Time for BC’s media to admit its conflicts

CBC finally responds publicly, but not completely. Read for yourselves and add your comments. CBC Editor in Chief responds to Ombudsman decision. Be aware though, they do not approve intemperate comments, even insightful ones. They are wary of reader comments that provide effective criticism.

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When the media notes conflicts of interest in the business of politicians and community leaders, the reporting is immediate and relentless. Ask Glen Clark or Bill Vander Zalm. However, when conflicts involve fellow journalists, disinterest and silence is usual. So we have people presenting news that affects industries paying them remuneration and immediate family members of reporters working in partisan positions paid for by the government the journalists cover. Colleagues tell the audience nothing. What might be an example of public conflict elsewhere is private business when media members are involved.

Be assured, Stephen Smart is not alone in being conflicted. In the words of one insider, his is not the most egregious situation. It is time for at least the CBC, Vancouver Sun, Global TV, Corus Radio and Times Colonist to make proactive disclosure of any situation that a reasonable person might recognize as a direct or indirect conflict of interest in current or recent political reporting. Actions should not depend on persuasion or coercion from independent journalists.

That statement would have been unnecessary a few years ago.

Despite a heads-in-the-sand approach to the morass involving its Legislative Bureau Chief, CBC has not always responded meekly when conflict of interest is demonstrated. A number of years ago, the broadcaster fired its Quebec City radio correspondent after accusing him of asking questions of political leaders for the benefit of a third party. The reporter said his work was not affected by the relationship; CBC said the principle of independence could not be compromised. There was at least one difference though; Andre Salwyn was not the son of an influential Supreme Court Judge.

In a more recent case, Maclean’s suggested The Globe and Mail had an undisclosed conflict of interest when the newspaper gave top space — front page above the fold — to a global university ranking in which Thomson Reuters had a partnership interest. Macleans noted:

“It does not reveal that Thomson Reuters is the most high-profile asset of the Woodbridge Company Ltd., which had just announced a deal to buy the newspaper.

“…the fact that the Globe didn’t declare a potential conflict of interest when mentioning Thomson Reuters in the ranking story struck some as curious.”

David Swick, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of King’s College in Halifax said it was a perceived conflict of interest. Swick pointed to a 2008 Léger Marketing poll showing that only 41 per cent of Canadians trust journalists. Which makes transparency, he says, all the more important.

In the nineties, Southam National Columnist Catherine Ford, wrote about the conflict of interest dilemmas of couples in the public eye:

“The Kleins, like the Stevens, either forgot or chose to ignore Rule No. 1 of politics and high places: Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

“[Noreen] Stevens, the wife of disgraced federal cabinet minister Sinclair Stevens, told a judicial inquiry into conflict-of-interest charges against her husband that there was no pillow talk in the Stevens’ household.

“…Canadians took her comments to be the sad attempt of a wife to protect her husband, as if wives have a special dispensation to profess they know nothing, see nothing and say nothing.

“…The Kleins are in a similar dilemma. …The public has to decide whether Colleen Klein is being manipulated by her husband and his cronies, or is ignorant that conflict-of-interest includes her, too. It’s a no-win situation, and the premier should have known that…”

Writers like Vaughn Palmer and Keith Baldrey wrote about spouses troubled by conflicts of interest during the time in BC history when Bill and Lillian Vander Zalm tried unsuccessfully to keep personal and government business separate.

In 2004, The San Francisco Chronicle removed its lead City Hall reporter and photographer from covering certain stories after concluding that there was potential for the appearance of a conflict of interest. Executive editor Phil Bronstein wrote in an internal memo:

“Chronicle journalists directly and personally involved in a major news story — one in whose outcome they also have a personal stake — should not also cover that story, The issue is the integrity and credibility of the paper as well as conflict and perception of conflict.”

Would we lie to you? by Anthony Wilson-Smith was published by Maclean’s in 2000. He wrote that,

“…bias isn’t always overt. Any experienced reporter knows how to slip in “weasel” words or phrases that paint a subject in a certain way without saying so directly. If you are profiling a CEO and want to make nice, you might describe him physically as “a bear of a man whose imposing stature reflects the manner in which he dominates a room.” Or if you think he is a jerk, you might focus on the manner in which “his stomach protrudes over his belt, and his excess weight causes him to perspire profusely.” Either way, same guy.

