CBC encounters expense and ethical issues

There’s an old axiom that news organizations should report news, not be the news. And how the venerable Canadian Broadcasting Corporation wishes that were the case this past week.

Hubert Lacroix, speaking at a television festival in Banff in 2008. Photo: Kris Krug, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Hubert Lacroix, speaking at a television festival in Banff in 2008. Photo: Kris Krug, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

CBC’s top executive, Hubert Lacroix has been in his own media spotlight, since it was learned he repaid $29,678 for hotel and meal expense claims (over a 6 year period) to which he  was, technically, not entitled.

Here’s recent coverage from the CBC:

Lacroix had been submitting claims for living expenses since he started his job as CEO and president of CBC on Jan. 1, 2008, despite having negotiated a $1,500 per month living allowance after deciding not to move to Ottawa, where the CBC is headquartered. Lacroix lives in Montreal.

The expense claims were approved despite an appendix to a CBC bylaw for director compensation that says the president is entitled to be paid reasonable travel and living expenses for CBC work “at any place other than the head office of the corporation,” the auditors said in a memo about the review of Lacroix’s expenses.

Auditors found that nobody seemed to be aware of the rule, known as section nine of Schedule K. Although the audit report seemed to suggest the rule was introduced in 2006, a CBC spokeswoman later clarified it dates back to 1992.

Those additional sums come on top of a substantial salary. According to various press accounts Lacroix is paid between $358,400 and $421,600 per year, plus additional perks. (Lacroix explains that salaries at CBC are disclosed in ranges – not for specific individuals – due to privacy concerns.)

Hear Lacroix present his view on the expense claims situation in this 2/21 video from CBC’s Power and Politics. He feels unsullied by it all, as the appendix rule was invisible to him and to those who saw and approved his expense claims. In his view, everything was above board and a simple mistake was fully rectified upon discovery.

Of course this is all heightened by the fact Canada has been living through an explosive and lengthy scandal about questionable expense claims in the Canadian Senate, something covered with zeal and relish by news organizations like the CBC.

As with PBS and NPR in the U.S., a fair number of factions in Canada are ever-ready throw bricks at the CBC, or its current management. For example, Sun Media – a long-time critic of CBC – has been reporting on this little scandal with its own zeal and relish. That includes Lacroix’s appearance before the Senate transportation and communications committee last Wednesday to explain the situation. One eager questioner was Sen. Don Plett, an earlier subject of unflattering reporting by CBC.

Here’s Sun reporter Brian Lilley’s take on that:

Plett pressed Lacroix on why he discovered the mistake in June, paid back in September but the public did not find out until Sun Media reported on the issue in February.

Lacroix dodged the issue of why he didn’t disclose the repayment to the public, but said he repaid the total amount within 48 hours of the final tally being reveled to him by auditors.

“These kind of mistakes go to the integrity of what we do every day,” Lacroix said.

Despite his claims of promoting transparency, Lacroix’s tenure at CBC has been one of trying to keep the public from knowing how tax dollars are spent. The state broadcaster spent an untold amount of time and money fighting the federal information commissioner in federal court to stop the release of documents requested under the access to information system.

During the court fight Lacroix claimed he was protecting programming and journalistic content, yet fought the release of documents on how many vehicles CBC owned or leased.

As if that wasn’t controversy enough, observers also want to know more about that institution’s rules for outside speaking engagements. It turns out that the network’s main TV news anchor, Peter Mansbridge, gives perhaps 20 such speeches a year, including one before the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in 2012. (Mansbridge says some such appearances are for pay, some are free and he sometimes donates his fee to charity.) This article by Canada.com’s Ishmael Daro in The Province explains:

Peter Mansbridge is the second CBC personality in as many weeks to become embroiled in the controversy over speaking fees, and whether journalists ought to disclose to their audience that they have accepted money from groups they may cover as part of their day jobs. Rex Murphy, commentator on The National and host of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup, has also given paid speeches at oil industry events. (Murphy is also a columnist with the National Post. The newspaper and Canada.com are affiliated but editorially independent.)

