Full disclosure: Why I was mentioned in Ontario government e-mails
On Monday I learned that my name was mentioned as part of an e-mail exchange between Alicia Johnston, who was director of communications for then-Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid, and Ben Chin, who at the time was vice-president of communications at the Ontario Power Authority. The 2010 e-mail exchange, which I wasn’t aware of, was part of documents released as part of an Ontario legislative committee probe into the former McGuinty government’s so-called gas plant scandal.
Some bloggers and Tweeters who have disagreed with my writing in the past, including my passionate support of clean energy and other climate change solutions, have taken it upon themselves to read into the limited content within this e-mail exchange to, in effect, defame me. For example, one blog post by an outspoken Ontario energy analyst shows up on a Google search with the title “Corrupt Reporting by the Toronto Star’s Tyler Hamilton.” One Tweet by a veteran Canadian right-wing journalist was titled: “Corrupt Electricity Reporting at the Toronto Star.” These mischaracterizations are not only irresponsible and malicious, they are baseless and untrue.
This blog post aims to set the record straight by providing as much context as I can. First, let’s look at the November 23, 2010 e-mail exchange itself:
Alicia Johnston writes at 11:54 p.m that: “Just got off the phone with Tyler H who had a few qs. We’ve got to get him out as an ‘expert’ commentator.”
About six minutes later, Ben Chin comments on other aspects of Johnston’s e-mail, and at the end replies: “And make Tyler feel special. We need to throw him some work. He doesn’t need it, but everyone likes feeling wanted. I really want to engage him for central. It would be a good score.”
At the time of this exchange, I was not a staff reporter for the Toronto Star. After 10 years of reporting — first on technology and telecom, later on energy issues – I decided I wanted to write a book on clean energy innovation based on all the interesting entrepreneurs, academics and business leaders I had interviewed over the years. The newspaper was into its second round of downsizing since I had been hired (it’s now on round four) so I decided in early 2010 to take a voluntary package from the newspaper. Come April 2010 I was on my own, had secured a book deal with a local publisher in the Beaches, and spent the next six months researching and writing. Throughout this time, and up until early March of this year, I was still writing a weekly column on clean energy technologies as a freelance writer. I also became an adjunct professor of environmental studies at York University.
Now, back to the timing of the e-mail exchange in question. I have gone through my own e-mails and tracked down one back-and-forth I had with Johnston on November 24, 2010, a day after the exchange. Johnston was acknowledging a telephone chat I had with her on the 23rd, telling me it was good to talk and basically saying stay in touch. That chat was the first I had ever had with her, and possibly the last. The e-mail was one of the first as well. I believe I called her to get background comment on the government’s revised Long-Term Energy Plan, as this is what I wrote about in my Star column and Clean Break blog immediately after.
Why would Johnston later tell Chin that they should get me out as an “expert” commentator? Well, as someone who created a column in Canada’s largest newspaper for the specific purpose of writing about the benefits of and progress around clean energy and energy conservation, I am in principle supportive of the province’s Green Energy Act and its general direction. Why wouldn’t they think this way? I like solar. I like wind. I believe in energy conservation. I’m a big believer in the potential of the smart grid. I love to highlight solutions and be constructive. I consider long-term planning that addresses climate and environmental concerns as just — if not more — important than day-to-day economic concerns, like the price of gas falling by 2 cents on a long weekend. This is my bias — hell, I’m an adjunct professor of environmental studies! — and I have always worn it on my sleeve. The Toronto Star knew this. So did readers. As a columnist, I tried as best I could to back my personal opinions or stories with good, balanced research. The bottom line: you were, and still are, unlikely to see me encourage the province to open up more inefficient coal plants so we can make electricity cheaper but make people sicker.
Now, on to the strange e-mail reply that came from Ben Chin. I will admit at this point that I consider Chin a friend, both at the time he wrote the e-mail and even now. I didn’t know him personally when he started at the power authority, but I did know and respect him from a distance when he was a young TV reporter covering the Paul Bernardo murder trial in Toronto. We had a coyote/sheepdog relationship, able to separate personal from professional. After he left the power authority and I left my staff position at the Star, we stayed in touch. We lived in the same neighbourhood and would occasionally go for a beer. In September 2011, in fact, I invited Chin (who had left the power authority and moved to B.C.) to my book launch to say a few words.
That’s why it angered me to learn of Chin’s e-mail. It’s patronizing. It’s offensive. It confirms the stereotype of communications professionals — that they manipulate journalists and the public. I confronted Chin with his e-mail earlier this week, and this was his reply: “I can’t regret that enough. Sorry. The way I made you sound. Just stupid on my part. Whatever I meant by that, and I honestly can’t remember, it wasn’t that.”
