Separating paid promotion from professional opinion is necessary for integrity

A very harmful development over the past few years that has helped financial sales firms crowd out prudent, objective advice and economic assessments has been, not only the revolving door between governments, regulators and finance executives (as discussed here this week), or the throngs of academics who have been bought to write favorable opinions for the industry, but also the rise of financial-friendly business media that is sponsored handsomely by its deep-pocketed guests.

Dedicated business/market station CNBC was launched 25 years ago and since then has led a steady move away from traditional news sources populated by principle-focused journalists toward talking heads that read sponsor-friendly teleprompter script.  And its not just what goes on in front of the cameras that has become so toxic, but also the many incestuous tentacles that have lashed so called ‘reporters’ and ‘journalists’ to the finance gravy train through lucrative speaking and board gigs for the industry.  Former Central Bank heads like Greenspan and Bernanke have been collecting 250K speaking fees talking about their role in shaping public policies toward bank-friendly climates that helped birth the financial crisis still gripping the world. Perversely it is largely the financial firms who benefited, that can now afford to compensate their policy champions so richly.

This is not just a US problem, but thanks to globalization and multinational financial firms, these same queering forces have been at work throughout the world. I wrote about the UK Telegraph journalist who resigned in response to financial sponsors impeding the paper’s journalistic ethics in February here, see:  Assault on democracy:  big banks controlling ‘journalists’.

A recent Canadian example has also been brought to my attention of late.  Kathy Tomlinson is a Canadian investigative reporter who broke a story in 2013 alleging that Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) was abusing the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program (TFWP) by bringing in temporary workers who would eventually take Canadian jobs home with them. In an April 8, 2013 conference call among CBC journalists, her reporting was reportedly challenged by CBC anchor Amanda Lang, who unknown to the journalists on the call had done speaking engagements at RBC-sponsored events and was in a relationship with a member of RBC’s Board of Directors.

Lang then went on to take a series of steps to discredit the story and its reporters, see an outline of her actions here, all without revealing her financial and personal entanglements with RBC.

But actually that’s only part of the story, Lang was also taking compensation from other financial firms including Manulife and Sunlife, while having them for favorable interviews on her CBC show and without mentioning the financial payments received.  See: Amanda Lang took money from Manulife and Sunlife while giving them favourable coverage on CBC.

The revelations sparked outrage among self-respecting journalists everywhere with the UK Guardian’s George Monbiot calling for Lang to be fired for her transgressions.  See:  Our ‘impartial’ broadcasters have become mouthpieces of the elite.  Also see, Amanda Lang’s problem should end with this: resign, from John Doyle in the Globe and Mail.

Last month the CBC released its internal review of the Lang affair which concluded that no fatal errors were made and that Lang could stay on in her role as star business anchor. Although last April the CBC did move to amend its Journalistic Standards and Practices to what should have been basic principles from the outset, as follows, see Review of speaking engagements:

For CBC News on-air employees, we’re tightening our procedures around paid speeches. We’ll reject requests from companies, political parties or other groups which make a significant effort to lobby or otherwise influence public policy, even if the speech or event seems innocuous.

We’re also going to centralize our tracking system for all speeches whether they are paid or not. This will help ensure that we apply our rules thoroughly and consistently. And we’ll reinforce with our staff that all are accountable for understanding the rules and sharing this information. This will also apply to our radio current affairs personalities.

In the process, the CBC–a once revered public broadcaster founded in the BBC tradition of speaking truth to power as an essential arm of democracy–has followed the ‘neither admit nor deny’ playbook of corporate governance so popular among the fine-paying criminals running the finance sector today.

The curtailment of paid speaking gigs is an important step here, (one not implemented by other business focused media outlets no doubt) but a broader scourge remains in full vigor:  until we manage to separate paid promotion from professional advice and opinion, we will continue to suffer the financial harm and debauchery that have undermined our finances and economy increasingly over the past 20 years.

Here is the important take away as CBC journalist Kathy Tomlinson, put it on January 13, 2015 in interview with Canadaland:

The essential problem with all of this is the impression created by the potential conflict of interest. Conflicts or perceived conflicts – by anyone – cause everything to be viewed in a different light. I am far from alone in voicing that concern within the CBC.

As a result of this, many people – including me – are asking one simple question. Why it is ever OK to have any perceived conflict of interest, under any circumstances?

This is not about Amanda Lang.

It is about the long standing belief most journalists [and other fiduciary professionals] have – that conflicts should be avoided at all costs or explicitly declared up front.  I come from the ranks of reporters who would go to a news conference and not even take a muffin or a cup of coffee.  These are deeply held views by the vast majority of journalists I know.

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