Amanda Lang, the CBC, and Journalistic Standards

Amanda Lang, CBC News’ “senior business correspondent” and the host of the CBC-TV show The Exchange with Amanda Lang, has recently been the subject of some controversy. In the last few weeks of 2014, it was alleged that she violated CBC’s conflict of interest policies by accepting paid speaking engagements from companies that she then “favourably” covered on her TV show. Then in early January it was alleged that she had lobbied within CBC News to downplay a story about the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) outsourcing jobs held by Canadian workers, when in the past she had given paid speeches at RBC-sponsored events. It also emerged that Lang was involved in a personal relationship with an RBC executive.

In a newspaper op-ed column, Lang denied the allegations of improper influence and defended her integrity – a response that was not well received. CBC subsequently banned its on-air staff from making paid appearances at non-CBC events, and, last week, announced that an “internal review” had found that Lang’s coverage did not violate CBC’s “journalistic standards”.

This series of events was deeply distressing to anyone who cares about the integrity of Canada’s publicly-funded national broadcaster – especially when the allegations involving Lang came directly after the allegations of workplace harassment by CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, followed by multiple criminal charges being laid against him. What was also distressing in Lang’s case was that both she and the CBC didn’t seem to understand that a perceived conflict of interest can be as damaging as an actual conflict of interest. Lang’s dismissing the allegations as “malevolent” and “utterly unwarranted” was ill-advised, and in my opinion only made the situation that much worse.

I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with much of Lang’s television work. But recently, while looking for something else entirely in the CBC’s online video archives, I came across a recent interview on her show that was so appalling that I had to look at it in more detail. The interview is so badly conducted and the entire segment is so blatantly biased that I seriously have to ask: if this interview is typical of the quality of work that Lang produces, why does the CBC continue to employ her?

The interview segment aired on the February 19 edition of The Exchange with Amanda Lang, and it focused on the stalled collective agreement negotiations between the union Unifor and CN Rail. In the negotiations, Unifor had proposed that for every hour worked by a CN employee represented by Unifor, CN would contribute five cents to the Unifor Social Justice Fund. CN issued a press release saying that this one proposal was holding up a settlement of the agreement. Unifor issued a press release saying that other conflicts, such as CN reneging on previously agreed-upon items, were the reason for the impasse. Lang, or her show’s staff, apparently chose to believe CN’s side of the story – because Unifor’s version of the situation was almost absent from the report  – and invited John Mortimer, the president of the Canadian LabourWatch Association (LabourWatch), to discuss the bargaining impasse.

The first problem with this interview was why Mortimer was asked to speak on this particular issue. Although LabourWatch presents itself as being a “balanced” source of information for employees about unions, in reality it is an anti-union organization. It is one of the few organizations that supports Bill C-377 in Canada’s Parliament – a bill that would require much higher levels of financial disclosure from unions than from nearly any other kind of Canadian organization. Additionally, LabourWatch conducted a poll whose results were cited in Parliament as evidence of public support for the bill – but the poll had methodological flaws which were found to violate the ethical principles of Canada’s national marketing research organization. Despite this finding, LabourWatch and its allies continue to claim that the majority of Canadians support the bill, despite it being debated in both the House of Commons and the Senate for more than three years.

With that background, it is questionable why Lang’s show did not at least invite an additional guest who could provide a more neutral view of the issues. But as it was, viewers of the show wouldn’t have been aware of LabourWatch’s anti-union bias – because Lang only introduced Mortimer as the president of LabourWatch, with no information about what LabourWatch is or what it does. And, given the history of problems in LabourWatch’s information, Lang should have been prepared to ask Mortimer for clarifications or support for his statements. Instead, as this transcript of the interview shows, she simply asked him questions, and rarely responded to or challenged his answers.

Here’s some of the inaccuracies in the interview.

Amanda Lang interviews John Mortimer on "The Exchange with Amanda Lang", February 18, 2015.

Amanda Lang interviews John Mortimer on “The Exchange with Amanda Lang”, February 19, 2015. (credit: cbc.ca)

Mortimer: Jerry Dias [Unifor president] says there’s a long history of what this fund is used for. But he’s misleading the public, and I don’t know whether CP was successfully misled or what General Motors does to pay attention to it. But I had a quick scan of what I could find in terms of some online filings for the Social Justice Fund, and maybe the new fund will be different, but they’re giving it to unions in Mexico and Brazil, they’re giving it to something called the Health Partners International in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they’re giving it to all sorts of things. The Tecumseh Corn Festival, a football club, in addition to, yes, food banks.

The Unifor Social Justice Fund is a registered charity, run by a board of directors that is separate from Unifor’s administration. Its Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) listing and annual reports, which are available online, give full details of its financial activities. Under CRA rules, registered Canadian charities are required to specify whether any of their funds are spent outside Canada. In 2013, the fund spent $2,172,753 on projects outside Canada, but only donated $38,350 directly to other unions. It gave $7,900 to the metalworkers’ union in Mexico and $29,450 to the metalworkers’ union in Brazil, in addition to donating $1,000 to a North American foundation that awards scholarships to union members and their families.

