Analysis

Esther Enkin: Could a Rupert Murdoch-like media scandal happen here?

Unlikely, says Esther Enkin, executive editor at CBC News. But we shouldn't be complacent as not all Canadian media have transparent codes of conduct.

No matter where I am these days, friends and family keep asking me the same questions. Fresh from another revelation of the shenanigans of News Corporation, the Murdochs and their staff, they ask: Could it happen here? Does anything like this go on in Canada?

I take a deep breath. Never say never, right? But I am reasonably confident in saying — very unlikely, and certainly not on this scale.

For those of you not yet addicted to the goings on at the highest levels of British business and government, here's the short version: News Corp., controlled by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and his family, is one of the largest media conglomerates in the world and stands accused of eavesdropping on private calls, hacking into voice mail and bribing police officers.

In the U.S., the parent company owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal among many others. The FBI is actively investigating it there as well.

In Britain, it owns The Times, the Sun and, until it killed it off in the wake of the recent scandal, the News of the World. And that's where the main problems have been.

Earlier this month, the Guardian newspaper revealed that journalists at the tabloid News of the World had illegally accessed voice mails and paid police officers for confidential information.

There had been a previous investigation and some convictions back in 2006, but this latest revelation indicated a much more widespread practice, and certainly provoked a much greater response. Probably because one of the phones hacked belonged to a 13-year-old kidnap and murder victim, Millie Dowler.

Crossing Murdoch

Since then, there has been a flurry of resignations, including the chief and deputy chief of the London police. There have also been at least twelve arrests, among them, several former News of the World editors.

When the news master becomes the news. Captured in a bank of TV monitors, Rupert Murdoch testifies before a British parliamentary committee on July 19, 2011.

In the midst of this, Murdoch folded the News of the World, and ultimately withdrew his bid to take over British Sky Broadcasting, a lucrative satellite broadcast service. And now several parliamentary committees are having a field day.

The picture emerging is one of an overly cozy relationship between power wielders and power brokers. Murdoch has had close relationships with British prime ministers, both Labour and Conservative.

What's more, it would seem that politicians in that country crossed Murdoch at their peril. In fact, they seemed to actively court his endorsement while his journalists and the police crossed all kinds of lines; the bribes are just the most egregious.

So does anything like that go on here? Could it?

The easy answer is that what we are seeing in Britain is a logical extension of its tabloid culture. And the world of British newspapers has always been more cutthroat than here.

What the editors and journalists at News of the World did is a corruption of journalistic standards and ethics, not to mention, in some cases, illegal.

Like most things Canadian, we journalists are just a lot more polite. Our tabloids and their readers seem satisfied with scantily dressed wannabes and run-of-the-mill celebrity gossip.

They might be feistier, and the facts a little looser, but there's nothing in this country that is a patch on the British experience.

Standards and practices

It's also a much more accepted practice in Britain to pay newsmakers for information. In that atmosphere, going the next step to paying a policeman, when there is incredible pressure to get the story any way possible, may not seem quite as awful.

It is, of course. And while chequebook journalism is not unheard of in this country, it is not that common.

At CBC, we do not tolerate it. And of course we are bound by our commitment to the highest standards of ethical journalism through our Journalistic Standards and Practices.

CBC is also the only broadcaster in Canada that has an Ombudsman — another way we show our commitment to openness and accountability for what we do.

As well, we have just finished an online training exercise involving over 1,500 CBC journalists, camera operators and editors to remind them about the content of our code, and how critical it is. We take it very seriously.

Some other Canadian newsrooms have their own codes of conduct. Very few have a public complaints editor or an ombudsman.

Most provinces have press councils but membership is not compulsory. As a result, large organizations, such as Sun Media, can opt out of that process of accountability.

Concentration of ownership

So a Murdoch type scandal is highly unlikely here. But that doesn't mean we should be complacent.

Concentration of ownership means power and influence is concentrated too. Since 1971, there have been three parliamentary committees or commissions looking into the concentration of media ownership in Canada.

And while they have all expressed deep concern over its impact on a free press, concentration has deepened. In New Brunswick, for example, the Irvings have a near monopoly.

The man who headed the first of these inquiries, the late Keith Davey, expressed it this way: "This country should no longer tolerate a situation where the public interest in so vital a field as information (is) dependent on the greed or goodwill of an extremely privileged group of businessmen."

That still may be the case, but there has been one game changer since the Davey Commission in the seventies — the explosion of content in the world of the web.

It is exhilarating and challenging to be a journalist in this environment because of all the new sources of information and the ability to work directly with an audience.

But there is a downside and it is that, because of the sheer volume of information and the speed with which it moves, the pressure to report something, anything, is enormous.

That pressure is not the traditional competition of two daily newspapers going head to head, the stuff of many Hollywood plots, but it is still a reality that may tempt journalists to cut corners.

The only way to balance that pressure is to keep our code of conduct and standards front and centre. And you, our readers and viewers, do a pretty good job of helping us do just that, if we ever stray.

Thankfully, there is an added benefit for you, and for us, in the ethical practice of journalism. It is that, in our view, it actually leads to a superior product.