The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was scrambling this week after revelations that its chief news correspondent, Peter Mansbridge, had accepted money from private organizations for speeches, but a review of Canadian speakers' agents suggests that dozens of the country's top journalists may be engaging in similar practices.
CBC was already on the defensive after a video surfaced a few weeks ago of commentator Rex Murphy lauding the oil industry during a paid speech at the Bennett Jones Lake Louise World Cup Business Forum last November. But while CBC editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire said Mr. Murphy's status as a freelance contributor gave him latitude to make such appearances, she has so far refused to comment on the news that Mr. Mansbridge spoke to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Investment Symposium in December of 2012.
On Thursday, Mr. Mansbridge wrote a blog post defending himself, noting that he gives about 20 speeches each year to various groups, including for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. In all cases, he wrote, the speeches are cleared in advance by senior management. As for what he discusses, "I don't offer my opinion on matters of public policy or on certain divisive issues that often dominate the news. Ever."
Critics said his response ignored the fact that accepting money from outside groups raises the possibility of a conflict of interest. CBC Radio's As It Happens and The Current both aired segments in the past 24 hours criticizing CBC management for green-lighting Mr. Mansbridge's speeches despite a policy that appears to forbid such activities.
But while most news organizations across the country have similarly restrictive policies, Mr. Mansbridge and Mr. Murphy have plenty of company among their colleagues.
New York Times columnist David Brooks was listed as one of the keynote speakers for the same CAPP event. The Lavin Agency, which handles speaking requests for Mr. Mansbridge, also includes the National Post/CBC contributor Andrew Coyne, Toronto Star/CBC contributor Chantal Hébert and The Globe and Mail columnists John Ibbitson (currently on a yearlong book leave) and Jeffrey Simpson on its roster. U.S. journalists Seymour Hersh, Anderson Cooper and Ta-Nehisi Coates are also represented by Lavin.
The lineup of National Speakers Bureau, which represents Rex Murphy, includes CBC's Ian Hanomansing, The Globe and Mail's public health reporter André Picard and Business News Network's Randy Cass.
And Speakers' Spotlight counts CBC Radio's Michael Enright, CBC's senior business correspondent Amanda Lang, Sun Media's Ezra Levant, BNN's Andrew Bell, Global TV's Tom Clark and Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner on its roster. After Mr. Enright pulled out of a speaking engagement this week at the Canola Council of Canada's annual convention, Speakers Spotlight booked National Post columnist Tasha Kheiriddin in his place. (Ms. Kheiriddin is a contributor to iPolitics.ca, which helped break the news about Mr. Mansbridge's speaking engagements.)
Speakers' Spotlight also represents journalist Jesse Brown, who was one of the first to raise the alarm this week about the ethical implications of Mr. Mansbridge and Mr. Murphy accepting money for speaking to oil lobby groups.
While the practice may be widespread, some of Canada's private broadcasters and other news organizations have strict policies forbidding it. "CTV News talent do not accept fees for any lectures or personal appearances they may undertake," said Wendy Freeman, the president of CTV News, in an e-mail. Citing a corporate policy, she added: "This does not preclude performing these services gratis or accepting free transportation to and from the event. But this should only be done with the consent of the President of CTV News or delegate."
Global News says its employees are barred from accepting fees for speaking engagements "on behalf of commercial, for-profit or corporate interests." But they "may be permitted to accept a fee for speaking engagements, provided the group, association or government agency that issued the invitation is a non-profit, non-commercial, educational, humanitarian or training-based organization."
The Globe and Mail's editorial code of conduct permits staff to make paid speeches and other paid appearances, subject to conditions. Permission for such appearances "will generally be denied to any writer or editor routinely involved in coverage affecting the organization making the payment." Columnists "with wide-ranging mandates are not automatically barred from accepting paid engagements from every organization about which they may have occasion to write, but careful judgment is required. When it is relevant, columnists may be required to disclose in their columns that they have received payment from specific organizations."
A CAPP spokeswoman insisted the organization did not expect its payment to Mr. Mansbridge would affect CBC's coverage of the oil industry. "There's nothing underhanded or untoward about this," said Geraldine Anderson. "Peter Mansbridge is one of the most credible journalists in the country."
She added: "As far as being influenced because you might be paid something? I don't think that's relevant at all."
CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson concurred. "In his place, and with his judgment, there's no way Peter would let that get in the way of him, or anyone else around the table, making editorial decisions about what The National is going to cover and/or how they're going to cover the story."
The president and co-founder of Speakers' Spotlight said he didn't believe payments would affect the news judgment of the speakers he books. "A journalist gets to where they are, based on their integrity and credibility," said Martin Perelmuter. "For the amount that they're paid, to compromise their career doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
Still, the Toronto Star's public editor said the appearance of a potential for a conflict should be enough of a reason to scuttle such activities. The Star runs a speakers bureau that books about 100 appearances every year by members of its staff; none is paid. "I am respectful of the fact that journalists who are at the top of their game are going to be asked to speak, and it is a considerable amount of time and effort and energy," said Kathy English. "But if people are already questioning the integrity of the news, when money changes hands, are we giving them a reason to question it even more?"