Coverage of CBC host's book

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved CBC Radio and CBC.ca coverage of a book by CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi. The complainant said these appearances violated journalistic policy as a conflict of interest, but I did not conclude they did.

Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC Radio program Q, is the author of a recently published book, 1982, of a series of music-related stories that shaped his perspectives.

On September 18 and in other days that followed publication, CBC made mention of the book on some of its radio programs and published several online stories to promote its presence or Ghomeshi's appearances to promote its presence.

The complainant, Pat McPhillips, wrote September 24 to complain that the attention given to the book amounted to abundant displays of “patronage and nepotism” that constituted a conflict for CBC.

McPhillips said it was unethical and “a misuse of public funds and airtime for personal promotion that he should have been paying for in the private sector.”

Chris Boyce, the CBC executive director for radio and audio, wrote back September 27 to note that such promotion demonstrates “our hosts' ongoing contribution to Canadian culture, while also promoting their CBC programs as a part of our overall promotions strategy.”

He noted other CBC hosts' books had been the subjects of interviews in the past.

Boyce said CBC has tried to avoid a perception of a conflict by ensuring Q does not produce any segments about it. Guests might mention the book, “but that's it,” he wrote.

McPhillips said other CBC hosts' books had often been linked to the content of their programs, but that Ghomeshi's book wasn't directly related. She said he was gaining a “non-monetary benefit,” particularly in the promotion of the book before it became a Canadian bestseller.

She asked for a review of the dispute.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for the avoidance of real or perceived conflict.

(CBC News personnel are required to consult editorial management before contributing to a book, but those provisions in the journalistic policy do not extend to non- journalists.)

Conclusion

I can sympathize with audience concerns about the rise of promotion and marketing in what has been traditional news and information space. There are reasonable concerns that service-oriented content often benefits the subject more than the audience — a particular truism of celebrity- and product-related coverage.

But CBC journalistic policy does not wade into this area. It only intersects with this matter in terms of whether coverage comprised a conflict of interest and outweighed the public interest.

Given Ghomeshi's profile and popularity, the publication of his book and the exploration of its theme were legitimate subjects of coverage and fit the contemporary frame of newsworthiness. I believe the CBC audience would expect it to note and discuss a book from one of its most prominent voices. Just as other media organizations will review or feature books by its staff, I cannot imagine CBC would be silent about its own.

The question, then, is whether CBC exercised reasonable restraint. While the potential existed for indulgent self-serving, I concluded the coverage was informational and neutral. Moreover, there did not appear to be an unusually sustained promotion of the book. Rather, its publication was treated by programmers as they would the arrival of any other possible bestseller — swift and timely coverage to raise awareness, then on to another book on another day.

CBC management determined that Ghomeshi could not use his own regular broadcast platform to self-promote. In that way, he and his program took sensible measures to avoid a real or perceived conflict in coverage over which they had agency. In making that determination, and in the context of its otherwise limited coverage, CBC fulfilled the policy.

I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman