First Murphy, now Mansbridge: CBC personalities under fire for oil industry connections

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
'I love the news,' says CBC's Peter Mansbridge, who has been at the helm of The National for 25 years.

When I was still a scribbler at The Canadian Press, a wise senior supervisor gave me a very good piece of advice when it came to outside work: Don't do anything you don't want to see on the front page of the Globe and Mail.

I'd been offered a chance to write some material for a business group, nothing provocative or related to the things I covered as a reporter. My name would not appear on what would essentially be limited-circulation brochures or pamphlets.

But my boss's injunction forced me to gut-check the offer. Even if it had only a peripheral connection with my work as a journalist, it would still present at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. I couldn't accept that.

Which brings me to Peter Manbridge. Critics are pillorying the chief correspondent and anchor of CBC News' The National over his paid speaking engagements before energy-industry audiences.

The flap blew up following a tweet by environmentalist Sierra Rayne a few days ago.

Rayne followed that up with tweets about other appearances at oil and gas events.

Podcast site Canadaland confirmed Mansbridge's 2012 speech before the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) from the group's Facebook page which said he "articulated that energy has moved to the forefront of news, economic, environment, safety."

The information came just a couple of weeks after the flap over Mansbridge colleague Rex Murphy's paid appearance in front of a group of energy executives last fall. The TV commentator and host of radio's Cross-Canada Checkup lambasted oilsands critics and called development of the industry a "national endeavour," as the Calgary Herald reported at the time.

[ Related: Is CBC commentator Rex Murphy a shill for the oilsands industry? ]

CAPP spokeswoman Geraldine Anderson told Canadaland that Mansbridge spoke at an association investment symposium in Toronto and was booked through an outside agency for an undisclosed fee. A Toronto Sun editorial mainly about Murphy's activities noted Mansbridge received $28,000 for the gig.

But there's a difference between Murphy, who is paid to have an opinion on stuff, and Mansbridge, who is the face of CBC's news coverage, as well as a helping supervise it.

"As the CBC’s Chief Correspondent and anchor of their flagship national news broadcast, Mansbridge exerts undeniable influence over what oilsands stories The National covers and how it covers them," wrote Canadaland blogger Jesse Brown. "The fact that he has been moonlighting for the energy industry is a clear [and undisclosed] conflict-of-interest."

I'm not sure I'd go that far without having read Mansbridge's remarks. The little synopsis on CAPP's Facebook page suggests it was more an analysis of the impact of oilsands on news priorities.

Nevertheless, the speaking engagements before groups such as CAPP leave Mansbridge open to questions about his impartiality, even though the engagements were cleared by his bosses, according to the Huffington Post.

"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," spokesman Chuck Thompson told the Post via email.

"The content of those speeches is always about putting CBC News coverage into context and explaining what we do and how we do it but Peter never offers up his opinion or takes a position on anything that's in the news."

[ Related: Rob Ford speaks with CBC's Peter Mansbridge ]

Mansbridge himself posted an explanation of his speaking activities Thursday.

He said he turns down a number of speaking requests "because they would be inappropriate for me to do." His talks, Mansbridge said, revolve around his perspective as a veteran journalist.

"I do not give advice on how those I speak to should advocate," he said. "I do not weigh in on matters of current sensitivity, and I go out of my 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 let me be clear about something else: I would not, do not, and have not, given a speech either promoting oil sands development or opposing it."

Still, journalist Andrew Mitrovica, who wrote a piece in iPolitics criticizing Murphy's appearances, castigated Mansbridge in a post on Thursday.

He accused the CBC of trying to blame bloggers for ginning up a controversy where there was none. The public is entitled to full disclosure when it comes to Murphy's and Mansbridge's outside activities, he argued.

"I’m convinced CBC news executives are grasping at the vain hope that, since the controversy hasn’t yet seeped onto the pages of a ‘major’ newspaper or two, they can ride out the passing storm," Mitrovica wrote.

The CBC said in the wake of the Murphy criticism that it is revisiting its rules around the work that freelancers can do under the corporation's conflict of interest and ethics policy.

Those guidelines look a lot like the ones I adhered to at CP for more than three decades.

Them, and my gut.