Health Partners International is a Canadian-based registered charity that provides medical-related supplies and services to developing countries. It received a $30,000 donation from the fund in 2012. The fund also donates to other international programs and initiatives such as those undertaken by Doctors without Borders. (For what it’s worth, the Tecumseh Corn Festival appears to be supported by a donation from a specific Unifor local, not from the Social Justice Fund.)

With this amount of very easily accessible information about the fund’s revenues and expenditures, I’m not sure what Dias is “misleading” the public about – unless Mortimer thinks the public would object to donations going to organizations helping underprivileged or disadvantaged people in Canada and elsewhere.

Mortimer: This is a union action fund and it does have agendas, and what’s the control over what a union in another country uses it for? They give it to the United Steelworkers fund here in Canada, or they give it to Tides, an organization that has had a lot of heat here in Vancouver because of Vivian Krause’s research work about what they’re doing to damage the Canadian economy and damage Canadian employer interests.

The fund is called a “social justice” fund, not a “union action” fund, and its objectives are clearly stated on its CRA information page. The gift to the Steelworkers that Mortimer is apparently referring to was a donation to a specific project: to lobby for a federal ombudsperson in Canada to deal with issues related to the conduct of Canadian resource-based companies in other countries.  Out of $3,007,582 in donations in 2013, the fund gave exactly $1,000 to Tides – an amount which probably wouldn’t go a long way toward supporting any “damage [to] the Canadian economy”. (And the credibility of Vivian Krause’s work has been criticized too.)

Lang: The Rand formula says that if you join a place that is unionized, every employee joins that union via their dues.

This is incorrect. In workplaces that use the Rand formula, employees in a unionized bargaining unit have the choice of whether or not to become union members. But employees who choose not to join the union still must pay dues to the union, to support the cost of the union’s work on behalf of all employees – work such as negotiating and administering the collective agreement, and representing employees’ interests in interactions with the employer.

Mortimer: There’s all sorts of union dues collected from workers that are tax-deductible that are not in compliance with the Income Tax Act. But we’re not getting enforcement of the Income Tax Act against what unions are using these monies for.

This statement contains some fairly serious allegations of improper or illegal financial activities. A good interviewer would have asked for specific examples of this non-compliance or non-enforcement. Lang merely moved on to the next question.

Mortimer: The founders of Unifor talk about their vision of being a political party. Dave Coles in the creation of Unifor in 2012 was talking about something like that.

Here are Unifor’s founding principles. The only source I could find that even came close to alleging that Unifor’s founders intend it to become a political party is this opinion piece by the president of Merit Canada, in support of Bill C-377. Merit Canada is one of LabourWatch’s member associations. The piece attributes quotes from Unifor’s founding principles to an unnamed “CEP vice-president”. I could not find any sources quoting CEP vice-president Dave Coles – or quoting any Unifor founder, for that matter – as saying that Unifor wants to become a political party. It is also worth noting that, to maintain its charitable status, the Unifor Social Justice Fund is required to report any spending specifically for “political purposes” and is required to follow a strict set of regulations around political-related activity.

Mortimer: Well, given how hard unions are fighting financial disclosure so that they can keep hiding what they’re up to, I take the view from all the unionized Canadians that I hear from in various ways, that they don’t actually know what’s going on, and they do disagree with it. But the reality is that the power of the state has been invoked against them, mandating that employers have to take money off their paycheques and give it to the union, no matter what they use it for.

Nearly every union in Canada regularly provides its members with detailed audited financial statements. If a union member doesn’t know what’s going on with their union’s finances, they are entitled to ask for and receive that information. The most recent poll from Mortimer’s own organization shows that only 12% of Canadians think that “the Canadian public” should have access to Canadian unions’ internal financial records. And Mortimer also ignores the fact that Canadian workers have the legal right to choose a union as their workplace representative. The “power of the state” gives employees the right to make that choice; it doesn’t force it upon them.

If employees make the choice to be represented by a union, they are obligated to support the work of the union by paying membership dues. If union members don’t want to pay those dues, or if they don’t like the union’s work on their behalf, the “power of the state” gives them the legal right to remove the union as their representative. And – as affirmed by the 1991 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Lavigne vs. OPSEU – union members who don’t like how the union spends their dues can change that by participating in union activities,such as votes at membership meetings.

 

I understand that Lang is a “business correspondent” and that her job at the CBC is to cover business news, which by its very nature is more favourable to business interests than to union or employee interests. And obviously Mortimer and I have very different views on the effectiveness of unions and what they do. However, being a “business correspondent” doesn’t relieve Lang of the responsibility to present both sides of an issue. Nor does it excuse her from the responsibility of presenting information accurately. Lang’s interview with Mortimer was incredibly biased and full of selective and misleading information.  This is poor journalism by any measure, and the CBC does its viewers and the public a disservice by allowing such unbalanced reporting. If this interview is the kind of news coverage that meets CBC’s journalistic standards, then the CBC’s journalistic standards have some serious problems.

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