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Evan Solomon, the 47-year-old host of the CBC’s Power and Politics and The House, was fired yesterday after the Toronto Star published a front-page exposé accusing him of taking secret commissions related to art sales involving people he dealt with as an on-air host.
The story says Solomon had a business relationship with a Toronto art collector and together they sold paintings and masks to Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, and Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research in Motion, the company that created the Blackberry smartphone. Solomon apparently pocketed $300,000 from commissions from these sales.
The Solomon affair is the latest in a long line of scandals that have plagued the CBC over the past year, beginning with the Jian Ghomeshi sex assault allegations, the discovery that Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy pocketed oil industry money for giving speeches, and the Amanda Lang affair – the broadcaster’s senior business reporter and host of The Lang Exchange.
For me, however, what’s noteworthy is why the CBC acted so quickly in firing Solomon yet stood by Amanda Lang so passionately.
After all, anyone who's examined both cases can see that Lang’s sins were far greater, and did far more damage to the CBC’s reputation as a media institution, than Solomon’s particular misdemeanors.
In fact, Balsillie never even appeared on any of Solomon’s shows as a guest (he was solicited but declined). Carney had been a guest a few times, most recently in the spring of 2014, but the Star was unable to point to any issue in those appearances that was either controversial or even noteworthy.
In many respects, why Lang continues to have a job and Solomon was fired has much to do with the pecking order of Canada’s media elites: after all, it's often who you know (or even sleep with) that will determine if you get axed at the CBC – not whether you've committed a serious journalistic fuck-up.
I spent nearly a decade working at the CBC, from 2001 to the end of 2009, before I lost my job as a producer on the investigative unit due to budget cuts. I’d joined the CBC as an associate producer at the fifth estate and eventually worked at CBC News Sunday as a producer where Solomon was one of the show’s co-hosts. I worked closely with Solomon for almost five years on numerous stories, where he acted as on-air reporter and collaborator on scripts. I’ve spent a lot of time with Solomon and consider him a friend.
There's no question Evan has had a charmed life. His father was a Bay Street corporate lawyer and therefore could afford to send his kids to private schools. Solomon even spent one of his high school years studying (and according to him, partying) in France. Tall, good-looking, intelligent, ambitious and charming, it’s no surprise Solomon rose swiftly to the top of Canada’s media totem pole.
But having said that, while Solomon might rub shoulders with the upper echelons of Canada’s economic and political elites, he's viewed in those circles as merely a fringe personality.
This is not true of Amanda Lang, however. And it’s instructive to examine the difference if you want to understand why the CBC fired Solomon but continues to retain Lang.
The Lang scandal blew up at the CBC this past January when the website Canadalandshow.com published a story accusing her of trying to sabotage an investigative story the CBC produced about abuses committed by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) over the temporary foreign worker program (TFWP).
The story on the TFWP abuses aired in April of 2013 and revealed that RBC was using an Indian company called iGATE Corp. that was bringing in foreign workers under the program, getting RBC’s Canadian staff to train them, with the intention of replacing the Canadian employees with the foreign workers – all of which is against federal rules.
The story revealed how Canada’s biggest bank was using a government program to cruelly exploit defenseless foreign workers while throwing Canadian citizens out of work. After the story aired, the Harper government was forced to alter the program and RBC got a lot of bad press.
But in the rollout of the story, Canadaland alleged Lang tried to dismiss the story’s importance by arguing that what RBC was doing was merely outsourcing (in itself, a dreadful practice). In one meeting prior to the story airing, Lang and the story’s producer, Kathy Tomlinson, exchanged sharp words.
Now aware of the story’s focus, Lang set out to undermine it. Immediately after it aired, Lang invited the RBC’s CEO, Gord Nixon, to do an interview with her on The National where he criticized the broadcaster over its TFWP story. Lang asked no hard questions or challenged Nixon's accusations. Then, without informing her bosses, Lang approached the Globe and Mail on her own and penned an op-ed page piece where she championed the practice of companies outsourcing jobs to countries like India.
But until Canadaland broke the story, except for upper management, no one at CBC knew Lang had been paid up to $15,000 a pop to conduct speaking engagements at RBC-sponsored events. More importantly, she was involved romantically with a member of the RBC’s board of directors, W. Geoffrey Beattie.
You cannot get any more well connected in the business world than Beattie: he was a partner at one of Canada’s most powerful corporate law firms, Torys LLP, was president of the Thomson family-owned investment firm, Woodbridge Company, was deputy chairman of Thomson Reuters and is on the board of GE and Maple Leaf Foods, along with RBC.
Moreover, Lang was booked to speak at an event co-sponsored by iGATE.
This is not the only time Lang has crossed over into the world of outright corporate flackery. She’s taken paid speaking gigs for the insurance companies Manulife and Sun Life, and then had the company’s CEOs on the CBC to do further puffball interviews.
In short, you cannot be more "conflicted out" than Amanda Lang.
But that’s not how the CBC saw it. When the Lang story broke, the CBC brass immediately (and angrily) rushed to her defence. Jennifer McGuire, the CBC’s editor-in-chief, vehemently denied Lang had done anything wrong. McGuire, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson and Lang herself launched a PR media onslaught, attacking the Canadaland story, saying she hadn't tried to sabotage the TFWP story.
