Proximity to Power: The oilpatch & Alberta’s major dailies

Proximity to Power: The oilpatch & Alberta’s major dailies

January 10, 2023

Regan Boychuk

The bias of Alberta’s media in favour of our dominant industry is both pervasive and obvious to any careful observer. But how to prove it? Studies of media bias are notoriously difficult and significant media analysis can easily become a gargantuan and subjective task. This novel study uses a small sample size while still allowing both quantitative and qualitative analysis to persuasively demonstrate an important aspect of the power of the oilpatch in Alberta. In essence, this is a study of the political role of newspaper editors, which can be distilled by carefully analyzing the choices made by editors at Postmedia News, the Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, and Calgary Herald.

Mike De Souza is an investigative journalist focused on energy and the environment. He remains one of Canada’s most impressive and respected reporters. For a number of years, De Souza worked for the Postmedia Network, where he produced a formidable record of important reporting on the oil and gas industries. Tracing De Souza’s reporting through the Postmedia system as its proximity to oilpatch power increases from Ottawa to Edmonton to Calgary is a simple natural experiment with the potential to offer strong and detailed evidence demonstrating the influence of the oilpatch. Acknowledging the fact of biased media coverage has significant political implications and could help reshape debates on a variety of important issues by helping public interest groups and citizens cut through the fog of propaganda.

At the corporate level of analysis, a Postmedia journalist has an editor they are responsible to. When submitted to their editor, a reporter’s story needs to meet organization standards for newsworthiness, sourcing, and objectivity. Once reporting has passed through these filters, it is fit for distribution on the Postmedia newswire and becomes available for publication by all affiliated newspapers. That process represents the majority of the journalistic editing.

When the decision is made to run a particular article in a particular newspaper, it passes through another layer of filtering by another set of editors. Some of the choices involved are practical. Given the economics of advertising-based print journalism, there are limits to the space available in a newspaper on any given day and stories could reasonably be shortened to fit. But the majority of the editors’ decisions at this stage are political: Where to place the story? How much of it to print? Whether to add photos or illustrations? What headline to run it under? Etc.

By beginning our analysis with a set of stories by the same journalist in the same organization and following their paths through these journalistic and political filters, we can start to tease out the bias introduced as the stories get closer and closer to the center of oilpatch power in Calgary. The bulk of the journalistic editing takes place before a story is distributed on the wire; what is left of journalistic editing to fit it into an actual newspaper amongst the day’s news takes place before it is published in the Ottawa Citizen. The editing choices that remain for the Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald are almost exclusively political. Where and how the articles are presented and how that compares to the versions in the Ottawa Citizen and on the Postmedia wire will demonstrate the bias local editors introduce with their political decisions.

In order to limit debate over story selection, a list of De Souza’s 20 most important Postmedia stories compiled by a critical and independent observer of the industries forms the basis of this study.1 There are stories that fit the hypothesis better than this set of 20, but for simplicity, this approach offers a somewhat stronger test than cherry-picked examples.

The hypothesis is that the influence of the world’s richest and most powerful industries has an observable affect on news coverage sensitive to their interests. It is suggested there are two types of editing: journalistic and political. Once a story has passed through journalistic editing and achieved standards acceptable to the news organization, there is a second – political – editing that takes place by news outlets for their local audience. This will be tested using a simple natural experiment analyzing the same stories by the same journalist for the same news organization, as published on the organization’s news wire, in the correspondent’s home outlet in the nation’s capital, in Alberta’s political capital, and in Alberta’s hometown to the oil and gas industry. This allows all variables to be held constant except for the proximity to the power of the oilpatch, which can then be evaluated.

To put state it bluntly, with each step closer to the centre of oilpatch power in Calgary, it is predicted less detail will be more favourably spun and buried deeper inside each Postmedia newspaper.

“Talisman Energy kick-started University of Calgary climate skeptic fund”

Reporting on hundreds of pages of University of Calgary documents released by order of Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner after freedom of information requests had been resisted for years, De Souza reports an oil executive who doesn’t believe human activity is causing climate change ‘helped to kick-start an elaborate public relations project designed to cast doubt on scientific evidence linking human activity to global warming with a $175,000 donation in 2004 channeled through the University of Calgary’. De Souza’s 1170-word piece said it was ‘the largest single contribution to a pair of trust accounts at the university that received $507,975 in donations to produce a video and engage in public relations, advertising and lobbying activities against the Kyoto Protocol and government measures to restrict fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.’2

In the Ottawa Citizen, the piece was placed on page 3 of the front section (A), but cut in half to 539 words. Details about the CEO denying climate change, details about contributors besides Talisman Energy, and comments from Greenpeace were left on the cutting room floor. $175,000 became ‘tens of thousands of dollars’ in the sub-headline.3 As the proximity to oilpatch power increased in the Edmonton Journal, the piece was pushed further inside the paper to page A7 and further cuts about efforts to prevent the release of the documents left only 386 words.4 In the Calgary Herald, the piece was pushed a little further inside the paper to page A8, but the obvious local interest of the UofC caused the editors to run 969 of the piece’s 1170 words, cutting only some of the quotes from Greenpeace, the Friends of Science, and from the letter accompanying the $175,000 cheque where Talisman said it was “pleased to be a part of this exciting project”.5

