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The Harper government, Ethical Oil and Sun Media connection

Just over a week before the Northern Gateway Pipeline hearings began, EthicalOil.org and its allies launched a pre-emptive PR offensive on environmental and First Nations groups who oppose the pipeline. Their new website, OurDecision.ca, and ad campaign are an attempt to invalidate opposition to the pipeline by pointing to the small amount of American funding going to some environmental groups, and claiming that pipeline opponents are actually the “puppets” of “foreign interests.”

Sun News was first to promote the campaign, and by the end of the week, numerous papers across Canada were repeating the story. After mentioning last November that "significant American interests" would line up against the pipeline, Stephen Harper eagerly picked up where he left off, touting EthicalOil.org's cause, decrying the foreign influence attempting to “overload” the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Review. By Monday, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver had penned a letter to Canadians denouncing the foreign interests trying to “hijack” the review process "to achieve their radical ideological agenda". The same ominous tone and divisive talking points were parroted over and over by EthicalOil.org, Harper, Oliver and the credulous media, driving an entire week of news coverage.  

The OurDecision.ca campaign was timed to hit national news just as many Canadians were tuning into this issue for the first time, and this frame (“foreign interests” vs. a “Canadian decision”) could have a lasting impact on how people view one of the most important debates in a generation. 

So how did a small industry front group with secretive funding sources manage to have so much impact on the national conversation? Well, it looks like the Harper government, EthicalOil.org, and Sun Media have coordinated with one another to create an echo chamber that turns industry talking points into national news. We'll show how one digital communications company intimately connects EthicalOil.org, the Harper Government and Sun Media.

Ethical Oil Echo Chamber

The 'ethical oil' echo chamber was built in 2010, after the release of Ezra Levant's book of the same name. As Donald Gutstein writes, Sun papers prominently featured three excerpts from Levant's book, giving it national exposure. Through a series of articles and appearances in Sun-owned papers, the National Post and right wing talk shows, an echo chamber of voices amplified the 'ethical oil' message. Then came bloggers like Alykhan Velshi, who helped to turn Levant's book into the ethicaloil.org website, and before long it reached the mouths of politicians.

From Gutstein's perspective, ideas often take years to percolate through public opinion filters before they end up on national policy agendas. But in this case, it appears that industry and government synced up messaging very rapidly. 

Go NewClear

Last week, we reported an extensive web that connects EthicalOil.org with oil interests, the Harper government, and other conservative leaders and groups. At the centre is Go Newclear, a Vancouver-based digital communications agency with a focus on public affairs and politics. An analysis of the web server hosting of gonewclearproductions.com reveals an intricate network of over 50 websites connected primarily to the Conservative Party of Canada, the Wildrose Alliance Party, EthicalOil.org, and other right wing causes and politicians.

Go Newclear’s President and COO is Hamish Marshall, the husband of current Ethical Oil spokesperson Kathryn Marshall, and a former Conservative campaigner, former PMO staffer and Conservative strategist deeply connected to oil interests. The other two principals in the company have deep connections to the Harper government as well.

One of the principals, Brendan Jones, worked as a website administrator for the Office of the Leader of the Opposition from August 2005-February 2006. Following Harper's election, he worked as the special assistant for the Prime Minister from February 2006-November 2007. Jones then moved to the Conservative Resources Group, or Conservative Caucus Research Bureau, an agency responsible for developing political communication products, branding and marketing decisions and liaising between the federal Conservative caucus and Prime Minister’s Office, until 2009. In that role, he was a television and radio specialist. The third principal of Go Newclear, Travis Freeman, is still listed with the Conservative Resources Group.

Now that we know that EthicalOil.org and the Conservative government are deeply connected, what about the other part of the Conservative echo chamber, Sun Media?

Digital fingerprints

A follow-up analysis of the network neighborhood around the Go Newclear server revealed some amazing coincidences. Almost right beside their "birds of a feather" server is another server that hosts suntvnews.ca, suntvnewchannel.ca, suntvnewschannel.com, suntvnewschannel.net and suntvnewschannel.org. The IP addresses for these servers are different by only two numbers, and it is highly likely they are sitting right next to each other.

Deepclimate notes some considerable similarities between the websites. In addition, an analysis of many of the websites either currently or previously on the neighboring servers show a number of striking similarities at the code level including naming conventions and comment style. Of particular interest is the CSS Reset. The sites we have analyzed use the exact same derivative of Eric Meyer's classic CSS Reset.

EthicalOil.org, OurDecision.ca, JasonKenney.ca, JoeOliver.ca, GoNewclear.com, the original SunTVNews.ca website, Amerians4OPEC.com, Wildrosecaucus.caRichardDur.ca, CalgaryWard14.ca, Cummins4BC.ca, CorrieAdolph.comHeatherForsyth.com, PaulHinman.ca, PierreMP.ca, and DriveOutTheTax.com contain the same CSS Reset.

Go Newclear's Brendan Jones also has the same CSS Reset on his personal website. 

The websites of KathrynMarshall.ca, abingdon.ca, campusPC.ca, JohnParker.ca, DavidYager.ca, DustinNau.comVoteDougCooper.ca and axethegastax.ca also have the same CSS Reset, and are all listed as authored by Newclear. 

As Evan Leeson, the Principal of Catalyst Internet (which is DeSmogBlog's IT team) and a 19 year veteran of website development writes: 

Developers have their bag of reusable tricks to make coding efficient. In this case, all of these sites use precisely the same CSS reset -- same elements, same formatting, down to the character. Many sites will use something similar to this one, but this is exact. It's even used on Newclear's own custom home page. It is highly likely the same developer did all these sites.

Connecting the Dots

The aforementioned Sun TV News websites were registered in December of 2008, prior to Sun Media’s application with the CRTC (the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) in 2010. When Go Newclear moved the site onto its server in June 2010 SunTVNews.ca was a promotional website that invited Canadians to pledge to watch the channel when it was launched.

At the time of the website registration, Kory Teneycke was Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications. He had been the director of the Conservative Caucus Research Bureau while both Jones and Freeman worked there. 

On March 30, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went to New York to meet with Ruport Murdoch. The meeting did not appear on Harper's itinerary, and was intended to be secret, according to reporting by Bruce Cheadle of the Canadian Press. The pair were joined by the President of Fox News (and legendary Republican communications expert), Roger Ailes, and Kory Teneycke.

Within four months of this meeting, Kory Teneycke took a contract with Quebecor to explore the creation of a new Canadian media outlet. Then, ten months later, Quebecor launched Sun Media. Teneycke is now the vice president of the Sun News Network.

This new information sheds some new light on this meeting, and provokes a few fundamental questions. Why does a website for our new conservative-leaning media institution, dubbed "Fox News North," appear to have a direct link to government staffers? On whose orders were these websites created by Go Newclear? Were any of these orders from government? From oil companies?

It's time for the media to ask some hard questions about the relationships that are powering the EthicalOil.org echo chamber. 

Check out this funny Rick Mercer video mocking the "foreign influence" campaign.

This post first appeared on DeSmogBlog.

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