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CBC ombudsman finds conflict in reporter's link to Premier Clark's office

CBC's ombudsman has found that British Columbia legislative reporter Stephen Smart's marriage to Premier Christy Clark's deputy press secretary Rebecca Scott puts him in violation of the public broadcaster's journalistic standards and practices.

But a CBC manager says there's no question about the integrity of Smart's reporting and the broadcaster isn't contemplating making any changes at this point.

A senior reporter at a competing TV station called the finding "dumb".

"Smart can report with integrity, and CBC’s protocol can combine disclosure and recusal, but the pervasive appearance of a conflict of interest will continually challenge their reputations," wrote CBC Ombudsman Kirk LaPointe in a five-page report dated Jan. 18.

"It is hard to see how an arrangement with the potential to diminish the effectiveness of CBC’s journalism and public standing serves an interest worthy of a policy exception," he said.

The review stems from a Dec. 20, 2011, complaint from a member of the public, Merv Adey, expressing concern about what he saw as an apparent conflict of interest for Smart.

Smart has been a CBC legislative reporter since 2010. Scott was appointed to her job as a communications officer and deputy press secretary through an order-in-council in March 2011. At the time of the appointment Smart and Scott were engaged and have since married, the report said.

"The key part is there is no journalism at issue here," said the managing director for CBC's B.C. region, Johnny Michel. "We found the ruling found no issue with Stephen's reporting on the events in the B.C. legislature."

CBC knew about the possibility for a perception of a conflict of interest and put a protocol in place that satisfies its policies, said Michel. "We're confident with that. We feel that protects the CBC and protects Stephen."

Asked about the contradiction with LaPointe's review, he said, "The ombudsman ruling is an opinion, but he does not get into projecting any kind of resolution to it. His role is to put his opinion forward."

During the review, LaPointe considered arguments like the ones made by Michel.

“While I fully appreciate that there could be a perception of conflict of interest here, I can assure you there is no conflict of interest in fact,” CBC BC news director Wayne Williams wrote to Adey on Jan. 3, 2012 in a letter LaPointe quoted. “Nor, I notice, do you offer a credible example of the conflict you see. Indeed, we have taken steps to ensure that there is, and continues to be, no conflict.”

Scott's main role is to advise Clark on constituency matters and to prepare background briefing summaries on issues or for upcoming events, as well as helping with social media like Twitter and Facebook, Williams said according to the review. He argued that she does not advise Clark on policy matters.

"Williams emphasized that Smart’s requests are handled by Scott’s boss or by the premier’s press secretary and not by her," the review said. Given that "there could be a perception of conflict of interest, we have taken steps to address the issue, ensuring both distance and transparency," it quoted Williams writing.

All CBC stories, including Smart's, are assigned, edited, vetted and approved by senior editors, it said. Also, a protocol was "created for Smart that directly prohibited him from reporting stories in which Scott was a principal or a sole spokesperson, Williams wrote."

Adey wrote back to Williams on Jan. 4, according to the report: "I do not wish to impugn Mr. Smart’s ability or character. However, I believe it’s impossible for him to fairly carry out his job while married to the premier’s friend and communications person, namely Rebecca Scott."

Adey noted, "he has to deal with his wife when he goes home every night. If he were to discover something that exposed malfeasance and reflected poorly on the premier, he may find himself in considerable distress while investigating and reporting on that."

He did not dispute Williams' argument that he had provided "no credible example" of bias. "I do not need to provide one. For conflict of interest to exist, only the potential for a problem needs to exist."

Employees are responsible for disclosing and removing conflicts of interest, though the CBC president or his delegate may make exceptions "if the interests of the corporation are clearly better served," LaPointe's review said.

"CBC and Smart attempted to minimize the conflict of interest’s effect," LaPointe found. "Smart acted responsibly by informing CBC of the job offer to his fiancée on the same day she received it. CBC News expressed its concerns to him and decided following discussions within the wider corporation to create a unique protocol for his professional dealings with his partner and the premier’s office.

"There is no evidence he has taken advantage of his wife’s role. Even the complainant praises his journalistic qualities," he said. "But just because there is no impropriety does not mean there is no conflict. Whether a real or perceived conflict of interest, no amount of managing it can do more than mitigate the impact on an impartial fulfillment of duties."

The situation affects or impedes some of Smart's "central political reporting functions" that involve the premier and her opponents, he found. "He also bears an unavoidable conflict of commitment in which professional responsibilities commingle with moral obligations in other legitimate personal roles in his life."

The "pervasive appearance of a conflict of interest" will continually challenge both Smart and the CBC's reputation, he found.

LaPointe said it's not his job to resolve the matter, which would have to be in accordance with labour law and collective agreements. "My role is simply to assess the situation against policy in light of the public complaint," he said. "As it stands there is a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices."

On CKNW Friday morning Bill Good said he was disappointed, knowing both Scott and Smart and believing them both to be professionals with unquestionable integrity.

One of his guests, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer, said there was no evidence of bias or that Smart was taking advantage of his wife's role. It would be a very difficult ruling for the CBC to apply even-handedly across the country, he said.

Good's other guest, Global TV political reporter Keith Baldrey said, "I think it's a dumb ruling and I hope the impact if any is nothing on Stephen Smart."

Smart is critical of the government when it's called for and doesn't seem to get stories because of the relationship, he said. For example, when Clark decided not to hold a fall election she told Global and a couple other outlets, but not CBC, he said. "He doesn't gain necessarily from the relationship his wife has with the premier. In fact, I think if anything he's probably hurt by that."

There's no question media and communications circles in the province are small. Indeed, two people with connections to this story do work for The Tyee. Kirk LaPointe's son Michael copy edits and posts stories for The Tyee, and has written occasionally for The Tyee. Stephen Smart's sister Shannon Smart is The Tyee's reader engagement coordinator, handling social media and other duties, and she has written occasionally for The Tyee. Neither have any influence over editorial decisions, according to Tyee editor David Beers.

"This whole matter illustrates just how far journalism in this province has fallen," blogger Alex Tsakumis wrote today about the CBC ombudsman's finding. "The entire rest of the mainstream press in this province ignored the conflict because, generally speaking, ethics in media, particularly in BC, has long vanished."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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