Three weeks ago last Friday, I commented on The Green Majority that it appeared the Environment news section had disappeared from CBC’s website. I had just noticed this the previous evening and had not had a chance to investigate yet. On the following Monday I spoke by phone with someone at CBC who confirmed this section had been removed and told me I should not expect it to return.
I was told this was due to redesign of the website and that nothing “sinister” was going on. I commented that all of the other news sections appeared to be intact and I asked the representative if he could imagine a circumstance under which, say, the Business section would be retired due to “redesign.” At this point the representative told me he was not going to answer my questions because he was not going to engage in a “polemic” with me.
A polemic is a sustained verbal or written attack. My questions were not a polemic by any stretch of credulity.
Ironically, since this conversation, Andrew Mitrovica, writing for iPolitics (http://www.ipolitics.ca), has outed CBC’s resident polemicist, Rex Murphy, for receiving speaking fees from the oil industry. Rex Murphy, a long time contributor to CBC, has a segment on The National called Point of View where he regularly promotes the tar sands, derides environmentalists, and questions the science of climate change.
Given Murphy’s public opinions, I do not doubt that oil interests would be all too happy to pay him to speak at their events. But, of course, the question is whether or not Murphy’s opinions are influenced by oil money. Apparently, Murphy has been paid up to $30,000 for each of 25 speaking engagements in recent years. This approaches three quarters of a million dollars. I am not certain that I would not promote the tar sands for that much money. But perhaps Murphy is made of sterner stuff than I.
Then it surfaced that Peter Mansbridge, the host of The National, has also received a speaking fee from oil interests in the neighbourhood of $30,000.
I am not qualified to undertake a nuanced critique of journalistic ethics. However, it does seem to be a fair expectation that these glaringly obvious potential conflicts of interest should have been disclosed and they were not.
Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief at CBC, has addressed this issue in a blog post (http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/community/editorsblog/2014/02/a-question-of-conflict.html#more-353108):
“The most important thing to understand is that Rex is not a regular reporter. He appears on The National as a commentator precisely to do analysis and offer his point of view on issues of the day. His work has to be approved by editors at The National and has to meet a clear and straightforward threshold: that it be rooted in fact and experience, not just opinion or kneejerk ideology. But taking a provocative stand is what we pay him to do.”
However, in an earlier blog post (http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/community/editorsblog/2014/01/a-point-on-point-of-view.html) Ms. Mcguire offered this mea culpa regarding another complaint about Murphy’s segment on The National:
“It also means that when we do give a platform for commentary, such as we do with Rex Murphy on The National, we have an obligation to be crystal clear with the audience that this is one person’s point of view. Earlier this week, one viewer wrote us to say we haven’t been doing that. And it turns out, he was right. The graphic look around Rex’s commentaries used to include the words “Point of View”. But when we redesigned the look back in 2009, we removed those words”
If there is an ethical imperative to inform viewers that Murphy’s views are simply his opinion, where is the ethical imperative to disclose that these opinions might be for sale?
Here is Andrew Mitrovica’s most recent article in iPolitics: http://www.ipolitics.ca/2014/02/27/youve-still-got-some-explaining-to-do-mr-mansbridge/
Mitrovica has written several articles about this and, among other considerations, points out that Mansbridge has significant editorial power on The National. On the face of it, that is more worrisome than Murphy’s bloviating, since Mansbridge could effectively filter coverage detrimental to oil interests.
For me, however, the story of the week is the die-off of about ten million scallops on the west coast due to increasing ocean acidification. Long time listeners of The Green Majority might remember that I have been saying for years that I expect the first truly massive ecosystem failure to occur in the oceans. I worry that increasing acidification has the potential to threaten the very base of marine foodchains with catastrophic consequences (pardon the pun on trophic).
What’s the connection? Well, this story was posted on the cbc.ca website under the Canada section (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/acidic-ocean-deadly-for-vancouver-island-scallop-industry-1.2551662). At the end of the day, retiring the Environment section might be a good thing as long as relevant environmental news is still be reported. People who otherwise might have ignored an Environment section might learn about environmental news if it appears under other headings. (How’s that for a polemic, CBC?!)
Nevertheless, it is fair to wonder if CBC’s coverage of environmental news is impartial. CBC is certainly in the crosshairs of Stephen Harper, and a portion of his base, and it goes without saying that Harper is allergic to all things environmental. CBC airs a remarkable number of ads paid for by oil and pipeline interests. Mansbridge and Murphy have been accepting truly handsome fees from oil interests and, at least to date, this has been passing the smell test at CBC.
If this concerns you, read Mitrovica’s articles and nose around Google for more information. If you feel inclined to contact CBC’s ombudsman, here is the contact form (http://www.ombudsman.cbc.radio-canada.ca/en/contact-us/).– Kevin Farmer (AKA Dr. Doom) Green Majority Radio Co-host