As the latest chapter involving the extra-curricular activities of a very few of the CBC's most prominent journalists continues to unfold, let's be clear about the key element surrounding the cornerstone issue at play.
This is about "the money." And from that directly flows the story of the past several days.
So keep this in mind: a few of CBC's journalists are personally earning tens of thousands -- and in some cases perhaps more than a hundred thousand dollars -- in speaking fees annually in situations that are specifically identified as inappropriate and thus prohibited by the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices and an updated policy statement of last spring.
One can dance around this reality, but the reality remains.
It is fuelling growing public concern about what could happen after CBC's journalists have personally profited from these lucrative speaking fees paid by outside organizations -- organizations which could at any time find themselves coming under the news microscope of Canada's public broadcaster. Or have already.
It creates a conflict of interest involving these journalists; the money has already changed hands so there is little point in calling it a "perceived" conflict. It undermines the public trust in what these journalists report and it undermines public confidence in the CBC because it directly violates the tenets of CBC's formal journalistic operating policies.
It is important to remember that this is not just about the one name now in the news. Read through the CBC list of public appearances over the past eight months and you will see that a group of roughly a dozen of CBC's most prominent employees have regularly been accepting large speaking fees from a variety of (almost all) private sector organizations.
However it is also critical to remember that the vast proportion of CBC's journalists and production and technical employees (who were my colleagues for 27 years) are repulsed by all this. It would never occur to them to take money from people they might cover as part of their job. They are embarrassed by what is taking place because it impugns their integrity and their sense of responsibility to the people of Canada.
Jennifer McGuire, CBC's Editor in Chief, seems very worried that there is only one logical answer to critics calling for a ban on accepting outside speaking fees: lock CBC's journalists in a studio when they are not working and thus never allow them to appear as speakers or hosts at the Scotiabank Giller Book awards or Mohawk College dinners or Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression galas.
This is silly. Of course they can attend. They just can't attend with a CBC halo over their head and personally profit at the same time.
If the CBC feels it needs to keep its leading lights in the public eye -- and that makes perfect sense -- make their attendance at these events part of their working lives.
Ms. McGuire also wrote yesterday that "it is unfortunate that our internal processes are fodder for external debate by people who have their own agenda."
A puzzling statement at many levels.
If the CBC (with its private sector journalistic colleagues) had never shown any interest in the "internal processes" of a variety of Canadian organizations over the past decades, there never would have been "external debate" -- called "public discussion" -- regarding a long list of stories of vital importance to all Canadian: the threats to public health from the production and widespread use of asbestos, concerns about Canadian veterans lacking sufficient care for battle-related trauma, the sponsorship scandal of the 1990s...all this is exactly what good journalism should be doing.
Her reference to "people who have their own agenda" is similarly puzzling.
Checking a few dictionaries, here's a summary definition of "agenda":
- A list of things to be considered or done
- A plan or goal that guides someone's behavior and that is often kept secret
- An underlying often ideological plan or program
The "agenda" of those who have been publicly expressing concern about the paid speaking issue is crystal clear:
- A very short list of actions: don't let CBC journalists personally profit from the prestige they are given as CBC employees.
- This agenda is hardly secret: just turn off the money tap for personal gain.
- This underlying ideology (that good journalism and private money don't mix well) is a standard first principle taught in virtually every journalism school in the world.
Could the critics of the CBC (recently termed "haters") have another agenda?
Help me out here, please, because it is hard to think of how those critical of CBC management have any way of personally benefiting from calling for an end to paid speeches. (Which is all that I can think that Ms. McGuire is alluding to.)
Finally, in reference to Ms. Lang's comments to Canadian Press about what CBC policy "allows" regarding paid speaking events, I would suggest that she take a moment to actually read the policy, both the Standards and Ms. McGuire's restatement last spring.
There is nothing in those documents which gives a free pass for CBC journalists to earn money from organizations with "multiple sponsors" because this somehow "doesn't create an appearance of conflict." It is hard to know who comprises Ms. Lang's royal "we" in her comments that "we don't consider this (a problem) as a matter of policy."
The CBC's own written rules do see this as a problem, quite clearly, and those rules need to be followed.
As I, and others, have written before, of all the tremendous challenges facing the CBC in an increasingly complex media environment, this is such an easy one to solve.
There is no cost to CBC programming, there are no painful staffing issues involved, and it is a decision that can only serve to increase the confidence of Canadians that the CBC operates in their interests, not in the interests of a very few.
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