It came as a shock to many when Global Television news anchor Leslie Roberts was suspended this week. No one expected to see one of the preeminent faces of the Toronto news scene and three-decade veteran of the craft suddenly brought to his knees by allegations of unethical double-dipping.
The Toronto Star reported on Thursday that Roberts was the co-owner of BuzzPR, a public relations firm that represented several businesses whose executives had appeared as guests on Roberts’ news program.
It immediately raised questions of transparency, in an industry where the public trust is everything.
"I’ve worked in the PR industry for over 30 years. I’ve never heard of such a thing," Carol Panasiuk, a veteran of the PR industry, told Yahoo Canada News on Friday.
"You’re either a journalist or you are in the PR industry. You can’t have your foot in both camps. It is unheard of certainly from a PR perspective."
Global Television has told the Canadian Press that Roberts had been suspended indefinitely as the network conducts a full investigation into the concerns.
The Toronto Star first reported on those concerns, identifying several clients of the PR firm who had appeared as guests on Roberts’ news programs.
“I agree this doesn’t look very good,” Roberts told the Star.
Roberts further told the newspaper that he would resign from the firm immediately. He says he never accepted payment to have BuzzPR clients on the show, and never urged Global to feature his clients.
Roberts’ act of “coming clean” to the Star is the first step in reputation management, according to Panasiuk, a public relations strategist at The Communications Department.
"His bosses will decide his fate, but in my view he needs to make a decision about where he wants to have his career: in the public relations industry or in journalism," she said.
"I suggest, as in the case of most people, that you acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake, be very transparent – what is his relationship? What is his ownership role? – and identify where he perhaps crossed the line."
Panasiuk adds that he should be clear about when and how he crossed the line, show contrition and offer details about how he would resolve the situation.
As for what Global Television should do, Panasiuk says the company should review its employment contracts and code of ethics, determine where the lapse occurred “and then act accordingly.”
"I’m sure they have something in place that will guide them. But these days, given what other media outlets have been going through, like the CBC, they really need to focus on holding themselves to a high standard and being very transparent with the public," Panasiuk said.
Indeed, following the revelation that two major CBC personalities – Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy – had been paid to speak at industry events, the news group introduced a new code of conduct.
While assuring the audience that neither correspondent had sacrificed their integrity, Editor-in-Chief Jennifer McGuire admitted that some people did have a problem with the optics.
As a result, CBC tightened their rules about when and how staffers could give paid speeches and installed more oversight for freelancers such as Murphy.
"We’re confident that these measures will answer the concerns about perceived conflicts of interest," reads a statement from McGuire.
"And rest assured that CBC has strong editorial controls already in place to prevent any genuine conflict from seeping into our journalism."
That is also the key issue at play in the Roberts affair: Journalistic ethics, public trust, and transparency.
"There is an ethical issue here that he crossed over," Marcel Wieder, president of Aurora Strategy Group Inc., told Yahoo Canada News in an email. “Viewers expect that they are given unbiased information that they can then come to their own conclusion. Roberts, by having his clients on his show appears to have skewed the information viewers would see in favour of his clients.”
"The fact that Roberts did not disclose to Global (and its parent Shaw) that he had a financial interest in a public relations firm is very troubling."
Panasiuk agrees, adding the public relations industry has its own ethical guidelines to consider.
The Canadian Public Relations Society, of which Panasiuk is a board member, maintains a code of ethics and reviews it every year.
“It is very clear about how you treat clients, how you treat all your business relationships, how you deal with the media. It is very straightforward, the rules are clear.
“It is all about being transparent.”