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Amanda Lang (CBC.ca)

Amanda Lang



Public trust matters more than speaking fees Add to ...

Amanda Lang is senior business correspondent for CBC News.

Journalism is one of the most important jobs in a strong and functioning democracy, and it’s a job I consider a privilege to do.

A reporter’s integrity is critical to her ability to carry out journalism’s core public responsibilities. Audiences need to be able to trust what they read and view. I have been a business reporter for 20 years and work for CBC, one of Canada’s most important journalistic institutions. I fully understand my obligations. Because of that, it is painful to me that public perceptions of my integrity may have been compromised because I have been accused of acting improperly by allowing myself to be seen to have been in a conflict of interest.

The exact allegation is this: that I intervened to affect a story the CBC was pursuing because I have accepted speaking fees from the Royal Bank – directly or indirectly. The accusation is that I sought to relieve the Royal Bank from criticism because of a personal financial interest. Some have even suggested that, because of a personal relationship with a director of the bank, that my questions about the report were due to that personal interest. It has been further implied that I intentionally kept these interests concealed. These are very serious allegations. If any of them were true, it would be an extremely serious matter. But they are not true. Let me repeat: they are not, in any fashion, true.

Yes, when asked (in fact, invited on to a conference call I did not instigate), I expressed my view – informed by my familiarity with the issue – with colleagues at the CBC. As a matter of editorial opinion, I felt the story was flawed and that it reflected a misunderstanding of important subject elements. In this, I meant (or mean) no disrespect. That opinion was a consequence of my time and experience as a business reporter – and nothing else. I did not attempt to block the story from airing, as has been implied by some reports. Indeed, it was aired. As the CBC’s senior business correspondent, I would argue that I have an obligation to challenge such stories. Similarly, others with whom I work have an obligation to challenge my stories, check my assumptions and question my understanding of all relevant facts.

It did not occur to me that others would question my motivation. That they would raise doubts about my integrity. That they would believe my perspective on this story was affected, for example, either by a relationship or by the fact that I have spoken for pay at events organized by business groups and companies. Let me explain why that didn’t occur to me.

Business reporters are acutely aware of the possibility of conflicts of interests. They have to be. Everywhere they work, there are rules about disclosure of personal assets and investments. Their personal reputations are critical to them. My particular roles in television business journalism have ensured significant and consistent scrutiny of my work.

Nevertheless, in this case, some have questioned my motives and seem willing to assume that I have been for sale because there is an implied quid pro quo for companies for contributing to or subsidizing even small parts of speaking fees. Those who say I acted improperly seem not to care that they, in effect, are alleging deeply unethical behaviour, or worse. I’m not sure how to convince people that my principles, integrity and career are fundamentally important to me, that I have no trouble understanding right from wrong and reporting honestly and independently. Unfortunately, it appears that I can assert that as long as I wish and still not overcome suspicions that originate from unshakeable and, in my view, utterly unwarranted presumptions of venal behaviour.

But I can try to limit the opportunity for the malevolent to raise those sorts of questions about me, my work, my integrity and my motives. I very much want to ensure that I can continue to earn the trust of the people who watch what I do because I have a deep professional obligation to them. That relationship of trust is built up over time, and it is one that I prize, and consider absolutely necessary in order to do the work I know and love.

In retrospect, I see that I allowed this circumstance to develop, by assuming that my integrity would not be questioned if I accepted speaking fees from business associations and companies.

Although my reporting has never been influenced by conflict, it is influenced by my general world view. I do not believe that business is inherently evil. I think business is eminently capable of behaviour that is counter to the public interest – environmental degradation, financial fraud or predatory practices that hurt consumers. I have documented all of that and more. For the record, I have been especially critical of the role the financial services and banking industry played in the 2008 market crash and the recession that followed. On the other hand, I also think business is capable of doing good – creating jobs, bringing innovations that improve our lives, playing a positive role in communities. That is my perspective and I think viewers know it, and are comfortable with it. Not everybody agrees, and some people are more inherently suspicious of business.

But conflict is a different matter from perspective, and it is what I have been accused of in recent weeks.

For much of the past two decades, at this network and the ones I worked at previously, I was permitted and even encouraged to speak publicly to groups. Sometimes that meant emceeing events. Sometimes, and especially after I wrote a book on the nature of innovation in business, I was invited to give my thoughts on innovation and the role it can play in business and in our lives. And for many years, often these invitations were paid appearances.

At CBC, the practice of allowing journalists to be paid to speak was understood to be complex, but our producers and managers undertook to work with us to be sure our journalism remained unbiased and trustworthy. I, and my colleagues, have been and remain comfortable that we were able to do that. I can look back proudly on many years of reporting, during which I was also paid to speak, and know I was on no occasion influenced. Most events have multiple sponsors and the speakers have no idea which company contributed what amount. But even where that has not been the case, the integrity of the journalism has never been in jeopardy.

And yet I now encounter the casual assumption that if I speak at events for pay, there must be a quid pro quo provided in terms of the inclination I adopt in my reporting. It seems that a distressing number of people happily accept that my reporting must be for sale. That such an assumption carries with it a deeply offensive assessment of my personal ethics and professional integrity, appears immaterial. Denials are easily dismissed, defences are brushed off as self-interested.

The question of whether I should have disclosed my relationship is a trickier matter. At the time of these events, it was very new, and very private, something that we had yet to discuss even with our children. As such, it would not have occurred to me that it could influence my journalism (or be seen to). Some of my colleagues may have felt they had a right to know about it, and I regret if they feel misled. I can see now that I should have disclosed at the time of the RBC story. But in my mind, it was then a private matter. When it became more serious and more public, I disclosed to my producers in order to manage any issues around stories we were covering.

These issues combine to create a challenge. I can lament this development, argue with detractors and consider myself a victim of malicious attack. I can try to defend my years of respected journalism, and note that I have never been in a position where any event shaped how I reported on anything. Or I can accept that the privilege of reporting carries with it obligations that, occasionally, will shift. Inside CBC, with our management team, we have undertaken to review whether this policy needed to change.

The truth is the debate that has ensued has caused many of us to reflect on this matter in a new way.

I cover business. And I cover business for the CBC. More than other networks, we serve at the pleasure of the citizens of this country. It confers a special obligation on the CBC to be above reproach, to be at the leading edge of ethics and standards. I need to be able to explain the business world to Canadians, and I need to be able to influence CBC coverage of business issues, without people doubting my motivations.

My perspective on business adds to the onus on me. To do the job as I understand it, which is to explain business in all of its facets and complexity without being reflexively critical, requires trust that I have only one interest in mind – the public interest. I am determined to protect that.

I support CBC’s decision to change its policy, and I will no longer accept paid appearances, and in fact began refusing payment several weeks ago. I want to continue to do this work that I know and love, that I’m granted the privilege to do. To do that, I need the full trust of the public.

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