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Peter Mansbridge seems to have landed himself in an ethical sand trap when he played an intimate 18 holes of golf last month with wannabe-PM Paul Martin and his son.The event was hosted by the controversial lobbyist firm Earnscliffe Strategy Group, and the foursome that included the Martins and Mansbridge was rounded out by an Earnscliffe principal who is also a Martin backer.

Journalism ethics professors on both sides of the border maintain that the anchor of the CBC nightly news committed a number of faux pas when he climbed into the golf cart at the tournament hosted by the lobbyist firm to raise money for three Ottawa charities.

They wonder if he handicapped his own journalistic credibility by appearing publicly with a contender for the PM’s job at a staged event aimed at enhancing Martin’s prestige. And they’re surprised he didn’t pay the $250-a-head fee that other participants did — contravening a core journalistic rule against freebies.

Mansbridge and Earnscliffe organizers offer differing explanations of how the fatal foursome came to be. Lobbyist and Martin backer Michael Robinson, who made the fourth in the group, says it was his idea to hook up Mansbridge with the Martins. “I just thought it would be fun, a nice group of people to play golf with,” Robinson says. “I thought it would be useful for them to spend some time together and get to know each other.”

Mansbridge was not the only journalist who attended the invitation-only event on July 16 just across the Ottawa River from the nation’s capital in Aylmer, Quebec, near the CBC personality’s cottage. But he was the only one to golf with the ex-finance minister and expected PM-to-be.

In an interview with NOW, Mansbridge rejects any suggestion that his behaviour was inappropriate. He has taken part in the tournament for four or five years, he explains, because one of the beneficiaries is the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, where his son was a patient some years ago. “I go there because I believe in giving some of my private time in the summer to my personal pastime of golf, and also, where it mixes with a charity, I don’t have a problem with that,” he says.

Though he didn’t pay a fee, Mansbridge says, he contributed financially in other ways. “I donate in various terms, whether through the auction or in terms of buying articles or in terms of the various raffles that are going on throughout the day.”

But aside from the personal connection to the hospital via his son, Mansbridge says he was interested in taking part this year for another reason. He says he had been trying for some time without success to get Martin to agree to do a sit-down interview for a documentary he’s doing on the subject of September 11 and what happened in Canada that day.

“I didn’t make any secret of the fact that if there was a spot open in that foursome, I wouldn’t mind playing in it,” Mansbridge says. “That was the only way I was going to get to talk to him.” It worked. While he was on the links, Martin agreed, and the interview is in the can.

Mansbridge doesn’t see any problem in the tourney being sponsored by Earnscliffe, perhaps the most eyebrow-raising of Ottawa lobby firms, outfits that charge corporate clients hundreds of dollars an hour in return for getting the government to do their bidding.

Mansbridge has his own connections to the firm, both through his old CBC colleague and current Earnscliffe principal Elly Alboim and through former Martin staffer Terrie O’Leary, romantic partner of David Herle at Earnscliffe. O’Leary and Herle are Mansbridge’s neighbours in Gatineau cottage country, having purchased a parcel of land from the CBC anchor. When they made the offer for the property, he didn’t know who they were, Mansbridge says, although, being neighbours, he sees them all the time now. “They have a very nice place,” he says.

CBC guidelines state that as the national public broadcaster, the corporation “is very much in the public eye.” Employees, therefore, “have an obligation not simply to obey the law but to act in a manner so scrupulous that it will bear the closest public scrutiny.”

Mansbridge’s boss scoffs at any suggestion that the anchor crossed the line. Tony Burman, the editor-in-chief of TV and radio news and current affairs, says he’s worked with Mansbridge for 30 years and has the utmost confidence in his journalistic integrity. “Peter has always been incredibly careful about anything that approaches conflict of interest,” Burman says. “His track record is impeccable. This is a very small country, and people do connect with each other. Whether or not he phoned up Paul Martin at his office or made the approach at a charity golf tournament I don’t think is a piece of information that would interest any Canadian except perhaps you.”

But ethics specialists at journalism schools are less sanguine. Wade Rowland, the ethics chair at Ryerson school of journalism, says one of the reasons journalists have the same low level of credibility as politicians in the minds of the public is that they spend so much time socializing. “It devalues the authority of the news. If you see people hanging out together, you think, “How can I trust this guy in the interview?’ (Anchors) misunderstand who they’re working for. They think they’re part of a governance system that involves Paul Martin and the executive producer of CBC TV news.”

Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at one of the U.S.’s leading journalism schools, the Florida-based Poynter Institute, allows that there are times when journalists have to adopt unusual measures to secure hard-to-get interviews, and it might be that Mansbridge had to do what he did to get Martin to sit down.

But she worries about what members of the general public would think if they were to stumble on Mansbridge, Martin, et al. or see a photo of them together and not have the benefit of the explanation. “You have a further erosion of the viewers’ perception of independence unless you can get that message out that the reason he’s playing golf with him is to get the interview.”

Mansbridge could achieve transparency, McBride says, by acknowledging in his September 11 doc that he had to play golf with Martin to get the interview. (Burman says forget it — no such mention will be made.)

For the same reason, McBride says, CBC should also correct a mention in National Post coverage of the tournament that describes the news anchor and ex-finance minister as friends. Post writer Jane Taber (now of the Globe) says she got incorrect info from a Martin staffer and says she’s sorry for the booboo. However, Mansbridge and Burman say the Post has it in for the CBC, and the anchor and his boss can’t be bothered to write a letter.

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