THE BLOG

Can Journalists Paid for Speaking Engagements Still Be Objective?

04/01/2014 04:45 EDT | Updated 06/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Oh, sorry. Were you waiting for something?

It was back in early February when criticisms were first raised in the media about prominent CBC journalists accepting paid speaking engagements from outside groups. We're still waiting to hear how the CBC will respond.

Meanwhile, 10 of the CBC's most senior and well-known journalists still appear on the client lists of the three major Canadian speaking agencies (Lavin, Speakers and NSB) -- available for hire for a fee.

On Feb. 26, Jack Nagler, the CBC's Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, answered a complaint by writing that "I expect that review (i.e. of the paid speeches issue) will be completed in the next few weeks. When it is, we'll be sure to post it."

On March 6, Jennifer McGuire, CBC News's General Manager and Editor-in-Chief, wrote on her blog that "we will announce the results of an internal review (added: of the paid public speaking issue) in the coming weeks."

Perhaps Bill Clinton, author of "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is", could discern the difference between "in the next few weeks" and "in the coming weeks."

But many Canadians have already expressed concerns about the conflicts of interest these speeches create and the CBC's own independent Ombudsman recently urged management to clean up this mess.

In addition, journalists inside the CBC have been expressing their concerns -- quietly, for obvious reasons -- at what they regard as very obvious violations (selectively applied) of the current code of journalistic practice at CBC. It's called failing the "smell test."

While CBC management continues to mull on this, apparently, let me offer some ideas of what might work in the real world.

First, to repeat, the basic principle: If you're a full-time journalist with the CBC, you can't accept money for speaking to any outside group. That's it. End of discussion. It comes with the job.

Second, if an outside group asks a CBC journalist to speak for a fee and the journalist is willing to do it for expenses only (and please, let's try to use some common sense on this), CBC management may be asked to approve both the event and the basic outline of the speech. Plus, the journalist must use his own time to do it.

Quite frankly, I'm uncomfortable with a CBC journalist speaking to a lobby group of any kind.

Third, if the CBC receives a request for one of its journalists to speak and the Corporation decides this would be in the interests of the CBC, then management approves time off from work for the journalist to attend, pays any expenses and approves the overall thrust of the speech.

(If outside organizations are so keen to pay CBC journalists, let them donate the speaking fees to the Canadian journalism school of their choice.)

But until we hear something about a new policy on paid speeches, the priority right now for the Corporation is to say clearly, once and for all, that "if you're a journalist working for CBC, you can't compromise the quality of our journalism by taking someone else's money."