“University climate research accounts used for PR, travel, wining and dining: records”

De Souza’s 1065-word follow-up piece the next day added significant detail about how ‘A pair of “research” accounts at the University of Calgary, funded mainly by the oil and gas industry, were used for a sophisticated international political campaign that involved high-priced consultants, lobbying, wining, dining, and travel with the goal of casting doubt on climate change science’; ‘the strategy was crafted by professional firms, in collaboration with well-known climate change skeptics in Canada and abroad, allowing donors to earn tax receipts by channeling their money through the university.’6

In the strongest possible demonstration of the influence of oilpatch at Postmedia, none of the piece was printed in the Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, or Calgary Herald.

“University of Calgary and Talisman distance themselves from global warming contrarians”

Again adding significant detail from hundreds of pages of university documents eventually released under freedom of information legislation, De Souza’s third piece on the scandal weighed in at another 1191 words. ‘“The University of Calgary recognizes that there was insufficient management and governance oversight…” the university said in a statement’. ‘The [UofC] investigation also questioned whether the climate skeptics group was “double-billing” the university on some of its expenses.’ ‘One letter prepared by the university auditors also questioned whether the university had rules about receiving donations and paying societies.’ Though the UofC scheme ended years previously, De Souza noted ‘Oil and gas industry stakeholders, in partnership with the federal and Alberta governments, are now running a multimillion-dollar international marketing and lobbying campaign to cast doubts on warnings about the environmental impact of oilsands development and to weaken foreign climate policies that could single out pollution from this sector.’7

In contrast to editors’ refusal to run the previous piece, all the papers under examination ran the piece on the UofC and Talisman distancing themselves from the episode. The Ottawa Citizen cut almost 2/3rds of the piece, but placed on page A4.8 The Edmonton Journal added a sub-headline and printed more than half the piece (769 words), but pushed it deeper inside the newspaper to page A11.9 The Calgary Herald cut a few details about climate change skeptic Tom Harris at the end of the piece (likely for space considerations), running 707 words even deeper inside the paper on page A16.10

“Canada enlists Big Oil to help kill US green policies”

Drawing on a series of emails from Canada’s Washington embassy released to the Pembina Institute through access-to-information legislation, De Souza reported ‘Canadian diplomats in Washington have quietly asked oil industry players such as Exxon Mobil and BP to help “kill” US global warming policies in order to ensure that “the oil keeps a-flowing” from Alberta into the US marketplace’. ‘“The US government – read administration – is looking to us to provide support for their work to kill any interpretation of this section that would apply to Canadian oil sands,” wrote [Jason] Tolland [from the Canadian Embassy]. “That is the purpose of this.”’ ‘The correspondence reveals that the Canadian diplomats had contacted officials from the American Petroleum Institute – an industry association – as well as from Exxon Mobil Corp., BP, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Encana Corp., and Marathon Oil Corp. “to point out the potential implication to their imports from Canada.”’ De Souza’s 1055 word piece notes coyly, ‘According to Article 41 of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, visiting diplomats in a receiving state “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.”’11

The Ottawa Citizen cut almost half of the piece, but ran 691 words of the story beginning on its front page.12 The Edmonton Journal cut 500 more words, running only 186 words deep inside the paper on page A12 without a sub-headline.13 In one of the relatively rare reversals of the predicted pattern, the Calgary Herald ran almost half of De Souza’s piece more prominently on page A4 under a stronger headline with a sub-head.14

“Canada’s oilsands strategy includes lobbying against global warming measures: documents”

Drawing on hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the Climate Action Network Canada through access-to-information legislation, De Souza reported ‘Three major departments in the federal government have been actively coordinating a communications strategy with Alberta and its fossil-fuel industry to fight international global-warming policies that “target” oilsands production’. ‘Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, have collaborated on an “advocacy strategy” in the US to promote the oilsands and discourage environmental-protection policies.’ ‘The documents also reveal that the government is aware a majority of Canadians want stronger action to crack down on oilsands pollution. It highlighted public opinion research that suggests 72 per cent of Canadians want it to do more and that 79 per cent want emissions to be reduced from current levels.’ Yet, De Souza’s 862-word report continues, ‘The documents also include a PowerPoint presentation outlining the communications strategy in 2009 and secret briefing notes that urge the natural resources minister to fight back against “well-orchestrated media campaigns” against the oilsands as well as “restrictive legislative and regulatory proposals that associate oil sands with ‘dirty oil.’”’15

Among the small cuts made at the Ottawa Citizen was note that the Harper government has followed the US on some environmental regulations, ‘but it has not yet set any caps on pollution from the oilsands or other industrial sector’; 771 words were printed on page A4.16 In a somewhat mixed reversal of the predicted pattern, the Edmonton Journal ran ~100 fewer words, but the story began on the front page.17 The Calgary Herald resumed the predicted pattern, cutting another 100+ words and pushing the story back to page A4.18

