Global Toronto anchor Leslie Roberts has been suspended by the network after a Toronto Star investigative report uncovered that he was part-owner of a small public relations firm with clients who appeared on Global programs. The report, which was published in The Star today, revealed that Roberts had helping clients with media training and pitches through a firm he co-owns called Buzz PR. As consequence, Global, which found out through The Star when the paper asked for comment, suspended Roberts indefinitely from his responsibilities as anchor of Global’s News Hour, co-host of the national version of The Morning Show, and as executive editor of Global News.
Star investigative reporter Kevin Donovan (who you may recall was Robyn Dolittle’s co-reporter in breaking the Rob Ford crack scandal) outlined several instances where Roberts skated a fine line between editorial and advertorial as a Global journalist and a public relations specialist. These range from the relative benign, like mentioning a client’s website in discussion on The Morning Show, to the borderline inappropriate, like having a lawyer from the firm Diamond and Diamond, a former Buzz PR client, on the News Hour to offer legal opinion.
“At Global News we take matters of journalistic integrity very seriously,” Global spokesperson Rishma Govani told the Star. “Mr. Roberts has been suspended from his duties indefinitely as we conduct a full investigation into this matter.”
What about Roberts, what did he have to say for himself?
“I agree this doesn’t look very good,” Roberts told the Star when they came a knockin’ for comment. According to the anchor, even though he is part owner, he doesn’t take a salary from the firm although he does get reimbursed for expenses. More importantly, Roberts says that he doesn’t take money from Buzz PR clients in order for them to appear on any of his Global news programs.
“They did not pay me to get on TV. When I sit on the anchor desk I am in journalist mode and nothing comes between me and a story,” Roberts said.
Still, the story paints a very bad picture of the journalistic standards of both Global News and its lead anchor in its biggest market. Roberts is, essentially, the face of Global News in Toronto, and if he didn’t know that advising other people on how to handle the media conflicted with his role as the media, then he shouldn’t just be suspended, he should be fired.
As this story reminds us, there’s a very fine line between editorial and advertorial in the news business. If you check out the pages of our Guelph Tribune, you’ll note a regular feature that highlights a particular business every week, and who gets the spot isn’t generally decided on in an editorial meeting, if you know what I mean. A lot of local papers do that, but the difference between them and Leslie Roberts is audience awareness. When Roberts told you to check out a website, you might have thought it was something he just came across while surfing the web or doing research, instead though, it might have been belonged to one of his clients over at Buzz PR.
One’s integrity is a hard thing to lose, but it’s even hard to get back once it’s been violated. Roberts can’t be faulted for wanting to make a bit of extra scratch on the side, but he can be faulted for thinking he could eat with both hands, as it were, without consequence, or without anyone finding out for that matter. His response/defense that he didn’t take money from people to get them on TV seems wildly naive. Surely a dollar value can be attached to appearing on TV in terms of the benefits of name recognition for the individual and their business. It’s not called free advertising because it’s worthless, after all.
As for Roberts, what did he get out of it if he truly didn’t take a salary or profits? That’s the million dollar question, or whatever amount his Global salary was, because that’s what he might have gambled away to make himself more of an influential gatekeeper in the mainstream media.
Guelph, by comparison to Toronto, is a smaller community, which is why Scotty and I will make sure our listeners are aware of any potential conflicts in our reporting. While it’s okay to have a life outside the news business, it’s not okay to keep information that might shade a viewer’s opinion of your judgment or bias to yourself. Leslie Roberts, it seems, has learned that lesson the hard way.