The face of Canadian journalism should know better

The discussion around Peter Mansbridge, speaking fees and objectivity in journalism

Mike Davies, Editor-in-Chief Ω

EIC Mike Davies interviews Peter Mansbridge in January 2012. File photo.

EIC Mike Davies interviews Peter Mansbridge in January 2012. File photo.

The graduating essay that I wrote as the completion requirement for my Rhetoric and Professional Writing degree was entitled, “There’s no such thing as objective journalism,” and I truly believe that.

Every decision that is made in regards to how a journalistic story turns out involves a human element and humans are incapable of making any decision without the inherent (and often subconscious) input of previous knowledge, attitudes of the writer towards what’s being discussed – even the decisions made about who to interview on each side of the debate — all have an effect on the final product.

Featured in the aforementioned essay is one Peter Mansbridge, who I had the privilege of interviewing when he was in town for a speaking engagement. On the matter of objectivity, he said that his opinions have no bearing on his ability to do his job.

“It’s like saying, if you’re a heart surgeon and you hate the patient, you’re going to let that impact the way you do the surgery? No, you’re not,” Mansbridge said to me. “You’re going to do the best job you can to save that person’s life. It’s no different for a journalist, in my view.”

Until recently, I don’t know many people that would have questioned him on that. He has long been held in the highest esteem as one of the country’s most respected newsmen – the face of the national broadcaster, CBC.

There are those questioning it now, though, and even those who are not (like myself), still have to ask themselves how he made such a terrible decision and invite this type of credibility-questioning into his life.

You see, there was recent acknowledgement that Mansbridge gave a speech to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) Investment Symposium in December of 2012.

Mansbridge defended his actions in a blog post on CBC.ca shortly after the uproar began, saying, “I do not give advice on how those I speak to should advocate. 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.”

Having seen one of Mansbridge’s speeches first hand, I know a couple of things about the way he presents his thoughts to a room. He speaks of his history in journalism and broadcasting, using the unlikelihood of being discovered for his voice at the Churchill, Manitoba airport, as a springboard for his stories about what it means to be a Canadian, and how much respect Canada and Canadians have around the world because of who we are and what we stand for.

I have no doubt whatsoever that he said nothing in his speech to the CAPP about the energy sector, resource management, environmental issues within our borders or anything else that would imply his standing one way or the other on what the CAPP itself stands for.

But he had to know, with all his years in this business, that it wouldn’t look good.

It’s one thing to speak to a room of random students and members of the general community in Kamloops at the local university as part of a lecture series, or, as Mansbridge points out in his blog post, “a food bank, a financial services group, a teacher’s association, nurses, lawyers, doctors, police officers, environmental organizations,” etc. that he’s given speeches for, but it’s another thing altogether to speak to a gathering of the major players in the Canadian oil and natural gas industry.

Why?

Because as the face of the national broadcaster and one of the most respected newsmen in the history of journalism in Canada, you can’t even appear to support one side or the other on a matter as contentious as resource management.

The appearance of impartiality is the same as actual impartiality in the news business, and even those of us who truly believe your “speak for pay” arrangement with CAPP won’t affect your coverage of this nationally relevant discussion, you have to know that some people will, and that harms and distracts from the discussion itself.

Discussions like those one don’t need any more distractions or harm done to them. They’re too important for that, and Mansbridge should have known better than to be a part of harming them, especially since his job is, and has been for decades, to promote them.