Steve Russell / The Toronto Star / Zumapress

Canadian media startups are watching the watchdogs

Revelations of cash for coverage and blatant conflicts of interests point to a crisis in Canadian news media

February 3, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Jan. 22 the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. barred on-air journalists from making paid appearances. The public broadcaster’s decision comes after a growing public perception that the gigs — often commanding five-figure speaking fees — were a way of buying influence at Canada’s largest media organization.

The final straw came after more than a year of work by independent news website Canadaland. Building on leaks from CBC employees, Canadaland alleged that the country’s top business journalist, Amanda Lang, interfered with a colleague’s investigation into illegal outsourcing practices by the Royal Bank of Canada. On Jan. 11, Canadaland contributor Sean Craig wrote that Lang received payments of up to $15,000 each for six events sponsored by the bank and was scheduled to speak at an event hosted by iGate corporation, an IT outsourcing company that was under investigation for illegal outsourcing.

After the broadcast of the CBC’s investigation into the bank’s outsourcing practices, which prompted rule changes in the Canadian temporary foreign worker’s program, Lang invited Royal Bank of Canada CEO Gordon Nixon on her program to refute the report. Later, she wrote a column in The Globe and Mail calling the investigation a “sideshow.” She initially pushed back against Canadaland’s report, saying the perceived conflict of interest was untrue. Then on Jan. 12, Canadaland revealed that Lang was in a long-term relationship with a bank board member.

The revelations came after a year of scandal at the CBC, much of it stirred up by the Canadaland podcast, presented by former CBC radio host Jesse Brown. Since October 2013, the crowdfunded show has uncovered or added to dozens of allegations of misdeeds and conflicts of interest in Canadian media. With the Lang revelations, the site has had an outsize effect on the state of Canadian journalism, serving as a bull terrier in an industry that tends to treat criticism as gauche. The scandal comes at a time when the old journalism revenue model is busted and technology is making the old checks and balances seem increasingly irrelevant or co-opted.

Canadian journalists are certainly not unique in taking speaking fees. PBS’ Jim Lehrer is available through the Washington Speakers Bureau to speak at your event for a price somewhere above $40,000. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and ABC’s Sam Donaldson are among many journalists accepting speaking fees from the industries they cover. Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” charges even higher speaking fees.The practice has long been the subject of handwringing in the journalism world. “Everyone is wheeling and dealing in this culture,” The Columbia Journalism Review wrote in 2012. “Even a perceived conflict of interest ruins it not only for the journalist but for journalism. Reputation is everything.”

Brown’s podcast hit its stride last February after an independent environmental blogger Sierra Rayne revealed that the CBC’s chief correspondent and anchor for the national news, Peter Mansbridge, and on-air personality Rex Murphy were accepting five-figure fees to speak at oil and gas industry events. Brown followed the story with original research, leading to a national outcry and prompting the head of the CBC to explain its policy on speaking fees to a Senate subcommittee.

‘I wonder if in the last 10 years of hypertechnological change that we’ve lost our moral compass – not because we’re less ethically inclined, but it’s as if the technology has enabled this slippery slope behavior.’

Bill Reynolds

director, Ryerson School of Journalism

The investigation last year into the rumors that star CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was a violent abuser of women elevated Brown’s profile beyond media gadfly. The investigation revealed decades of sexual abuse and led to six women’s pressing charges against Ghomeshi. His notoriety from that story made Brown a figure of controversy, inspiring both a devoted following and numerous critics. He has 1,870 patrons on crowdfunding site Patreon. (Full disclosure: I am one of them.) Even his fans often describe Brown as an arrogant loudmouth, but to Americans used to the belligerent takedowns of sites such as Gawker or the sarcasm of “The Daily Show,” his work comes across as genial, even polite.

But why now? And do all these allegations truly amount to a crisis in Canadian journalism? Last month, Brown’s collaborator on the Ghomeshi story, The Toronto Star’s Kevin Donovan revealed that Leslie Roberts, the executive editor and a senior news anchor from one of Canada’s big private networks, Global TV, was part owner of a PR firm whose clients were featured positively on his two news programs. The pure disregard for journalistic integrity, taken together with the CBC allegations, suggests something is amiss on a bigger scale.

Bill Reynolds, the graduate program director at the Ryerson School of Journalism in Toronto, attributes the controversies to the changing business model of journalism. “The Mansbridge thing is unfathomable,” he told me, referring to the lack of fallout from the speaking fee allegations. “I almost wonder if in the last 10 years of hypertechnological change that we’ve lost our moral compass — not because we’re less ethically inclined, but it’s as if the technology has enabled this slippery slope behavior.”

Reynolds worries that as journalism’s old business model shrinks to the point of desperation, more and more news celebrities are simply looking to get paid. The CBC’s four top-paid anchors earn an average of $485,667 per year — a pittance among the executives of Canada’s booming resource and financial sectors. While it is easy to see the Roberts case as straight quid pro quo corruption, the real problem might be much subtler.

Many of the CBC revelations highlight the overlap between Canada’s top journalists and its business elite. As George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian, Lang’s story illustrates a widespread problem, in which “those who are supposed to scrutinize the financial and political elite are embedded within it.”

Roberts told the Star, “Integrity is my middle name,” and in a statement, he chalked up the imbroglio to “a failure to disclose information.” But at least he had the tact to resign from Global TV. Lang, who by all accounts is still being groomed by the CBC to be Mansbridge’s eventual replacement, describes the backlash against her as a “deeply offensive assessment of my personal ethics and professional integrity” coming from “malevolent” anti-business critics. But the more the CBC protects its stars, the more it loses credibility that it may never get back.

The crisis in Canadian journalism has been brewing for years, and the recent upheavals are signs of things to come. As the big institutions, both public and private, that used to dominate Canadian media buckle and crack from tectonic shifts in technology and culture, journalists will have to rethink many of the standards and traditions that define their profession. The recent scandals suggest that the moral leadership in this time of transition will come from below, in the form of upstart media organizations that cover niche issues with integrity and idealism. Pretending that this shift is not happening will not serve the public interest.

Aaron Leaf is a freelance journalist and a researcher at the New School in New York City. He previously worked for Journalists for Human Rights in Liberia. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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