Journalism matters: conflicts of interest

Journalists paid by industry or a partisan outfit are no longer “journalists.” They are practicing professional public relations. So where does that leave Canada’s Rex Murphy vis a vis his freelance jobs with Canada’s public broadcaster, as a commentator on the flagship National TV newscast, and as host of the radio call-in show Cross Country Checkup?

Murphy, who has spent a lifetime in journalism, has had his role with the country’s public broadcaster questioned recently because of paid speaking gigs in the oil industry, where he’s known for pro-industry commentary and his record as a skeptic of climate-change science.

Journalist Andrew Mitrovica wrote a scathing opinion piece for iPolitics, Rex Murphy, the oilsands and the cone of silence, calling out the CBC on conflict-of-interest and lack of transparency: “The CBC is engaged in a corrosive, myopic effort to circle the proverbial wagons in order to protect its battered “brand” and a popular performer – at the expense of honesty, openness, transparency and … journalistic responsibility.”

Ouch.

Mitrovica is not the only critic; there have been items in numerous journalism and other outlets including, earlier this month, on Pressprogress, a web site dedicated to “progressive solutions” that is a project of the Canadian  Broadbent Institute, founded by a former New Democratic party leader. PressProgress posted a factual and much-linked piece with a title that sums up the controversy: “Rex Murphy and Big Oil: friends with benefits?

The CBC does nothing to help itself. Editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire responded that Murphy is a National show commentator — and “taking a provocative stand is what we pay him to do.” Fair enough: there is a distinct line (which most in the media fail to explain to our audience) between opinion and reporting. But what of his radio hosting job? Calling him a “freelancer,” which McGuire also does, doesn’t cut it. Murphy may be technically a freelance independent, but other freelancers for the CBC, as for all world-class quality journalism outfits, are held to strict ethical standards. Even Murphy’s own agency for independent speaking gigs sells him on the basis of his relationship with the CBC, as “a trusted face and voice across Canada on CBC TV and CBC Radio One … ” And it’s at best disingenuous of the CBC to downplay its relationship with Murphy when its very own, and badly outdated, page about Murphy  touts his many and diverse roles:

He has worked extensively with CBC and from Newfoundland he has contributed many items on current affairs issues. For The National he has done a number of documentaries, including the highly acclaimed “Unpeopled Shores,” as well as interviews with immensely popular authors, the late Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes, among them.

Journalism matters — and the value of opinion in journalism is rooted in factual credibility plus, at the very least, a declaration of conflicts of interest.

— Deborah Jones

Disclosure: I’m an avid supporter of the CBC, and believe in a strong, respected and ethical public broadcaster. Excepting a handful of radio docs and paid TV and radio appearances many years ago, I have no financial stake in the CBC.

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