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.
Read the original article.


Talking Points: The Australian’s cosy little club of groupthinkers

May 25, 2012

If you get to the bottom there is a topical easter egg surprise for loyal readers.

Over recent months many of my colleagues in the Journalism Education Association of Australia (JEAA) have attempted to get responses to The Australian’s attacks on us (over many months) published. We have had very little luck. One open letter that was sent from the association with more than 50 signatures was made available as a PDF from a deep recess of The Australian’s website,but not easily searchable and just last week I received this response from editor of Media Diary Nick Leys.

A right-of-reply @leysie style

Some of the attacks have centred on Dr Matthew Ricketson who was engaged to assist with the Independent Media Inquiry. The Australian‘s coverage of this issue has been appalling and one-sided, but when Matthew tried to defend himself he was not given space, instead Nick Leys cobbled together a piece from second-hand sources. It is what The Australian‘s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell would call “four or five out of 10” journalism.

Editor in chief of The Australian Chris Mitchell questions the journalistic credentials of those passing judgment on the industry. “Ricketson, Simons and their mate Andrew Dodd (Crikey contributor and Swinburne University of Technology journalism course convener) all worked for The Australian and you would give them barely a pass mark as journalists,” he says.

“Seriously. People who I would score four or five out of 10 are trying to determine the future of media regulation in Australia. Everyone in the business knows it is a self-serving joke and these people are dupes for Conroy.”

Chris Mitchell quoted approvingly and at length in his own newspaper. A cosy club Chris – you’re the patron

As the national association representing journalism educators and academics, you might think that the JEAA would be given some space to respond to criticisms and abuse hurled at us. For some reason, we are not considered worthy of space in the paper’s letters pages, let alone to write a column.

We have been accused of being a “cosy club” prone to  “groupthink” even though there are many disagreements among us. It is a puzzling charge and one that The Australian rejects when it is levelled against them.

It is puzzling because the op-ed pages of The Australian display a remarkable and consistent commitment to groupthink. Its columnists all sing off the same conservative songsheet with the libertarian soloists taking center stage all too often.

However, it might come as a surprise to readers of our national broadsheet that this same groupthink is also displayed in the letters pages.

For example, Mr Brenton Minge, of suburban Bulimba in Brisbane, must be one of the luckiest writers of letters to the editor in Australia. A Google search shows up a Brenton Minge who it seems has a  bent for letter writing, particularly on topics of religion, science and the “Leftist” ABC.  Maybe this is why he so popular with The Australian‘s letters editor.

Mr Minge has had nine letters published in The Australian’s Talking Points column since May 2011, for a total of around 1400 words. He is not the only one.

Read the rest of this entry »


Michael Laws’ manifesto: hang’em high and let me “ogle”

August 15, 2010

As a former merchant of the mendacious, one knows that if one is to lie in public, the lie must always be maintained in private. There it does its most useful work – convincing friends and allies to spread the falsehood as truth.

[Michael Laws, Sunday Star Times, 8 August 2008]

The mouth of Whanganui is madly scrambling to retain any credibility in the aftermath of revelations he’s been having some kind of relationship with an Auckland woman who used to be a prostitute and a P addict.

I can’t help but be mildly nauseated by Laws’ fake contrition and hypocrisy. As the story oozed out this weekend Laws was clearly on the backfoot, but I don’t think we can believe a word he says.

Last night Laws, a Star-Times columnist and RadioLive talkback host, confirmed he was aware of Sperling’s house arrest and that she was wearing an electronically monitored anklet during their encounters.

Despite his strong views on law and order, Laws was not fazed by the anklet.

“Why would I be? Here was somebody who had plunged to the depths of a P addiction and enormous depravation, who had got absolutely on the wrong side of the law,” he said.

“I’m very supportive of the idea of people making amends for things they have done wrong in their lives.”

[Laws, lover together again to mend friendship]

Really Michael?  Do you really believe in second chances for P-addicts and women who can’t look after their kids adequately? Are you sure?

Then whey over the last few years have you continuously written rubbish like this in your weekly column?

Cue mad mothers of the week: Mary Joachim and Rachael Brown. That they ever bred is two of life’s tragedies. The former failed to prevent the murder of her seven-year-old son, Duwayne Pailegutu, and the latter is an alcoholic and recidivist drink-driver.

Rachael Brown is the notorious soak who turned up at her sentencing last week in the Rotorua District Court drunk.

She also has made outstanding choices in her relationships.

It’s time for some straight talking around child abuse in this country and the link with ethnicity rather than poverty. And the link with blasted parents who consume themselves with drinks, drugs and the wrong partners.

[ A champion of common sense, 17 May 2009]

And there’s another angle on this particular column in which Laws defends footballers who sexually assault young women, which is a theme he repeated more recently in the case of dsigraced rugby ambassador Andy Haden:

There can be no doubt in my mind that the complainant “Clare” anonymous, voice disguised, pixilated has embarked upon a course of cool revenge.

But spare me the historic bleats of a young woman who, according to work colleagues, bragged of the encounter and then discovered remorse. That the media then fed on Johns’ commercial corpse proof that they eat their own. But also that PC is alive and well.

The target of this column–as it often is with Laws–is the shibboleth of “political correctness”. The only people who actually believe in this myth and talk about it are right-wing asshole columnists like Laws. It’s a convenient myth to disguise their racism, sexism and homophobia.

It is the dog whistle used to mobilise their supporters who fear the deluge of single-mums, crack-hos and other unsavoury types conjoured up from the febrile imaginings of Laws and his mates.

South Auckland is the badlands of New Zealand. It is a place that has been created by both neglect and liberal handwringing good parts of it hostage to gangs, drugs and nihilism. It is not a place that you choose to live. It is a place that you end up.

[Is the thin blue line yellow? 14 June, 2008]

And this in a column attacking the cops (see Thin blue line below) which just goes to show Laws’ total inconsistency.

This inconsistency is clear from Laws’ other obsession – Laura Norder. No wonder his new Auckland lover was a bit jealous and threatened to smash his watch.

Sunday News was provided with a copy of Facebook conversations between the pair from August 6-10.

It included a message from Sperling on August 10 saying: “An iphone for all my `hard work’ would have been lovely … but I am not a whore”.

She taunted Laws she would destroy a watch he left at her Auckland home.

“Oops, my hammer just landed on your watch. LEAVE ME ALONE YOU… SLEAZE,” she wrote.

[Laws’ girl tells of fling with cop]

Laws is besotted with Laura Norder and he has succumbed to her charms without the least resistance.

He is now so feeble that he does her bidding. Michael Laws is Laura’s bitch:

Evil has found us. Be they created by negligent or narcissist parenting, by drink or methamphetamine, by avarice or the anti-social malaise, we are now a country fearful of the dark. And fearful of people and places that we don’t know.

We are in the most violent times since the Maori Wars. It is a fact that most of us resist rather than find unpalatable. We cling to the superstition that New Zealand is the best and safest place on earth.

The police know differently. They deal with our scum, our detritus, our drifters, the desperate and dangerous, every day.

[Thin blue line 17 July 2010]

This is a classic in the Laws genre: it manages to combine his pet themes:

  • fear of criminals and drug addicts
  • anti-Maori racism of the most virulent sort
  • political correctness is destroying our society

In this case, the rot of PC has even infected police headquarters:

Now even our police commissioner, the broad Howard, is conceding that the Police Association may just be right. Although he is still trapped within his headquarters’ political correctness.

What? This is just a sprinkling of magic dust from Michael here. The incantation of the PC spell is enough to make it so. Laws is a warrior for Laura. He never lets an opportunity to champion her cause pass his grasping hands.

He is so intoxicated by her attentions that he is willing to die for her; or at least to advocate that others die in her honour:

BURN IN hell, Antonie Dixon. And, how on earth can we convince the Curtis brothers to similarly depart this mortal existence?

I had opined the previous day that the only appropriate sentence for Michael and Wiremu Curtis was a death sentence. Anything less would be less than justice.

New Zealand’s justice system is a joke. A charade created by lawyers not one of whom is publicly electable or accountable. It is a corrupt system, stifled by the arcane and the archaic, that glories in its unique perversion.

The law does not recognise evil. Instead it trades in the obscenity that is precedent sentencing.

But the wider nonsense is that the death penalty was not available as appropriate retribution.

[So this is justice? 3 March, 2009]

I won’t make much of it here, but there’s also a strain of virulence in Laws’ support for Israel too. He seems to find a groove and stick to it. Laura Norder, bad Maori, trollopy women and nasty Arabs.

The truth is that Islamic fundamentalism exists in this country. It has arrived with the migrants and refugees and it is as evil and myopic here as it was over there.

So a word to Mustafa Tekinkaya: if you don’t like the idea that your prejudice cannot be allowed to flourish in New Zealand, then do us all a favour. Leave. And take your racist mates with you.

[No place for old hatreds, 17 January, 2009]

There’s no end to his bigotry and plenty of room in New Zealand, it seems, for his hatreds, old and new. Laws is a crusader, we should not pretend he’s just a harmless nutter. I have read about 30 of his columns this morning and the themes, prejudices and ideological positions are consistently focused on good versus evil:

For the past year I have repeatedly asked the question whether those guilty of Nia’s torment are really members of the human race. Or simply evil strained into inadequate vessels.

[The liberal shame, 22 November, 2008]

His populism is centred around issues such as Maori gangs and child abuse, but he puts a very significant racial edge on these issues. He’s also running a very strong political message, particularly around crime and his hobby horse – reintroducing the death penallty:

First, let’s reintroduce the death penalty for child murder and life sentences for child abusers. Not as a deterrent, but as the appropriate punishment for these people.

Second, let’s admit that child abuse cannot be resolved by letting Maori find Maori solutions. Any more than Pakeha can solely be relied on to deal with white-collar crime.

Third, let’s admit that most of the underclass cannot be trusted with children. Ever. They may have the ability to procreate, but possess no sensibility to accept the responsibility. They are the underclass for a reason

Fourth, make it a criminal offence for persons who notice and witness child abuse to then turn the other way.

Fifth, if you’re a gang member, a gang associate, a recidivist criminal (generally the same thing) or an addict, you automatically lose your child. There are no good gang members – they are all reprobates, white or brown.

Sixth, stop buying the liberal excuses. Every blame-shifter, every apologist, every politically correct naysayer is, in reality, part of the problem

And last, but definitely not least – excise these modern shibboleths of political correctness and cultural sensitivity.

[The liberal shame, 22 November, 2008]

There you have it, the Laws’ manifesto: the seven answers to New Zealand’s problems. A proposal of eternal fealty to darling Laura Norder.

Is this what the good folk of Whanganui voted for when he was elected mayor? And Dog help New Zealand if this rabid zealot ever stands for office higher than he already holds.

The only “honest-Mike” opinion from this sad parade of venom and cliche is this piece from March 2009:

READERS WILL appreciate that I’m not a particularly “deep” person. I am my gender, and despite the occasional philosopher or mystic, we males are a superficial lot. Which explains the eternal attraction of the bimbo with boobs.

[Organ strife dead wrong]

Was it this “eternal attraction” Michael that got you into this most recent bout of “organ strife”? No doubt, because you are very fond of this particular trope:

We also don’t get the highbrow dismissal of Boobs on Bikes an absolutely harmless display of fantasy and fantastic proportions. Men like to look it is our instinctive nature.

…spare us the rapt divinity of NZ Fashion Week: the excited twitter of kids, barely out of journalism school, trying to preach profound. It was entertainment and as divorced from the average wardrobe as Chelsea Charms is from your wife.We would never be seen dead with either: the clothes or the porn actress.

Jeans, a tight T-shirt and a sportive embrace from your lover. Does it get any better?

[27 September, 2009]

Maybe not Michael, maybe not. It seems though, that you are obsessed with “ogling” “boobs” as you so quaintly call breasts and you are positively obsessed with Auckland’s annual sleazefest, Boobs on Bikes. Is this your one chance to live out some repressed fantasy?

It is sleazy, noisy and attracts every adolescent oink within 50km. But, gee, it’s fun. Heterosexual men love it because it allows a man to do what a man does best – to ogle the unobtainable.

In the main, they’re not particularly beautiful women. Not the classic beauties who grace catwalks or the front covers of Vogue. But they are dirty – and dirty trollops titillate men precisely because they are everything that our spouse, partner or girlfriend is not.

I have not been in any relationship with any woman – sexual, social or standard – that did not involve me abasing myself simply because I was male.

[15 August, 2008]

This sexually-charged and submissive self-delusion  is another recurring theme in Laws’ columns. Maybe the Sunday Star Times should retire him, he’s getting boring.

ALL MEN have fantasies. I’d like to write “all men and women”, but I’m being PC this week. I am excluding any satire/humour/mocking of any group that is not white, middle-aged, male and middle-class.

We also like bad girls. I suspect this is because we dated a whole lot of good girls who rejected us. Men like me like directness. Is there any point to my taking you out for dinner, or not? Not? Then I’ll spend the money on some mag wheels and a magazine.

[Every weak man, 11 October, 2009]

And this in a column about his partner of the time and the mother of his children. Uggh, Michael, too much information…until today at least. We now have a whole lot more information.

Yep, this is the Mayor of Whanganui. I am not going to psychoanalyse this psycho, but others have tried:

The official website of the mayor of Wanganui is a fascinating monument to a man who simply cannot get enough of himself. It is a site absolutely awash in self-love.

[Narcissm least of Michael Laws’ sins, Dom Post 7 Septmber, 2009]


Social networking and the NYT – be careful what you sign-up for

February 3, 2009

Thanks to Poynter Online for posting the New York Times guidelines for reporters using social networking sites as a journalistic tool.

