Monday, July 02, 2007

On the take

In his 1992 book Sound and Fury, American writer Eric Alterman took aim at the double standard of the punditocracy. While decrying conflict of interest in business and politics, many of the top journalists in the country were accepting very high fees for speaking to annual meetings of corporations, conventions and gatherings of lobbyists. The same thing goes on in Canada, where some senior journalists pull down thousands of dollars for an evening's appearance and sell their services to the government as guest speakers at public administration conferences. And that doesn't even begin to cover the monkey business that some freelance columnists are into. The New York times recently issued this statement saying its people are clean. Very few large Canadian publications could do the same without some serious rebellion at the top of the journalism hierarchy.


kady said...

You know, that really is a fascinating question, and not quite as black/white as you suggest, at least to me. Disclosure: I'm a journalist, and I've very very occasionally taken part in panel discussions. I acted as moderator for an IDRC event featuring two female Afghan journalistsl; and was one of three guests at an infosession for new Hill staffers on dealing with media, organized by the Library of Parliament. I didn't get paid a cent for either engagement, although I was given free access to the muffin table.

I didn't - and don't - see anything inappropriate in having taken part in these events; I thought about it beforehand, and asked a few colleagues to get their perspectives, so it wasn't as though I didn't even consider the implications.

Having said that, I would likely have come to a different conclusion - and turned down the invitation - if I was asked to speak to, say, an industry group seeking advice on lobbying government -- not that there is anything wrong, per se, with lobbying, but because that would seem to overstep my bounds, as a journalist. If I ever want to become a lobbyist, or a strategic advisor, I'll quit my job and hang out my shingle (after registering with the LRA and meeting all the demands of the new accountability laws, of course). The same would go for a 'closed door' session hosted by a private firm for its clients. But you know, I'm not sure if I feel the same way about speaking to government officials, simply because government - the civil service, that is - is a 'neutral' body. Yes, the fact that I also cover it - at least indirectly - could imply a conflict of interest, but honestly, it's a MASSIVE institution, and I'm not sure if the fact that I spoke to, say, a group of Industry Canada folks about, I dunno, copyright reform in a YouTube universe, would mean that I couldn't ethically write about, for example, recent policy changes within Foreign Affairs. YMMV, as the kids say today. Is it a money thing? I'm not sure. You could make the argument that the fact that you are being paid x amount of $ to speak to a bunch of deputy ministers could encourage less critical coverage of public administration issues, in order to protect that revenue stream. At the same time, though, I think that the departments - and conferences - that bring people in from outside do so not because they want to hear from a cheerleader, but because there is a genuine interest in a particular reporter/columnist's views on a particular issue, or in general, so in that sense, it wouldn't have any noticeable effect on how you write about the subject in future. And yet, I'd be far less comfortable accepting payments from the private sector, even if the same elements were in place.

As I said, it's a fascinating question. I think it's up to every journalist to figure out their 'comfort zone', as far as such invitations go, and be as transparent - or at least, open - about the restrictions as possible.

Ottawa Watch said...

I'm a believer in having as few masters as possible. Every group a journalist talks to -- for money -- is one more group scratched from the list of people you can write about.