Investigation: Lobbyists on CBC panels fail to disclose conflicts

TV news shows stock their panels with lobbyists. But what happens when their clients’ interests come up?
Photo: Andy Nystrom
Your ad here
Don't like ads?
Automated ads help us pay our journalists, servers, and team. Support us by becoming a member today to hide all automated ads:
Become a member

Last week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held his first bilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. The virtual gathering between the two leaders dominated much of the non-COVID news cycle for the week, especially on the CBC.

Viewers of Canada’s national public broadcaster may have noticed multiple television interviews with former American diplomat Maryscott Greenwood — including three separate appearances on the day of the meeting on Feb. 23 — where she provided insight into important items on the meeting agenda.

Greenwood was introduced as the CEO of the Canadian-American Business Council and a former American diplomat to Canada. But she also works for Crestview Strategy, a lobbying firm with offices in Alberta and Ontario, as well as Washington, D.C. As the managing director of Crestview Strategy’s U.S. division in Washington, Greenwood is a paid advisor and lobbyist for the province of Alberta. This work is part of an ongoing contract worth US$30,000 per month with Premier Jason Kenney’s government. A copy of this document was reviewed by Ricochet.

Engagement letter outlining Greenwood's $30,000 per month lobbying contract with the Government of Alberta.

Paid to push the pipeline

The contract is signed by Alberta’s senior representative in the United States, former Conservative MP James Rajotte. As may be expected, it states that “energy and environmental policy” — a frequent topic of discussion on television around the Trudeau-Biden meeting given debates over the viability of various oil and gas pipelines — would be a focus of the company’s work for the Kenney government.

Alberta used public money to acquire a financial stake in the Keystone XL pipeline last year, transferring the risk of its uncertain construction to taxpayers in the form of a $1.5-billion equity investment and $6 billion in loan guarantees. Ricochet has reviewed emails sent by Greenwood on behalf of the Alberta government to journalists at the CBC and other outlets the day before Biden’s inauguration in January that played down the need to cancel Keystone XL and pushed favourable polling data related to the pipeline.

That polling data came from a strategic communications firm hired by the Kenney government for a variety of services including “opinion research and message testing” and “media and government relations strategy” at a cost of US$340,000 in public funds. The firm argued that cancellation of the pipeline should not be a priority for the incoming Biden administration, would not be politically popular, and “has little chance of actually affecting [sic] positive change for climate change.” It then went on to suggest alternative priorities for the Biden government’s initial days. This doesn’t seem to have accomplished much, as Biden cancelled Keystone XL in one of his first acts in office.

“A number of on-air experts have multiple clients when they appear and the client list isn’t normally part of the introduction at the top of the interview.” - Kenney government lobbyist and CBC panelist Maryscott Greenwood

In her CBC appearances, Greenwood also spoke about Alberta-based Enbridge’s Line 5 oil and gas pipeline infrastructure, which brings fossil fuels to Quebec and Ontario via the United States. The pipeline is facing opposition from some prominent Democratic politicians in the U.S. — Michigan’s governor is pushing to have it shut down — and is another major focus of the Alberta government. It was also an agenda item for the Trudeau-Biden meeting that Greenwood was brought on TV to discuss. Neither the payments from the Kenney government nor Greenwood’s work helping to promote views favourable to the fossil fuel sector were disclosed by the CBC during her interviews.

Another topic of discussion in her television appearances surrounded so-called “Buy American” proposals south of the border. The Crestview contract with the Alberta government shows that lobbying related to Buy American proposals is also part of her work.

Did CBC know?

CBC called Greenwood to discuss the matter last week. Both Greenwood and the CBC told Ricochet that in their view she was speaking at the time only in her capacity as an expert on Canada-U.S. relations, rather than as a lobbyist or advisor to the Kenney government on matters related to Canada-U.S. relations.

Greenwood pointed out that her lobbying work for the province of Alberta is public information, adding, “I have to believe CBC is aware.”

But Chuck Thompson, CBC’s head of public affairs, said in a statement to Ricochet that the network was “not aware of the contract with the Alberta government.”

He also stated that the lobbyist was not paid for her appearances and that CBC has a policy of mandating on-air disclosure whenever lobbyists have “direct business dealings specifically related to an issue we are discussing.” He added that the network should have applied the same disclosure rule in this case and that the lack of disclosure was an error, “not a lack of willingness to disclose ties.”

While there is no indication that CBC deliberately hid Greenwood’s connections to the Kenney government, the issue of lack of disclosure — and of the network allegedly being unaware of an interviewee’s lobbying work — is one that raises wider questions for a publicly funded broadcaster that so often has lobbyists on its airwaves as political panellists and commentators.

It is not always disclosed that, aside from fossil fuel money, this Alberta-based think tank is also heavily funded by arms manufacturers.

Under American law, lobbyists who are paid by a foreign government must disclose these links whenever appearing on U.S. airwaves. They must also track and submit their interactions with the media, including submission of any promotional or informational materials they circulate, such as polling and talking points.

