As a once in a generation Canadian pipeline review process gets underway, the rhetoric around the massive Northern Gateway project has heated up noticeably. The Conservative government and the Ethical Oil pro-industry group seemed to take turns ratcheting up attacks on environmental groups opposing the project almost daily. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver may have set a new low in his recent attacks on those who would “hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda”, backed by “foreign special interest groups”, not to mention “billionaire socialists … like George Soros”. The eerie echoes of Ethical Oil’s recent advertising campaign and back-and-forth timing have led some to recall previously discussed ties between Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and key Ethical Oil figures Ezra Levant and former executive director Alykhan Velshi (now safely back in the PMO).
But it turns out there are other interesting ties behind the scenes. An examination of the web server hosting EthicalOil.org reveals a network of fifty or so websites, mainly on behalf of right-wing causes and politicians. The latter include two Conservative cabinet ministers, Velshi’s old boss immigration minister Jason Kenney and that scourge of foreign billionaire socialists, Joe Oliver. And it also points to the key involvement of Go Newclear Productions, a somewhat mysterious “full service digital agency with a focus on public affairs and politics”.
Go Newclear is headed up by none other than political wunderkind Hamish Marshall, already a veteran of both the PMO and the Conservative federal council – and husband of hapless Ethical Oil spokesperson Kathryn Marshall. The other Go Newclear directors /officers (and presumed principals) are linked to the Conservative PR machine known as the Conservative Resources Group; radio and TV advertising specialist Brendan Jones left the CRG in 2009, while developer Travis Freeman, astonishingly enough, is still with the group. Not only that, but the Ethical Oil cluster of websites and Joe Oliver.ca form a distinct sub-group within the Go Newclear network, with unmistakeable signs of common development and a deployment seemingly aimed at obfuscating the link to Newclear team. So there is more than just common ideology tying EthicalOil.org to the Conservative PR machine; they also share digital service providers – and a lack of transparency.
Newclear then and now
The roots of Go Newclear Productions go back to early 2009. That’s when Brendan Jones left the Conservative Resource Group, a “research and public relations bureau of the Conservative Party” with about 30 employees. (The CRG is listed in the Canadian government employee directory under the rubric Conservative Research Bureau). According to his Linkedin profile, Jones held down stints as special assistant and website administrator for Stephen Harper and then was Television & Radio Specialist at the CRG up until January 2oo9 .
As the startup’s Chief Creative Officer, Jones did not preside over much activity at first from all appearances. As late as July 2010, Newclear did not even have a functioning website. But that all began to change with the arrival of Hamish Marshall.
Marshall’s LinkedIn resume certainly shows a young ambitious political mover on the rise. As Manager of Strategic Planning in Stephen Harper’s PMO, Marshall was responsible for the Conservative government’s public opinion research. In 2007, Marshall moved back to NaiKun Wind Energy Group in British Columbia and then in 2009 became Research Director for Angus Reid Strategies, managing the public affairs practice in western Canada. During this period, Marshall was also on the Conservative national council, representing B.C. and chairing the National Candidate Selection Committee.
Public Eye Online described Marshall’s next move in June 2010:
Angus Reid Public Opinion research director Hamish Marshall is leaving the polling firm he joined in April 2009. In an email obtained by Public Eye, Mr. Marshall announced “today is my last day at Angus Reid Public Opinion. I am off to pursue some exciting opportunities (more on that later).” Specifically, he’ll be the president and chief executive officer of Go Newclear Productions Inc., a Web development company. Mr. Marshall will also continue to do political research work for a small unnamed company.
The rest of 2010 saw a fair amount of work for Newclear and Abingdon with Alberta’s right-wing Wildrose Party, including development of the main Wildrose website and a number of individual ones for members and candidates, not to mention a controversial online poll. Marshall also got involved in British Columbia provincial politics, helping John Cummins to the B.C. Conservative leadership and now, as the party’s campaign manager, overseeing selection of candidates for an election expected within a year or so. Almost all of those websites are hosted on a Newclear controlled server at ThePlanet.com, part of the SoftLayer.com server farm empire based in Dallas, Texas.
“Strategic Imperatives Online” (or what’s in a name server?)
I’ll be taking a more detailed look at those Wildrose and BC Conservative connections in part 2. For now, though, I’ll merely point out that while Newclear hasn’t exactly trumpeted any of this activity, neither have they taken any steps to hide their involvement; the name server for all these websites is found at GoNewclearProductions.com. (A name server is a domain or server designated to resolve browser and other internet requests for “look up” of other domains; each domain name must have an associated name server to provide the translation of a domain name into a numeric IP address. For example, here is the whois information for wildrosecaucus.ca, showing the designated name server as ns1.GoNewclearProductions.com).
2010 also saw the creation of another name server: StrategicImperativesOnline.com.This domain name’s owner is completely hidden, and the domain has no obvious ties to Newclear, except that the few domains associated with it happen to be hosted on the same server as the other Newclear domains. Even that could be coincidental (although very unlikely in this case); sometimes single websites or small domain groups are ganged on servers (or server clouds) with other unrelated websites. However, the Newclear connection is clinched by noting that just after being registered StrategicImperativesOnline.com had GoNewclearProductions.com as its own name server – for all of one day.
