What is a conflict of interest?
Simply put, it’s a situation where one person’s duty to an organization, a cause, a person or something else is in conflict with that person’s relationship to some other organization, person or cause, where the best interests of one might not be in the best interests of another.
It sounds a bit vague, but conflicts can be all sorts of things. You could sit on the boards of two companies doing business with each other. You could be in a relationship with your supervisor. You could be a police officer arresting a family member. Or you could be a journalist whose reporting might affect a company that is earning you income on the side.
This past week, two examples have come up of high-profile journalists being in potential conflicts of interest because of their side jobs, and of failing to disclose such conflicts to their audience. And in each case, the mentality of the person at the centre of it all seems to have been that since they would never allow themselves to be corrupted by money, they’re not in a conflict of interest.
Leslie Roberts and “journalist mode”
When the Toronto Star last week approached Global Toronto anchor Leslie Roberts (a former CFCF and Global Quebec personality) about his ties to a company called BuzzPR, he admitted it didn’t look very good. But while he’s part owner of the company, he didn’t take a salary from them, and never did he accept money from clients to put them on the air, even though some of those clients did get featured on the air with no disclosure about the business relationship:
When I sit on the anchor desk I am in journalist mode and nothing comes between me and a story.
Global has suspended Roberts pending an investigation. It says it learned of the connection to the PR company from Roberts after the Star’s questioning.
Saying it looks bad is an understatement. If this had been a member of Parliament who was running a lobbying firm on the side and didn’t disclose it, there would be universal outrage. Trying to see this from Roberts’s point of view, I utterly fail to see how anyone who anchors a newscast couldn’t see the huge red flags of also owning a company called BuzzPR. And didn’t tell his boss about it.
Whether Roberts was intentionally hiding his relationship to the firm (his name isn’t on their website, the company isn’t listed in his LinkedIn profile, and his employer didn’t know about it), or whether he just never brought it up despite going there every day between two shifts at Global, I don’t know for sure. But yeah, it looks bad.
Well, except to some Global viewers. Read the comments below the story on Global’s website, and you see plenty of people demanding Global bring him back, saying he’s innocent until proven guilty, even threatening never to watch Global again. The fact that these people don’t care about this conflict of interest just because they like this guy they’ve never met is the most disheartening thing about this whole story.
Amanda Lang and the “haters”
Lang, a senior business correspondent for CBC and a major media personality, has come under attack from Canadaland, a podcast and website about Canadian media. It published five stories in three and a half weeks about Lang, most written by Sean Craig.
The stories stem from an apparent conflict of interest involving Lang and some of Canada’s largest businesses, particularly financial institutions. Craig notes that she had paid speaking gigs for events sponsored or closely associated with Manulife, RBC and other companies, and did not disclose these things when interviewing their executives on the air. This week, another story suggesting she tried to “sabotage” a story from a colleague that was critical of RBC. That was compounded by yet another story noting that she was in a “serious relationship” with someone on RBC’s board of directors.
Serious charges, but unlike Global, CBC’s response has been to downplay them. It says she never took money from RBC, that there was never an attempt to sabotage a story (merely vigorous debate) and that the relationship was disclosed to management and proper steps taken.
Lang herself hasn’t said much. She gave some quotes to the Star denying any impropriety. When the first story broke in December, she offered this cryptic tweet:
Twenty years of credible journalism speaks for itself. But your public broadcaster can't. It's time to voice your support. The haters hate.
— Amanda Lang (@AmandaLang_CBC) December 23, 2014
So who’s speaking the truth here? Unfortunately both Canadaland’s reporting and the CBC’s and Lang’s responses have a lot of holes.
Canadaland’s reporting brings up some serious issues related to conflict of interest. And even though the information related to paid speaking gigs comes from voluntary disclosures from the CBC (itself started after previous controversies over paid speeches from Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy), if there are conflicts, those need to be disclosed on the air whenever pertinent.
But Canadaland has a habit of sensationalizing and editorializing, calling its own reporting “shocking” and describing people who offered anonymous quotes as “brave”.
The biggest problem with Canadaland’s reporting is that the case for a financial relationship with RBC is extremely weak. It argues essentially that because she spoke at events in which RBC was a sponsor, she’s accepting money from them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an industry conference, a local chamber of commerce or even an educational institution, the fact that RBC is listed as a sponsor (among many others) indicates an inappropriate financial relationship. (Even if, as the Toronto Star reports, she spoke for free or RBC sponsorship money wasn’t used for speakers.)
That said, the CBC response has been pretty awful too. Chuck Thompson, the head of public affairs, got caught giving false information to Canadaland’s Jesse Brown, and has so far failed to explain why.
.@JesseBrown I was mistakenly under the impression The Globe had approached Amanda Lang. In fact, the opposite is true; I stand corrected.
