What we talk about when we talk about conflict of interest

Why is the concept of conflict of interest so hard to understand? True, like any misdemeanour that has certain penalties attached to it, there is some room for debate when assessing culpability. But the thing is, we know it when we see it. And it’s precisely because we know it when we see it that we can say when it exists.

I say “exists” because conflict of interest is not a specific action or event. It doesn’t “occur.” One doesn’t have to actually do anything at all. Conflict of interest is a state of being. You are in a position where there is a conflict of interest or you are not.

This makes all the confusion over Amanda Lang’s “potential” conflict(s) of interest very strange. In brief, Lang, who is the chief financial correspondent for CBC news, has been hauled onto the carpet for supposedly trying to kill a story critical of the Royal Bank of Canada. Lang has accepted paid speaking engagements from the Royal Bank, went on to write an op-ed piece for the Globe and Mail on the subject (taking the bank’s side), and was in a relationship with an officer of the bank at the time.

A position of conflict? Of course. Writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, columnist George Monbiot even expressed amazement that “she remains employed by CBC, which has so far done nothing but bluster and berate its critics.”

This is probably a reference to a note from Jennifer McGuire, CBC’s general manager, seeking to “set the record straight.” If that was McGuire’s intention then she failed entirely. As did Lang herself, who had a remarkably tone-deaf piece in yesterday’s Globe and Mail.

Lang writes that “it is painful to me that public perceptions of my integrity may have been compromised because I have been accused of acting improperly by allowing myself to be seen to have been in a conflict of interest.” This is a mind-wrenching circumlocution. Apparently her crime was not that of being in a conflict of interest. Instead, her improper action was to allow herself to be seen in such a conflict. Is Lang saying it’s only a crime if you get caught?

This may sound like nit-picking, but one suspects this is a piece that went through many, many drafts, every word of which was carefully parsed before submitting it for publication.

Nevertheless, Lang may have twisted herself into the truth, which is that in cases of conflict of interest, perception is everything. What I think confuses the matter is the use of terminology like “apparent,” “perceived,” and “potential” conflict of interest. These words shouldn’t apply. As I began by pointing out, conflict of interest isn’t an act, it’s a position one finds oneself in. And it is all a matter of perception: perceived conflict of interest (by an objective observer) is conflict of interest. When Lang responds to “exact allegations” of improper behaviour she’s changing the subject.

Lang goes on to say: “It did not occur to me that others would question my motivation. That they would raise doubts about my integrity. That they would believe my perspective on this story was affected, for example, either by a relationship or by the fact that I have spoken for pay at events organized by business groups and companies.”

So what? That Lang thought (and apparently still thinks) there was nothing wrong with what she was doing only tells us that she possesses a typically Canadian attitude about what it means to hold a position of power within any group or establishment (media, financial, or both, as the case may be): that it entitles you to do whatever you want without being questioned or criticized.

Those who say I acted improperly seem not to care that they, in effect, are alleging deeply unethical behaviour, or worse. I’m not sure how to convince people that my principles, integrity and career are fundamentally important to me, that I have no trouble understanding right from wrong and reporting honestly and independently. Unfortunately, it appears that I can assert that as long as I wish and still not overcome suspicions that originate from unshakeable and, in my view, utterly unwarranted presumptions of venal behaviour.

But the problem is not an allegation of any unethical behaviour. You certainly can question that in the present case, but it’s not necessary to do so. The problem is simply being in the position of a conflict of interest, not exercising that position in any unethical way. And the reason for having such a hard rule is simple: because in most cases proving any wrongdoing or quid pro quo is impossible. The accused can then simply respond with a blank denial and that’s the end of it.

As Monbiot registers, it’s easy to be cynical about the “impartial media” having become “mouthpieces for the elite.” And the fact that in Lang’s case this is happening with regard to public broadcasting makes it even worse. The public has, with some justification, little faith in the news media in general, but Caesar’s wife (the CBC) must be above suspicion. What makes the Lang story remarkable, at least to my eyes, is the obliviousness on the part of the CBC and Lang to there being anything wrong with what happened. As I’ve suggested, they may simply be taking for granted the culturally ingrained deference toward authority in this country: that our betters know better than we do what’s right and wrong. Or perhaps they’re taking the matter to the next level with a sort of “everybody does it because that’s the way the system operates” argument. Which may be true as well, but doesn’t help build trust.

Update, January 23 2015:

Media critic John Doyle, writing in the Globe and Mail, has this to say: “It’s always bracing when outsiders look at Canada, its cronyism and system of privilege. Monbiot is correct – it is grotesque. ”

Update, March 6 2015:

An internal review by the CBC has found that Lang’s reporting “met CBC’s journalistic standards.” The review did however find problems with the CBC’s conflict of interest policies, concluding that they were too open to interpretation. “Going forward, CBC News will ensure that all of our staff adhere to the most rigorous interpretation of this standard.” This sounds good, but I’m curious as to what this rigorous interpretation will be.

Update, August 27, 2016:

The issue reared its head again during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

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