“…The fact that some reporters and editors twist the news to advance themselves isn’t new: there are now just more opportunities than ever. The truth isn’t pretty–and it isn’t, sad to say, always the way it’s presented in the media.”

8 replies »

  1. I wonder what BC's media types are afraid of? This is especially true of NW's Friday “three amigos”, which constantly bully anyone with views contrary to there own. What are they afraid of?

    The simple answer is that they are afraid of the truth.


  2. The media in BC, are quite willing to sell their souls to the devil. It's in our faces obvious, they are a total disgrace to their professions. Shame on the media. When the BC Liberals are gone, then what? The media has lost the respect of the BC people. The journalists and reporters will never be trusted again.


  3. That's why media must decide to make an honest self-assessment. The reporters or commentators who have been in or remain in situations that could reasonably be considered conflicts of interest are fairly well known in the news business. The ethical professionals are unhappy with those situations and not all will keep silent.


  4. More “weasel” words from the mouth of Baldry and Palmer on CKNW. When discussing Vander Zalm and Delaney, they almost always added the description “their “gang”. Presumable that referred to anyone who supported the extinction of the HST and signed the original petition to bring about the referendum. And this was at a time that “gang” warfare was raging throughout the lower mainland.


  5. Very glad to see the topic of the twisted biases of West Coast reporters under discussion.

    I've come to the conclusion that British Columbians let the media get away with far too much. We should write, write, write, and phone, telling the twisted journalists that they fool nobody but themselves, telling them to shape up. And keep telling them to shape up.

    Because there's a mental laziness involved: do nothing and get paid to do nothing … and I can't help thinking that the lazy journalists will never achieve their own independence without help … they need some support (our support) in telling their bosses that readers are mad as hell …


  6. One does not need the IQ of a Mensa member to know that Stephen Smart is in a conflict of interest, but I also think that he is between a rock and a hard place. It is incumbent upon his employer, the CBC, to remove him from his current beat and reassign him to something else. Although his reporting to date may not show any favourable bias regarding the current administration one cannot help but wonder whether he failed to report on some issues. A good example is the story brought forth by Jonathan Fowlie today on the proHST pamphlet that the government developed, printed, and then shredded at the cost of $780,000.00. Was he aware of this but declined to report on it? No one but he and his wife can say for certain, but it is a valid question.

    I also think that we must really question whether today's media is a real source of news or a tool that is exploited by certain vested interests. My first example is the raid on Glen Clark's house. As far as I know, we have never been given a plausible explanation of how a television reporter, with camerman in tow, was able to attend almost as fast as the police. Did a nosey neighbour have a premonition and forewarn Global TV, who I believe was the reporting station? Did the BC Liberal Party give Global TV the heads up? Did the police or judiciary tip off the television station? Maybe the reporter was just clairvoyant.

    Another example relates to the time we were allowed to vote on the HST referendum. I distinctly remember Bill Good, Philip Till and Sean Leslie of CKNW stating on airthat they voted in favour of the HST. In my opinion this was not done for any other reason but to hopefully entice their listeners to do the same. Think about it. When was the last time that these same three people told us who they voted for in any election? They sure as hell didn't tell us, in advance or after, for that matter, who their choices were in the provincial election in 2009 or the federal election last year.

    In my humble opinion, I believe that the media has evolved from a source of information to a tool of certain vested interests. They seem to be operating no differently than the lobbyists that ply their trade with our political bodies.


  7. I still cringe about the Clark family having to negotiate with TV news people to stop them from filming their child returning home from his after-school events.

    Around that time, I often encountered Glen Clark as one of the Dad's attending a son's minor hockey game. From that point of view, he was little different than many other Dads – an ordinary guy with no entourage, police escorts or body guards.

    The current Premier floats about with a small army.


  8. And Campbell gave up, had to give up, driving himself around the province when he was hit with a DUI charge in Hawaii which forced him to settle for a Chauffeur, and no army. Just what is Clark afraid of, a debate with her local constituents, or a debate with British Columbians if she dares to go out shopping at the corner store late at night (6:30pm)?


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