No such foreign lobbying disclosure law exists in Canada, and for the most part Canadian lobbying laws govern interactions only with government officials, not with media or the public, and do not require publication of any documents or emails.

Ricochet has reviewed copies of lobbying filings bearing Greenwood’s signature that were submitted to the United States Department of Justice in accordance with U.S. federal lobbying laws. Greenwood’s U.S. lobby filings for Crestview’s efforts on behalf of the Kenney government appear to be in order.

In an example of one routine email that was disclosed in the U.S., a Washington-based CBC journalist refers to a Jan. 18 discussion with Greenwood about the pro-pipeline poll and raises the possibility of sharing the messaging with their colleagues in Ottawa and Edmonton. Though this is an entirely normal practice, the journalist refers to Greenwood’s lobbying work in passing which suggests that at least some CBC staff were aware of Greenwood’s lobbying on behalf of Alberta.

In her comments to Ricochet, Greenwood noted that it is not unusual for news media to feature lobbyists as expert voices, highlighting that “a number of on-air experts have multiple clients when they appear and the client list isn’t normally part of the introduction at the top of the interview.” She pointed to “the think tank folks who receive funding from multiple sources” as an example of this common occurrence.

The military-industrial-media complex

Indeed, just a few weeks prior to Greenwood’s most recent television hits, CBC published a story that extensively quoted a senior executive with a think tank speaking favourably about a major energy project proposed by Enbridge — without any mention that the think tank, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI), is funded in part by donations from Enbridge Pipelines Inc. and a number of major companies in the fossil fuel industry.

This issue is by no means limited to the CBC. The CGAI is used by multiple Canadian media outlets as a frequent go-to for commentary on foreign affairs and international trade issues. The think tank openly boasts of its influence with the media, tracking the number of its media hits on a monthly basis and noting in its reports that it has “seen remarkable growth in its media presence.”

Canadian journalists regularly interview CGAI’s vice president, David Perry, when discussing issues related to defence procurement and contracting, for example. However, it is not always disclosed that, aside from fossil fuel money, this Alberta-based think tank is also heavily funded by arms manufacturers, which make up a significant number of its donors. Many of these are directly involved in the major military contracts CGAI is called to comment on.

Neither CGAI’s funding from Lockheed nor from the Department of National Defence was disclosed on-air.

A review of CGAI’s most recent publicly available annual report shows that it received financial support from CAE, the Canadian Commercial Corporation, General Atomics, General Dynamics Land Systems, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin Canada, and Raytheon — not to mention NATO and Canada’s Department of National Defence.

In a past CBC television appearance during which the host joked mid-segment that they had already conducted “a thousand” procurement-related interviews with him previously, Perry defended the defence department’s choice of CGAI donor Lockheed Martin for a military contract and praised the firm’s competence, while also crediting department officials for their efforts to reach a successful outcome. Neither CGAI’s funding from Lockheed nor from the Department of National Defence was disclosed on-air. A screengrab from this appearance later appeared in the think tank’s annual report as an example of its effective media reach, with a reference to Lockheed visible in the photo.

On another occasion, CGAI’s VP wrote a newspaper op-ed lauding Canada’s sale of arms to the Saudi dictatorship and underlining its importance for the defence industry, without any disclosure noting that General Dynamics Land Systems Canada — which makes light armoured vehicles for the Saudis — is another long-time donor to the institute.

This issue of disclosure is coming under increasing scrutiny south of the border, where there is no public state broadcaster and where lobbyists and foreign-backed think tanks make the rounds daily on the major TV networks, as well as in the halls of Congress. A recent study noted that in a review of over 230 witnesses from think tanks who testified at the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, over 70 per cent appeared on behalf of institutions that did not fully disclose their donors. Given this, various members of Congress have also proposed legislation aimed at strengthening U.S. lobbying and disclosure laws — which are already more stringent than Canada’s.

While lobbyists and think tank staffers may hold a variety of views, including some that do not align with their clients’ and donors’, instances of these ties not being disclosed in media reporting raise questions as to how people can fully assess the information provided to them, and the extent to which debates over public policy in Canada are influenced by these undisclosed interests.

In response to questions from Ricochet about CGAI’s interactions with the media, Perry stated that while the nature of the think tank’s commentary and published materials are of interest to their funders, “our supporters do not determine the content of our activities.” He pointed to the group’s publishing of annual reports listing the names — though not the dollar figures — of its donors, adding that the reporters they interact with “understand we get funding from multiple sources, including industry, when they interview us.”

It is, however, unclear whether journalists are providing their audiences this same level of understanding.

You might also be interested in...
Investigation: Lobbyists on CBC panels fail to disclose conflicts
Jon Horler
March 3, 2021
Wealth taxes would generate far more revenue than previously estimated: CCPA report
Derrick O'Keefe
March 11, 2021
Period poverty increasing isolation and mental health issues, study shows
Alex Nguyen
March 10, 2021