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CBC Ombudsman Declines To Review Conflict-of-Interest Policy Violations

January 20th, 2015

On Jan 5, I wrote to Esther Enkin, the CBC’s Ombudsman, to ask that she offer an opinion on 6 violations of CBC News’ policy on paid speaking engagements which took place during the months of November and December 2015, events where Peter Mansbridge, Amanda Lang, Diane Buckner, Diana Swain and Evan Soloman all received personal speaking fees from organizations outside the CBC.

This afternoon, I received a letter from the Ombudsman indicating that she will not review this matter, arguing that it lies outside her mandate.

In my Jan 5 letter, I had argued that because all the organizations paying these fees “make a significant effort to lobby or otherwise influence public policy” – and in fact, almost all  are registered lobbyists with the Government of Canada –  granting permission to CBC journalists to appear for personal fees with these groups is a clear violation off both the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices and most importantly, a newly defined and more restrictive policy of April 24, 2014.

Ms. Enkin’s letter (addressed to me and Jennifer McGuire, Editor in Chief of CBC News) appears directly below, verbatim.

My request of Jan 5 for a review appears below that.

**** Letter From CBC Ombudsman, Jan 20, 2015  ****

Dear Frank:

I have been considering your complaint and have taken some time to decide whether if fits within the mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman.

As you are likely aware, the Ombudsman is completely independent of news management.  My mandate is to ensure that journalistic process in the creation of CBC news and current affairs content, and  that content itself, conforms to CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.  You are asking me to review a matter that is based on news department policy, and that is beyond my mandate.  It is also important to know that I can make recommendations, but they are not binding.

As you said, I have already addressed the broader issues.  And it is very likely I will be addressing them again in light of recent complaints about Amanda Lang.

If you are aware of stories done by news reporters where you believe there to be a conflict of interest, I can certainly consider them.

If you are concerned about the news department enforcement of its policy, I encourage you to continue your dialogue directly with Jennifer McGuire.


Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman

***  My Jan 5 Request for a Review by the Ombudsman *****

To The Ombudsman of the CBC

This letter asks that you revisit an issue that was in the public eye during 2014. It is one that seems unlikely to disappear over the coming year and a topic on which you have already adjudicated.

It is the continuing practice of CBC journalists accepting money for personal gain from a variety of outside sources to speak at conventions, conferences and industry meetings.

Specifically, I am writing to ask that you render an opinion on whether CBC management violated, on at least 5 occasions in November and 2 occasions in December 2014 alone, its April 24, 2014 policy, which was introduced largely as a result of your opinion rendered on March 12, 2014.

Further, I am hoping that your examination of recent paid engagements would lead to a directive to CBC management asking for much greater clarity, precision and most importantly, consistency in applying the paid speaking policy.

Let me clarify why I am asking you to return to this subject.

The very first line of the Ombudsman’s mandate statement says that “the Ombudsman acts as an appeal authority for complainants who are dissatisfied with responses from CBC information or program management.” As explained below, this is why I am writing.

I don’t think there is a need here to review the broad constellation of issues that arose last February when it was revealed that Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy had given speeches for two different private sector organizations for which they had been paid significant amounts of money. (It was subsequently revealed that a wider group of CBC’s most senior on-air journalists were doing the same.)

There was a national discussion – across all media – about whether this was appropriate for the values and ethics of good journalism that form the core of the CBC’s public service mandate and its responsibility to the Canadian public.

The opinion that you delivered was clear:

* 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.

* 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, and

* (You hoped) that CBC management will reconsider the practice of paid speaking engagements for its journalists and, at a minimum, consider how any relevant activity and payment can be on the public record.

On April 24, Jennifer McGuire, CBC’s Editor in Chief, issued a new policy describing first, under what conditions CBC journalists could accept further paid speech invitations and second, stating that beginning in May, all public events – paid or not, by CBC employees or freelancers – would be posted monthly. (Note: my letter today deals with CBC full-time employees only.)

The key sentence in the new policy was this: “We will 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.”

For some months, paid engagements seemed to have dropped.

On December 11th, after reading the November listing of events and believing that many were in violation of the April 24 policy statement, I wrote to Jennifer to express my concerns.

On December 12th, Jennifer replied and it is my dissatisfaction with her response that prompted this letter to the Ombudsman.

Referring to the “payer” organizations identified in the November listings, Jennifer wrote to rebut my argument that these speeches should not have been permitted:

Let’s hold up the (key sentence noted above) against each of the examples you questioned:

(1)          A Morningstar Mutual Investment Funds awards dinner.

(2)          A Canadian Chamber of Commerce Awards dinner.

(3)          A Project Management Institute Conference

(4)         A Portfolio Managers Association of Canada panel discussion

 None of these organizations makes a significant effort to lobby or otherwise influence public policy. (emphasis added)  I suppose you could make an argument about the Chamber of Commerce by that definition.  But we feel pretty comfortable judging that a reasonable person would not perceive a conflict of interest when one of our journalists speaks to the Chamber of Commerce.”

The sentence underlined above – the litmus test for CBC to permit these paid engagements to go ahead – flies in the face of the reality of political processes at work for many years in this country.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Project Management Institute and the Portfolio Managers Association of Canada are all registered lobby organizations with the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada.

