MEDIA WATCH

The debate over feathering nests

George Bain January 20 1986
MEDIA WATCH

The debate over feathering nests

George Bain January 20 1986

The debate over feathering nests

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

Under a redrawn code that became effective New Year’s Day, all public servants must declare any stocks, bonds or other assets they think might —somehow, someday — give rise even to the appearance of a conflict of interest. The decision is theirs, but they are advised, if in doubt, to make the disclosure. Top people—like ministers, their political staff, deputy ministers and heads of agencies—are denied the discretion: they must declare. In either case if a referee decides there is the potential for conflict of interest, the stocks, if that’s what the assets are, must gosold outright or put somewhere out of reach so they can’t be traded or used for, say, collateral for a loan. Ordinary MPs, as distinct from ministers, don’t come within the code but are covered by Standing Order 15 of the House of Commons, which says, “No Member is entitled to vote upon any question in which he or she has a direct pecuniary interest, and the vote of any Member so interested will be disallowed.”

Conflict of interest rules are not new in government: these are simply more specific, cover a broader spectrum of public servants and come with more stringent provisions for enforcement. Neither do they begin and end with defining what public servants should — and must—do about stock holdings. Senior managers, for example, must report any job offer from a company doing business related to their work in government, and public servants generally are circumscribed in the subsequent relations they can have with government if they join the private sector. In short, they are thoroughly hedged around to guard against any suggestion of using their offices to feather their own nests.

Real or merely apparent conflicts of interest in government, whether on the part of politicians or public servants, have always been to the media as red meat to lions. However, there is a noticeable reticence in those of us in the media to discuss conflict of interest in the media—situations in which our interests may affect our ability to judge issues in the disinterested way we would like readers, listeners and viewers to believe we invariably do.

For example, can a big-city newspaper approach with utter detachment the question of whether or not an arterial highway—which would enable pa-

pers to be delivered faster to populous suburbs in evening traffic—should be slashed through the heart of the city? Certainly The Toronto Star did not go against its own interests some years ago when it vehemently opposed the decision not to proceed with just such a project, called the Spadina Expressway. Can this magazine divorce itself from considerations of its own good on the question of the possible readmission to this country of Time magazine as a competitor without the same tax disadvantage it carries as a foreigner? Do some newspapers compromise themselves when they assign reporters to write puff articles to accompany advertising spreads, in effect saying that some of what purports to be news is for sale? What about me, as a media critic? I have a long and valued association with The Globe and Mail. If something bad there came to my at-

Real or merely apparent conñict of interest in government has always been to the media as red meat is to the lions

tention, would I hesitate to comment on it—as I would not if the same occurred somewhere else—for fear of jeopardizing that relationship? I hope not, but I don’t know.

The point is that it would be foolish, or hypocritical, to suggest that conflict of interest cannot occur and equally foolish to suggest that the media— though I have no exaggerated notion of the so-called power of the press—are altogether without influence. Any of these, without falsifying the news but merely by a persistent judicious selection of it, probably could do more to raise the value of stock in Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. or Bell Canada Enterprises Inc. than 99.9 per cent of public servants by assiduous string-pulling. But where do the owners, publishers and editors of newspapers, and their equivalents in broadcasting, line up to declare their own interests—corporate and personal, pecuniary and other— that could give rise to, in the words of the new code in Ottawa, “real, potential, or apparent conflict”?

The susceptibility to real, potential or apparent conflict of interest is not at all blind to privately owned, hence

commercial, newspapers and magazines or to private sector broadcasting. In fact, the news organization at present most clearly subject to conflicting loyalties—to its public, to which it owes a fair and balanced account of the news, and to its own internal interests—is the largest in the country and the one that reaches the greatest number of people: the CBC in its television and radio services. The question is whether people in the corporation can, or have managed to, keep resentments against a government that forced budget cuts on them from coloring their treatment of news of governmental affairs. Broadcast news is ephemeral; it does not leave a readily checkable record in the public domain as print does. This, therefore, is opinion: to my mind, the CBC has not.

A peculiar aspect of this is that the CBC now finds itself lined up with a segment of the Canadian community that, so far as can be seen, is unalterably opposed to one of the most important governmental initiatives of the times—namely, the effort to bring about negotiations with the United States on free trade. Consciously or unconsciously, CBC news and public affairs programmers in both radio and television have built themselves into the Canadian cultural community, via numerous sympathetic reports on a supposed governmental hard-heartedness toward “the arts” or “culture” or “the cultural industries” in all of which, on closer examination, the CBC could be found to be the major component. Sums of money cited as “cuts in funding for the arts and/or the cultural community” usually have consisted mainly of the amount the CBC itself was being required to forgo. This sort of reporting, now somewhat diminished with the remarkable reassessment of Communications Minister Marcel Masse—transformed virtually overnight from devil to hero of Canadian cultural nationalism—constituted covert propaganda for the CBC’s own internal interests. Having cultivated for their own purposes an identification with what has become a lobby group against a major public policy, can CBC news services claim the detachment necessary to report in a fair, balanced and unbiased way on that policy? It is that sort of thing the new code of conduct for public servants and others in Ottawa is about—the avoidance of even the appearance of conflicts of interest.