Gather 'round, ye doubters! Don't believe Justin Trudeau has transformed Ottawa into a magical fairyland where everything is awesome? Behold: The pundit class has discovered ethics! On Tuesday evening, Bruce Anderson, a commentator on the At Issue panel on CBC TV's The National, announced he would be vacating the position because his daughter, Kate Purchase, is Trudeau's director of communications. Though she had actually served in that role since 2013, Anderson felt the potential for a perceived conflict of interest became insurmountable after Purchase's boss vaulted from leader of the third party to Prime Minister. "Even if I felt I could be completely dispassionate, fair-minded viewers might reasonably have doubts," he wrote online.
For many, his move contrasted sharply with those he leaves behind at CBC. Over the past two years, the broadcaster has endured repeated convulsions over perceived conflicts of interest, from the paid speeches of Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy (like Anderson, a freelance pundit) to the issue of whether Amanda Lang should have disclosed to viewers that she was in a relationship with a member of the board of RBC. And here was a pundit – a professional spinner, for God's sake! – putting them all to shame.
It was as if he had read the report issued last May by the CBC ombudsperson, Esther Enkin, on whether Lang (who left CBC last month) had conducted herself appropriately over a colleague's 2013 story about RBC's labour practices. On the one hand, Enkin noted, public figures such as Lang "deserve consideration of their privacy rights." Still, Enkin quoted the author Gene Foreman from his book, The Ethical Journalist, in observing: "The public lacks the concrete facts to judge whether a journalist is trustworthy. And so if a journalist appears to have conflict, the skeptical (or cynical) public is going to assume that he or she does have a conflict."
Enkin added that CBC staff should ask themselves: Would a reasonable person wonder about the fairness of the reporting? Plenty of reasonable people were wondering about the fairness of Mansbridge's reporting last week, when he and a CBC crew scored exclusive access to Trudeau's first morning in office and then watched breathlessly as the Liberal Leader raised the flag over the Parliament buildings, chaired a communications strategy meeting, rode a bus with his cabinet-to-be, met the Governor-General, was sworn in and pressed the flesh with adoring Canadians. Many viewers found the anchor to be obsequious – an impression compounded by the fact that Mansbridge was saddled in one segment with a hand-held camera, giving him the appearance of a fanboy.
And so conspiracy theorists exploded in joy on Wednesday when the website Canadaland discovered a wedding video online in which Mansbridge appears to be officiating at the 2012 nuptials in Pienza, Italy, of Purchase and her husband, Perry Tsergas. (As Frank magazine noted in a knowing slapdown of the Canadaland story, Mansbridge and his wife, Cynthia Dale, are the godparents of Purchase's sister Molly.) Aha! Here was proof, for some, that Mansbridge pulled his punches on Trudeau.
In fact, the Mansbridge-Anderson family friendship is a Rorschach blot of journalistic ethics. For years, many watched Mansbridge's interviews with Stephen Harper and wondered why the newsman seemed to go easy on the Prime Minister and other Conservatives. Was it because of his friendships? Bruce Anderson's brother, Rick, was a key player in the Reform Party who later helped unite the right. A few years ago, Mansbridge served on the organizing committee for a benefit that raised money in memory of Rick's daughter, Jaimie, a young Conservative operative who died in 2010 at the age of 23. Should we begrudge Mansbridge's role in that?
News people aren't supposed to become friends with sources. We're instructed to maintain distance, even as we lunch and gossip and booze with them – building blocks of relationships, frankly, from which so many of the best stories emerge. It's a delicate dance, dangerous like a tango, and sometimes we slip up and our cordial relationships become friendships. The line separating them is like the oft-quoted distinction between erotica and pornography: We know it when we see it.
But by then it's often too late.