CBC News is in the throes of a crisis of conscience about the previously-undisclosed practice of its journalists to accept paid speaking engagements from organizations that are frequently covered in the news.
This episode has been driven by coverage by bloggers and online news sources. Thanks to their pressure and complaints from the public, CBC has initiated an internal review of its policies and CBC’s Ombudsman already has weighed in urging CBC management to change the current practice and either adopt a higher standard of disclosure or ban outside payments.
Who said what
This story may be about simple principles. But it has been complex in its unfolding, with a number of players speaking out over time.
Sifting through the sources and arguments can be time consuming. But it is worth doing. So, to help readers get up to speed quickly, I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be the primary sources with key content excerpted and brief explanatory notes where required.
I hope you find this helpful in understanding how this issue has unfolded.
The story about Rex Murphy breaks
If you Google the heck out of Murphy’s name, you’ll discover that he’s Newfoundland’s most eligible keynote speaker at oil, gas and mining industry events all across the country. Since 2009, Murphy has been spotted or booked at the podium as a keynote speaker not once, not twice, but at least 25 times.
Big Oil knows what they’re getting with Murphy because the National Speakers Bureau, which negotiates Murphy’s speaking fees, includes a snippet of his friendly views with an embedded YouTube video in his profile. It’s called “Rex Murphy of CBC’s Point of View Rips into Environmentalists.”
In early January, I started researching the number and content of speeches that Rex Murphy has made about the oilpatch and the petroleum industry generally.
I found that Murphy has made several speeches to oil-friendly audiences who lap up his cheerleading about the industry and his wisecracks about Neil Young, environmentalists and do-nothing Easterners, including his CBC colleagues.
…I was wondering how responsible CBC News executives were in permitting Murphy to disparage Young and other oilsands opponents on the public airwaves without informing viewers that he had championed that very development in a so-called ‘speech’ several weeks earlier.
On January 30, I provided a lengthy list of questions for Murphy and the CBC respectively to Corey Black, a CBC News publicist. The questions concerned Murphy’s speaking fee, the speech’s content and journalistic probity…
I also requested an on-the-record interview with Murphy and a senior CBC news journalist. Six days later, on February 5, Black informed me that Murphy had “declined” to be interviewed. … Black never answered my questions. Instead, he bounced me to another CBC media relations guy, Chuck Thompson.
In a cryptic February 6 email, Thompson referred me to a short blog post by Jennifer McGuire, CBC News editor-in-chief, that — according to him — “addressed the matter” and my many questions.
McGuire’s post is dated — you guessed it — February 6. It is a hollow, self-serving bit of exculpatory nonsense that limply suggests that because Murphy enjoys a “freelance relationship” with the CBC, neither he, nor the CBC, has a duty or responsibility to disclose that he’s likely pocketing money from powerful outside vested interests on subjects that he rails about on the CBC.
McGuire’s note is also the cynical product of a bait-and-switch: Find out details from a reporter about the pending story’s potentially embarrassing focus, then “get out in front” of it to suggest that you’ve already “addressed” the issue. (McGuire also refused to be interviewed.)
The most important thing to understand is that Rex is not a regular reporter. He appears on The National as a commentator precisely to do analysis and offer his point of view on issues of the day. His work has to be approved by editors at The National and has to meet a clear and straightforward threshold: that it be rooted in fact and experience, not just opinion or kneejerk ideology. But taking a provocative stand is what we pay him to do.
As much as Rex is identified with the CBC, he is not a full-time employee of the CBC. We have a wonderful freelance relationship that allows him to appear on The National and host CBC Radio One’s Cross-Country Checkup. As a freelancer, Rex has the ability to do other work. So yes, he writes opinion pieces for The National Post. And yes, he does speaking engagements.
He is not alone. Other prominent CBC personalities are freelancers, too. When they’re not at CBC, people such as David Suzuki and Bob McDonald have more freedom to express their views in ways that full-time journalists at CBC News do not. Our regular staff abides by rules in our Journalistic Standards and Practices which state that “CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.”
The bottom line is that we are comfortable with the rigour of our policies, our editorial procedures, and our editorial leaders. And while it’s fine for people to challenge his views, I want to say explicitly that we’re comfortable with the content Rex has done for The National and Cross-Country Checkup, and we’re confident about his independence – his point of view is his own.
This issue reminds us of the benefits of being more transparent with our audience. We are working on that all the time …. And we’ve already launched an active discussion about what information the audience should expect to have about the outside activities of our journalists.
