By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman
William McDowell, legal counsel to J.D. Irving Limited (JDI), wrote to complain about the Twitter activity of the provincial affairs correspondent in New Brunswick, Jacques Poitras. He was concerned that the activity on both the reporter’s CBC Twitter account and the one he uses to promote his books put him in a conflict of interest because he was using his reputation as a reporter to sell his books - one of which is about the Irvings. Mr. McDowell’s Irving client also believed the book and other writings violated CBC’s policy on Opinion. The company asked that he stop tweeting and be banned from covering any Irving-related stories. I found the reporter’s work fell well within the bounds of balance and analysis. The question of potential perception of conflict of interest is more complicated, though. There is no need to stop tweeting or reporting, but there is a requirement for vigilance.
You are counsel to J.D. Irving, Limited (JDI), and in that capacity you complained to this office about the Twitter activity of a CBC New Brunswick reporter, Jacques Poitras. Mr. Poitras is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC News in New Brunswick. Because of the assignment, his work sometimes touches on matters involving various Irving interests when they intersect with public policy questions. He is also the author of a book entitled “Irving vs. Irving: Canada's Feuding Billionaires and The Stories They Won't Tell”, published in 2014. The book provides a history of the Irving family and its holdings in a variety of industries - energy, forestry, shipbuilding and newspapers among them. It largely focuses on the media holdings, Brunswick News, which includes 3 English dailies, 6 French and 6 English weekly publications. Mr. Poitras is currently writing a book about the Energy East Pipeline, which will bring oil to eastern Canadian refineries, Irving among them. You are concerned that while the “Irving vs. Irving” book “concerns Brunswick News’ newspapers, a great deal of it covers his views on the relationship between JDI and provincial governments.”
You point out that Mr. Poitras has two Twitter accounts - @poitrasCBC and @PoitrasBook. You provided two years of his tweets from the “book account” which are attached and state that the non-CBC account promotes his books but also has many tweets that are news reports. There are times when the tweet links to the same news story from both CBC and non-CBC accounts. You believe that there is a conflict of interest because Mr. Poitras “has used @PoitrasBook as well as his CBC account to tweet actual news.”
Insofar as Mr. Poitras acts as a reporter using @PoitrasBook as a platform for disseminating views while at the same time using the account for his promotional efforts, he has placed himself in a "real, apparent or potential conflict of interest between [his] official responsibilities and [his] private affairs ...". A reasonable observer would regard Mr. Poitras' news reporting as compromised by his desire and relentless efforts to promote sales of his books. CBC should enforce its Standards and Code and instruct Mr. Poitras to cease use of @PoitrasBook for news purposes.
You provided an example in an exchange from @PoitrasBook and the then Ombudsman for Brunswick News where he was seeking more information about a column she had written regarding an episode at one of the papers:
Feb 19: Mr. Poitras engaged in a series of questions with the BNI ombudswoman, and when she declined to share details of BN's information gathering with a competitor, he tweeted: "Fair enough & thanks, but to be clear, these questions are not for CBC; they're posed with my author hat on." This was disingenuous - Mr. Poitras was writing CBC stories about the subject, and on that same date tweeted about the column from his CBC account. This topic had been the subject of numerous tweets.
You also provided a series of tweets from the reporter’s CBC account on the same matter to illustrate the conflict of interest, and the pattern of using his role as a reporter to generate interest in the sale of his books. He wrote some stories for the CBCNews.ca website on this same matter.