Editor's Blog - How we work, how we make decisions, how we serve Canadians.

Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Review of speaking engagements

Categories: Canada, Journalism

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The uproar in recent weeks over paid speeches given by some of our journalists was a bit of a double-edged sword for me.

We were disappointed some people were willing to believe that someone the calibre of Peter Mansbridge would sacrifice his professional integrity, or that Rex Murphy's opinion is for sale. We were even more disappointed when some people hinted -- without evidence -- that our content was compromised. It was not. To be clear, our journalists' integrity is intact. And they have adhered to our policies.

At the same time, we were happy to see people engaged in how CBC News conducts itself. We welcome the scrutiny of Canadians who hold us to account as a public broadcaster. And the main message of the people who wrote, phoned or tweeted is one we share: the independence, real and perceived, of CBC journalists is critical for our credibility with Canadians. 

The CBC Ombudsman weighed in with a review (you can read it here), and delved into many of the nuances around what journalistic independence really means in this day and age; around the virtues of transparency; and around the challenges distinguishing between real conflict of interest and perceived conflict of interest.  It was, she noted, a "conundrum."

Conundrum was a good choice of words, because we've had to wrestle with a number of competing ideas while we reviewed our policies. On the one hand, it's important for our journalists to be out speaking to all sorts of different groups in our communities. We know that, sometimes, preparing a speech or preparing to emcee an event can take considerable work in advance. And we have a collective agreement with the Canadian Media Guild (the union that represents our journalists) that makes clear our staff not only have the right to do outside work in their free time, they have the same right all of us do to be paid for that work.

On the other hand, there is a constituency of people who say it's effectively impossible for journalists to accept any payment for a speech without tainting their professional ethic. That is hardly a universal view. But in this age of social media, it's a view they have expressed passionately. We've paid attention. So it's important to iterate what we have been doing, and what we will do differently in the future.

In the past few years, we introduced concrete language about conflict of interest into our Journalistic Standards and Practices. In the past few weeks we have completed a more detailed review of our policies, and have decided to amend some of our practices.

So, what's changed?

In the past, when one of our staff reporters or hosts was invited to do a paid speech, we would allow payment as long as the speech was neutral -- thoughts about the state of journalism, or about their career. It was our practice to turn down requests if the event or its sponsor posed a direct conflict to the journalist's everyday work.

When it came to freelancers such as Rex Murphy, we were of necessity more hands off. They are independent contractors, not employees.

Now, though, we'll approach these requests differently.

For CBC News on-air employees, we're tightening our procedures around paid speeches.  We'll reject requests from companies, political parties or other groups which make a significant effort to lobby or otherwise influence public policy, even if the speech or event seems innocuous.

We're also going to centralize our tracking system for all speeches whether they are paid or not. This will help ensure that we apply our rules thoroughly and consistently. And we'll reinforce with our staff that all are accountable for understanding the rules and sharing this information. This will also apply to our radio current affairs personalities.

And we're making another commitment to all Canadians that CBC News will be more transparent than ever before. Starting in May, we'll post regularly online a list of appearances by our reporters and hosts -- both paid AND unpaid. This will allow you to judge for yourselves how well we're living up to our commitments.

When it comes to freelance hosts, we will be updating their contracts so that they are compelled to disclose their paid events to us, and we in turn will disclose them to you.

We're confident that these measures will answer the concerns about perceived conflicts of interest. And rest assured that CBC has strong editorial controls already in place to prevent any genuine conflict from seeping into our journalism. If one arises, we'd either say it on the air, recuse the journalist in question, or pull the segment down altogether.  We remain as determined as ever to preserve the very highest standards while showing respect for both our employees and our audience.

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