Journalists and conflicts of interest: A difficult fault line

June 20, 2015

Journalists declaring conflicts of interest sounds simple, but …

When it comes to conflicts of interest in journalism – whether real, potential or perceived – the rules are usually simple. They’re framed around the principle that audiences (and management) need to know if a reporter, presenter or editor might be influenced by any commercial or personal relationship with another individual or organisation.

But what happens when the protocols of disclosure are not met? Well, as a couple of recent Canadian cases highlight, non-disclosure can rapidly lead to non-employment.

The recent sacking of two high-profile Canadian journalists highlights the difficulties media employees face in navigating the tricky terrain of conflicts of interest.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) dismissed the host of its premiere television political show Power & Politics, Evan Solomon, for allegedly using his journalist’s position to broker sales for an art dealer friend.

Solomon’s sacking followed a Toronto Star newspaper report on the journalist’s contract with art dealer, Bruce Bailey.

Solomon has admitted he received commissions, said to total around CAD$300,000, for his role in the sale of artworks, including to the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, but added it was “all disclosed to CBC”.

Carney had previously been a guest on Power and Politics, which Solomon hosted until his dismissal.

On the face of it, this might seem a reasonable decision by the CBC.

Solomon, who was said to be a rising star at the government-owned network, was contractually bound by the station’s editorial policies.

In a statement defending its decision on Solomon, the CBC said the anchor had acted in a way “inconsistent with the organisation’s conflict of interest and ethics policy, as well as journalistic standards and practices”.

While Mark Carney and another of Solomon’s journalistic contacts, Blackberry founder Jim Balsillie, were also clients in Solomon’s art brokerage business, there has been no evidence that any of his editorial decisions were influenced by his sideline in art dealing.

 

The swift action by the CBC has been criticised as hasty and perhaps out of proportion to Solomon’s alleged “crime”.

Solomon’s union, the Canadian Media Guild, also called CBC’s actions “excessively harsh”.

Solomon is the second high-profile presenter sacked by a Canadian broadcaster after allegations of conflict of interest surfaced.

In January this year a Global TV news presenter, Leslie Roberts, resigned from the Toronto-based network after it was disclosed that he was also involved with a PR agency whose clients appeared regularly on Roberts’s program.

Ironically, it was another Toronto Star investigation that revealed Roberts’s undisclosed affiliation with Buzz PR.

Roberts said he did not receive a salary from Buzz PR, but he had not alerted his bosses to the connection.

Perhaps in Roberts’s case the alleged conflict of interest is more clear cut. Most journalists would be horrified at any suggestion that a senior colleague was also working for “dark side”.

It’s also clear that the potential for a very lucrative “revolving door” between the PR agency and Roberts’s news studio is ethically dubious, to say the least.

Is the perception of a conflict evidence enough?

Neither Solomon nor Roberts appear to have broken any Canadian laws. There is no allegation against them of criminal or corrupt behaviour.

So, is it enough then for there to be a perception of conflict for a media employer to take action?

It seems the answer is “yes” in the Canadian context, and the argument about reputational damage is a strong one.

We seem to hold media personalities to a higher standard than mere mortals, and within the realm of public broadcasting – funded by taxpayers – accountability must be observed and be seen to be observed.

To my knowledge there have been no similar recent cases in the Australian media, but that does not mean that allegations of conflict of interest don’t surface from time to time.

Most often the allegations are raised against ABC employees, and usually by journalists or commentators working for rival networks or publishers.

Lateline host, Tony Jones, is regularly in the firing line.

In March this year, Herald Sun columnist and Channel 10 presenter, Andrew Bolt, accused Jones of a conflict of interest when he was MC of Carbon Expo in 2012.

Carbon Expo is an annual conference focused on sustainability issues and the generation of a market for carbon credits.

According to Bolt, Jones has a conflict because of his role at the ABC, which requires him to be impartial in the presentation of news and opinion.

Bolt believes Jones is too close to what he calls the “warmist” view of climate change and cites his hosting of Carbon Expo as proof. But the ABC has never taken any action against Jones and his participation in forums such as Carbon Expo occurs with the explicit approval of ABC management.

Jones is represented by two speakers’ agencies, and charges – according to the Ovations website – a minimum of A$5,000 per engagement.

Is that a conflict of interest? The argument in Jones’ case seems to rest on political rather than ethical grounds. Bolt is a well-known critic of both the ABC and the science of climate change. Jones’ monetary value as facilitator and MC is predicated on his ABC profile, rather than the other way around and his relationship with speakers’ bureaux is known to ABC management and to any curious member of the public who cares to Google his name.

Perhaps it is the declaration that clears Tony Jones. In the Solomon and Roberts’ cases it seems that it was secrecy – and sudden exposure – that sunk them. Though one could argue the cases are different.

Being connected to a PR agency that solicits airtime on your network for its clients seems a greater offence than pocketing a kick-back from making introductions to an art dealer. Hosting corporate events and conferences also seems, on the face of it, to be fairly innocuous.

Any conflict of interest in the newsroom is a potential problem if it impacts on the veracity and honesty of reporting and editorial decision-making, but the standards of proof need to be very high.

The Conversation

Martin Hirst is Associate Professor Journalism & Media at Deakin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Groupthinking or just not thinking? “Bedwetters” in the NewsCorpse bunker?

March 1, 2015

The most entertaining aspect of the slow disemboweling of Two Punch Tony has been the serial flip-flopping by the over-priced keyboard warriors in the NewsCorpse bunkers.

Astute observers of the Murdoch press in Australia are not surprised to see only one version of the hymn sheet being printed each day, but then we watch, smirking, as the various soloists each wobble to the microphone to sing their allotted verses accompanied by the cacophony of the discordant Greek chorus standing beyond the ghostly glow of the footlights.

This sort of thing.

A hatrick of keyboard monkeys, they must be right.

A hatrick of keyboard monkeys, they must be right.

It might just be a case of magical thinking — you know, if you wish really really hard then something will come true. Or, it might just be that for the Right Wing columnists in Rupert’s employ the thought of a small ‘l’ socially liberal Liberal turns them into “bedwetters“.

And the two-faced doublethink is amazing from these Orwellian reptilians.

Actually, this is not journalism either.

Actually, this is not journalism either.

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Australia celebrating today: Liberals mortally wounded; workers finding their voice

February 1, 2015

If you’re a progressive in Australia this has been a good weekend and much more fun than the official “Australia Day” of last week.

The Soceroos beat South Korea 2-1 to win the Asian Cup in soccer.

Soceroos celebrating CanDo Newman's own goal last night.

Soceroos celebrating Campbell Newman’s own goal last night.

But even better, Campbell “Can Do” Newman got smashed in the Queensland state election and the knives are being sharpened in the Liberal caucus to stab Two Punch Tony Abbott in the back, the ribs, stomach and the neck.

In fact, by the end of the week he is likely to have more punctures than a balloon after a fight with a porcupine.

To top it off, the kool-aid slurping columnists on Rupert Murdoch’s Aussie rags are beside themselves with hubris and confusion.

So forget the soccer and the tennis; this weekend has been all about the politics.

After backing Two Punch Tony all the way for the past 16 months the NewsCorpse minions are now falling over each other in an attempt to explain away Abbott’s obvious failings and to shift the blame elsewhere.

Even the rusted-on Liberal editbot Chris Kenny is getting twitchy about Abbott’s chances.

It’s no surprise really because Rupert himself has been Twittering his thoughts to all and sundry; his editors could hardly miss the point:

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Wake up Charlies: Why these world leaders are a threat to you

January 12, 2015

The killing of 12 journalists from French magazine Charlie Hebdo was a horrible murder carried out by crazed ideologues. I condemn it unconditionally…But…expressing solidarity with mass murderers and the enemies of freedom of speech is a backward step.

Read this statement from Paris-based socialist John Mullen on why the better sections of the French left marched separately and at a distance from the world leaders.

This letter from another French leftist also sets out some very cogent and nuanced arguments that non-French people should probably read. It outlines the difficulties of fighting fundamentalism and fascism at the same time. But it is the necessary form that solidarity must take — not the perverted version of marching with ghouls.

This is the difficult argument I am having with my French friends: we are all aware of the fact that the attack on Charlie Hebdo will be exploited by the Far right, and that our government will use it as an opportunity to create a false unanimity within a deeply divided society. We have already heard the prime minister Manuel Valls announce that France was “at war with Terror” – and it horrifies me to recognize the words used by George W. Bush. We are all trying to find the narrow path – defending the Republic against the twin threats of fundamentalism and fascism (and fundamentalism is a form of fascism). But I still believe that the best way to do this is to fight for our Republican ideals. Equality is meaningless in times of austerity. Liberty is but hypocrisy when elements of the French population are being routinely discriminated. But fraternity is lost when religion trumps politics as the structuring principle of a society. Charlie Hebdo promoted equality, liberty and fraternity – they were part of the solution, not the problem.

Solidarity is a fine and welcome human emotion. It shows that we are not all Ayn Randian sociopaths who will always place our individual comfort and wealth above the problems of others.

Solidarity is an expression of hope that the world can be a better place and it is a recognition that by coming together in collective action we can and we will change the world.

While the murder of journalists in cold blood by crazed Islamic terrorists can never be condoned and is rightly condemned by anyone of conscience; we cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into displays of solidarity unthinkingly and based only on a gut reaction to horror.

Think before you walk, zombie-like in the footsteps of the damned.

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It’s lonely crying “wolf”: Terrorism 101 – lesson for the Herald Sun

January 2, 2015

Ah, so the new year starts as the last one ended with a fact-free front-page EXCLUSIVE, but this time, the culprit is not The Australian, but its sister paper, the Herald Sun published in Melbourne.

According to today’s front-page splash “EXCLUSIVE TERROR SIEGE TWIST”, the Hun makes the bold claim that Sydney siege killer Man Haron Monis is “NO LONE WOLF“.

Don't worry, its bark is worse than its bite

Don’t worry, its bark is worse than its bite

It really is like taking cheese from a mouse to pick on this sad excuse for a birdcage liner, but when it get as silly as this, I must call out the editor because, surely, it is his call to put such garbage on the front page. Take this for a lead (and remember the root word in “news” is new):

Sydney siege terrorist Man Haron Monis delivered a chilling lecture calling for an “Islamic society” to a packed prayer hall in 2009 — the same year he dropped off security watch lists.

Did you catch the date? It was five or six years ago, give or take a New Year holiday. And, wow, a Muslim who believes in an “Islamic society”; I bet there are not more than, Oh, I don’t know, let’s guess 1.6 billion people who might fit that description.

But, hey, Muslims; they’re dangerous, right? Yes, they are; not like the world’s estimated 2.2 billion Christians who go to church every week and listen to crazed men in long frocks calling for a “Christian society”.

A list of the world's scariest religions from worst to least worser

A list of the world’s scariest religions from worst to least worser

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Don’t panic unless we tell you to

December 27, 2014

It was a difficult couple of months that closed out 2014. In fact, you could say I had a bit of a crisis. I was not entirely sure what I should be panicking about more: the threat from Ebola; being blown up in my sleep by a “death cult”, or the hordes of black-clad anarchists that were allegedly threatening Brisbane during the meeting of the G20 group of rich nations.

Most of us are not prone to panic attacks, but all of us lead our stress-filled lives just one little incident away from the panic threshold. It seems at the moment like a tsunami of panic-inducing threats is rolling towards us.

Doctors and scientists will tell you that a feeling of panic occurs when our normal “fight or flight” reaction to danger is over-stimulated and triggers in response to “false alarms”. In other words, we tend to panic when there is actually no real danger present. Of course, panicking in the face of a real and present danger is a psychological response to a “true alarm”. Under such circumstances fighting back or running away might seem like totally logical reaction to threats.

According to researchers, the “fight or flight” response to imminent danger (real or imagined) is based on three possible scenarios:

  • some of us have a biological vulnerability to anxiety, which can lead to a nervous over-reaction to events in everyday life;
  • some have a generalized psychological vulnerability, which the experts say can be a reaction to being over-parented and can lead us to think that the world is a dangerous place, best avoided;
  • then, there’s a more specific type of psychological vulnerability which leads to a learned fear of certain objects or situations that are, in fact, not dangerous at all.

It seems to be that, being human, all of us are perhaps subject to each of these vulnerabilities at some point in our lives, or in response to a persistent external stimulus. We can also learn to overcome our anxieties and to lessen our fear of external events or situations that might lead us to panic. But what can we do when all the information coming into our cerebral cortex from the media points at panic being the only rational response to a world careening out of control?

You see, it’s rational to think that beyond the chemical processes in our brains there are probably social causes to the psychological distress that can lead us to panic. And, to my mind, three of them relate to fear of epidemic (Ebola); fear of imminent attack (“death cults”) and fear of social breakdown (the nightmare of anarchists running loose in a major city).

But how do we know that these are things we should fear? Well, if you read certain newspapers; listen to or watch enough broadcast news, or get sucked into the vortex of unreliable rumours in social media channels, it seems like the reasons to panic are multiplying on a daily basis.

I have a friend in Brisbane and in the build up to the G20 he’s described it me as the “City of Fear”. My friend has become so alarmed by life in the “City of Fear” that he asked me not to use his name: so I’ll call him Melcure.

Melcure was watching closely as Brisbane went into “lockdown” ahead of the November G20 meeting of world leaders. He sent me daily email missives relating stories of low-flying helicopters and widening prohibitions on residents moving around the CBD as the police and armed forces practiced their counter-terrorism moves.

However, the real target of the police action appeared not to be “death cult” terrorists, but a shadowy international anarchist group known as “Black Bloc”. Luckily, the ever-vigilant news media was all over this story. The danger was talked up to such an extent that it seemed as if every anarchist on the planet was going to descend on Brisbane.

keep calm1

A year of worry, but the anarchists stayed away

But, think about it for a minute. What single prominent feature might define the world’s most dedicated anarchists? In my mind it’s the fact that they probably haven’t got a lot of money. Travelling to Australia from Europe or North America, just to throw rocks at dignitaries, seems like it would be low on their list of priorities. And also consider this; anarchists are notoriously lackadaisical about organizing. The idea that they might coordinate themselves to land in Brisbane in large enough numbers to be effective against 20,000 trained and armed riot police is laughable.

I’ve been in the political left for 40 years and to my knowledge the number of identifiable anarchists in Australia is measured in the low hundreds, not the 10s of thousands. My rational mind tells me not to panic about anarchist hordes burning down Brisbane.

If the anarchists were not going to be a threat then perhaps the “death cult” terrorists of D’aesh (ISIS) might target Brisbane. Should we have been worried about a secret operation by an Ebola-infected “death cult” adherent to infiltrate the G20 to spread even more panic and destruction?

I wasn’t sure until I heard and saw the news that PUP senator Jacquie Lambie was worried about just such an eventuality.

Let Senator Lambie do the worrying for you. That's what she was elected to do.

Let Senator Lambie do the worrying for you. That’s what she was elected to do.

This suggestion cleverly combines two panic-inducing thoughts: epidemic and terrorism. Surely here is something that we can sensibly worry about. You know it makes sense: Ebola is out there and it’s killing people; so to are the “death cult” lunatics in northern Iraq and in the eastern parts of Syria. Surely they’ve got the resources to fly one Ebola-infected suicide bomber into Australia – specifically Brisbane during the G20 gabfest – so as to cause mass casualties and mayhem.

Yeah, I know, your rational mind (mine too) says this is a bit far-fetched and Jacquie Lambie is not the sharpest chisel in the toolbox. So, perhaps we can put this one aside. However, that doesn’t mean we can relax when it comes to Ebola.

The deadly virus may not get to Australia incubating inside a “death cult” terrorist, but it could still be on its way. So that’s why I’m grateful that my government has once again demonstrated its commitment to Fortress Australia and locked the arrivals gate to people from Ebola-affected parts of Africa.

It is the logical humanitarian response; after all we are more important and our lives more precious than theirs.

Scott Morrison is keeping Ebola under lock and key

Scott Morrison is keeping Ebola under lock and key

Never mind that this could be construed as racist; never mind that the world’s leading epidemiologists have condemned Australia’s poor response to the Ebola crisis and never mind that brave individual Australian medical workers have volunteered to help contain the outbreak at source as recommended by the World Health Organisation. WHO are they to tell us how and why and over what we should panic?

Really, the global busybodies should leave that to our government and our media. After all, it is they who know best what is in our national interest and therefore it is them who should direct our nervous energy into the right sorts of panic.

Don’t panic unless we tell you to

The lesson of the modern media is that we should only panic when they tell us to.

That is, the appropriate form of hysteria-inducing “moral panic”; the fear of the irrational that can be stirred by rousing speeches, three word slogans and a news media hungry for sensationalist headlines. A good moral panic does wonders for an unpopular leader’s approval rating and it leads to improved ratings for the news media too. That is why we see such sterling collaboration between politicians and journalists and why we see such wonderful leadership on issues like fighting “death cults”, stopping anarchist hordes, tackling a deadly virus and ending world poverty (that last one’s a joke).

The clear message is that there’s no need to panic, unless the government and the media tell you to.

That’s the only rational explanation for this recent headline on the ‘newspaper of the year’, The Courier-Mail. On Monday October 27, the Brisbane tabloid carried a fantastic, calming front-page story about the Ebola crisis. The message comes across loud and clear.

What, me worry?

What, me worry?

This is a clever front-page and one designed to make us not panic even more. Just look at that horrible virus, it’s the size of a large double-headed tapeworm and it’s heading our way. The take-out from this is that we need to learn to panic only in response to the right stimulus, such as scary and misleading front-page stories about epidemics, “death cults” and anarchist hordes.

Well, so far these panic-inducing problems have only affected Brisbane, so no need for me, living in Melbourne, to panic; But for the sake of Melcure in the “City of Fear”, who’s made more anxious by what he reads in the always restrained and accurate Courier-Mail, I’ll just keep calm and pass him the worry beads.

First published as “Keep calm and pass the worry beads”,  in The Australian Rationalist, December 2014


In the court of the Sun King, truth plays second fiddle to the gospel of Murdochracy

October 13, 2014

There is a fifth dimension; a parallel universe that revolves around a decrepit, dying and dangerous orb of hot gasses that is liable to frequent explosions raining down hot solar gusts of bile and venom on any random planetary object that displeases the ancient Sun King.

Welcome to the universe of News Corp; a solar system cut off from the rest of creation by an impenetrable wall of bias and a cult-like devotion to a host of terrible Gods. This parallel universe defies the laws of gravity and the morality of humans; it relies instead on the ancient and immutable laws of Murdochracy.

Old, florid Sun King prone to flare ups

Old, florid Sun King prone to flare ups

Even those who have served the Sun King with loyalty for many years live out their lives in fear of his vengeful minions. As former Times editor Andrew Neil famously wrote, to lose favour with the Sun King; to break the unwritten rules of Murdochracy is to be cast out from the universe to while away your days among mere mortals.

All life revolves around the Sun King; all authority comes from him. He is the only one to whom allegiance must be owed, and he expects his word to be final. There are no other references but him. He is the only benchmark, and anybody of importance reports directly to him. Normal management structures—all the traditional lines of authority, communication, and decision-making in the modern business corporation—do not matter. The Sun King is all that matters.

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