If you don’t follow Ottawa politics, this blog posting may not be of interest to you. However, it pertains to an event that has caught more than its fair share of public attention over the last 48 hours. Evan Solomon was, until this week, an Ottawa-based CBC TV news journalist who hosted a live daily show about Ottawa politics called Power and Politics, as well as a weekend radio called The House that reviewed the previous week’s biggest political stories. He is, by all accounts, the classic ‘mover and shaker’, always working to get the story, constantly networking to get access to politicians and power figures who aren’t always talkative, and trying to dig deeper into stories than the papers and national newscasts typically do. He has strong connections to political and business elites in Ottawa and Toronto, which are simultaneously a product of his work and a tool he uses to do his work. In other words, he has exactly the skill set necessary to be a leading political reporter.
He was this week fired by CBC after a Toronto newspaper reported that he was working on the side as an art broker, earning commissions by introducing some of his contacts to a friend who is a Toronto-based fine art seller. The people he referred to the broker included Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie and Bank of England Governor (and former Bank of Canada Governor) Mark Carney. Solomon at first denied any involvement in the art markets – a mistake – but has since disclosed publicly what he was doing, and apologized.
It is evident that Evan Solomon’s employment contract with the CBC included terms regarding his using his journalistic work for private gain, and if his moonlighting as an art dealer violated those contractual terms, he was wrong, and there should be repercussions. However, the CBC has said that he disclosed his art dealings to them over a year ago, and that the CBC had no concerns at the time. It appears that the rush to fire Solomon this week may have been the result of sensational rhetoric in the news reports about Solomon receiving “secret commissions”. On talk radio today – including the CBC’s own Ontario Today show – media experts are pontificating on the moral and ethical faults in Solomon’s actions. There is nothing the public likes better than a feeding frenzy that takes down a public figure.
I have a number of concerns here, but let me start with a full disclosure. Most Canadians who know of him as a TV personality; I know him as a former neighbour. Not so well that I’ve been invited to his house for a barbecue or grabbed a meal with him – but I know him. I used to live and work in Ottawa for many years, and we lived close enough that our kids attended the same public school (Mark Carney’s kids also did, for what that’s worth). I would often see Evan and his family at the school, and on spring weekends at the soccer field where he helped coached the kids. When we bumped into one another, he and I would chat about nature and the environment (like any good journalist, he knew what I did for a living). Once, when there was a serious illness in my family, his wife was one of the first to show up on our doorstep with a casserole. In short, I have a lot of time for Evan Solomon.
The first thing I don’t like about this whole affair is how every discussion on radio or TV includes some statement to the effect that, after the Jian Ghomeshi affair, the CBC had no choice but to fire Evan Solomon. This is ludicrous. For those who don’t know, Jian Ghomeshi is a former CBC radio personality who is awaiting criminal trial on five charges of sexual assault. Even though CBC managers had been aware of allegations about Ghomeshi's assaults on women, they chose not to act until the story became public. Nothing that Evan Solomon has done even remotely constitutes criminal behaviour; more to the point, Solomon told the CBC what he was doing and they did not object. Mentioning Ghomeshi and Solomon in the same sentence is a disservice to the latter, and I’m sorry I have had to do so here.
The second thing I don’t like is the implication that Solomon’s art dealings somehow call into question his journalistic integrity. Mark Carney did not appear on Solomon’s shows multiple times simply because Solomon was able to get him a good deal on a painting. He did so because that was part of his role as the Governor of the Bank of Canada. And, if you listen to any of those shows, you will find that Solomon did not lob softball questions at Carney in order to score an art sale commission (it’s not clear whether Carney was even still working at the Bank of Canada when said art purchase occurred). Jim Balsillie is a private citizen and a very wealthy individual. He, too, was hardly going to be swayed to appear on Solomon’s show simply because Solomon was able to connect him with an art dealer (Mr. Balsillie is notoriously reluctant to appear in the media in general). The newspaper report that broke this story breathlessly observes that some of the buyers did not realize that Solomon was receiving a commission for connecting them with an art seller. If that’s the case, the art buyer might have grounds for a grudge against Solomon, but I’m not sure the CBC or Solomon’s audience have much reason to complain.
Should a journalist as well-connected and influential as Solomon have been connecting powerful people he got to know through his work to an art dealer he knows from his home city of Toronto, and get a commission for it? I find this question to be ethically far less troubling than whether CBC news personalities like Rex Murphy should be giving crowd-pleasing speeches to Calgary oil executives – which he does – or whether the CBC’s board of directors should be made up of donors to the Conservative Party (according to this report, most of them are). I bet this morning Evan Solomon wishes he’d never moonlighted in the art market. But no one has shown any evidence this influenced his work as a journalist, and he moonlighted with the full knowledge of his employer. I do not like seeing a good man and his family get tarred and feathered in this way, especially when far more questionable activities are taking place within the walls of the CBC.