An overlapping chronology
The websites associated with that name server are, well, arguably somewhat sensitive, especially when viewed as a group. The following chronology shows in bold all the “strategically imperative” websites launched since the beginning of 2011, along with other relevant events.
- 2011-01-28: JasonKenney.com redesigned and moved to Newclear.
- 2011-03-09: Ethical Oil Institute is incorporated in Alberta.
- 2011-05-04: Alykhan Velshi leaves Kenney’s office to run EthicalOil.org.
- 2011-06-21: EthicalOil.org is launched as a simple blog (see July 14 version).
- 2011-07-05: Joe Oliver.ca redesigned and moved to Newclear.
- 2011-07-28: Revamped and expanded EthicalOil.org is launched.
- 2011-08-26: First Ethical Oil TV ad runs on Oprah network in Canada.
- 2011-12-15: Ethical Oil launches ChiquitaConflict.com and Alberta radio ad boycott campaign after Chiquita asked transporters to avoid oil sands fuel.
- 2012-01-02: Ethical Oil launches OurDecision.ca in conjunction with radio ads attacking “foreign influence” on B.C. environmental groups just ahead of Northern Gateway pipeline hearings.
One interesting question in light of the above is which members of the Go Newclear team might have actually executed the various projects.
Turning first to the easier question of the TV and radio ads, it’s a reasonable inference that responsibility for these fell to Newclear CCO Brendan Jones, given his background as a radio and TV specialist for the Conservative Resource Group.
But how about the websites? The earliest website listed above, JasonKenney.com, has a lot in common with the rest of the Newclear portfolio, such as WildroseCaucus.ca: A garish design along with a fairly standard WordPress and jQuery implementation, often using a CodaSlider plug-in to provide the ever changing “panels” of featured stories that slide into place one after the other.
The next two websites, EthicalOil.org and JoeOliver.ca, are clearly much slicker than the other Newclear websites. And although they have quite different looks and functionality (with EthicalOil.org sporting a blog comment system from Disqus.com and various “grass roots campaigns” tools), there is unmistakeable commonality behind the scenes.
In a similar vein, both websites include the FancyBox plug-in which gives a, well, fancy floating “lightbox” effect to photos or other images (it’s a Mac thing apparently). Here’s a screenshot of FancyBox in action at the JoeOliver.ca photo page.
I haven’t found an instance of FancyBox at EthicalOil.org; perhaps it isn’t even used. But it’s definitely there – and, once again, the JoeOliver.ca and EthicalOil.org versions are identical. (Fittingly, the only other website that has this plugin is OurDecision.ca, although, it too does not appear to use it).
The inescapable inference is that the current versions of these two flagship “strategic imperative” websites were done by the same developer around the same time.
The only known member of the Go Newclear team with apparent web development experience is the mysterious “third man”, Travis Freeman. So perhaps he is the unknown developer or else supervised the effort. But even in the unlikely event that Freeman has had no active role whatsoever in any Newclear projects, his presence on the Go Newclear team, while also holding down a government job as developer at the Conservative Resource Group (a.k.a. Conservative Research Bureau), is highly problematic, to say the least.
So add the names of Hamish Marshall, Brendan Jones and Travis Freeman, alongside Levant and Velshi, to the growing list of Ethical Oil connections to the Conservative Party of Canada.
It’s time to ask some real questions and demand more transparency about what’s really going on here. Such as:
- What communications and transactions have occurred between and among Conservative government ministers or aides, Go Newclear and/or Ethical Oil?
- And how can the presence of a Conservative employee on the board of a supposedly independent digital media firm possibly be explained or justified?
But don’t expect any answers from EthicalOil.org, if this interview of Ethical Oil spokesperson Kathryn Marshall (along with the Sierra Club’s John Bennet) by CBC’s Evan Solomon is anything to go by (the amazing performance starts at around 5 minutes in).
Marshall’s repeated refusal to respond to a simple yes-or-no question about financial support from Northern Gateway principal backer Enbridge must set some sort of record for evasion (not to mention further damaging the credibility of claims to be a “grassroots” organization). So, just as Marshall has done in that interview and elsewhere, EthicalOil.org will probably try and dismiss these questions, along with the growing evidence suggesting co-ordination with the Conservatives, as “conspiracy theories”.
Here are some parting thoughts from the Newclear strategists, as heard at the end of their annoying, but ultimately revealing video.
So the next time your organization, brand, product, service or candidate needs to consolidate power or ward off potential attack, we suggest that you decide to Go Newclear.
It looks like some folks in Ottawa and Calgary may have taken that advice.
[Update, January 17]
Here’s a fine graphic from a piece by Matt Price of Huffington Post, highlighting the links between the Conservative Party and Ethical Oil.
[Update, January 20]
Emma Pullman has done a follow up at DeSmogblog, detailing the role of Sun TV (Ezra Levant’s current employer) in the Conservative-Ethical Oil echo chamber attacking “radical” environmental groups, as well as outlining the history of “Fox News North”.
And she also points out that many of the Go Newclear websites use the exact same CSS Reset code, reinforcing the presumption that the websites of interest were developed by the same developer.