When it comes to conflicts of interest in journalism – whether real, potential or perceived – the rules are usually simple. They’re framed around the principle that audiences (and management) need to know if a reporter, presenter or editor might be influenced by any commercial or personal relationship with another individual or organisation.
But what happens when the protocols of disclosure are not met? Well, as a couple of recent Canadian cases highlight, non-disclosure can rapidly lead to non-employment.
The recent sacking of two high-profile Canadian journalists highlights the difficulties media employees face in navigating the tricky terrain of conflicts of interest.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) dismissed the host of its premiere television political show Power & Politics, Evan Solomon, for allegedly using his journalist’s position to broker sales for an art dealer friend.
Solomon’s sacking followed a Toronto Star newspaper report on the journalist’s contract with art dealer, Bruce Bailey.
Solomon has admitted he received commissions, said to total around CAD$300,000, for his role in the sale of artworks, including to the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, but added it was “all disclosed to CBC”.
Carney had previously been a guest on Power and Politics, which Solomon hosted until his dismissal.
On the face of it, this might seem a reasonable decision by the CBC.
Solomon, who was said to be a rising star at the government-owned network, was contractually bound by the station’s editorial policies.
In a statement defending its decision on Solomon, the CBC said the anchor had acted in a way “inconsistent with the organisation’s conflict of interest and ethics policy, as well as journalistic standards and practices”.
While Mark Carney and another of Solomon’s journalistic contacts, Blackberry founder Jim Balsillie, were also clients in Solomon’s art brokerage business, there has been no evidence that any of his editorial decisions were influenced by his sideline in art dealing.
The swift action by the CBC has been criticised as hasty and perhaps out of proportion to Solomon’s alleged “crime”.
Solomon’s union, the Canadian Media Guild, also called CBC’s actions “excessively harsh”.
Solomon is the second high-profile presenter sacked by a Canadian broadcaster after allegations of conflict of interest surfaced.
In January this year a Global TV news presenter, Leslie Roberts, resigned from the Toronto-based network after it was disclosed that he was also involved with a PR agency whose clients appeared regularly on Roberts’s program.
Ironically, it was another Toronto Star investigation that revealed Roberts’s undisclosed affiliation with Buzz PR.
Roberts said he did not receive a salary from Buzz PR, but he had not alerted his bosses to the connection.
Perhaps in Roberts’s case the alleged conflict of interest is more clear cut. Most journalists would be horrified at any suggestion that a senior colleague was also working for “dark side”.
It’s also clear that the potential for a very lucrative “revolving door” between the PR agency and Roberts’s news studio is ethically dubious, to say the least.
Is the perception of a conflict evidence enough?
Neither Solomon nor Roberts appear to have broken any Canadian laws. There is no allegation against them of criminal or corrupt behaviour.
So, is it enough then for there to be a perception of conflict for a media employer to take action?
It seems the answer is “yes” in the Canadian context, and the argument about reputational damage is a strong one.
We seem to hold media personalities to a higher standard than mere mortals, and within the realm of public broadcasting – funded by taxpayers – accountability must be observed and be seen to be observed.
To my knowledge there have been no similar recent cases in the Australian media, but that does not mean that allegations of conflict of interest don’t surface from time to time.
Most often the allegations are raised against ABC employees, and usually by journalists or commentators working for rival networks or publishers.
Lateline host, Tony Jones, is regularly in the firing line.
Carbon Expo is an annual conference focused on sustainability issues and the generation of a market for carbon credits.
According to Bolt, Jones has a conflict because of his role at the ABC, which requires him to be impartial in the presentation of news and opinion.
Bolt believes Jones is too close to what he calls the “warmist” view of climate change and cites his hosting of Carbon Expo as proof. But the ABC has never taken any action against Jones and his participation in forums such as Carbon Expo occurs with the explicit approval of ABC management.
Is that a conflict of interest? The argument in Jones’ case seems to rest on political rather than ethical grounds. Bolt is a well-known critic of both the ABC and the science of climate change. Jones’ monetary value as facilitator and MC is predicated on his ABC profile, rather than the other way around and his relationship with speakers’ bureaux is known to ABC management and to any curious member of the public who cares to Google his name.
Perhaps it is the declaration that clears Tony Jones. In the Solomon and Roberts’ cases it seems that it was secrecy – and sudden exposure – that sunk them. Though one could argue the cases are different.
Being connected to a PR agency that solicits airtime on your network for its clients seems a greater offence than pocketing a kick-back from making introductions to an art dealer. Hosting corporate events and conferences also seems, on the face of it, to be fairly innocuous.
Any conflict of interest in the newsroom is a potential problem if it impacts on the veracity and honesty of reporting and editorial decision-making, but the standards of proof need to be very high.