Global Television's decision to suspend the face of its Toronto news coverage leaves a major void at the network as it tries to hold its ground in the race for ratings.
Leslie Roberts was suspended indefinitely on Thursday as a report in the Toronto Star alleged he had failed to disclose his part-ownership of a public relations firm whose clients regularly appeared on Global programs, sometimes to be interviewed by Mr. Roberts himself.
The controversy is a blow to Global in the prized Toronto market. He hosted The Morning Show and the evening Toronto News Hour, both programs that are key to competing with rival networks, and Global groomed Mr. Roberts to be a centrepiece of its news coverage. News Hour trails far behind CTV Evening News but ranks slightly ahead of CityNews at 6.
Now, viewers will closely watch how the network responds for signs that its coverage remains credible.
"There's probably no more important issue confronting a news organization than the suspicion that their journalism can be bought," said Tony Burman, a former head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English who now holds a research chair at Ryerson University's School of Journalism. "One really takes a risk in banking on any one individual."
Global spokesperson Rishma Govani said in an e-mailed statement that the network "first learned about Leslie's connection to BuzzPR" on Wednesday and that Mr. Roberts "brought this to our attention." She also said Global News takes "matters of journalistic integrity very seriously," and has launched an investigation, but declined to answer further questions. Mr. Roberts did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.
With Mr. Roberts at the helm, News Hour increased its audience slightly in the fall of 2014, averaging 118,000 viewers and edging out CityNews, which drew 117,000. That made Global the No. 2 or No. 3 newscast in the dinner hour, depending on whether the CBC's two half-hour news shows at 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. – which attracted a combined audience of 127,000 – are counted together. CTV remained at the top with 284,000.
But several video clips show Mr. Roberts interviewing guests from companies that are BuzzPR clients on his shows. He told The Star he does work for the firm and has an "equity" stake.
One Global news segment features Mr. Roberts interviewing Sandra Zisckind, a lawyer from the personal injury firm Diamond and Diamond, which was a BuzzPR client. A video clip of the interview was uploaded to BuzzPR's account on YouTube.
Jacquie Somerville, a current BuzzPR client, appeared on The Morning Show for a six-minute chat. Mr. Roberts introduces her as "a powerhouse public speaker and author" and interviews her with his co-hosts. Ms. Somerville lists the appearance in her website bio. And on a separate Morning Show segment about grocery chain Loblaws, Mr. Roberts enthusiastically describes a coupon app built by BuzzPR client Checkout 51, saying it's "available across the country" and encouraging viewers to "check it out!"
Mr. Roberts, who is also executive editor of News Hour, does not disclose his apparent connection to these companies.
Kashif Khan, whose Linkedin profile lists him as BuzzPR's managing director and who also heads Ritchies Auctioneers, has also appeared on Global News, but Mr. Roberts was not the interviewer. Attempts to reach Mr. Khan were not returned.
Mr. Roberts's suspension should be "a warning bell too all news organizations" about a gradual "blurring of the line between journalism and PR," Mr. Burman said. But he added that no amount of disclosure would make Mr. Roberts's dual role acceptable.
"Somebody in his position, with the kind of editorial authority he has, it would be essential to create a firewall between himself and any kind of commercial interests," Mr. Burman said. "And if that wasn't done, then the violation is really quite egregious."