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Revelation CAPP paid Mansbridge, defender of Murphy's speaking fees, brings controversy back to boil

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Screen Grab of Danielle Smith Comment on Rex Murphy

There he is, not quite as large as life and rather blurry, but nevertheless front and centre on the Facebook page of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers -- and, no, we're not talking about Rex Murphy.

Rather, it's Peter Mansbridge, chief correspondent of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, taking part in a CAPP seminar in December 2012. "He articulated that energy has moved to the forefront of news: economic, environment, safety," the CAPP caption noted, not particularly informatively.

Well, not such a big deal, really, and a long time ago -- except for the fact this is the same Peter Mansbridge who just days ago was sending sharpish emails to members of the public who complained about the CBC's failure to inform listeners about Murphy's apparently lucrative speaking arrangements with the oil industry.

"Thank you for your recent email,” Mansbridge wrote to an acquaintance of mine in response to a note to the CBC about l'affaire Rex. "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. We take all comments seriously as we have done with yours even though many of the comments I have received are not based on fact. Not even close to fact." (Emphasis, of course, added.)

"This issue has been in the public domain for some time and the CBC has responded a number of times," Mansbridge went on, a trifle sniffily I thought, providing a link to a blog post by CBC General Manager Jennifer McGuire. "…Once again thank you for your comments. I will make sure they are passed along."

According to reports on the Internet, it turns out that Mansbridge too was paid by the CAPP for his efforts -- although just how much, the Calgary-based oilpatch lobbying organization would not say. However, according to Toronto Life Magazine, Mansbridge can expect a fee not unadjacent to $30,000 when he bloviates over dinner.

Still, it's not unreasonable to wonder if this fact -- which at the time my friend received this correspondence was still lurking largely unrecognized if not completely undiscovered in the archives of cyberspace -- may have accounted for the chief correspondent's slightly snippy tone.

Well, we haven't got a list of how many times Mansbridge has appeared before oil industry audiences, so it's quite possible that he hasn't made a habit of it as Murphy appears to have done. According to the Broadbent Institute's Press Progress online publication, which recently published an info-graphic on the topic, Murphy has been paid up to $30,000 a pop for 25 speeches to oil and gas groups since 2009.

The controversy generated, of course, has to do with whether the CBC and Murphy should have declared this activity, especially before one of Murphy's diatribes about the perfidy of environmentalists, not about the size or existence of the speakers' fees themselves.

Regardless, Murphy’s remarks seem to have elicited a positive response from at least some of his invited listeners. "Wow," enthused Alberta Opposition Leader Danielle Smith in a Tweet last fall, "CAPP needs to hire Rex Murphy as the spokesperson for our energy industry: telling the crowd why we should be proud of what we do."

Uh, and what do you mean we, Ms. Smith?

But the Mansbridge revelation certainly kept the story about Murphy's spectacular, and so far journalistically undeclared, speaking fees simmering at a time when the national broadcasting company that employs his services must surely have expected it would have gone away.

When I was a lad working in the Canadian news industry, it was a matter of some controversy if a journalist didn't pay for his or her own drink, or was taken to lunch, let alone, God forbid, took a payment for "freelance work," "speech writing" or "research."

That this should seem quaint and $28,000 speaking fees -- never mind who's paying them -- seem normal in the ninth year of the Stephen Harper Era in Canada is possibly predictable, but more than faintly depressing.

So it was mildly reassuring to discover that a controversy could still be stoked in the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery by the offering to correspondents by Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk of rings of Polish sausage.

At any rate, the editor of an innuendo- and typo-riddled subscribers-only Legislative newsletter went to considerable lengths to mock two Edmonton Journal reporters for refusing to accept the unsolicited gifts, which presumably marked the guilty with a garlicky miasma.

To me, though, the determination of the principled pair to stand by what was once considered routinely ethical behaviour for journalists offered a glimmer of hopeful illumination in an otherwise tenebrous scene.

Would the last one out, please turn out the light at the end of the pipeline!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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