Film critic

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant felt that Ottawa Morning’s film critic was in a conflict of interest because he is also head of the Canadian Film Institute. Provided that his affiliation is identified, I see no impediment in using this reviewer.

For the past few months you (Tony Wohlfarth) have carried on an e-mail exchange with Ruth Zowdu, Executive Producer of Radio Current Affairs in Ottawa. You wrote to object to the use of Tom McSorley as the regular film critic on Ottawa Morning, the Ottawa area morning show. You felt there was a conflict of interest because he is also head of the Canadian Film Institute (CFI). In addition to his film reviews, he was using his air time to promote films that were part of festivals sponsored by the Institute.

Your concerns are twofold: One, that a "F/T( sic) film industry executive" can be a film critic at all without being in conflict of interest, and that it does not seem appropriate for the head of the Canadian Film Institute to promote CFI events if he is also the film critic. You wrote, “Ottawa Morning is the only program in the country which relies on a F/T industry executive as its 'film critic', contrary IMO (sic) to professional standards.” You also expressed concern that Ottawa Morning could never fairly cover any event related to CFI. Finally, you also disclosed that you are a film writer who independently reviews films, but have no interest in doing so for Ottawa Morning.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Ruth Zowdu responded to your concerns on March 1. She told you she reviewed Mr. McSorley’s work going back to September 2012. She felt that you had raised a valid issue: “I do think that you make a good point about the perception of conflict in having Mr. McSorley review films that are a part of festivals he has helped to organize.” She said programmers had been advised that he should not review films associated with CFI. In the case where programmers felt an upcoming CFI film festival was an important enough cultural event to merit coverage, McSorley would appear to talk about the festival and would not be paid on those occasions. “We will treat these as straight interviews, for which none of our guests are paid. We will also be very clear in our on-air introduction so that the audience knows his role.” McSorley could come on the program to review a film or to talk about a CFI event, but not both at the same time. Since then, he has been on the show to review a general release film, and has then been asked by host Robyn Bresnahan to “take off his reviewer’s hat” and to talk about a festival and some of its films in the same conversation.

Conflict of interest or perception of conflict of interest can undermine the credibility and integrity of journalism and CBC programming. The Journalistic Standards and Practices states, “Our credibility is the foundation of our reputation. The credibility of CBC News and current affairs rests on the reputation of its journalists who are, and are seen to be, independent and impartial.”

All CBC employees are bound by corporate conflict of interest policies. The policy spells out expectations and requirements. The most relevant in this case would be, “Employees must not use their positions to further their personal interests.” When CBC employees find themselves in a conflict, they are obliged to declare it to a supervisor. A decision is made about how to handle that conflict. It may preclude the employee from covering a particular person or topic, but not necessarily. There can be a protocol that sets out conditions and safeguards.

There were two parts to your concern: one is that there is an inherent conflict in using the head of the CFI because he is a “film industry executive.” The Canadian Film Institute is a not for profit organization whose mandate, according to the website, is to promote an appreciation of ‘moving images’ through screenings of films and publication of material about them. It is hard to discern what the inherent potential conflict would be in reviewing commercial movies in general release. While Mr. McSorley generally chooses the films he will review, producers have final say. The conflict is much more concrete when a film being screened through the auspices of CFI is reviewed by the head of the organization. I agree with you that is a conflict and a policy violation. He should also not talk about his Institute work when being paid to do a film review. Ms Zowdu has assured you that will not happen again.

You also questioned whether in essence it is a conflict if Ottawa Morning chooses to highlight or talk about any festival or films associated with the Canadian Film Institute. If in the programmers’ estimation, the festival merits attention on the show, then there should be no impediment. The challenge becomes how they go about executing the coverage. The Ottawa Morning film critic is also the primary spokesperson for these events. Ideally, someone else from the Institute should be interviewed. If that truly is not possible, clearly identifying the purpose of the interview and McSorley’s affiliation is critical. CBC policy requires that any relevant affiliation a program participant has should be disclosed in the broadcast. The logic is that this enables audiences “to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.”

I strongly recommend that no matter in what capacity Mr. McSorley appears on air, his affiliation be noted. Although Mr. McSorley is the only film critic on the morning show, other critics appear on the afternoon show. The Ottawa audience can access a range of film reviews and perspectives through CBC. A conflict could potentially arise if at any time The Canadian Film Institute or any of its programs became part of a public controversy. I would rely on information staff to follow policy and ensure a range of views and opinions were presented.

In the context of reviewing, provided that his affiliation is identified, and that no CFI films are subject of review, I see no policy impediment in using this film reviewer in Ottawa.

relevant affiliation a program participant has should be disclosed in the broadcast. The logic is that this enables audiences “to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.”

I strongly recommend that no matter in what capacity Mr. McSorley appears on air, his affiliation be noted. Although Mr. McSorley is the only film critic on the morning show, other critics appear on the afternoon show. The Ottawa audience can access a range of film reviews and perspectives through CBC. A conflict could potentially arise if at any time The Canadian Film Institute or any of its programs became part of a public controversy. I would rely on information staff to follow policy and ensure a range of views and opinions were presented.

In the context of reviewing, provided that his affiliation is identified, and that no CFI films are subject of review, I see no policy impediment in using this film reviewer in Ottawa.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman