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.


From hack to Hell and back again

July 7, 2012

Graham Johnson. (2012). Hack: Sex, drugs and scandal from inside the tabloid jungle. London: Simon & Schuster.

Graham Johnson was for years an important member of the Screws of the World news team. His time at the paper predated the phone-hacking scandal, but Hack clearly shows that the culture which led to the criminal behaviour was well-established on the paper.

Johnson owns up to some pretty awful scams himself, including ruining the lives of people who were only featured in the paper to further its commercial success.

At the heart of the paper’s methods was destroying the lives of people who could not fight back. As Johnson puts it, they were usually too poor and powerless to prevent the NotW from giving them a right royal fucking over.

This is a terrible tale of what can happen when a talented reporter goes off the rails. Johnson worked for the News of the World for years and his insider story reveals a rotten culture. So rotten, in fact, that the phone-hacking and police bribery that finally brought the paper undone in July 2011 seem to be the inevitable end-result of endemic corruption and a conscious disregard for morality, ethics and the law. Read the rest of this entry »


Serious allegations against an Australian journalist in Egypt

February 13, 2012

Update 11pm Monday 12 Feb

Austin Mackell’s blog, The Moon Under Water is a very interesting log of what’s been happening in Egypt in recent weeks.

It seems that the Australian journalist will be deported from Egypt on the pretext that his visa’s expired.

 

Young Australian journalist Austin Mackell is facing serious charges in Egypt after his arrest over the weekend.

Mackell is a freelance who works for Global Radio News, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and many independent outlets. He has been reporting from the Middle East for some time and covering the Egyptian revolution from the front lines.

Egyptian authorities took him into custody along with an American colleague Derek Ludovici and Aliya Alwi, a local fixer .

The trio is accused of attempting to bribe people into joining a protest strike in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kobra.

There is an online campaign to free Mackell and his colleagues. It is highly likely that the charges against them are a set up and politically motivated. You can keep up with developments on this story by following #freeaustin on Twitter.

An AAP story gives some details of what happened in the town, where the reporter had gone to meet a contact.

Ms Alwi posted details of the ordeal on her Twitter account, writing early on Sunday Australian time that she and Mr Mackell were being transported to a military intelligence office in the nearby city of Tanta.

A few hours earlier, she wrote: “Report against us filed now. Many witnesses saw us ’offering money to youth to vandalise and cause chaos’.”

Another tweet read: “Charges brought against of inciting protest and vandalism. Witnesses have been produced to confirm it.”

One of those witnesses was eight-years old, she wrote.

The trio apparently first believed the police were trying to protect them after they experienced some aggression from locals.

“Our car got rocked and beaten against the glass, got called a whore and all sorts of things. Police escorted us to station,” Ms Alwi wrote.

[SMH 12 Feb]

What’s very interesting about this story is the trade union and activist connection. Mahalla is apparently a hotbed of working class political opposition to the military regime in Cairo. As far as I am aware Austin Mackell is one of the few reporters on the ground who sees this as an important story.

On the ABC there’s a good interview with another Aussie journalist in Egypt Jess Hill who is working for the Global Mail among others.

She talks about the politics of Mahalla. It seems that Austin Mackell may have come across a story the Egyptian authorities don’t want told.

This is really important, not just as a story of Egyptian politics, but also of what journalists should be doing in Egypt and also because Mackell has been accused of something terrible in terms of journalism ethics.

I am inclined to believe this is a set-up and I agree with what Jess Hill told the ABC, it seems like political activists and independent journalists are being given a message from the regime to stay away from sensitive issues. It would not surprise me if the regime now launched Syrian style raids into Mahalla.

I thing Austin Mackell is innocent of the allegations. Anyone who obviously likes cat must be a good person.


Sorry, Mr Hywood – you missed the point: It’s not about quality it’s about money

November 16, 2011

Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood delivered the A.N. Smith lecture at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism last night (Tuesday 15 November).

I’ve never quite understood what ‘advanced’ journalism is supposed to be. Maybe I’ll look it up one day.

According to the mission statement, the CAJ is attempting to improve the quality of journalism through ‘knowledge transfer’

The Centre for Advanced Journalism will contribute to the University’s goal of knowledge transfer through interaction with the public and with journalists and media companies.

The four key questions posed for research at the CAJ are also admirable, if a little unremarkable:

  • How will new media technologies impact on the future of journalism?
  • What is the role of public interest journalism in a liberal democracy?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between government and the media and how does this relationship serve the public interest?
  • Is “the public interest” a concept that is understood by the media and the general public?

I have no problem with that at all and I wish the centre’s new director Margaret Simons all the best. Improving journalism is something that I’m passionate about too; so in that spirit, let’s engage with Greg Hywood’s comments.

I’m not sure of the title Greg gave to his talk, on the National Times site the headline is ‘Rumours of our demise exagerated’ and on the AFR site (behind a Fairfax paywall) the headline is ‘Internet the reason journalism’s future is bright’. So, presumably that’s what the talk was about.

I’ve read the edited transcript of Mr Hywood’s speech on the National Times website and I’d just like to address a few issues.

Strong and trusted journalism has never been more important.

Yes, that’s absolutely right, but it always has been. In any day and age there needs to be a robust public debate informed by accurate and honest information. In a mass society when we can’t all gather in the forum for the daily senate meeting the public sphere is highly mediated. We get our information – on which we base our opinions – from the mass media. A reliable and trustworthy news service is absolutely essential to that process.

I believe the future of journalism has never looked stronger.

This statement needs to be addressed in several ways because Hywood’s qualification is important:

And this is because of the internet, not despite it.

We’ll come to that in a minute, but first a question to Mr Hywood: How can the future of journalism look ‘stronger’ to you when your own company Fairfax Media is busy cutting jobs and the number of working journalists in major news titles is falling around the globe?

This was the situation at Fairfax mastheads in May this year:

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are preparing for a wave of industrial action after new Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood wielded the axe this morning, sacking over 100 production staff to achieve annual cost savings of $15 million under the cover of an announcement spruiking “quality journalism”.

[Fairfax slashes: ‘quality journalism’ with fewer staff]

Perhaps Mr Hywood had this in mind when he said in his speech last night:

What has changed is the workload. Forget filing once a day. In this crowded, chaotic environment you have to provide the best, independent news and analysis all the time.

Yeah, that’s right: the old bosses’ mantra of “doing more with less.” Simple physics and quantum mechanics tell us that it it almost impossible to do more with less.

Read the rest of this entry »


Kiwi newspaper ‘discovers’ Facebook photos: “Ethics? What dilemma?”

July 25, 2010

Sunday News this week uncovered photos on 32-year-old [Carmen] Thomas’s Facebook page showing her playfully pecking the cheek of All Blacks midfield sensation Ma’a Nonu and embracing wing Anthony Tuitavake.

[Bunting, 25 July, Sunday News]

Gosh, I’m absolutely stunned with awe; marvelling at the forensic abilities of the Sunday News. How devastatingly newsworthy…the paper’s found out that a missing woman has been seen in a bar with two footballers.

Stunning stuff, let’s hope the police are as astute as Sunday News and are right now questioning the two players. They may know something about Carmen Thomas’ disappearance.

The headline suggest this momentous event has just happened and Carmen hasn’t been seen for about three weeks:

Missing mum poses with All Blacks

And isn’t it fantastic that there’s been a sighting of her, after all her anxious friends, her employer, her mother  and her child are beside themselves with worry.

“Oh, what’s that?” Hang on, check the details…Why? What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s not known when or where the photos were taken but the social networking site has recorded them as being uploaded on September 22, 2008.

Fuck me, the photos are nearly two years old.

Why is this newsworthy? Why is this in the paper?

Oh yeah, right, the All Blacks’ connection. We get to this point a few pars into the non-story. In an attempt to ‘keep it real’ the reporter valiantly attempts to link the All Blacks to the police investigation:

Investigation head, Mark Benefield, was reluctant to comment on Thomas’ online photos but confirmed police were “aware” of them, and that “there are several photographs of her on it [Facebook] in the company of people from all walks of life”.

“As far as we know at this stage of the investigation, there is nothing sinister in any of the photographs posted by Carmen on her pages,” Benefield said. The acting detective inspector wouldn’t say whether police had contacted the rugby stars.

Finbarr, mate, you are flogging a dead horse here. You’ve squeezed all the juice out of this particular lemon and there’s no more blood in this stone.

If I was Benefield I’d be reluctant too; knowing that whatever I said was going to be quoted at length in a cheesey hole-filler, arm-wrestled into the raggiest rag in the land.

What a tasteless, low-rent and ultimately meaningless bit of reporting.

And what investigative skills.

The Facebook photos are only visible to Thomas’ friends and their friends.

Not any more they’re not. Thanks to Sunday News we can all perv at them.

I’ve written before about gratuitous invasions of Facebook privacy by gawking media vultures. This is a classic case of reducing a person to the sum of their parts. I have no doubt that if there had been any ‘racier’ images, the Sunday News would have had no qualms about publishing them.

And let’s be clear, every newspaper in the country would do it too.

This is a wild-west frontier in journalism ethics and at the moment everyone’s behaving like a drunken cowboy in a saloon.

It’s not good enough. It is time for news organisations to establish some ethical and fair use guidelines around the plundering of Facebook for images and story leads.

There are legitimate reasons why journalists should be using social media tools to enhance their reporting; but sitting on your arse in the office downloading what is really someone else’s private property is not one of them. There are copyright issues here – is it stealing?

And of course it would seem that these egregious breaches of privacy can be overlooked because all you’re doing is exploiting some other numbnuck’s inability to operate the complex technical settings on Facebook.

Let’s be clear: what you’re doing is not journalism.

There is no pubic interest in publishing two-year old photos of Carmen Thomas with a couple of footy players; all it does is satisfy the ego of a couple of hacks without conscience.

It makes me sick.

The reporter doesn’t say how he got access to Ms Thomas’ private photos, but I guess it doesn’t matter does it. Whatever privacy settings you have on your Facebook page, to the news media goon squad it’s all public property and access is just a click away.

After all, if you’re too stupid to stop us, too fucken bad, we’re coming; guns blazing and whiskey-stained breath on your neck.


State of Play: Commentary on contemporary journalism

May 4, 2009

I was able to catch an advanced screening of the new Russell Crowe flick, State of Play, over the weekend. Ben Affleck also stars as a rising Washington star who falls from grace.

All I can say is, if you’ve got any interest at all in journalism and the news business, go and see it when it hits a cinema near you.

I’m not a huge Crowe fan and certainly wouldn’t go to see State of Play because he’s in it. It’s the story that’s interesting.

The movie is a Hollywood adaptation of a BBC TV series of the same name. It’s a political thriller and the plot’s fairly standard for the genre – mysterious shooter pegs small time crook leading to bigger fish and a national security scandal. Anyone who’s seen it will instantly make comparisons with All the President’s men.

What’s very interesting about this version is that it’s been updated to the digital age and there’s lots of references to blogging and whether or not that’s “real” journalism. Jokes about YouTube and celebrity also help to keep it topical.

But for me, the drama is in Helen Mirren’s role as the publisher of the Washington Globe as she comes to terms with the declining health of her once great newspaper. That side of the story rings very true. Mirren has all the great lines: “Reporters don’t have friends, they have sources.”

Read the rest of this entry »


“Sorry” is indeed the hardest word: Facebook faux pas leads to apology

March 6, 2009

A number of British news organisations have been forced to apologise and pay damages to a woman after wrongly reporting that her daughter’s 16th birthday got out of hand because people turned up to her house after the event was promoted on the girls’ Facebook page.

As Nelson would say: “Ha ha!”

The case was covered in the Guardian a few days ago:

David Price, of London law firm David Price Solicitors and Advocates, told Judge Charles Gray at the high court in London today that Amanda Hudson had been “extremely shocked and distressed” by the false picture that had been painted of her daughter Jodie’s birthday party in Marbella, Spain.

Allegations that the party had got out of hand first appeared across the national and international press in May last year, with claims that the house in Marbella had been “trashed” or “destroyed” by gatecrashers.

However, Price told the high court today that “only very minor damage was caused” and that Jodie had promoted the party on social networking website Bebo – not Facebook. [Oliver Luft, Newspapers sorry for ‘Facebook party’ story]

I’ve been concerned for some time about journalists free and easy use of Facebook as  a source, but it seems that in this case the news media concerned didn’t even do any basic fact-checking. It supports my argument that using Facebook is basically a lazy way to get a story, particularly if you’re just taking stuff from the site, or not checking when someone tells you something was “on Facebook”.

If we’re going to use social networks as a journalistic tool, I think we need to have a much more rigorous debate about it. Not just assume that the technology “can” and therefore we “should”.

Read the rest of this entry »


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