“Conservatives deny diplomatic push to shield oilsands from US environmental rules”

The following week, as diplomats from around the world were meeting in Cancun for the annual United Nations climate change summit, De Souza reported ‘The Harper government dismissed accusations Monday that its environmental policies were focused on protecting the Alberta oilsands, in light of newly-released documents showing some oil-friendly Canadian diplomats attempting to undermine foreign environmental policies.’ The recently released documents ‘also coincide with an acknowledgment from Environment Minister John Baird last weekend that Canada would not follow the lead of the Obama administration in its plans to set new limits on greenhouse gas pollution from new industrial facilities and major expansions to existing ones starting in the year 2011.’ ‘“The reason why the Conservative government is no longer interested in following the example set by the United States on climate change is very simple,” said [Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles] Duceppe in the [House of] Commons. “It’s because the new regulations regarding clean energy would hurt the oilsands sector.”’19

Likely reflecting the lack of substance in the Harper government’s dismissal of De Souza’s reporting, the Ottawa Citizen opted not to print the piece. The Edmonton Journal cut 300+ words and printed the story on page A5.20 Mostly supporting the predicted pattern, the Calgary Herald added a sub-headline and ~80 words to the government’s denial, but published it one turn deeper in the paper on page A7.21

“Diplomats ‘targeted’ influential media to boost oilsands coverage in Europe”

Based on internal federal documents released under access-to-information legislation, De Souza reported ‘A lobbying team of Canadian diplomats promoting the oilsands in Europe engaged in “targeted outreach” to select reporters, government officials, investors and oil companies as part of an “extensive” campaign to cast doubts about proposed European climate-change policies’. The 1014-word piece added: ‘Other internal federal documents reporting on [Alberta Environment Minister Rob] Renner’s 2010 [European] visit indicated that he had attempted to overstate environmental protection policies in the province, by suggesting, during a discussion with investors, that there were new regulations in Alberta requiring 100 per cent recycling of water by 2016 …The Alberta government’s actual regulations call for a reduction in the growth of tailings waste from the production process.’22

Neither the Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, or Calgary Herald printed the story.

“Governments working with oil execs to curb oilsands criticism, documents show”

Elaborating further on the access-to-information documents released to Climate Action Network Canada and first reported in November 2011, De Souza added: ‘Senior federal and Alberta government officials are working hand-in-hand with a task force of oil and gas CEOs to “turn up the volume” on communications tactics to fight criticism about the industry’s environmental record’ in ‘a strategy designed at “upping their game” against criticism from other countries, as well as from Canadians in Ontario and Quebec.’ The 724-word piece noted, ‘The Harper government has pledged to crack down on industrial pollution from sectors such as the oilsands, but has delayed action several times over the past five years.’23

The Ottawa Citizen cut almost 200 words and placed the story inside on page A3.24 The Edmonton Journal did not print the story. The Calgary Herald cut another almost 150 words and buried the story inside the business section without a sub-headline on page D4.25

“Feds say industry organized PR strategy for oilsands”

After several months and a formal access-to-information request, Natural Resources Canada released part of its response to De Souza’s November 2011 and March 2012 reporting in more than 200 pages of partially redacted emails and internal records. ‘Natural Resources Canada says a powerful oil and gas industry lobby group was responsible for organizing a key meeting and some controversial messaging, in partnership with government, to polish the image of Alberta’s oilsands industry. …“The meeting was organized by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP),” wrote Natural Resources Canada media relations manager Paul Duchesne in an email sent on March 15, 2011, that was supposed to be delivered to Postmedia News. “We suggest you contact CAPP for more information.”’ ‘The records revealed a flurry of emails sent to the highest levels of government, including the office of Industry Minister Christian Paradis, at the time in charge of Natural Resources, from bureaucrats seeking approval to answer the questions raised by Postmedia News and to publicly explain that the meeting was organized by the industry association. …’The department did not answer subsequent requests from Postmedia News in the following weeks, which coincided with the federal election campaign.’26

The Ottawa Citizen, where De Souza worked, cut more than half of his 1073-word piece and printed 435 words on page A4.27 Neither the Edmonton Journal, nor the Calgary Herald printed the story.

“Harper deploys diplomats to counter US climate change campaign”

Following the release of an internal January 2011 Natural Resources Canada memorandum through access-to-information legislation, De Souza reported: ‘The Harper government has deployed a network of Canadian diplomats to lobby Fortune 500 companies in the United States in order to counter a global warming campaign launched by an environmental advocacy group targeting the oilsands industry’. ‘“The [diplomatic] posts have offered briefings to targeted companies to counter misinformation, and in certain cases, to provide background to likely targets which have yet to be approached by ForestEthics,” said the memo… “The campaign has not produced many true converts, but the possibility looms out there, particularly if further pressure is applied.” The document didn’t offer examples of “misinformation” from ForestEthics… But the memo acknowledged numerous environmental concerns surrounding oilsands development in Alberta’.28

The Ottawa Citizen cut 500+ words from the story and printed it on page A3.29 The Edmonton Journal did not publish the story at all and the Calgary Herald cut another 100+ words, burying the story inside the business section on page D4.30

“Former Harper adviser altered partnership’s mandate to improve oilsands image”

Based on Environment Canada briefing notes released through access-to-information legislation and annual reports from the Canada School of Energy and Environment think-tank, De Souza reported that Bruce Carson, an advisor to the prime minister, ‘wound up changing the think tank’s mandate, leaving him in the middle of a government and industry strategy to green the image of Alberta’s oilsands and delay regulations that would crack down on pollution. …An original agreement among the universities stated the partnership would help co-ordinate and support research to protect the environment or develop and deploy new technology to help reduce pollution.’ ‘Over the past year, Carson was also organizing a series of “dialogues” with CEOs such as March from Imperial Oil. …One invitation… was actually sent in an email from Dave Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the main industry lobby group.’ The 934-word story also noted, ‘The government has not yet introduced regulations to crack down on pollution from industrial sectors such as the oilsands – which has seen its emissions triple since 1990.’31

The Ottawa Citizen cut well over 500 words and placed the story inside the front section on page A2.32 The Edmonton Journal cut even more words and pushed the story to page A3 under a personalized (and therefore more vague) headline without a sub-head.33 The Calgary Herald did add back a few words to print slightly more than 1/3 of De Souza’s report and added a sub-headline, but did so under an even more vague headline deeper inside the newspaper on page A6.34

“‘Secret’ Environment Canada presentation warns of oilsands’ impact on habitat”

Reporting on May 2011 Environment Canada documents released through access-to-information legislation, De Souza wrote, ‘Contamination of a major western Canadian river basin from oilsands operations is a “high-profile concern” for downstream communities and wildlife, says a newly-released “secret” presentation prepared last spring by Environment Canada that highlighted numerous warnings about the industry’s growing footprint on land, air, water and the climate.’ Environment Canada ‘warned that Alberta and other parts of Western Canada are facing a steep economic and ecological price tag for failing to crack down on the industry’s collateral damage. “Contamination of the Athabasca River is a high-profile concern,” said the presentation… “Recent studies suggest elevated levels of pollutants near mining sites including hydrocarbons and heavy metals …[It] raises questions about possible effects on health of wildlife and downstream communities.”’ ‘A related Environment Canada document… warned the government that the industry’s economic future was in jeopardy because of a lack of “credible scientific information” required to counter campaigns and foreign regulations or legislation that crack down on products and industries with poor environmental performance.’ ‘The warnings from the department contrast with recent claims made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Peter Kent that the industry is being unfairly targeted by environmentalists who exaggerate its impacts on nature and people.’35

The Ottawa Citizen cut a third of the story and published it on page A3.36 In another of the rare deviations from the predicted pattern, the Edmonton Journal published De Souza’s entire piece beginning on the front page.37 The Calgary Herald returned to the predicted pattern, cutting a third and placing the story deeper inside on page A5. Among the cuts were warnings of rising air pollutants and resultant acid rain that could damage lakes in Alberta and Saskatchewan, pressure on vulnerable species, threats to forest species, river flow levels trending lower and threatening fish habitat, as well as comments from the Climate Action Network. Apologetic boilerplate from the oil lobby was moved from the end of the piece to above the Herald’s cuts.38

“Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver admits he didn’t ‘know very much’ about energy projects”

Reporting internal records released through access-to-information legislation, De Souza wrote, ‘’Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told government officials – six months after he was on the job – that he did not “know very much” about energy projects and needed briefings so he could talk “knowledgeably” about the subject’. ‘The comments by Oliver last November were made in response to a Calgary Herald column on a speech by [former Environment Minister Jim] Prentice… “Jim Prentice’s speech has a lot of facts about energy projects, including the Northwest Upgrader, which I do not know very much about,” Oliver wrote in an email… “It would be useful for me to have someone do a review of the projects he mentions so that I am up to date on developments and can talk knowledgeably about what is going on, who is involved and the implications for regulatory review, jobs and economic growth.” …“I don’t necessarily agree with the full thrust of Jim Prentice’s comments on the environment but he is right that we have to pay attention to the issue, which is what we are doing,” wrote Oliver…[who]…has publicly described environmentalists over the past year and a half as “extremists” and “radicals” who want to kill Canadian jobs.’’’ ‘Liberal natural resources critic David McGuinty said there was nothing wrong about a minister saying he or she needs to learn more about complicated files. But he… also said the emails suggested that the prime minister is making all decisions on federal environment and energy policies, with little input from his ministers.’39

The Ottawa Citizen cut almost half the story and placed it inside on page A3.40 The Edmonton Journal cut less than the Citizen (only 100+ words), but pushed the piece deeper inside to page A10.41 The Calgary Herald cut a further 100+ words, but didn’t push the story quite so deep inside the paper, printing it on page A8.42

“Enbridge says feds pushing”unrealistically fast” approvals for pipeline”

Reporting October 2010 documents releases through access-to-information legislation, De Souza wrote ‘Enbridge, the company behind a controversial pipeline proposal to link the Alberta oilsands with the British Columbia coast, has complained federal departments were asking it for too much information and pushing the approval process at an “unrealistically fast” pace, says newly released briefing material from Environment Canada. The internal records contrast recent statements made by federal cabinet ministers and the Alberta-based energy company about delays in the review process for the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline.’ ‘While the company said that its discussions with the federal government were about its preference to delay detailed reports about its plans until after the project has received the green light from regulators, Environment Canada said Enbridge felt federal departments were “asking for more technical information and project design details” than the company was ready to provide at the time. “The proponent has indicated that it is concerned that the Major Projects Management Office Project Agreement may be driving responsible authorities to issue project approvals within a time frame that is unrealistically fast, given the proponent’s commercial plans in that it prefers to proceed through the regulatory process without detailed route plans,” said Environment Canada in the briefing material’.43

Neither the Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, nor the Calgary Herald printed the story.

“Bureaucrats told Peter Kent reforms could undermine environmental protection”

Reporting 2011 briefing material obtained through access-to-information legislation by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin, De Souza wrote: ‘Oil and gas companies were pushing for a weakening of conservation laws that could undermine the federal government’s ability to protect the environment, bureaucrats warned Environment Minister Peter Kent more than a year ago. Their briefing material… was prepared a few months before the government overhauled Canada’s environmental laws to reduce federal oversight and duplication in federal and provincial environmental assessments.’ ‘Environment Canada officials told Kent that his government had already adopted legislation, prior to this, that had “effectively” addressed duplication in federal and provincial environmental assessments. They said that this eliminated the need to further narrow the federal government’s authority to evaluate projects such as development in Alberta’s oilsands.’

‘Environment Canada listed several reasons for the government to reject the industry lobbying efforts, including a warning that it would “weaken public trust and credibility in the environmental assessment process” and subsequent decisions, “especially when applied to major projects such as oil sands developments or large mines.”’ ‘But one year later, the federal government adopted new laws in July 2012 that automatically cancelled nearly 3,000 environmental reviews – including 678 involving fossil fuel energy and 248 involving a pipeline – by weakening its range of powers and removing regulatory triggers for environmental assessments.’ ‘The briefing material from 2011 also said that narrowing the scope of environmental assessments would make it “more difficult” to fulfill the government’s legal duty to consult Aboriginal groups on conduct that could harm their rights and way of life.’44

The Ottawa Citizen cut more than half of the story and printed it inside on page A3.45 Neither the Edmonton Journal, nor the Calgary Herald ran the story.

“Federal government planned ‘strong’ PR campaign to promote oil industry”

Reporting on a December 2011 email released through access-to-information legislation, De Souza wrote: ‘Days before announcing Canada would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the federal government drafted plans for a “strong and coordinated” public relations campaign and major regulatory reforms to promote oil and pipeline industry expansion, say personal notes drafted by the top bureaucrat at Natural Resources Canada. The notes… provided highlights of the government’s strategy to “advance a strong and coordinated advocacy and communications plan, with early pre-positioning for legislative and other actions.” …“pre-positioning” the government’s arguments was “necessary” to “frame” the public dialogue in advance of public hearings” on Jan. 10, 2012, for the Northern Gateway project.’

‘Following Dupont’s suggestions, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver then released a letter – prior to the start of the hearings – that accused environmental groups of supporting a “radical agenda” to “hijack” Canada’s regulatory system with funding from foreign special interests.’ ‘Oliver’s January 2012 letter kicked off a process that overhauled Canada’s environmental laws, introduced in about 400 pages of legislation, that were adopted with limited debate in Parliament a few months later. …The legislation, granting some demands from oil and pipeline industry lobbyists, came along with a federal budget that cut millions of dollars of funding for scientific research examining environmental impacts of industrial activity on air, water and wildlife.’ ‘In recent months, the federal government has spent millions of dollars in advertising promoting Canada’s natural resources and its efforts to strengthen environmental protection.’46

The Ottawa Citizen cut 200+ words and placed the story on page A6.47 The Edmonton Journal cut slightly less, but buried the story deeper inside the newspaper on page A17.48 The Calgary Herald didn’t publish the story.

“Federal government sent mixed messages to industry, First Nations about environmental reforms”

Reporting January 2012 briefing notes released through access-to-information legislation, De Souza wrote: ‘Environment Canada recommended one set of messages for First Nations groups and another for industry stakeholders a few months before the Harper government adopted sweeping changes to Canada’s environmental laws in 2012’. ‘The reforms, which reduced federal oversight on industrial development and weakened some environmental legislation, including laws protecting species at risk and water, have prompted a national protest movement in recent weeks that adopted the “Idle No More” slogan to defend the rights of Aboriginal Canadians.’ ‘Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver publicly announced the reforms in April 2012, prompting the [Assembly of First Nations’] national chief, Shawn Atleo to respond with a warning that the federal proposal would undermine the government’s constitutional “duty to consult” with First Nations. Atleo also said the reforms could lead to “unlawful” and “unconstitutional” decisions that would violate the rights of First Nations, posing threats to clean drinking water, fish habitat and environmental health in Aboriginal communities.’49

The Ottawa Citizen cut almost 200 words and printed the story on page A3.50 The Edmonton Journal cuts slightly less, but pushed the story deeper inside to page A7.51 The Calgary Herald did not print the story.

“Pipeline development was ‘top of mind’ in Stephen Harper’s budget bill, say”secret” records”

Reporting a secret January 2012 internal briefing note, De Souza wrote: ‘Pipeline development was a “top of mind” consideration factoring into the Harper government’s regulatory reforms adopted in a 400-page piece of legislation supporting the 2012 budget’. ‘It also recommended that Kent tell a pipeline industry association, before the budget was tabled, that the new legislation would revamp regulations for new industrial projects.’ ‘Nearly one third of the budget legislation was dedicated to changing Canada’s environmental laws, offering new tools for the government to authorize water pollution, investigate environmental groups, weaken protection of endangered species, and limit public participation in consultations and reviews of proposed industrial projects. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency confirmed in August that it cancelled nearly 3,000 environmental assessments as a result of the new legislation, including about 250 reviews of projects involving a pipeline.’ ‘After reviewing the briefing notes, NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie said …it indicates the government had made up its mind to overhaul environmental assessment legislation before Parliament had a chance to complete reviewing the situation.’52

De Souza’s home paper, the Ottawa Citizen, opted to not print his 692-word piece. The Edmonton Journal cut more than 250 words and published it inside the front section on page A5.53 The Calgary Herald only cut about half as much and printed the story on the same page, A5.54

“Bureaucrats told Stephen Harper’s government environmental reforms would be ‘very controversial,’ records reveal”

Reporting secret February 2012 briefing notes, De Souza wrote: ‘Federal bureaucrats told the Harper government before it overhauled environmental protection laws last year that its reforms would be “very controversial”’ and ‘suggested that the government could work together with the oil and gas industry to promote the reforms, which are now the target of the Idle No More protests that accuse the government of neglecting the rights of First Nations.’ ‘The records are the latest in a series of internal documents demonstrating the government’s co-operation with industry in delivering the reforms that eliminated environmental reviews for nearly 3,000 projects last summer.’55

Neither the Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, nor the Calgary Herald printed the 554-word story.

“Communications strategists deliberated on $60 million in cuts at Environment Canada”

Reporting on more than 500 pages of “secret advice to the [environment] minister” released through access-to-information legislation, De Souza wrote: ‘The Harper government included communications strategists in closed-door discussions that led to an estimated $60 million in cuts at Environment Canada in the 2012 federal budget’. ‘The internal document also said that the department’s human resources branch was “liaising” with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office as well as the central department in government, the Privy Council Office on implementation plans “via communications.”’ ‘“That sounds a bit backwards to me,” said Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents about 60,000 government scientists and professionals. “It’s wrong for communications people to be involved in deciding what decisions to make. Communications people are there to communicate the decisions after they’re made. It seems the government is just being political rather than (doing) what’s in the best interests of Canadians.”’56

More than 350 words were cut from the 828-word story by the Ottawa Citizen, which printed it on page A4.57 More than 150 more words were cut by the Edmonton Journal, which printed the story deeper inside on page A7.58 The Calgary Herald cut all 828 words, not publishing the story.


In the end, it is rather remarkable just how closely the Postmedia Network conformed to the predicted pattern of political editing bolstering the interests of the mighty oil and gas industries, increasing in intensity with the proximity to the Canadian oil and gas capital in Calgary. With only rare exceptions, every step closer resulted in exactly the kind of political choices a cynical reader would expect. The cynical reader could also be forgiven for suspecting it was Mike De Souza’s outstanding record of reporting important and insightful stories of contemporary importance that led Postmedia to terminate his position.59

Indeed, the same day De Souza was laid off, a story broke that makes imminent sense in light of the above analysis. According to a 2013 Postmedia presentation to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers posted on Twitter, ‘newspapers would work in partnership with CAPP to put the spotlight on Canada’s oil industry.’ ‘With images of pipelines in the background, the presentation went on to explain how it would link Postmedia’s “thought leadership” and stimulate conversations on social media. The ad proposal suggested “topics to be directed by CAPP and written by Postmedia,” with 12 single page “Joint Ventures” in the National Post, as well as 12 major newspapers including the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, and The [Victoria] Times Colonist.’60 In a “Publisher’s Note” in the presentation, the National Post’s Douglas Kelly boasts:

From its inception, the [Postmedia flagship] National Post has been one of the country’s leading voices on the importance of energy to Canada’s business competitiveness internationally and our economic wellness in general. We will work with CAPP to amplify our energy mandate and to be a part of the solution to keep Canada competitive in the global marketplace. The National Post will undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation.

