Is CBC commentator Rex Murphy a shill for the oilsands industry?

Rex Murphy (CBC)

A proper little flap has developed over Rex Murphy, CBC News's dome-headed commentator and radio call-in host.

Critics are calling out the Newfoundlander, alleging a conflict of interest between his role as a freelance pundit for the public broadcaster and his paid speaking gigs before audiences of energy industry bigwigs.

The CBC is backing Murphy but the Vancouver Observer reports the corporation is looking at new rules requiring freelancers like Murphy to disclose their speaking fees.

The controversy went public last week in an article in iPolitics by Andrew Mitrovica, author and former investigative journalist with the Globe and Mail and CTV News.

Mitrovica took issue with Murphy's on-air castigation of Canadian rocker Neil Young's opposition to oilsands development while taking money from the oil and gas industry to give speeches championing the oilsands.

[ Related: Neil Young staging concerts to support fight against oilsands ]

Young famously compared the area around Fort McMurray, Alta., the heart of the oilsands sector, to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. He's worked actively to support aboriginal people who've opposed development, including staging a series of cross-Canada concerts to support a legal challenge against the expansion of one project.

Murphy's talks, full of praise for Alberta's contributions to Canada's prosperity and jibes against critics like Young, border on sycophancy in Mitrovica's opinion.

"I found that Murphy has made several speeches to oil-friendly audiences who lap up his cheerleading about the industry and his wisecracks about Neil Young, environmentalists and do-nothing Easterners, including his CBC colleagues," he wrote in iPolitics.

Mitrovica took particular issue with one speech Murphy gave at an industry conference in the Rocky Mountain resort of Lake Louise last November, which was posted on YouTube.

The speech, he said, saw Murphy "in full rhetorical bloom,' enthusiastically bolstering the industry's efforts. He quoted the Calgary Herald's account that the business audience's reaction "showed they were ready for some plain talk from someone clearly on their side."

"He was on their side, alright," Mitrovica observed. "Murphy’s speech was more like a hyperbolic pep talk about the virtues of oilsands development, delivered by a self-defined ‘journalist’ to Alberta’s corporate and political elite."

As critical as he was of Murphy, Mitrovica seemed even more miffed about CBC's attempts to run interference for one of their high-profile talking heads. He chronicled his attempts to get answers from CBC brass and from Murphy, who declined to be interviewed or disclose his speaking fees.

"It’s depressingly apparent that Murphy has adopted the shopworn tactics of the accountability-allergic politicians he so often skewers on the CBC and in print. How’s that for hypocrisy?" he wrote.

His inquiries, however, generated a blog post on Feb. 6 by Jennifer McGuire, CBC News general manager and editor-in-chief. She defended the network's use of Murphy, noting he's not a front-line news hound but a commentator who's paid to have opinions.

"The most important thing to understand is that Rex is not a regular reporter," she wrote, adding CBC's editors require Murphy's commentaries "be rooted in fact and experience, not just opinion or kneejerk ideology.

"But taking a provocative stand is what we pay him to do."

[ Related: CBC’s Rex Murphy slams Senator Mike (where does he live) Duffy ]

McGuire noted other freelance CBC "personalities" such as environmentalist David Suzuki and science-guy Bob McDonald also have more latitude than regular journalists to express their opinions. The network, she wrote, is comfortable with its policies and procedures and as far as Murphy is concerned, "we're confident about his independence — his point of view is his own."

Mitrovica was not persuaded, labelling McGuire's post as "a hollow, self-serving bit of exculpatory nonsense" designed to head off questions in advance of his own story being posted on iPolitics Feb. 10.

McGuire seemed to hedge things a little in her recent email response to the Vancouver Observer. While stating she was satisfied CBC News was covering the oilsands issue in a balanced way, a fresh look at the rules around freelancers' speaking fees was in order.

“While in principle we support transparency, we are trying to understand the complications of demanding this obligation of our freelancers," she said. "We will have more to say about this soon."

The response, however, doesn't address Mitrovica's central accusation, that Murphy gives the appearance of being a paid shill for the oil and gas industry.

Most viewers probably understand Murphy is a commentator, not bound by the same rules of fairness and objectivity required for news reporters.

He may have arrived at his position on oilsands development independently, but Murphy's work as a paid speaker boosting the industry creates at least the perception that what he says to Canadians on TV and radio is an extension of what he's paid to say to oil execs.

Some additional transparency would probably be welcome in cases of advocates like Murphy and Suzuki, so the audience can have the whole picture.