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Dark echoes in an era of semi-disclosure


Integrity BC

Echo chambers has been popular as a buzz phrase as of late, the idea that we post and share links and opinions that we agree with on social media to others that also agree with them, thereby amplifying their echo.

What happens to those chambers, though, when ‘dark echoes’ infect public debate?

In an era of increasing public distrust, there’s a very real risk that good ideas could fall victim to a failure to disclose. It breeds suspicion.

Some are clamouring for public advocacy groups to disclose their sources of funding – an admirable goal – but they’re eerily silent when it comes to Jim Shephard disclosing his funding sources for his recent first-past-the-post advertising campaign in advance of this fall’s referendum on proportional representation.

Sometimes the connection between a group and its self-interests are obvious: the Fraser Institute or the Canadian Taxpayers Association spring to mind.

Sometimes not.

Pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk Canada Inc. found itself in hot water a couple of years back due to a “stealth marketing campaign” after the company hired This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ comedian Cathy Jones to “ to get women to start talking about female sexual health after menopause.”

The public relations firm hired by Novo, GCI Group, didn’t want anyone to know that Jones was getting paid by Novo or that there was even a drug company behind the campaign.

When the “stealth” was uncovered, there was some egg on a few people’s faces.

Then there are the sins of omission.

In a 2015 pro-Site C commentary, Blair King, notes that “good numbers are hard to find” when it comes to energy consumption in B.C., even though Statistics Canada publishes the numbers annually.

Instead, he cites a 2007 report by the Vancouver-based Globe Foundation that found B.C.’s total energy consumption was 317,500 Gigawatt-hour in 2000.

Left out? A critical fact for the reader: B.C. Hydro helped fund the foundation’s report.

Last December, Maclean’s magazine published a pro-Site C commentary, “Why John Horgan deserves credit for going ahead with Site C.” Its author was described, in part, as “a former electricity trader.”

Would the reader have had a different takeaway if that had read “a former electricity trader with Powerex, a subsidiary of B.C. Hydro?” Possibly.

News last month that B.C.’s health ministry is considering forcing “pharmaceutical companies to reveal their payments to physicians, patient groups and other health-care organizations” was welcome news. But why stop there?

The government should also require medical researchers to disclose the sources of their funding, particularly when they’re appointed by government as advisors on public policy issues.

In 2011, the Provincial Health Services Authority established the Therapeutic Evaluation Unit (TEU), seen at the time as an upstart to the Therapeutics Initiative.

TEU’s founder, Dr. Bruce Carleton, a medical researcher in Vancouver, has “unrestricted research funds from Pfizer Canada,” maker of Champix, according to his federal disclosure report.

In B.C. there’s no requirement that such funding relationships need to be publicly disclosed and, in his case, it isn’t. He’s broken no rules, because B.C. doesn’t require the public aspect for such disclosures.

Sometimes the lines blur between friendships and public advocacy.

Former Surrey mayorality candidate Barinder Rasode has a new gig. She’s the CEO of Niche Canada (National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education).

There’s no mention of her past work as the director of social responsibility at Resource Works on Niche’s website, but there is of her high praise for the News Brunswick government.

It’s noteworthy because a B.C. company, Zenabis, was chosen to be one of three suppliers of recreational marijuana to that province’s liquor corporation.

One of the company’s principal backers is Monty Sikka.

He was in the news this week, because Uber and ridesharing were as well. He’s behind a ride-for-hire app called Kater.

Sikka has been described in the media as “wealthy,” which he would need to be to attend a $10,000 cash-for-access event with former premier Christy Clark in 2015 or to donate $20,000 to Rasode’s failed bid for mayor in 2014.

Things aren’t always as they seem and it’s all the more reason that full disclosure should be the automatic default.

Points of view on policy can start out pure as the driven snow until a failure to disclose turns them to slush.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

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