How much money have Oil Sands companies paid to Rex Murphy? When did the CBC and The National Post learn of this? Why won’t Rex Murphy answer questions about this? Why won’t the The National disclose his relationship, when they’ve disclosed lesser conflicts of interest in the past? What’s going on at The National anyhow? How could they possibly think this is okay, or that nobody would notice?
I’ve given a lot of talks — perhaps more than a thousand. … And yes, I often get paid for my bon mots — usually more than a dollar.
Curiously, during all those encounters, spanning (sadly for me) five decades — I have not had so much as a single suggestion that anything I have said anywhere during that long saga was anything but my own words, flowing from my own motivations, and not opinions “for hire” to whomever I spoke.
Not once … till now. I value independence of thought and expression, intensely. If my thoughts are not my own, they are nothing.
Yet some bloggers now are questioning my commitment to that principle, thanks largely to a talk I gave recently to Business Forum, a gathering sponsored by the Calgary-based Bennett Jones law firm, featuring oil executives, First Nation leadership, premiers of Alberta and New Brunswick, and delegates from over the world.
In my speeches, I have a few goals. I try to give a good effort. I try to be interesting, sometimes even reach for humour. But what I absolutely guarantee is that what opinions people hear from me are mine. … I have never on television, in a column or in a speech said, written or delivered any views other than my own and what I actually believe. That’s my practice and I don’t much intend to change.
Rex Murphy won’t answer questions about taking Oil Sands money , but his editor, The National Post’s Jon Kay, will.
Lorne Warwick published the text of a letter he received from Jack Nagler, CBC’s Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, in response to Warwick’s complaint, in which Nagler says:
While I don’t believe there is a conflict of interest, there is a serious issue about transparency, one that we are reviewing at the moment.
the very reason Mr. Murphy appears on The National is to do analysis and express his point of view – he is not a regular reporter. We even call his segment on the program “Rex Murphy’s Point of View” to distinguish it from regular reports. His perspective on the oilsands, whether viewers agree with it or not, is an analytical argument based on facts, and is perfectly valid commentary
the most important consideration for us is whether we are providing our audience with a varied and balanced perspective on an issue as important as oilsands development – and I believe we are. You may note that Mr. Murphy’s “Point of View” segment criticizing Neil Young was a response to a feature interview The National aired with Mr. Young two days earlier.
In policy and practice we support the idea of transparency, not just for Rex Murphy but for all of our contributors. But implementing this is not always as simple as it sounds.
There are a set of complicating factors, ranging from how much we can legally demand of our freelancers, to privacy rights of our employees, to what constitutes “full disclosure”. Is it only paid speeches we should disclose? Or do we need to be concerned about journalists who attend charity events, or moderate a public forum? Does the content of a speech matter, or does the mere act of getting in front of a lectern make it a question of public concern? And finally, how do we share the disclosure so the audience can properly judge for themselves what’s appropriate?
All are good questions. In light of your concerns and those of others about Mr. Murphy, our senior editors are reviewing the way we deal with the issue to ensure we are appropriately transparent with our viewers. I expect that review will be completed in the next few weeks. When it is we’ll be sure to post it.
Peter Mansbridge is drawn into the debate
CBC editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire has created an unintentional problem for the CBC after bending to the anti-oil sands lobbyists complaining about Rex Murphy’s oil conference speech (see here) – a can of worms immediately comes to mind.
First, McGuire has fully opened-up the media’s dirty little secret of journalists hiding their lucrative speaking gigs and potential conflicts of interests and secondly, how the CBC didn’t have an issue when their Chief Correspondent and The National anchor did the exact same thing.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) paid Mansbridge to speak at its Investment Symposium in December 2012 and a photo of him giving the address on how “energy has moved to the forefront of news: economic, environment, safety” was posted to the group’s Facebook page.
CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson confirmed to HuffPost Canada that Mansbridge received permission from the public broadcaster to speak at the CAPP event and clears all his speaking engagements with the senior news team.
“Peter is encouraged by management to speak on a regular basis, it’s part of an outreach initiative in place for many of our hosts that ensures CBC News and in this case our Chief Correspondent is talking to Canadians in communities across the country,” Thompson said in an email.
“The content of those speeches is always about putting CBC News coverage into context and explaining what we do and how we do it but Peter never offers up his opinion or takes a position on anything that’s in the news.”
