Back when I was a young political reporter, a colleague and I decided to write a book about the shambolic government of Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm.
Keith Baldrey and I were both reporters for The Vancouver Sun based in the capital, and had unparalleled contacts and access to those in the best position to provide behind-the-scenes accounts of Mr. Vander Zalm's chaotic administration. We sought the permission of our employer. Not surprisingly, The Sun was ecstatic we were pushing ahead with the project, asking only that it get first chance to publish any juicy content.
The newspaper was thrilled, knowing the publicity the book generated would be good for both the newspaper and two of its political reporters. As it turned out, Fantasyland became a best-seller and The Sun benefited enormously from it.
Which brings me to today, and the bewildering and troubling case of former CBC reporter Richard Zussman.
Mr. Zussman was recently fired for participating in a project not dissimilar to the one I embarked on a few decades earlier. He and Vancouver Sun reporter Rob Shaw collaborated on a book about the fall of B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark and the rise of the NDP under John Horgan. With a scheduled release date of next spring, the pair had little time to spend on research and writing. But their extensive contacts with those in key political circles made a very tight timeline possible.
While I don't know Mr. Zussman well, I can say he has forged a reputation in the Victoria press gallery as extremely likeable and incredibly hard working. The CBC won a major industry honour in October, largely on the back of his reporting on the last days of the Clark government.
He wouldn't comment for this column. His case will soon be in the hands of an arbitrator and he didn't want to say anything that might jeopardize those proceedings. But according to others I've talked to at the CBC, Mr. Zussman was sacked for not following proper procedures when it comes to pursuing outside commercial undertakings. While he apparently made an immediate manager aware of what he was doing, he did not get necessary approvals further up the food chain. Consequently, he may have contravened provisions of the company's code of conduct that involve conflict of interest and other matters.
Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs for CBC, provided me with this statement: "We made the decision to terminate Mr. Zussman's employment with CBC based on the findings of a third party investigation. That investigation revealed Mr. Zussman had breached a number of our policies."
While I don't know every detail about this case, there is one thing I'm confident of: none of these so-called contraventions was in any way egregious. Mr. Zussman didn't misrepresent himself, or do anything that reflected poorly on his employer. He was fired for not strictly following the protocols established for doing projects outside of work. (You are not supposed to use your work computer or represent yourself as a CBC journalist when doing interviews, for example). Okay, suspend the guy for a couple of weeks if you feel you need to make an example of him. But robbing him of his livelihood for writing a book? That is utterly absurd.
The CBC has the strangest corporate culture in this country. It got hammered, rightfully, for handling the Jian Ghomeshi situation so atrociously, then it swings completely in the other direction and fires a hard-working reporter who decides to write a book that is likely to only reflect positively on both him and his employer.
Who treats their people in such a petty, small-minded and shabby way? Reporters write books all the time and I can't recall an instance of any getting fired because they didn't get written permission from a superior or because they might have sent a book-related e-mail out over the name of their news organization. As I say, I'm sure Mr. Zussman is guilty of some minor protocol violations here but I don't believe they were intentional (he only worked at the CBC for a couple of years) and I don't believe anything he did cast the corporation in a poor light.
If I was a journalist working at the CBC, I'd be furious and asking a lot of questions about what has happened here.
For now, the Mother Corp. has provided The Beaverton with what would be one of its best satirical headlines of the year: Political reporter fired for writing book about politics.