed a whole-of-government approach”.

The Considerations section outlines long-standing conventions for the roles of scientists and ministers in the Government of Canada. This is important background information that the Minister would need to know. It is actually quite helpful to have these conventions – largely ignored by the Harper government – so clearly articulated. The Recommendations section is redacted as is usual for advice to Ministers when documents are released to the public.

None of this constitutes a warning that federal scientists should be kept on a “tight leash”.

Only by taking quotes out of context can the journalist make his case. Here is the Considerations section in full:

Decisions typically take into account multiple factors. Factors that ministers consider in making decisions come in many forms: scientific, economic, social, legal, international, ethical and political considerations may be relevant. Science is important but rarely determinative. Voters entrust ministers, not unelected public servants, with weighing the factors relevant to decisions.

It is the legitimate role of politicians to set priorities. In setting priorities for government programs, science is but one factor. While scientists may be disappointed when projects receive less funding or attention, it remains the role of ministers to determine priorities, and defend them before the Canadian public.

The engagement of scientists in the public sphere needs to be balanced against their ethical duty as public servants. There is an appropriate role for scientists to engage publicly to communicate scientific information, to build national and international research networks, and to educate and foster interest in science. However, considerations such as security (e.g., scientists engaged in defence for public safety research), public health, and contractual obligations (e.g., scientists working closely with industry) impose legitimate restrictions. More broadly, allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions – whether based on scientific evidence or other criteria – can jeopardize the relationship between the public service and ministers, undermining the trust that is essential to an effective working relationship."

The journalist only provided the middle paragraph. Taken in context, it is completely benign. Nowhere is it suggested – explicitly or implicitly – that a “tight leash” is needed. The document’s argument that “there is an appropriate role for scientists to engage publicly” contrasts sharply with the approach taken by the Harper government.

I would have written much the same thing, and I think my bona fides on the muzzling issue are pretty clear. Simply put, the public servant was doing her job in providing this background to the Treasury Board president. The journalist hung her out to dry for it by naming her in his article.

There are other troubling issues. The journalist insinuates conflict where there is apparent agreement. He wrote

“But Debbie Daviau, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), said her members simply want the ability to speak publicly about their research”

yet makes no mention of the document’s argument that there is an “appropriate role for scientists to engage publicly to communicate scientific information”. He further quotes Daviau as saying

“Appreciating that the government does not want to permit scientists just to have free rein to say whatever they want to whomever they want whenever they want, work still needs to be done to establish what those boundaries actually are.”

The entire last paragraph of the document’s Communications section is devoted to explaining the traditional boundaries. Basic fairness suggests that the journalist should have provided readers with this information.

So, where does this leave us?

It is pretty tough for journalists these days. The industry is under a lot of pressure, and journalists have very tight deadlines. Mistakes are made. It is nevertheless crucial that the public be properly informed. There can be unintended consequences when errors occur.

The journalist should do the right thing and retract the article.

There are broader lessons that may be learned. News stories should provide links to relevant documents whenever possible. Had the journalist provided the Treasury Board brief for readers to assess for themselves, much of the ensuing furor could have been avoided.

Journalists must also take care in naming names. Sometimes it is necessary, and sometimes it is not. In this case, the naming of a public servant led to her being inappropriately targeted and attacked in The Star’s pages.

The journalist needs to apologize.

Finally, this story speaks to the importance of expertise. Had the journalist asked a knowledgable expert for advice, I am confident that they would have told him the document was not arguing for scientists to be kept on a “tight leash”. A simplistic interpretation is not always the best.

Update 2016/06/29: The Star has responded.

(Updated 28 June 2016)