More than 500 current and former CBC staff are appealing directly to the Canadian public to press the corporation to stop selling the type of advertising that is known as paid content, releasing an open letter on Wednesday that calls the activity “insidious” and says it “makes a mockery” of CBC’s journalistic reputation.
“In an era of ‘fake news,’ where misinformation is already rife, it undermines trust. That is dangerous,” the letter says.
The letter – and a new website – mark the first time current employees have taken a public stand on the issue, which has roiled the public broadcaster since it unveiled plans in September to pump up its sales of the controversial form of advertising.
“Our job is to cover the news, not be the news. But today we are crossing that line to appeal for your help,” the letter reads. “CBC is using its resources to help advertisers trick Canadians.”
Signatories include dozens of the network’s top on-air talent, among them Anna Maria Tremonti, Michael Enright, Bob McKeown, Gillian Findlay, Mark Kelley, Carol Off, Katie Nicholson and Nahlah Ayed.
On Monday, dozens of former staff, including Adrienne Clarkson, former Fifth Estate host Linden MacIntyre and the former editor-in-chief Tony Burman, sent a letter to Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault asking him to order the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to investigate the CBC’s paid-content activities.
In going public with their concerns, some current employees have told The Globe and Mail they fear censure under the corporation’s Journalistic Standards and Practices guidelines (the JSP), which state: “CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.” The JSP also notes employees’ obligation to “maintain professional decorum and strive to do nothing that could bring CBC into disrepute.”
But in pushing back against the paid-content plan, the journalists are also pointing to the JSP to bolster their case. It states: “Ads should be clearly defined in appearance and placement so that the public does not confuse them with CBC news content.”
Paid content, also known as sponsored content, is advertising that is designed to mimic regular editorial coverage. Its use stretches back decades – the portmanteau “advertorial” came into common use in the mid-1980s – but it has become more sophisticated in recent years, and it is now common and used by outlets including The Globe, The New York Times and the BBC. But its growth has prompted concerns that the public is being hoodwinked by sales pitches that appear to be objective journalism.
CBC/Radio-Canada had been selling paid content since 2017, but when it unveiled plans in September to increase such activities under a new initiative called Tandem, hundreds of former staff objected, saying it put the broadcaster’s reputation in danger. The CBC announced it would temporarily halt accepting new contracts while it studied the objections.
Last Thursday, CBC/Radio-Canada president Catherine Tait and the senior management of the English-language news services held a town hall with current staff announcing nine new “guard rails” that they said would ensure lines between editorial and advertising were not blurred.
Staff were not satisfied, prompting them to step up their dissent. The open letter released Wednesday says: “We have appealed to CBC management and the Board of Directors to end CBC Tandem. Apparently they still believe the money they will earn from paid content is worth the damage to our credibility. We do not.”
In last week’s town hall, Barbara Williams, the CBC’s executive vice-president of English-language services, told staff that changes in the advertising landscape meant “we have to do [paid content]” because marketers are looking to buy “a suite” of ads rather than restrict their presence to traditional 30-second TV commercials.
Many of the CBC’s paid-content activities are tied in to its entertainment or lifestyle programming. Last winter, the broadcaster’s cooking show Fridge Wars featured the use of appliances manufactured by the sponsor Whirlpool Canada. As part of the company’s sponsorship, the lifestyle section of the CBC’s website carried an article about how Whirlpool’s “smart appliances” could come in handy for busy home cooks. The article was labelled “Sponsor Content,” and, in the place of a byline, carried the Whirlpool logo.
During the town hall, Ms. Williams told staff one of the new “guard rails” stipulates “there will be no CBC or Radio-Canada journalists or hosts involved in the creation or the presentation of branded content in any way.” However, one of the paid-content executions the broadcaster touted as part of the Tandem roll-out in September, a six-part podcast about Athabasca University, was hosted by a co-host and creator of the CBC podcast The Secret Life of Canada.
Ms. Tait told staff that the CBC’s branded-content activities bring in revenue that supports about 300 jobs – implying tens of millions of dollars – and appealed to them to keep their conversation in-house rather than airing the issue in public “when we have so many people – call them the ‘defunders,’ or call them the ‘haters,’ or call them what you will – who would like to see our services trimmed, the scope of our activities cut.”
She said that she welcomes “an ongoing and robust conversation, but let’s have that conversation together as colleagues and if I dare say, as a family, rather than in the streets. Because in the public square we invite a lot of other noise, and I’m not sure that it’s that productive. And I’m not sure that it contributes to the overall well-being of our organization.”
A copy of the town hall was shared with The Globe.
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