The lesson for citizens is to appreciate that the narrative they consume through the mainstream media is filtered through the formidable influence of the world’s richest and most powerful industry. And, as this review of De Souza’s valuable journalism makes clear, the narrative established by the echo chamber of our narrow media landscape is often directly at odds with key underlying facts. The considerable efforts and expertise involved in bringing internal documents to light in time to inform political decisions is a public service of the highest order, and the sort of journalism that deserves support from every engaged citizen.


  1. Carol Linnitt, “Mike De Souza’s 20 most important articles for Postmedia”, (21 February 2014). One of the 20 articles could not be located in the Factiva database: #10. “Feds spent nearly $54,000 on pro-oil lobbying retreat over two days in London, England”, 15 February 2012 For this study’s purposes, it has been replaced with another piece, “Enbridge says feds pushing”unrealistically fast” approvals for pipeline”, published by Postmedia the same day.↩︎

  2. Mike De Souza, “Talisman Energy kick-started University of Calgary climate skeptic fund”, Postmedia News (13 September 2011).↩︎

  3. Mike De Souza, “Oil firm kick-started university skeptic fund”, Ottawa Citizen (14 September 2011), p. A3.↩︎

  4. Mike De Souza, “Talisman Energy provided funding for project questioning climate change”, Edmonton Journal (14 September 2011), p. A7.↩︎

  5. Mike De Souza, “Talisman backed anti-global warming campaign”, Calgary Herald (14 September 2011), p. A8.↩︎

  6. Mike De Souza, “University climate research accounts used for PR, travel, wining and dining: records”, Postmedia News (14 September 2011).↩︎

  7. Mike De Souza, “University of Calgary and Talisman distance themselves from global warming contrarians”, Postmedia News (16 September 2011).↩︎

  8. Mike De Souza, “University admits climate ‘research’ funds mishandled”, Ottawa Citizen (17 September 2011), p. A4.↩︎

  9. Mike De Souza, “Talisman distances itself from lobby effort”, Edmonton Journal (17 September 2011), p. A11.↩︎

  10. Mike De Souza, “U of C, Talisman distance themselves from Friends of Science group”, Calgary Herald (17 September 2011), p. A16.↩︎

  11. Mike De Souza, “Canada enlists Big Oil to help kill US green policies”, Postmedia News (28 November 2010).↩︎

  12. Mike De Souza, “Canada asked firms to help kill US green policies”, Ottawa Citizen (29 November 2010), pp. A1ff.↩︎

  13. Mike De Souza, “Canada enlists Big Oil to help protect oilsands, e-mails show”, Edmonton Journal (29 November 2010), p. A12.↩︎

  14. Mike De Souza, “Canada aims to ‘kill’ US green policies”, Calgary Herald (29 November 2010), p. A4.↩︎

  15. Mike De Souza, “Canada’s oilsands strategy includes lobbying against global warming measures: documents”, Postmedia News (21 November 2010).↩︎

  16. Mike De Souza, “In defence of the oilsands”, Ottawa Citizen (22 November 2010), p. A4.↩︎

  17. Mike De Souza, “Feds promote oilsands in US”, Edmonton Journal (22 November 2010), pp. A1ff.↩︎

  18. Mike De Souza, “Ottawa co-ordinates strategy on anti-oilsands campaigns”, Calgary Herald (22 November 2010), p. A4.↩︎

  19. Mike De Souza, “Conservatives deny diplomatic push to shield oilsands from US environmental rules”, Postmedia News (29 November 2010).↩︎

  20. Mike De Souza, “Gov’t denies bid to shield oilsands from US environmental rules”, Edmonton Journal (30 November 2010), p. A5.↩︎

  21. Mike De Souza, “Ottawa waves off claim it lobbied for oilsands”, Calgary Herald (30 November 2010), p. A7.↩︎

  22. Mike De Souza, “Diplomats ‘targeted’ influential media to boost oilsands coverage in Europe”, Postmedia News (5 March 2012).↩︎

  23. Mike De Souza, “Governments working with oil execs to curb oilsands criticism, documents show”, Postmedia News (15 March 2011).↩︎

  24. Mike De Souza, “Governments, Big Oil unite for PR fight”, Ottawa Citizen (16 March 2011), p. A3.↩︎

  25. Mike De Souza, “Governments help to promote oilsands”, Calgary Herald (16 March 2011), p. D4.↩︎

  26. Mike De Souza, “Feds say industry organized PR strategy for oilsands”, Postmedia News (9 August 2011).↩︎

  27. Mike De Souza, “Lobby group created PR plan for oilsands”, Ottawa Citizen (10 August 2011), p. A4.↩︎

  28. Mike De Souza, “Harper deploys diplomats to counter US climate change campaign”, Postmedia News (12 July 2012).↩︎

  29. Mike De Souza, “Tories lobbying Fortune 500 firms: Memo”, Ottawa Citizen (13 July 2012), p. A3.↩︎

  30. Mike De Souza, “Harper deploys diplomats to counter US group’s anti-oilsands campaign”, Calgary Herald (13 July 2012), D4.↩︎