They also conducted an “internal review” that cleared Lang of any journalistic wrongdoing, although McGuire later admitted that only “a small portion of that review was made public: analysis of the content that we broadcast and published. Other sections which cover the equally important questions about conflict of interest were not released because of obligations we have to keep them confidential.”
Reaction to this so-called review from those who have any intelligence could be summed up in one word: appalled.
As George Monbiot, columnist for Britain’s UK Guardian noted: “It amazes me that (Lang) remains employed by CBC, which has so far done nothing but bluster and berate its critics. This is grotesque. But it’s symptomatic of a much wider problem in journalism: those who are supposed to scrutinize the financial and political elite are embedded within it.”
And no one is more embedded in Canada’s economic elites than Lang. The daughter of former Trudeau-era cabinet minister Otto Lang, and stepdaughter to one other cabinet minister, Amanda became a journalist for the corporate media, first with the Globe and Mail, before going on to the Financial Post, CNN’s financial network and Business News Network before joining the CBC in 2009. She also married Vince Borg, who became executive vice-president of corporate communications at the world’s largest gold company, Barrick Gold. They separated in 2012.
Thus, CBC’s instinctive reaction to protect Lang is because of her ties to where real power in Canada lies – with Bay Street. The Ottawa-based political mandarins Solomon socializes with are mere pikers compared to those Lang hobnobs with.
And whether consciously or not, the CBC bosses know this: you don’t want to mess with Corporate Canada.
This kowtowing to Bay Street is the result of a metamorphosis the CBC began under former CEO Robert Rabinovitch. In 2004, Rabinovitch appointed Richard Stursberg, a millionaire and former head of Telefilm Canada, as vice-president of English services. At the time, CBC English television was in a ratings slump, having been hammered by government cutbacks, competition from other channels and the Internet, as well as uninspired programming.
Stursberg brought a business approach to the CBC, which in practice translated into turning it into a private network backed with public funds. Symphonies and experimental films and documentaries were out, and the Battle of the Blades was in. Meanwhile, shows like the fifth estate saw their budgets cut, and moved from a primetime TV slot on Wednesday nights to the graveyard shift of Friday nights, to make way for a now long-forgotten drama called Being Erica.
In 2005, Rabinovitch engineered a showdown with the CBC’s main union, the Canadian Media Guild, locking out 5,500 workers (myself included) for two months. Management’s goal was to try and get hundreds of positions delegated as contract positions, thereby allowing the brass more ability to get rid of staff whenever they wanted.
The CBC was now being run like any other textbook corporation. Employee morale sank, stress levels rose, and dread over the constant reality of layoffs and cuts grew. Stursberg emerged as an unpopular if not openly despised figure.
To be fair to Stursberg, the federal government seemed determined to let the CBC die the death of a thousand cuts, especially after the election of the Conservatives in 2006. His solution to this reality was to try and drive up ratings by producing popular programming in the hopes that advertising dollars would follow, which would halt the financial leakage. But he also evinced such open contempt for the news department (which he labeled “Fort News”) and current affairs – the very lifeblood of the CBC’s raison d’etre as a public broadcaster – that he alienated the beleaguered CBC staff.
The other change Stursberg introduced was of an ideological nature. In an interview I did with him in 2012, Stursberg said he wanted to change the perception the CBC was too downtown Toronto leftist. In 2006, the CBC began airing Dragon’s Den, the show where rich businesspeople decide whether to the finance the dreams of would-be entrepreneurs. It’s a horrible program, with the “Dragons” appearing as arrogant super-clever overlords where they often mock those who come seeking money as if they were dumb serfs.
Then, in 2009, the CBC created the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, although co-host Kevin O’Leary was a failed and unethical businessman, who sold a sham of a company to Mattel, the toy manufacturer, in what Businessweek later called one of the worst deals of all time. O’Leary was fired, sued and almost destroyed Mattel in the process. Just about every other project he’s touched has been a disaster, too.
Yet Lang was happy to be his co-host and tolerate his far-right wing blatherings, which he showered on viewers everyday.
Meanwhile, too many CBC hosts – who are very well compensated to begin with – have used their fame to make more money by giving speeches on the side. This included Rex Murphy, Peter Mansbridge and Solomon. Murphy, who is a right-wing ideologue, also writes a turgid column for the pro-business National Post, where he rails against environmentalists on global warming, champions the oil sands and pipelines, and protests any effort to fight climate change.
At the same time, the CBC’s investigative unit, run by one of Canada’s most accomplished investigative journalists, Harvey Cashore, has limped along for years with inadequate funding since it was created in 2009. In the last round of cuts, his meager budget was cut down to virtually nothing. And yet this unit has broken important stories about how rich and powerful Canadians use offshore tax havens to evade the Canada Revenue Agency.
Since 2007, the CBC has been presided over by lawyer Hubert T. Lacroix, who worked at Canada’s most powerful corporate law firm, McCarthy Tétrault, as a business lawyer. Nine of 11 members of the CBC's board are Tory donors and most have business or corporate law backgrounds.
And in regards to Solomon, the CBC knew about his business arrangements with the art collector but only responded once the Star got hold of the story. Prior to this latest public embarrassment coming to light, they were happy with one of their star hosts being a partner with a business operation on the side.
Clearly, though, Solomon is not the only CBC host who should have been axed in recent months.