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Confusion threatens the CIJ's credibility

by Gerry McAuliffe

 

THE CREATION OF THE CENTRE for Investigative Journalism could not have come at a more opportune time. The credibility of the print and broadcast press in this country is under serious attack everywhere. Many of our readers and listeners either don't believe us anymore or suspect our motives. Much of the criticism is well-founded and justified.

Our definition and the public's understanding of quality journalism are far apart. The need to improve our standards (and thus our credibility) has never been more urgent. The role of CIJ in promoting better standards is critical. After all, what good is investigative journalism if people view it with suspicion or, even worse, don't believe it?

There are, however, some serious issues that must be confronted before the Centre can hope to attain this degree of professional and public credibility.

Objectives: The Centre lacks defined objectives. What we have is a play with an enormous cast (almost all reporters), but almost no directors or producers. How can you promote in-depth or investigative journalism without serious and active involvement from city editors, managing editors, news directors, station managers and publishers? Very few people whose job it is to provide guidance and leadership in the newsrooms across the country belong to the CIJ.

Membership: To call it the Centre for Investigative Journalism and then sell memberships to staff members of major corporations, employees of federal and provincial government departments, the research staffs of political parties, the promoters of special interest groups and "anyone—whether in or out of journalism—committed to the Centre's goal" makes me wonder if the CIJ directors are really serious about the Centre's ultimate purpose.

Since when have the interests of the major corporations, government agencies and special interest groups been compatible with the pursuit of investigative journalism? Conflicts of interest abound.

How is the CIJ going to deal with a request for funding to probe a government agency or corporation if its employees hold membership in the Centre? How can the CIJ take their membership money and investigate them at the same time? How comfortable are journalists going to feel at future conferences discussing what they found or the methods they used, with those employees listening? It is absurd. Both their interests and jobs conflict.

The role of freelance writers, broadcasters, producers and researchers presents another difficulty. The Centre claims the central Sourcefile is open to "working journalists" only and that "other" Centre members are denied access. How will the Centre know, when a freelancer calls, whether he/she is working for a legitimate news source or is in pursuit of an assignment from a government agency or private corporation? Even more importantly, what about "working journalists" who take on these types of assignments? Should there not be carefully laid down rules as a condition of membership? Should there not be some safeguards to ensure names and material contained in a source file are being used for purely journalistic purposes only?

I raise these questions, not to impute motives on anyone's part, but to demonstrate the dangers and conflicts that arise.

Funding: The Centre's policy on funding is most difficult to understand. It is full of contradictions. It has decided against seeking grants and assistance from government agencies such as the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council or private corporations, but it sells memberships to their employees. That is a conflict of interest. Since memberships are the Centre's only source of revenue, everyone must know that these very membership dues are being used to help finance special projects. There can be no question that that, too, is a conflict of interest. It taints the very work those journalists are doing.

The decision to apply for special tax status as a charitable or educational foundation is unconscionable. The Centre for Investigative Journalism is no more a legitimate charitable or educational foundation than the Canadian Bar Association.

Membership is wide open because to restrict it would significantly reduce the chances of getting the special tax status the CIJ is seeking. We compromise our principles on two fronts. We open the membership to anyone who wants to join and we seek a dubious special tax position.

Surely our role as journalists is to produce stories about those at the public trough — not to stand in line with them. Ideally, the only place the funding for such an organization should come from is its journalist members and from the media managers and owners. The fact that the latter have shown little inclination to support improvements in the quality of journalism is no reason to go to these other sources for backing.

A resolution (which I moved) at the founding conference last year called for the new executive to approach the Canadian Daily Newspaper Publishers Association and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters for a $25,000 grant from each. The request was never forwarded to either group.

The directors are convinced that financial support from media owners will only come if their contribution also becomes a tax deduction. That is an assumption at best, since the Centre has not acted on the resolution.

The financial responsibility for the training of reporters and the raising of journalistic standards rests with the owners, not the Canadian taxpayer. What other consumer-oriented industry is given charitable tax status to underwrite the costs of operating its quality control department?

Annual Meeting: Leaving the annual meeting to the last two hours of a three-day conference is a disservice to the Centre and its members. There are many important policy issues that need to be thoroughly and thoughtfully debated by all. Most delegates have left by the time the meeting starts and the executive is in a hurry to get it over with.

The questions of special tax status, funding and membership qualifications have never been thoroughly or properly debated. Policy issues should be laid out by the executive in writing in advance of the conference to give everyone the opportunity to properly consider them. And they should be debated at a time when attendance is at its greatest.

The momentum is there. The interest is there. The need could not be greater. But we must first acknowledge the fact the duty of the press is to report on the actions and activities of government, corporations and special interest groups. How can we do that with any degree of public integrity, if we all belong to the same club?

Gerry McAuliffe, one of our best known investigative reporters, did not renew his CIJ membership this year. He argues that the Centre must clarify its foggy thinking about goals, membership criteria and sources of funding if it is to have credibility with the profession and the public.

See Nick Fillmore's response in A clear consensus on the Centre is emerging.

 

Published in SOURCES May-June 1980

 



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