With respect to the most contentious part of Chin’s e-mail — The “We need to throw him some work” comment — some online commentators have recklessly used that comment to accuse me of somehow being in the pocket of the Liberal government, hence subject lines like “Corrupt Electricity Reporting…” I’ll let my past reporting and column writing speak for itself. While generally supportive of the direction of the government’s energy plan, and a believer of the clean technologies behind it, I have also been critical of its implementation and specific aspects of the government’s plan. I have vocally disagreed with plans to build new nuclear plants, I have been highly critical of the government’s politically motivated decision to put a moratorium on offshore wind, I have written about past conflicts-of-interest on the power authority’s board of directors, I have blamed the government and power authority for foot-dragging, I have questioned the structure and pricing around the feed-in tariff program, and many times I’ve criticized the government for neglecting energy conservation. I’ll add that I did this while at the same time trying to be constructive. Indeed, even the Ontario PC Party has used my columns to support their attack on Liberal policy, as recently as October 2012. (NR-FITDelays Oct5)
But has the Ontario Power Authority or the Ministry of Energy ever “thrown” me work? I have never received payment, whether for writing services or anything else, from the power authority or the ministry. Duguid told me once, at a press event long after he left the energy portfolio, that he once considered approaching me as his communications director. I can tell you now: not interested.
Post-Toronto Star and after finishing my book, I was pretty much a full-time freelance writer who was open to taking on research writing assignments, and even as editor at Corporate Knights magazine, I do the occasional research writing as part of Corporate Knights Inc. when I have a moment and if I have a personal interest in the work. For those who are asking, here is full disclosure on that front for work I did for a different agency of government:
On Oct. 27, 2010, I was invited by the Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages supply and demand on the provincial grid, to bid on a writing/research project related to its Smart Grid Forum. A combination of my knowledge of the subject area, my experience writing, and my relatively low per-hour rate helped me win the assignment. Basically, it would take the form of an annual update of all smart grid-related activities in the province, and make recommendations on how the province should move ahead. I’d sit in on meetings with utility, government, academic and private-sector representatives participating in the forum, take notes, and basically convert a whole lot of information into a readable, 35-page document for public release. The whole process took about five months. Here it is here. I alerted readers of my blog of the availability of this document on May 3, 2011, and fully disclosed that I was the one who prepared it. I did not write about the document in my weekly Toronto Star column, and I made it clear to the IESO that I would not do so. I have, of course, written columns about the smart grid in general — something I have consistently championed in my writing for several years.
I estimated in total I would need about 105 hours to attend meetings, research, write, edit, and proof the report. My fee was $150 an hour, working out to a little less than $16,000 for the five-month project. I ended up working more hours because of several rounds of requested edits and some delays on the part of the forum, so my final bill was $19,800. On a per-word basis, which is how writers usually charge for their work, it worked out to $1.40 a word. That’s cheap in the world of professional report writing, and on par with what some of the top magazine writers make.
Looking at the e-mail exchange between Chin and Johnston, I can see why it has drawn attention. I was approached by the IESO before this e-mail exchange took place, but I was awarded the contract a few weeks after. I’m a journalist, so I’m skeptical by nature. Did officials from the ministry and OPA put pressure on the IESO, which is supposed to be an “independent” agency, to hire me for something the agency had asked me to bid for in the first place? I guess it’s possible. But it seems a stretch. And the fact is, since then I have been hired back once by the IESO to write another smart grid-related report — this one similar in size but for $15,000 and to be used, initially I’m told, for internal purposes.
All of this is a long and boring way of saying that I have been completely above-board about what I do, and while I can’t control what people say (or e-mail) behind my back, I can control my own actions.
So let’s be clear: there has been absolutely no corrupt energy reporting, either outside of or inside the Toronto Star. Those who say as much are defaming me and Canada’s largest daily newspaper, and if necessary I will consider my legal options to protect my reputation. Those who know me know that financial gain is not why I do what I do. Sure, I need to pay the bills like anyone else. I’ve edited newsletters for venture capital firms. I’ve written the occasional report for philanthropic organizations. I’ve organized an energy innovation exhibition. I’ve done a bit of public speaking when asked, sometimes for free and other times for an honorarium and/or having my expenses covered. I have also volunteered my time, such as being a director for the ZooShare Biogas Co-operative, which plans to turn manure from animals at the Toronto Zoo into clean electricity for Ontario’s grid.
But my mission as a journalist — and for the past two years as editor of Canada’s magazine of the year — has been and I hope always will be to shine a light on economical solutions to our environmental problems; to be a catalyst for positive change and constructive discussion on how to make our world a more livable place. Period.
I hope this will be the last time I need to comment on this issue. I have a family health crisis that needs my attention. It angers me that this non-controversy has become a distraction from what really matters.