CBC ombudsman: Perception of conflict of interest over Mansbridge and Murphy speaking fees matters
Peter Mansbridge’s and Rex Murphy’s integrity are not in question, writes CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin. But since taking money leads to a perception of conflict of interest, CBC management may want to consider whether it’s appropriate for news and current affairs staff to be paid for speaking engagements.
By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman
The complainant, John How, was one of many who complained that Rex Murphy was in a conflict of interest because he has been paid to speak at oil industry gatherings. Mr. Murphy delivered a commentary about Neil Young’s anti-oil sands activity, and Mr. How thought this violated CBC’s policies of balance and fairness. In the wake of the publicity around Mr. Murphy, others expressed concern about other CBC staff taking payment for speaking to advocacy or special interest groups. Mr. Murphy’s commentary was not in violation of policy because he is a commentator. The practice of having CBC staff getting payment for speaking or working with groups that could very likely be in the news is inconsistent with CBC’s Conflict of Interest policies because it creates a perception of conflict.
You wrote to question the role of commentator and Cross Country Checkup host Rex Murphy on CBC. You were concerned about a speech that was “drawn to your attention” that Mr. Murphy gave at an “oil industry fete.” The event you refer to was a gala celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of FirstEnergy Capital Corporation, a company which plays a large role in financing endeavours in the Canadian oil and gas sector. You were concerned because the speech was highly supportive of the development of the oil sands. You said when Mr. Murphy delivered a commentary on The National this past January, it echoed the speech he had delivered to the industry gathering. The National commentary was in response to Neil Young’s anti-oil sands remarks while on tour in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. The National had recently aired an interview with Mr. Young about his criticism of oil sands development. You were especially concerned because you felt the commentary on The National was a reprise of his September speech at the gala and putting the two together made it appear that Mr. Murphy was speaking for the oil industry:
“In that oil-industry sponsored fete, Rex rehearsed many of the arguments he later used in his recent CBC National ad hominem rant against Neil Young:
Except that in the Calgary venue, any pretense of impartiality or fairness was abandoned, and the authenticity of his statements was as blatant as his sycophancy: [e.g. “I’m not used to being in a room full of achievers”; take that, Mr. Mansbridge]."
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You felt that this violated CBC policies that cover “fairness and unbiased comment by public respondents”:
“I do not find Rex’s diatribe [as published or as broadcast] meets CBC’s promulgated standards or generally accepted definitions of ‘news’ or ‘commentary’ due to its contravention of normal Canadian standards of honesty, fairness, and neutrality. As such, it doesn’t belong on the CBC.ca ‘News’ page or on the ‘National’ broadcast. Entertainment, it may be; parody, perhaps. But doesn’t Rick Mercer do that a whole lot better!?”
Yours was one of over 70 letters this office has received in the wake of publicity about Mr. Murphy’s paid presentations to various oil industry events. The Sierra Club encouraged its supporters to contact the CBC to complain about Mr. Murphy’s activities. Some complainants were angered that Mr. Murphy was allowed to express an opinion, others felt that he should be forced to disclose all his paid engagements. Some zeroed in on the fact it was the oil sands development that he favored, and dismissed, as you did, that support of the projects could be “honest and accurate.” For example, one complainant stated that CBC policy says that analysis must be based on facts and there are no facts that lead one to the conclusion that oil sands development is beneficial. The conclusion drawn from that position, and echoed by other complainants, is that Mr. Murphy is a paid spokesperson for the oil industry.
While this is not part of your complaint, this office has also received many queries about the activity of CBC Chief Correspondent and The National host Peter Mansbridge, after a blog posting mentioned he had been paid to speak at a meeting of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Here too people were concerned that a CBC journalist was paid by a special interest group and expressed concern about potential bias. Others also felt that it was not appropriate for an employee of the public broadcaster to be further compensated through speaking engagements. Since the two issues are so closely related, it is appropriate to address it in the context of this review as well.
Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Accountability and Engagement for CBC News, responded to your concerns. He stated that while “we take this kind of feedback very seriously,” he did not agree with your “strong statements” about Mr. Murphy and CBC News. He explained that Mr. Murphy is not a reporter, and that “the very reason (he) appears on The National is to do analysis and express his point of view.” He pointed out that his appearances are distinguished by the fact that his segment is entitled “Point of View,” to further differentiate it from other content on The National.
“Mr. Murphy’s perspective on the oil sands, whether we agree with it or not, is an analytical argument based on facts, and is perfectly valid commentary. He has been utterly consistent in expressing those views for a long time, and he makes the same broad points whether he is talking on The National, in a newspaper, or in a speech at a public event. We have no reason to question the independence and integrity of his views.”
He added that CBC News’s relationship with Mr. Murphy is a freelance one. Mr. Murphy is not a regular employee of the corporation, and so it is “natural that he does outside work.”
In subsequent responses to complainants, Mr. Nagler replied that while he did not see an issue with conflict of interest, he did acknowledge there were issues about “transparency.” He noted that news management is considering ways to increase openness on an ongoing basis:
“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?”
He pointed you to a more detailed discussion of the issue in a blog post by CBC News General Manger and Editor in Chief, Jennifer McGuire. In it she addresses the question of any potential conflict of interest. She characterized the questions members of the CBC News audience had raised:
“…how can Rex be an objective journalist when he's going out and speaking to oil executives? And if he's paid for those speeches, does that compromise his ability to be on our airwaves talking about the issue?”
She reiterated that Mr. Murphy is a freelancer who is hired to provide commentary, commentary that is reviewed by CBC editorial staff to ensure that it meets the policy requirement that is opinion based on interpretation of facts, not just rhetoric. She pointed out that Mr. Murphy’s opinions are not the only ones expressed on The National and that the program provides a range of perspectives and views.
She elaborated and explained the important distinction Mr. Murphy’s freelance status confers:
“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.”
She acknowledged it might be confusing to audience members as he is also the host of Cross Country Checkup but she felt confident that the program’s editorial integrity was intact.
She mentioned in the blog, and repeated to me, that the news management team is committed to transparency and is reviewing its practices and processes around outside activities of freelancers and CBC staff. They are considering ways in which they can be more transparent with members of the public. Given that there have been inquiries about Mr. Mansbridge’s outside activity, these new policies and practices will address those concerns as well.
You and the many others who have written to this office raise some fundamental questions about journalistic independence, conflict of interest, perception of conflict of interest, and transparency. In a time when journalism is practiced by many different people, and in many different ways, along with the intense pressure and scrutiny social media can bring to bear, the answers are critical and are most helpful if they are widely shared and understood.
From the outset, it is important to state that contrary to some of the more nasty correspondence I have received, Mr. Murphy is not a spokesperson for anyone, nor is his personal integrity in any way in question here. Throughout his career, he has been outspoken and frequently iconoclastic in his views on a range of issues. The fact that he is a supporter of resource development is not the issue here. He wrote in his own column and repeated to me that he has spoken to a wide range of groups, many for no fee. And no matter what the organization, the fee is the same.
There are several issues that come into play when CBC employees are paid to speak to any advocacy group.
To continue reading this review, please go to the CBC ombudsman's website, where this was originally published.
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