  31. Mike De Souza, “Former Harper adviser altered partnership’s mandate to improve oilsands image”, Postmedia News (29 March 2011).↩︎

  32. Mike De Souza, “Ex-Harper adviser altered think-tank’s mandate”, Ottawa Citizen (30 March 2011), p. A2.↩︎

  33. Mike De Souza, “Carson altered think-tank’s strategy on oilsands pollution”, Edmonton Journal (30 March 2011), p. A3.↩︎

  34. Mike De Souza, “Carson changed research mandate”, Calgary Herald (30 March 2011), p. A6.↩︎

  35. Mike De Souza, “‘Secret’ Environment Canada presentation warns of oilsands’ impact on habitat”, Postmedia News (21 December 2011).↩︎

  36. Mike De Souza, “Oilsands impact ‘high-profile concern’”, Ottawa Citizen (22 December 2011), p. A3.↩︎

  37. Mike De Souza, “Ottawa flags oilsands impact”, Edmonton Journal (22 December 2011), pp. A1ff.↩︎

  38. Mike De Souza, “‘Secret’ presentation warns of oilsands’ effect on habitat”, Calgary Herald (22 December 2011), p. A5.↩︎

  39. Mike De Souza, “Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver admits he didn’t ‘know very much’ about energy projects”, Postmedia News (31 October 2012): ‘The office at Natural Resources Canada, which processed the request through access to information legislation, said that the content of the emails was released by accident and should have been withheld under provisions of the law that allow the government to protect information under consultation or deliberation. Postmedia News declined a request from the office to destroy the email records that included Oliver’s comments.’↩︎

  40. Mike De Souza, “Resources minister’s emails raise eyebrows”, Ottawa Citizen (1 November 2012), p. A3.↩︎

  41. Mike De Souza, “Minister lacked knowledge of energy projects, emails reveal”, Edmonton Journal (1 November 2012), p. A10.↩︎

  42. Mike De Souza, “Oliver admits to portfolio learning curve”, Calgary Herald (1 November 2012), p. A8.↩︎

  43. Mike De Souza, “Enbridge says feds pushing”unrealistically fast” approvals for pipeline”, Postmedia News (15 February 2012).↩︎

  44. Mike De Souza, “Bureaucrats told Peter Kent reforms could undermine environmental protection”, Postmedia News (1 December 2012).↩︎

  45. Mike De Souza, “Big Oil sought weaker safeguards”, Ottawa Citizen (3 December 2012), p. A3.↩︎

  46. Mike De Souza, “Federal government planned ‘strong’ PR campaign to promote oil industry”, Postmedia News (21 June 2013).↩︎

  47. Mike De Souza, “PR campaign backed oil industry”, Ottawa Citizen (22 June 2013), p. A6.↩︎

  48. Mike De Souza, “Ottawa plotted pro-oil industry PR blitz”, Edmonton Journal (22 June 2013), p. A17.↩︎

  49. Mike De Souza, “Federal government sent mixed messages to industry, First Nations about environmental reforms”, Postmedia News (24 February 2013).↩︎

  50. Mike De Souza, “Massaging the messages”, Ottawa Citizen (25 February 2013), p. A3.↩︎

  51. Mike De Souza, “Feds developed mixed messages on environment”, Edmonton Journal (25 February 2013), p. A7.↩︎

  52. Mike De Souza, “Pipeline development was ‘top of mind’ in Stephen Harper’s budget bill, say”secret” records”, Postmedia News (26 September 2012).↩︎

  53. Mike De Souza, “Pipeline development was ‘top of mind’ in budget bill”, Edmonton Journal (27 September 2012), p. A5.↩︎

  54. Mike De Souza, “Budget bill puts pipeline ‘top of mind’”, Calgary Herald (27 September 2012), p. A5.↩︎

  55. Mike De Souza, “Bureaucrats told Stephen Harper’s government environmental reforms would be ‘very controversial,’ records reveal”, Postmedia News (29 January 2013).↩︎

  56. Mike De Souza, “Communications strategists deliberated on $60 million in cuts at Environment Canada”, Postmedia News (3 July 2013).↩︎

  57. Mike De Souza, “Tories tried to massage media message”, Ottawa Citizen (4 July 2013), p. A4.↩︎

  58. Mike De Souza, “Communications staff weighed in on Environment Canada cuts”, Edmonton Journal (4 July 2013), p. A7.↩︎

  59. ITamara Baluja, “Postmedia eliminates parliamentary bureau”, (4 February 2014).↩︎

  60. Jenny Uechi and Matthew Millar, “Presentation suggests intimate relationship between Postmedia and oil industry”, Vancouver Observer (5 February 2014).↩︎