General Manager and Editor in Chief
Real or perceived: we take conflicts of interest seriously
Our hosts, reporters are the public face of CBC News. They are regularly invited to participate in outside activities. Often it's to serve as moderator of a public meeting, to make a presentation at a conference, or to host a fundraising dinner.
It's not hard to see why our employees are in such high demand. They are incredibly accomplished and interesting people. Who better to maintain control and focus at a public meeting than a host whose day job is to referee on air debates?
It is important for our staff to be out connecting to people in communities across this country. It is also good for the CBC and for their profile.
When doing this kind of outreach, our journalists are still bound by our journalistic standards and policies. They state in part, "all employees involved in the creation of news and current affairs content must carefully consider what organizations they are publicly associated with. They should be mindful that public statements, whether face-to-face or through social media, may create the impression of partisanship or of advocacy for a cause. If an employee believes there could be a conflict of interest, he or she must inform his or her supervisor."
Our employees are human and, like all Canadians, have the right to have views on all sorts of things. It is however paramount for CBC journalists to also be in a position to report fairly and neutrally. And while there is usually no overt agenda at a dinner or an event, it is still important that our journalists not be put in a situation where there is a conflict of interest created or even a perception of conflict. This is a value that is very important to us as journalists.
Many situations are far from cut and dried. Is it a conflict simply because you are paid for speaking, for expenses or for travel to a speaking engagement? Is it OK to accept a speaking engagement for a charitable organization? A bank? Your old high school?
The answer is always: it depends.
Accepting an invitation to speak before, say, a business organization is not necessarily off limits to CBC journalists. It becomes a problem if that organization is the centre of a story that the journalist or others at CBC News is covering - or if it is one that has generated controversy in the past. One of our journalists was recently invited to address an organization that had just been in the news. We felt that the best course was to avoid the event. Even a perceived conflict can be very damaging.
Usually, most staff are free to engage in outside activities without permission from their supervisors as long as they're not exploiting their connection to the CBC. We ideally have a conversation to ensure transparency and minimize the potential for conflict of interest. If there is even a whiff of controversy or a potential perception of conflict, we urge our journalists to refer it "up". Many times our journalists will impose restrictions on themselves and recuse themselves from covering stories.
Other minefields are harder to navigate, especially in smaller communities where personal and professional lives are more likely to cross. Journalists are entitled to have personal lives. Their kids go to community schools, they use the medical system, they mingle with community leaders. Their friends and members of their families also have jobs, sometimes in fields that may intersect with stories we cover.
We had a situation recently where the wife of a senior political reporter accepted a position in a premier's office. Even though the wife wasn't involved in any of the stories our reporter covered, the mere perception of conflict was enough for us to review the situation. We established a strict protocol around the journalist in question that involved direct oversight of assignment and vetting by senior editorial leaders. In some cases, he had to avoid some stories altogether. We take these matters very seriously because our credibility is paramount.
Other protocols are more simple. One of our regional radio morning shows uses the head of a nonprofit film organization as its regular movie critic. There's nothing wrong with that, but when the critic switched hats and talked about upcoming films his organization was presenting, it became a conflict of interest. From now on, his reviews will be presented separately from any coverage of his organization.
No situation is quite like the others. What we have learned is that each example has its own set of circumstances and our handling of each, while based on fundamental guiding principles, has to be tailor made.
There's very little black and white in this discussion, but plenty of grey. The job of senior editorial leaders at CBC News is to weigh every situation, reinforce our standards and ensure our coverage is beyond reproach.