— Chuck Thompson (@ChuckTCBC) January 13, 2015
This is the second time Thompson has given information to Brown that he either knew or should have known was false. As the Jian Ghomeshi scandal broke, Thompson denied that Ghomeshi had been put on leave, even though that’s exactly what happened.
And CBC admitted that Lang took paid speaking engagements that would have been deemed inappropriate under a new policy, but was allowed to do them because they had been “grandfathered”.
It’s unfortunate that Canadaland and CBC have taken this confrontational attitude toward each other (they have a history — Brown used to work at CBC, and the public broadcaster has been a frequent target of his reporting). Their eagerness to make arguments rather than present balanced viewpoints do a disservice to their audiences.
There’s no proof either Roberts or Lang altered their reporting because of their side jobs. The Star notes Roberts endorsed a client’s product on the air, and Canadaland says Lang gave a softball interview to CEOs, but neither of those things is conclusive. I don’t know either of their motivations.
But I’m willing to believe both of these seasoned journalists that they never allowed themselves to be swayed, that they both believed they could not be bought.
The point is that this doesn’t matter.
For one thing, a conflict of interest doesn’t have to involve a quid pro quo. It can be — and usually is — much more subtle than that.
For example, say two companies are giving press conferences, and as a reporter you have to choose between them. You know one of those press conferences offers free food to reporters, and you choose to go to that one. You won’t alter your reporting of that company as a result of some free coffee and muffins, you say. But sorry, you’ve already been bought.
Maybe Leslie Roberts is right when he says he’s not for sale. Maybe he just really likes that app, regardless of whether it’s owned by a client. But would he have known about that app if that company hadn’t been a client? These are the questions you have to ask.
There’s a reason why people say that the mere perception of a conflict of interest is cause to act. It’s because we can never be sure of people’s motivations unless they screw up and incriminate themselves.
Journalism is built on trust. And I can’t trust that Leslie Roberts would have acted the same way toward BuzzPR’s clients if he wasn’t working with them. I can’t trust that Amanda Lang won’t hold back about RBC while in a relationship with one of its board members, or hold back about other companies who offer her paid speaking engagements.
They could have hearts of gold, but that doesn’t prevent clouds from forming over their heads.
Since these stories broke, I’ve seen many people in the journalism community jump on the bandwagon attacking Roberts and Lang. These two bad apples are making the rest of us look bad, they argue.
But I’m getting the impression that many of them think they’re immune from conflicts of interest.
The truth is that it’s actually really hard to get yourself out of all conflicts. You might have investments in certain companies, or deeply held political beliefs, or personal grudges, or current or past employments, or business relationships. And not only do all of those present conflicts, but they can present conflicts if they involve your friends, your family, your partners/boyfriends/lovers, your neighbours or anyone else you might be close to.
Conflicts come in degrees. Some are so minor they’re not worth mentioning. For example, I’m a Videotron subscriber. But I wouldn’t mention that in a story about Videotron unless it somehow affected me more than the almost two million others that subscribe to that company’s services.
Others are so serious that special measures need to be taken to work around them. For example, I’m an employee of Postmedia, which compromises my ability to report on it objectively. When I do post about major stories involving the company, I stick to the facts, and avoid doing original reporting.
Like many journalists, I’m also very concerned about gifts. I try not to accept anything that isn’t being given out for free to everyone. And what cheap swag I do end up coming home with goes into a bag to be given away later. (I do have to figure out what to do with it — it’s not cool enough to be auctioned off for charity, but I don’t want to just throw it away either.)
Most conflicts or potential conflicts are somewhere in the middle, and can be mitigated through simple disclosure. For example, I worked briefly at CBC a decade ago, and I was a guest recently on the Canadaland podcast. I don’t think either of these things compromises my ability to write about either organization, but it doesn’t hurt to make that clear just in case.
Unfortunately, there’s this stigma about disclosure, that it’s something bad, that it taints a report, and creates a conflict where none existed. I strongly disagree. Honesty builds trust, and it’s honest to say where you come from and how your views can be affected, even in an indirect, unintended and/or subconscious level, by some personal, financial or other relationship.
We need to be more honest with ourselves about the potential for conflicts of interest, big or small. Failing to do so leads to reckless assumptions, like that it’s okay to accept (over)paid work from companies you report on, or that it’s okay to be executive producer of a newscast and secretly run a PR firm on the side.
(And if you’re afraid of what people will think of you if you disclose something, you really need to ask yourself why.)
Those who think they don’t have conflicts and would never allow themselves to be in a similar position need to understand that the difference between Roberts and Lang and grabbing that free muffin at that press conference is all a matter of degree. And looking the other way at a minor breach of an ethical code tends to lead to larger breaches of that code.
And then all it takes is one sensationally-written story to make your entire career look bad.
UPDATE (Jan. 15): Leslie Roberts has resigned from his positions at Global News.