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Future bleak for Brent Rathgeber's CBC disclosure bill; less so for Rex Murphy's commentaries

Rex Murphy and David Climenhaga

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

MP Brent Rathgeber's private member’s bill, the CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act, is scheduled to be back before the denizens of the House of Commons on Wednesday night.

Bill C-461 has no chance of passing in the form the Edmonton-St. Albert Member of Parliament desires for the simple reason that from the perspective of the Prime Minister’s Office the national broadcaster is now behaving itself with properly helpful deference to the Harper Government and its policies.

The recent kerfuffle in progressive and environmental corners of the Internet about CBC commentator Rex Murphy's frequent and apparently quite profitable oil industry speaking dates could be argued to illustrate quite nicely how this is working for both the CBC and the PMO.

For his part, Murphy struck back today from his lofty perch at the National Post at critics who have argued he should declare his relationship with Big Oil to listeners on the CBC's The National and Cross Country Checkup with a broadside in which he accused "vicious blog posts" of seeking "to shut me up."

Before we get to that, what do you say we consign Rathgeber's doomed bill to the ash heap of history?

The appearance of Bill C-461 in the House Wednesday is sure to generate a certain amount of media attention -- not so much because of the content of the bill but because of what Rathgeber so famously did last June when the Parliamentary committee considering it made changes of which he disapproved.

Readers will recall that Rathgeber surprised everyone, possibly including himself, by resigning from the Conservative caucus to sit as an Independent, earning for himself a certain amount of popularity in media circles, a book contract and no doubt the undying hatred of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabal of strategists.

While this has made Rathgeber popular with some voters, and of course with the media, it has not done much to enhance his Parliamentary career in this riding, which has reliably elected Conservative candidates under one party name or another with metronomic regularity throughout the Reform-Alliance-Conservative era.

Indeed, it is said here that after the next federal election in 2015, Rathgeber will follow his bill into the history books, possibly reemerging as a political commentator on the CBC alongside Murphy.

The fate of the bill, which if it were passed the way Rathgeber wants would make the salaries of CBC employees paid more than $188,600 a year subject to Freedom of Information searches, will generate additional headlines, quite naturally, because the media likes stories about the media.

What really seems to have made Rathgeber mad last June in fact was when MPs on the committee, led by the majority from his own former party, raised the search threshold to $444,661, a development he discusses in this recent post on his MP website.

As for the demands that commentator Rex Murphy declare on air his connection to the oil industry and the fees they pay him, the CBC has been blowing them off with an email from Chief Correspondent Peter Mansbridge that smarmily tells writers, "you were one of a few dozen concerned viewers who wrote to me, most it seems, after being encouraged to do so by the latest Sierra Club fundraising blog." (Sierra Club supporters of my acquaintance say they have received no such thing, but whatever…)

More likely, members of the public who have written the CBC have been provoked by reports in the Broadbent Institute's Press Progress online publication, which published an info-graphic Thursday saying Murphy as been paid up to $30,000 a pop for 25 speeches to oil and gas groups since 2009, and by former CBC and CTV journalist Andrew Mitrovica's columns on iPolitics.

On Tuesday, Mitrovica argued that both CBC News and Murphy have a duty to inform viewers and listeners of Murphy's relationship with the oil and gas industry. However, he wrote, "apparently neither CBC News nor Murphy believes that they have a journalistic duty to disclose such a conflict … even though CBC News requires other so-called 'freelancers' to publicly reveal other types of conflicts in order to be seen as transparent."

In a column yesterday, just before Murphy entered the fray directly with his National Post column, Mitrovica said, "I hope he avoids the tedious tendency of his confrere, Conrad Black, to hurl epithets as a substitute for argument," and further that "I also hope Murphy doesn't paint himself as the aggrieved victim of a cabal of left-wing rags and hacks."

Alas, the way I read Murphy's column this morning, that is pretty much what he has done.

He accuses his opponents of calling him "a ventriloquist for hire," which he dismisses as "an empty, insulting slur against my reputation as a journalist."

To be fair, this isn’t quite what those who argue for disclosure of Murphy's speaking fees by the CBC are saying, but I suppose a certain amount of hyperbole in such a situation is inevitable.

Murphy argues that speaking to oil industry groups for "more than a dollar" (his only comment on the quantum of his speaking fees) is no different from his being paid for speeches to farmers, academics, A&W hamburger-restaurant franchisees, and civil servants over the years.

Full disclosure here: I have a fairly low tolerance for Murphy's commentary and I have never stayed tuned long enough to hear the many stout defences of A&W hamburgers or Canadian civil servants that he presumably has offered on the air.

Murphy notes that he once appeared on the same stage as the late NDP Leader Jack Layton -- although I’ll bet that Mr. Layton wasn't paid on that occasion. And he vows that he's not about to change, which is of course his right even if it is not really the issue.

In conclusion, if I could be so bold as to offer a suggestion to a politician I have too often complained about, perhaps it's not too late for Rathgeber to slip a clause into his bill requiring the CBC to publish its freelance commentators' speaking fees, no matter how large or small, and who paid them?

Either way, count on it that we'll be hearing more about both stories in the next few days.

In the interests of even fuller disclosure, it needs to be said that I am a member of one union, the United Steelworkers, an employee of another, the United Nurses of Alberta, and an unabashed supporter of the labour movement in the pages of this blog. Like Murphy, I occasionally speak to groups in an engaging, sometimes even riveting, fashion. Also like him, my words are always my own and it'll take more than a few vicious blog posts or cheap Tweets from ministers of the Crown to make me change. Unlike Murphy, alas, I am rarely paid for my bon mots and, when I am, I can't ever recall getting more than $100 and a serving of rubber chicken. But let the record show that if any oil company offers me $30,000 to speak, I can't promise that they'll like what I have to say, but by gosh I'll strive to make it entertaining! This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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