While Morningstar Mutual Investment Funds is not registered as a lobbyist with the Federal Government of Canada, many other mutual fund companies are registered, as are the several large investment industry associations. To argue that this one firm has no interest in public policy in Canada is illogical, to say the least.

No one in Canadian public life would ever think of seriously denying that organizations such as these have a strong interest in shaping public policy for their own (quite legitimate) purposes. Or that they regularly act to advance those interests.

Given that reality, it is clear that CBC violated the April 24th policy by allowing journalists to be paid for these events.

In Jennifer’s letter, she does note that “there is one example you raised in yesterday’s email (December 11th) that I understand fully would cause you concern – a speech (by Amanda Lang) at a Sun Life event.  This is an example of a request we now reject.”

Sun Life is also a registered lobby organization with the Government of Canada.

The reason Jennifer offered as to why Ms. Lang was permitted to speak at a Sun Life event is that this engagement was made before the April 24th policy restatement: “So we allowed Amanda Lang to honour her obligation.”

So despite a 6-month interval when Sun Life could have easily found another speaker or Ms. Lang might have decided to forgo payment, “scheduling” trumped “ethics.”

(Jennifer referenced my letter of last summer, wherein I had acknowledged that there might be some further “paid events” still to come as these are often booked months in advance. I did make that comment. I simply didn’t imagine back then that the CBC would permit one of its most prominent journalists to violate an important policy defining the ethics of good journalism so many months later!)

All of these events violate the CBC’s April 24th policy on paid speeches. (In fact, there were at least five more in November that any reasonable interpretation of the policy should have denied.)

In December 2014, as described on cbcnews.ca/appearances, there were more instances of CBC journalists speaking for personal gain, paid for by large organizations which openly proclaim that lobbing to affect public policy is an essential component of their day-to-day activities.

On December 5th, 2014, Evan Solomon was paid to speak at a luncheon by BOMA-Toronto, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Toronto (representing “80% of all commercial and industrial real estate in the Greater Toronto Area.”)

 One of the 4 “Pillars” or “Guiding Principles” of the BOMA is “Protecting and advancing the interests of its members on important policy issues at all levels of government and the media.

The 2013 BOMA annual report (p. 7) lists among the highlights of the year that the organization:

*Advocated at all levels of Government providing a voice for commercial property owners in Ontario.

* Advanced the interests of our members on important policy issues, such as energy pricing and supply, property taxes, transit, labour requirements and building regulations.

On December 2, 2014, Amanda Lang was paid to speak at “The Real Estate Forum” in Toronto. “Since 1992, The Real Estate Forum has become Canada’s largest annual national conference on real estate investment and management issues.

The “Principal Sponsor” of this conference is identified as the Real Property Association of Canada (RealPac), which is registered as a lobbyist with the Government of Canada.

 RealPac’s stated Mission is: “To bring together Canada’s real property investment leaders to collectively influence public policy, to educate government and the public, to ensure stable and beneficial real estate property and capital markets and to promote the performance of the real property sector in Canada.

 Three of the five “Platinum Sponsors” of the Forum – Ivanhoe-Cambridge, KPMG and FCT – are registered lobbyists with the Government of Canada.

 Three of the seven “Gold Sponsors” of the Forum – Deloitte, MCAP and Scotiabank – are registered lobbyists with the Government of Canada.

 Nine of the 21 members of RealPac’s Advisory Council are registered lobbyists with the Government of Canada.

Both of these December 2014 events violate the April 24th policy.

Finally, there are two additional areas where I would ask that you make comment. This involves the damage to morale that is being caused inside the Corporation among its thousands of employees. This in turn affects the quality of the journalism produced by the CBC and thus, the perception by the Canadian public of diminished quality – areas which fall under your mandate to address when concerns are expressed from outside.

To quote your March 12, 2014 opinion: “CBC policy states that CBC staff cannot use their association with CBC for personal gain.”

The very serious problem now facing CBC management is that the relentlessly mercurial and inconsistent interpretation of the paid speeches policy is widely seen inside the Corporation as nurturing a caste system for personal gain amongst a few journalists at the very top of program operations.

After my 27 years as a journalist for CBC, I have the privilege of knowing people across the organization.

Since February 2014, I have had many – and I do mean many – conversations with current CBC journalists at all levels about paid speeches.

I have yet to find one person who expresses support for a system that financially benefits a small cadre of prominent employees. This is unacceptable in an organization that prides itself on working together as a public broadcasting institution for the benefit of all Canadians.

Journalists inside the CBC are angry and disappointed that despite a “new policy,” little has changed. I have heard multiple stories where requests to speak for free at small local events have been denied, and yet the faces and voices of those at the top are regularly earning speaking fees well north of $10,000.

As we know, anger and disappointment are extraordinarily corrosive in any organization.

Most importantly, outside of the CBC, as you have clearly noted, the Corporation needs to be seen by Canadians as one which operates in their interests – not in the financial interests of a few of its most prominent journalists. And this imperative is seriously jeopardized by the continuing violation of the policy on paid speaking engagements.

Given the many significant challenges facing the CBC in these difficult times, this is such an easy one to solve: turn off the tap.

I hope that you will revisit this issue as soon as possible and I look forward to your recommendations for meaningful changes.


Frank Koller

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