The Oil Sands is perhaps Canada’s most controversial and divisive news topic, with competing interests constantly vying for positive media exposure and public sympathy. As the CBC’s Chief Correspondent and anchor of their flagship national news broadcast, Mansbridge exerts undeniable influence over what Oil Sands stories The National covers and how it covers them. The fact that he has been moonlighting for the energy industry is a clear (and undisclosed) conflict-of-interest.
I give about 20 speeches a year. … Many of the appearances, about half on average, I do with no fee involved. They are charities or journalism schools. The rest are handled by my speech agency, the same one that handles requests for many other journalists in this country and in the United States. In those casesa fee is negotiated between the agency and the group who want me to appear at their function. In some of those cases I donate part of the fee to a local charity; in some others I donate all the fee. And in still others I keep my share of what the agency has negotiated.
I don’t offer my opinion on matters of public policy or on certain divisive issues that often dominate the news. … I make it clear to all those who ask me to speak, whether it’s for a charity or not, that I will stick to what I know best – journalism.
Ever since I first started giving speeches, back in the mid-1980s and at the corporation’s request, senior management has approved who I speak to and are aware when I receive a fee and when I do not. Bottom line – I follow the rules and the policies the CBC has instituted governing journalists making public appearances.
I am a journalist and a public broadcaster but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to activities in my private life.
The CBC’s Chief Correspondent Peter Mansbridge has received payment for speaking at an event organized by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). Questions about possible conflict of interest and ethics were raised when CBC President Hubert Lacroix took questions yesterday from the Senate Communications committee in Ottawa.
We requested interviews with Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy today. They weren’t available for an interview. Neither was CBC’s editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire.
We did ask CBC’s General manager and Editor in chief, Jennifer McGuire, to participate in this conversation. Ms. McGuire declined, and no one else from CBC management was made available. Ms. McGuire said CBC is now reviewing its policies and she would be happy to comment once that process is complete.
Mansbridge, like Murphy, continues to duck the issue at the heart of this growing controversy: disclosure.
Full disclosure means precisely that — providingall the relevant details, and not just to pesky journalists but to the audience as well, so they can judge and decide for themselves whether the fact that a journalist accepts money to speak from outside interests affects his or her reporting and editorial decisions.
I think Mansbridge and Murphy owe their audience and the profession full disclosure, without reservation, of how much they have made and who has paid them to speak.
Who broke the news that Peter Mansbridge has been paid by the oil industry? How did the story break through from social media to online press to the mainstream media? Who has dared to cover it at the CBC? Why is this such a fucking big deal? Why won’t CBC News talk to CBC Radio? Should journalists stop doing paid speaking entirely?
CBC’s Ombudsman releases her review of the situation
The corporate policy provides a number of guidelines. The first is: No conflict should exist or appear to exist between the private interests of CBC/Radio-Canada employees and their official duties.
Whether there is a real or only an apparent conflict of interest, in matters of journalistic integrity it amounts to the same thing.
When journalists get paid to speak to powerful advocacy groups, it is hard to argue that this does not lead to a perception of conflict of interest. … CBC management must decide and be very clear about how that perception of conflict will be dealt with. … disclosure will go some way to mitigate the concern about this issue.
…since taking money leads to a perception of a conflict of interest, CBC management might want to consider, in the review they are undertaking, whether even with disclosure, it is appropriate for CBC news and current affairs staff to get paid for their speaking engagements. … At the least, management should think about the appearance of getting paid by interest groups who are likely to feature prominently in the news, or who are involved in public policy debates.
Given that Journalistic Standards and Practices spells out a commitment to independence, and the Conflict of Interest guidelines encompass perception of conflict as well, it is inconsistent with policy when CBC news and current affairs staff accept payment from groups that are likely to be in the news. To summarize, in the course of reviewing its policy, I hope CBC management will reconsider the practice of paid speaking engagements for its journalists and, at a minimum, consider how any relevant activity and payment can be on the public record.
To preserve that independence, all employees involved in the creation of content that is subject to Journalistic Standards andPractices must carefully consider what organizations they are publicly associated with.
…most importantly, there is public perception. You can’t have it both ways: tell allegedly anodyne political tales from the head table to oil executives who have paid you to speak on a Saturday night and then, appear credible to a national television audience on a Monday night while introducing an exposé about some oil industry environmental/financial transgression.
Here’s the fundamental question: exactly how would allowing CBC journalists to speak for a fee to an outside organization like CAPP, a lobby group, seem like a decision that wouldincrease Canadians’ confidence that CBC reports the news impartially?
This story isn’t over. Now all eyes are on CBC management and their promised review of policy. Stay tuned.