Mother Canada: A proposed war memorial and conflict of interest

The complainant, David MacDonald, questioned the status of Rex Murphy and Peter Mansbridge as honorary patrons of the “Mother Canada” war memorial proposed for Cape Breton. The controversy over the placement and design means CBC employees should not be associated with the project.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to express your concern that “two of the most senior people in the CBC News operation” were listed as honorary patrons of the Never Forgotten Memorial. You said that the project was “highly controversial” and that their support of this project was in “conflict with most of the legitimate and very serious concerns of CBC viewers.” You are concerned that this will have an impact on the coverage of the story, or perhaps not enough coverage of it. You wondered if it would create a chill so that their colleagues would not feel comfortable pursuing the story.

After hearing from News management you said you were glad Mr. Mansbridge had withdrawn his patronage but you were concerned that due to Mr. Murphy’s freelance relationship with CBC, he was not obliged to do the same thing. You also noted that Mr. Mansbridge had not made a public statement withdrawing his support.

You asked me to look at the conflict of interest policies at CBC, and wanted to know if Mr. Murphy was covered by any CBC policies. You also wanted to know if CBC News management knows what other outside work he does and if he has to disclose any compensation he gets.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement for CBC News, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns. He told you that Mr. Mansbridge lent his name as an honorary patron of the project, in part because “he has a demonstrated commitment to Canadian history.” But, he added, Mr. Mansbridge did not have any intention of being part of the decisions about design or location of this project. Since aspects of the project have become a matter of some contention, Mr. Mansbridge has resigned as one of the honorary patrons.

Mr. Nagler explained that Mr. Murphy’s situation is different, as he is in a freelance relationship with CBC. He pointed out that while his radio program, Cross Country Checkup, tackled the issue in its July 5, 2015 edition, the episode was not hosted by Mr. Murphy. He added that the program host also “noted Rex’s status so the audience could judge for itself the credibility of the program.”

REVIEW

Mr. Nagler explained to you that Mr. Mansbridge has withdrawn his patronage of the project. In a CBC News online report entitled “Peter Mansbridge drops support for Mother Canada project,” he is quoted as saying:

“I decided you can’t cover a controversy by being in one,” he said in an email. “It’s become a widespread controversy now.”

It was a good decision. The project is the work of a group of private individuals who believe Canada needs another war memorial, and they were looking for support to make that happen. There was an aspect of advocacy. Accepting the honorary patronage highlights the inherent risk for a working journalist lending his or her name to almost any cause. And yet, none of us live in a vacuum. It is not always easy to assess what will create a conflict of interest. The line between a perceived conflict and the rights of an individual, even one who is a high-profile journalist at CBC, is not obvious, and each case must be judged on its merits.

CBC News management has taken steps to curtail paid speaking engagements, and public appearances of all sorts. Yet there is an expectation that CBC public figures engage with the broader community and that will create some tension between two competing values.

CBC policy provides useful guidelines, but they are by necessity broad, and apply to all CBC employees. There are more restrictions and a higher standard for CBC journalists, so the Journalistic Standards and Practices states: “It is always wise to consult a supervisor if there is any doubt.” It bears emphasis on the increased scrutiny and the demand for accountability that is an offshoot of a social media world, that the consultation should be frequent and often.

The CBC corporate policies begin with this guiding principle:

No conflict should exist or appear to exist between the private interests of CBC/Radio-Canada employees and their official duties.

The fact that there can be a perception of conflict is generally the crux of the problem. It is far rarer that a journalist is caught actually favoring or doing something that furthers the interest of a source or contact or cause. And it certainly is not the case here. The Canadian Association of Journalists has provided a series of questions reporters and managers can ask to assess the potential of a perception of a conflict of interest, among them:

How close and how current is the relationship?

What would the public think? What would a fair minded viewer, listener or reader think if they knew of the connection?

The answer is pretty clear in this case – Mr. Mansbridge’s patronage could lead to a perception of bias. There is public controversy over the need for and placement of this memorial.

You asked what impact this might have on CBC’s coverage. While Mr. Mansbridge is CBC’s senior correspondent, there is a robust system of checks and balances as news stories are assigned and executed. But your question illustrates the impact of the appearance of a conflict of interest. There are several remedies, from declaring the conflict up front through recusing oneself from any coverage of the matter. In this case, news managers have told me that he will recuse himself from coverage of this story.

Radio management have made the same decision dealing with Rex Murphy. Not only did he not do the program on this topic, the guest host also mentioned Mr. Murphy’s status. I think that full disclosure was appropriate.

Mr. Murphy’s status presents an ongoing challenge. He told me in the course of doing another review that he has maintained this contractual relationship so that he can speak his mind in other fora. He says it is clear that he is speaking on his own behalf and that his message is one he chooses to deliver.

Mr. Murphy does regular commentary on The National and is the host of a weekly current affairs program on CBC Radio One. It is not surprising that audiences see him as a CBC employee. There was no violation in this case because Mr. Murphy did not participate in a subject where he would have been in a conflict of interest. You asked:

He was removed because his conflict became public. But what other conflicts exist? Does CBC even know? Is he required to disclose his compensation from all other ‘freelance’ work so that CBC could understand what conflicts might exist?

Mr. Murphy is required to disclose his paid speaking engagements, and these are made public. The difference is that Mr. Murphy still has the latitude to accept paid speaking engagements because of his contractual arrangement with CBC. Hosts who are not on a freelance contract are no longer able to accept money for making public appearances. You were concerned that this status exempted him from other parts of Journalistic Standards and Practices. That is not the case. When he is hosting Cross Country Checkup, he is required to adhere to CBC’s journalistic code. His status and activity does stick out from general CBC practice and understandably creates confusion. He is even bound by the conflict of interest policies – and that is why he was not part of a program on the monument. CBC Radio management has an obligation to assess potential conflicts and ensure it does not affect on air content.

You asked me to review the policies governing conflict of interest and policies governing freelance workers. The Ombudsman is independent of News management and does not set policy. I can tell you though that I regularly share my views with senior managers. They too have been looking at the policies and, more importantly, how to share with staff what they mean. They have also been creating processes to track and assess potential conflicts of interest, and to create protocols if needed. I am glad that work is going on and encourage its continuation. There is a need for a rigorous oversight of all external activities.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman