CBC should stop journalists like Rex Murphy from taking speaking fees: Ombudsman review

After Rex Murphy and Peter Mansbridge took spotlight over oil industry speaking fees, an Ombudsman now concludes the CBC's broadcasters should be wary of payments from "powerful advocacy groups"

Rex Murphy Point of View Neil Young Oil Sands
Rex Murphy gave a stinging critique of rockstar Neil Young's opposition to the oil sands in January, just a few weeks after he was paid for a Calgary speech to an oil-friendly convention - image: CBC News

A new CBC Ombudsman review found that the public broadcaster should not be allowing its broadcasters to accept speaker fees, in light of recent "perception" controversies that both Rex Murphy and Peter Mansbridge were paid for appearing at oil-friendly conventions.

"I hope CBC management will reconsider the practice of paid speaking engagements for its journalists and, and at a minimum, consider how any relevant activity and payment can be on the public record," wrote Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman, in a letter written yesterday.

Though both Murphy and Peter Mansbridge were cleared of any wrongdoing, Enkin said "taking money leads to a perception of a conflict of interest" -- especially when the money is from "powerful lobby groups".

On Murphy in particular, she added, "[he] is not a spokesperson for anyone, nor is his personal integrity in any way in question here."

The Ombudsman's remarks were in a March 12 response letter to John How, of Terrace B.C., who shared it with the Vancouver Observer.

How is a retired meteorologist who was incensed by Murphy's controversial speech, found on Youtube, giving his passionate support of the oil sands at a business convention last fall.  

“When I saw [Rex Murphy's] Calgary speech, I lost all respect I had for him as a public intellectual," said How. 

“There was a certain amount of vitriol that I would not have expected from someone who is supposed to be a reasonable commentator on public affairs – it was extremely biased, and very unbalanced.”

Then in January, Murphy went used his "Point of View" segment on CBC's The National, to vigorously defend the oil sands from criticisms levelled by rock star Neil Young, who compared the tar sands to "Hiroshima."  

Media critics have said Murphy has the right to his opinions, but he should disclose any industry fees he receives.

Murphy did not respond to several media requests for comment, but used his column in the National Post recently to explain his Calgary speech:

"I said that Canadians should be celebrating the [oil sands] industry’s achievements, and noting the technological miracles that our scientists and engineers have produced in this sector.

"I drew particular note to many of my personal friends who have had new and successful starts in Alberta over the last two decades.

"No oil worker asked me to say them. No premier. No oil executive. It was just me. Rex," wrote Murphy.

CBC News' chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge also took the spotlight over fees in connection with a keynote speech he gave at a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) convention in 2012.

Mansbridge explained in his blog that he often donates the fees he gets and is often encouraged by CBC management to do the appearances.  

"I don't offer my opinion on matters of public policy or on certain divisive issues that often dominate the news. Ever," wrote Mansbridge.

Peter Mansbridge CAPP speaker

Mansbridge at CAPP event dated December 10, 2012.  CAPP Facebook.

How said he was satisfied with the Ombudsman's review, and hopes CBC's management will listen.

"I am pleased that Ms. Enkin agrees, to the extent that she writes that 'it is inconsistent with policy when CBC news and current affairs staff accept payment from groups that are likely to be in the news'," wrote How Thursday.

The Omudsman received more than 70 complaint letters.  She said this was driven in part by a campaign by the Sierra Club, who motivated volunteers to write in.

On that score, How said he has no connections to any environmentalist cause.  
“Am I am absolutely independent. I was a weatherman with Environment Canada for 17 years."  

"I retain an interest in global warming and I am appalled that we’re getting into the petro-super-state mentality that is espoused by our Prime Minister and Rex Murphy.”

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