The first guideline is about politics or controversial groups and flagging your own political beliefs

If you have or are getting a Facebook page, leave blank the section that asks about your political views, in accordance with the Ethical Journalism admonition to do nothing that might cast doubt on your or The Times’s political impartiality in reporting the news. Remember that although you might get useful leads by joining a group on one of these sites, it will appear on your page, connoting that you “joined” it — potentially complicated if it is a political group, or a controversial group.

This kind of defeats the purpose of being on Facebook. Surely one of the benefits is being able to “meet” with like-minded people and to share your views. Also, if you don’t join a group, how are you going to find out what its members are thinking and doing?

I think this could lead to problems of another ethical variety — reporters using an alias to join controversial groups and not disclosing that they are working for a news organisation and then using material in the paper or in their journalistic work.

The constraints that the Times puts around its staff use of social networking seem a little overbearing. At the sme time they don’t seem to take into account the real journalistic abuses of Facebook and the other sites.

Read the rest of this entry »


I agree with Rosemary

December 28, 2008

Well, the shoe-throwing Iraqi journalist has certainly sparked a lot of interest worldwide. Opinion is divided about whether or not his actions are legitimate, or beyond the journalist’s ethical pale.
In this weekend’s Sunday Star Times, columnist Rosemary McLeod says that 29 year-old reporter, Muntadar al-Zeidi, is her “man of the year”.

That might be a step too far for some, but Rosemary’s column lays out some interesting 21st century ethical principles and acknowledges that reporters do have opinions and also a right to express them.

Read the rest of this entry »


McCain, elections, ethics and smears

February 23, 2008

I’m watching with interest the American presidential primaries. I can’t make up my mind about Obama and/or Clinton. I’m inclined to argue that a vote for Barak Obama is more of a threat to the US political status quo than a vote for Hilary Clinton. It’s a judgment about whether race or gender is the more volatile fault line in the American psyche.
I tend to lean towards Obama and a vote for a black man over a white woman; mainly because white women were never tortured and murdered like African Americans, or suffered under the racist and segregationist Jim Crow laws. Though of course, if you go back far enough into American history it’s clear that witches were hated, feared and hunted down too during colonial times.

But today, I’m interested in coverage of the recent New York Times piece outlining some historical allegations that Republican candidate John McCain has a shaky record on conflicts of interest.

The Times has come under fire from other media, particularly the Fox network and the paper’s also had over 3000 email and blog questions posted by readers. I’ve read the Times piece and it seems reasonably balanced to me. It’s quite long and detailed, but critics say it relies too heavily on anonymous sources.

The paper justifies using anonymous sources on the grounds that the story was of great public interest and needed to be told. I have no issue with this; what I find more interesting is the question posed by a reader about the NYT’s endorsement of McCain. Here’s the exchange:

Why Did The Times Endorse McCain?

Q. Why did The New York Times strongly endorse Senator McCain to be the Republican Party nominee in January, if at the same time the paper was well aware of and continuing to investigate what it considered to be front-page, damaging, “un-presidential” charges?

— Debbie Collazo, Tucson, Ariz.

A. The short answer is that the news department of The Times and the editorial page are totally separate operations that do not consult or coordinate when it comes to news coverage and endorsements or other expressions of editorial opinion. We in the newsroom did not speak to anyone at the editorial page about the story we were working on about Senator McCain. They did not consult us about their deliberations over endorsements of the presidential candidates. I’m the political editor, and the first I knew of the McCain endorsement (and of the endorsement of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side) was when I read them in the newspaper. In all of our internal discussions about the news story subsequent to the endorsement, I do not recall anyone bringing it up.

(As an aside, I think it’s fair to say that most of our political reporters would prefer that the paper not endorse candidates. Endorsements inevitably create the perception among some voters that The Times is backing a candidate on an institutional level, leaving those of us on the news side to explain over and over that our coverage is not influenced by what our colleagues on the editorial page write.)

As your question suggests, this particular situation was especially odd because most everyone in politics and journalism — including, I assume, our colleagues on the editorial page — knew we were working on a story about Senator McCain, courtesy of an item on Drudge in December. Whether that influenced the editorial page’s deliberations, I have no idea.

But it meant that there were a lot of people speculating for months about what kind of story we were pursuing and whether and when we were going to publish it. This didn’t influence the timing or the substance of the story at all, but I do think it created a situation in which opinions and battle lines about the story began to develop long before the actual story was published.

— Richard W. Stevenson, political editor

Sure, Richard, you can maintain the fiction that the newsroom and the editorial decision-making are at arms-length.
It’s the dialectic of the front page. The story is too big to ignore and you’ve got it as an exclusive, so go for it, but don’t pretend that Mahogany Row doesn’t know exactly what’s going on newswise and can intervene at any time.