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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, April 26, 2014

CBC: "Fessing Up to the Public"

Recently the CBC came under much scrutiny and criticism (some of it from me) about whether its journalists should be allowed to take money for speaking to interest groups.

Specifically, the issue identified the Chief Journalist Peter Mansbridge who spoke to a gathering of oil and gas executives for a $28,000 fee. Mansbridge hosts CBC TV's nightly news program, "The National." He is the most prominent journalist in an organization that prides itself on its reporting. 

Another complication is that a well-known contract employee, Rex Murphy who provides opinion/commentary for "The National" as well as other hosting duties, also spoke to the oil and gas execs in a separate gig, for an undisclosed sum. Unlike Mansbridge, he used vigorous language and urged them to take on environmentalists and other anti-pipeline activists. 

According to reports, Mansbridge did not speak about any controversial issues (such as the Keystone pipeline) to the assembled petroleum executives. He did speak about the value of the CBC and its essential role in Canada's public life. 

The problem which Mansbridge and his supporters failed to appreciate was not that he was taking sides explicitly in a matter of public controversy. But taking a payment gives the impression that he was an implicit supporter of the oil and gas industry. The group to which he spoke, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) was quick to post a photo of Mansbridge on the dais with the CAPP logo prominently displayed.

Murphy's speech was also prominently posted on various websites, much to the embarrassment of CBC journalists and management.

I was asked by CBC Radio's "As It Happens" to comment. It left the impression, I said, that the CBC now has the best journalists money can buy. CBC journalists and personalities should be out and about, pounding the bully pulpit about the value of public broadcasting. And they should be paid for their extra work, but by the CBC, not by lobby groups. 

This issue emerged at a time when the CBC was being forced to address a serious loss of funding. Some of that was caused by the end of CBC's involvement in hockey broadcasts. But it came at a time when the government subsidy was also being reduced. The CBC did not need a public relations mess at a time when it was trying to show how essential it is to Canadians.

Both the CBC's ombudsman Esther Enkin, and the Editor-in-Chief Jennifer McGuire addressed the issue. The ombudsman found that the CBC was derelict in not addressing this long-standing problem. The Editor-in-Chief posted in her blog and said that henceforth, all speaking engagements by staffers and contract employees would have to be both pro bono and approved in advance. She also stated that in future all public engagements (where and when and before which group) would be posted on the CBC website. The CBC did the right thing, in my opinion.

I found Enkin's assessment fair (full disclosure - Enkin was Deputy Managing Editor when I was Managing Editor and Chief Journalist at CBC Radio). McGuire's admission felt as though she was imposing this restriction somewhat reluctantly. But better reluctantly, than not at all...

While we are talking about transparency: what about the role of freelance journalists who do much of the overseas reporting for CBC, especially on Radio?

The usual ending for a radio news report is for the journalist to say his/her name, followed by the words, "CBC News" and the place where he/she is reporting from. Freelance reporters (also known as "stringers" usually sign off thusly "For CBC News, I'm XX in -----."It's a small difference but it conveys a world of distinction.

Yet at CBC Radio, stringers are told to sign off as if they were on staff. Given the recent kerfuffle over Mansbridge and Murphy, should the CBC now be getting involved with all stringers' non-CBC activities? That would be impossible and pointless.

Better to come clean with the audience and let the listeners know who works for the CBC and who does not. In the past, when a radio stringer became involved politically with a story on which he/she was reporting, their employment was immediately severed.  

Will the CBC now do the same with TV contract employees like Murphy?

1 comment:

  1. Jeffrey ... very good piece .... whatever one calls Rex Murphy, given his prominence on the network, being deemed a "freelancer"is a distinction without meaning, especially given the contentious issues involved with these paid speeches and Canadians's assumptions about the CBC journalists/hosts they're watching and hearing.

    A caution however ... the new policy does NOT ban paid speeches for on-air staffers.

    Very clearly, the policy says that an on-air person can still accept a paid speaking gig as long as the group doing the hiring is not making a "significant effort to lobby or influence public policy."

    "insignificant today" ..... "the centre of a huge public controversy tomorrow or next week" .... whose amazing and infallible crystal ball will this depend on?

    It's a huge loophole and ..... open to the kind of influence and pressure on the decision makers (say who?) with all the resulting inconsistently applied "standards" that are currently disappointing to many inside CBC.

    It should have been a simple statement: no paid speeches.