Dean Jobb teaches journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax and is the author of Empire of Deception.
As a journalism instructor for almost two decades, I've fielded my share of ethical questions from students as they learn the news business and how to conduct themselves in a professional manner.
Not once have I been asked whether it's proper for a journalist to treat sources as potential customers, or to gather information while doubling as a salesperson working on commission.
That's proof, perhaps, of just how far former CBC radio and television host Evan Solomon was over the ethical line when he allegedly used his marquee status and contacts with the rich and powerful to peddle pricey artwork.
Mr. Solomon's lightning-fast downfall offers a teachable moment, but the lesson should have been obvious to every journalist long before this week's events: The people we interview are sources, not customers, and access to newsmakers is not an invitation to make a sales pitch.
It certainly should have been obvious to Mr. Solomon. CBC's Code of Conduct and Conflict of Interest and Ethics guidelines, both posted online, are peppered with explicit warnings that journalism and personal interests don't mix.
The Code forbids CBC employees from "using their official roles to inappropriately obtain an advantage for themselves or to advantage or disadvantage others." The guidelines, meanwhile, decree that employees "must not use their positions to further their personal interests" and must avoid any conflict of interest that would compromise their work.
Mr. Solomon appears to have ignored these admonitions. He stands accused of exploiting his public profile and high-level contacts to help his friend and Toronto art dealer Bruce Bailey, while allegedly enriching himself in the process. As The Toronto Star reported this week, Mr. Solomon allegedly signed a contract with Mr. Bailey to broker deals to sell paintings in exchange for a 10 per cent commission – a cut that may have netted him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One buyer was former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, now Britain's central banker. Another was businessman and philanthropist Jim Balsillie of BlackBerry fame. Mr. Solomon, who hosted the programs Power and Politics on television and The House on radio, has interviewed Mr. Carney on-air and reportedly tried to entice Mr. Balsillie to appear on his shows.
The public is left to ponder whether a newsmaker is being interviewed because he or she has something important to say, or as payback for a purchase. And do "clients" get an easier ride than interviewees who are not interested in what the journalist is selling?
That's the whole point of the ethical guidelines, which are little more than common sense reduced to writing. If journalists are doing business with sources, their public and professional roles are compromised and their work is tainted.
There are no blurred lines or grey areas here – the conflicting interests are blatant. And it's the sort of misconduct journalists are supposed to expose, not engage in. One can only imagine how a politician caught in a conflict would have fared as a guest on one of Mr. Solomon's shows.
His response to his firing – a terse four-paragraph written statement – is instructive. Mr. Solomon admitted forming a partnership with Mr. Bailey in 2013 and said he recently disclosed this relationship to the CBC. (The Corporation allows employees to engage in outside work if permission is sought, but appears to have been unaware of the details – a spokesman now describes Mr. Solomon's activities as "inconsistent" with CBC policies.)
"I did not view the art business as a conflict with my political journalism at the CBC," Mr. Solomon added, "and never intentionally used my position at the CBC to promote the business."
But intentions are irrelevant, and so is Mr. Solomon's belief there was no conflict with his role as a journalist. The perception of conflict and self-interest is enough to undermine a journalist's credibility, just as it's enough to ruin the careers of the politicians he covered for so many years.
The damage was done the moment he agreed to broker art sales. His status as a disinterested party seeking information evaporated. And the only commodities he had to offer the public as a journalist – credibility and independence – were gone.