Peter Mansbridge has been the news anchor of CBC’s The National since 1995, which makes him the longest serving anchor in the history of this crazy country. Currently, Peter's found himself in a bit of a controversy as news broke earlier this week through a Saskatchewan based environmental scientist named Sierra Rayne that Peter was paid to speak at an event thrown by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), raising some serious questions about the integrity of the nation’s most entrenched, mainstream newscaster receiving money from the oil industry. Sierra was able to find out Peter had been at the CAPP event simply by checking out CAPP’s Facebook page—where a photo of Peter standing behind a podium with a big CAPP logo on it in December 2012 only resulted in a few Facebook likes.
The timing of this could not be worse for Peter, really, as it was only last week that another CBC personality, Rex Murphy, was criticized for his speaking engagements at oil events that line his pockets nicely. Jennifer McGuire (no relation), the editor of CBC News, responded to Rex’s scandal on her blog by dismissing the possibility that there was anything unethical about one of their pundits—who is known for defending the oil sands on CBC News—receiving money to speak to the same oil industry types he so proudly defends on television. Jennifer stated that Rex is not a “regular reporter,” but rather a freelancer, and at the CBC, freelancers “have more freedom to express their views in ways that full-time journalists at CBC News do not.” She concludes by saying, “I want to say explicitly that we're comfortable with the content Rex has done for the CBC.”
This response was not satisfying to various journalists. The Globe & Mail’s former national security editor Andrew Mitrovica has been researching Rex Murphy’s oil industry speaking engagements since January, and he described one such speech as “a hyperbolic pep talk about the virtues of oilsands development” in a recent piece for iPolitics. Andrew’s attempts to interview Rex Murphy were denied, and he went as far as saying that Jennifer McGuire’s statement was “a hollow, self-serving bit of exculpatory nonsense.”
Sierra Rayne, the scientist who originally blew the whistle on Peter’s CAPP appearance, says that Andrew has missed the point. In a series of tweets, he responded by saying: “It's not about disclosure, it's about rigorous objective journalism being all that ever appears on CBC. The parade of partisan talking point morons routinely appearing on the CBC do absolutely nothing to educate the public on key issues. Thus, who cares if a ‘journo’ discloses linkages to industry? That doesn't even come close to tackling the problem. The answer is to remove the linkages and/or remove the journalist… Focusing only on Rex Murphy is textbook discrimination. Peter Mansbridge has given speeches to industry as well. Fair is fair. So, in short, if Rex Murphy gets kicked off CBC/forced to disclose, the same has to apply equally to Peter Mansbridge. Good riddance to both.”
Earlier this afternoon, Sierra also pointed out that Ian Hanomansing, another CBC News anchor, was a featured speaker at Oilweek Rising Stars alongside characters like Jim Carter, the former president of Syncrude Canada, and Doug Jackson, the Vice President of Gas and Mining Operations for TransAlta. The Rising Stars event, which sounds more like a talent-search reality show than an oil conference, is described on its website as an event that looks “for the brightest and the best up-and-comers in the Canadian oil and gas industry.”
I reached out to Peter Mansbridge and Jennifer McGuire today to see if Peter Mansbridge had in fact been paid by CAPP and if it fell astray of CBC’s Code of Ethics—given that Jennifer’s statement about Rex Murphy seems to state he’s in the clear because he’s a freelancer. Peter Mansbridge is, of course, the furthest possible thing from a freelancer I can think of. Instead of responding, they bounced me over to Chuck Thompson, the CBC’s Head of Media Relations.
In an email, Chuck wrote: “I can confirm Peter received compensation and permission for his speech to CAPP. For the record, Peter clears all of his speaking engagements with Senior News management.” Chuck added: “Peter is encouraged by management to speak on a regular basis, it's part of an outreach initiative in place for many of our hosts that ensures CBC News and in this case our Chief Correspondent is talking to Canadians in communities across the country. By the way, earlier today he spoke to a grade five class.”
When I asked about the content of the speech Peter gave to CAPP, he responded by saying: “Peter makes it clear to all those who ask him to speak, whether it's for charity or not, that he sticks to what he know best—journalism. He doesn’t pretend to be an expert on anything else and that's conveyed to the organizers and to the audience. Peter's speeches draw heavily on his journalistic background and experiences. He talks about the evolution in the country during his time covering it. He talks about the way in which information is assembled, stories are told, and the fundamentals of how journalistic storytelling works in modern Canada.
In laying out these observations, Peter draws on anecdotes from decades of experience covering the news and does not give advice on how those he speaks to should advocate. Peter does not weigh in on matters of current controversy or sensitivity, and goes out of his way to make clear that the nature of being a ‘news’ journalist is about being there to assemble information and tell an honest story, no matter who it pleases or who it offends. And of course Peter would not, does not, and has not, given a speech either promoting oil sands development or opposing it.”
This is a highly reasonable and believable explanation for why Peter Mansbridge would be speaking to a CAPP crowd. It’s not as if he’s known for radical oil opinions—like his colleague Rex Murphy—nor is there any reason to believe this speech influenced The National’s reporting in any way. That said, given the CBC’s flaky response to the Rex Murphy scandal, and their open acceptance of having their most famous anchor give paid speeches to the petroleum industry, this story is not a great PR look for the CBC News team at the very least.
On top of that, Jennifer McGuire’s defense of Rex Murphy having more power to state his personal opinions than a full-timer like Peter Mansbridge highlights the very obvious gap in the CBC’s reporting that there’s no far-left pundit to balance Rex Murphy out. And as far as Peter goes, it’s really great to hear that he still takes the time to chat with fifth graders, but it’s understandable why people might have questions about the ethical objectivity of The National (and CBC at large) when their most spotlighted anchors make decent cash on the side, by giving speeches to the oil barons of Canada, as they sit side-by-side with an oil sands cheerleader like Rex Murphy, who’s well-known for his simplistic, corporate minded attitude about the tar sands.