Under new rules announced by Canada’s public broadcaster on April 24, freelance hosts like Rex Murphy will have to disclose their speaking fees to CBC, which will in turn post the information online.
“Starting in May, we'll post regularly online a list of appearances by our reporters and hosts — both paid AND unpaid,” CBC editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire wrote in a blog post. “This will allow you to judge for yourselves how well we're living up to our commitments.”
Additionally, on-air CBC employees, such as Peter Mansbridge — who came under fire recently for accepting a speaking fee from an oil and gas lobby group — will face stricter rules.
“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,” McGuire wrote. “It was our practice to turn down requests if the event or its sponsor posed a direct conflict to the journalist's everyday work.”
Now, however, on-air CBC employees won’t be able to accept speaking requests from companies, political parties or other groups that lobby or otherwise influence public policy.
Murphy's sponsors included CAPP and Enbridge
Controversy erupted in February after Press Progress analyzed 25 of Murphy’s speaking engagements and found sponsors for his pro-oil public appearances included the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Enbridge, TransCanada and Suncor. It was later revealed that Mansbridge also received a speaking fee from CAPP.
Murphy — who hosts Cross Country Checkup on CBC Radio and who appears as a commentator on The National — has been a vocal supporter of the oilsands industry and those who question the science of climate change. (Here's a compilation of some of the articles we have written on Rex Murphy over the years).
When the controversy emerged, CBC initially refused to disclose Murphy’s speaking fees, citing the fact he was a freelancer, not an employee.
“As a freelancer, Rex has the ability to do other work. So yes, he writes opinion pieces for The National Post. And yes, he does speaking engagements,” CBC’s McGuire wrote.
However, under the new rules, freelance hosts’ contracts will be updated so they are compelled to disclose paid events to CBC. Murphy, and other CBC personalities such as David Suzuki and Bob McDonald, will still be able to take payment from anyone they like — but their fees will be made public.
Ombudsman finds "perception of conflict of interest"
The decision followed a review by the CBC Ombudsman Esther Enkin, which concluded: “The practice of having CBC staff getting payment for speaking or working with groups that could very likely be in the news is inconsistent with CBC’s Conflict of Interest policies because it creates a perception of conflict.”
The ombudsman’s office received more than 70 letters after Murphy’s paid presentations were publicized.
In her review, Enkin noted: “When journalists get paid to speak to powerful advocacy groups, it is hard to argue that this does not lead to a perception of conflict of interest … The issues would be the same had Mr. Murphy or Mr. Mansbridge been paid to give a speech to the Sierra Club, for instance, or other environmental groups.”
Of course, it’s highly unlikely the Sierra Club could afford to cough up the speaking fee for someone of Mansbridge’s ilk.
As always, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that those working in the public interest don’t have the same kind of cash at hand to buy access to decision-makers and thought leaders as multi-million dollar corporations do — which is precisely why this issue struck such a chord with Canadians in the first place.
Still, CBC’s new rules go a long way to leveling the playing field — and that’s a win both for the public broadcaster’s transparency and for healthy debate in our country.