The CBC has defended Murphy’s speaking fees on the grounds that he is a “freelancer.” A similar defence was not offered for Mansbridge, host of the flagship nightly news broadcast, but CBC says his gigs are approved by management.

Daro’s article opens with an additional complaint about Mansbridge in terms of circling wagons and parroting PR lines:

His defence comes a day after it was discovered he had taken money for a 2012 speech to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, or CAPP, an industry group representing the largest oil and gas companies in the country. Rather curiously, part of his blog post appears rehashed from, or at least heavily inspired by, what CBC’s media relations department has previously said.

At this point we bring in NPR, or invoke it anyway, through the observations of Jeffery Dvorkin, who held numerous important positions with CBC and NPR across a long career. Dvorkin was a past VP for News at NPR and was NPR’s first ombudsman from 2000 to June of 2006. Dvorkin is now a “..lecturer and the Program Director for the Journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough.”

Speaking with CBC’s As It Happens last Thursday about the outside-income issue, Dvorkin warned that the situation “…gives the impression CBC has the best journalists money can buy.” He says the CBC (and other public broadcasting organizations) have an obligation to avoid even the perception of slant or undue influence, adding that BBC and NPR “…absolutely refuse to allow its senior journalists, its senior personalities, to take [outside speaking] money.” Dvorkin says public media personalities may have an obligation to give speeches to advance the cause of journalism in general – or their organization in particular. But side jobs as speakers for hire should be a no-no.

By the way, in the web-version of the As It Happens segment, Dvorkin admits that in his time as head of news at NPR in the 90s, reporters there did accept paid speaking engagements and defended the practice as a way to supplement low pay at NPR. Dvorkin says he worked to raise those salaries while also instituting a new policy: one can work for NPR, or one can make paid speeches. But not both simultaneously. (Of course, NPR had its own tangle of exactly-what-is-or-is-not-allowed in 2010 in the case of Juan Williams working as a commentator for Fox News.)

Suffice it to say that public broadcasting occupies a unique role in free societies. By virtue of their stated mission – and substantial taxpayer funding for the CBC – such organizations can expect pointed scrutiny of their policies, along with criticism if their standards appear inconsistent or lacking.

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5 Comments on “CBC encounters expense and ethical issues”

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  1. David Duff says:

    Well duh! You’re going to report on something today as a honest and transparent down the middle of the road journalist and last night you gave a speech you were paid for to the same group yoyr’re reporting on today and you want me to believe you? Have you ever been two timed by some one you believed and then they asked you to believe them in the next breath? Kind of like I feel learning about a journalist taking money from both sides of the street. Has the profession no shame? Is journalism still a profession or a pass time?

  2. The Original Larry says:

    Ahhh, the myth of journalistic impartiality. Not a blanket condemnation, by any means, but very often it is just that: a myth.

  3. OL: I understand what you’re getting it. But I think the notion is that one TRIES to be impartial. No one is completely impartial. We all have biases. We all have moral codes. We all operate within the framework of a society.

    Most people have biases against mass murder. Most people in America react more strongly to one person in their neighborhood being murdered than a mass murder in Syria or Central African Republic.

    The biases an American journalists are different than the biases of Saudi journalists which are different than those of Danish journalists which are different than those of South Korean journalists. And everyone in those respective audiences would expect nothing less.

    Let’s say there was a firefight between US soldiers and al-Qaeda, in which both an al-Q and a GI were killed. Strict journalistic impartiality would direct the reporter to treat these two deaths as no different from each other. Most Americans would be outraged if that actually happened.

  4. Journalists who receive fees should openly and prominently disclose these facts so the audience can decide credibility for themselves. I’m a big believer in transparency. Journalists should be too.

  5. The Original Larry says:

    “Journalists who receive fees should openly and prominently disclose these facts so the audience can decide credibility for themselves.”

    On that, I think we all can agree.

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