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Blog Rolling at CBC

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Some complain the new blogging guidelines are draconian. Others, who wrote their own manifesto on rules of conduct over a year ago, say CBC management extends an olive branch to employee bloggers

CBC blogs

Illustration by: Canice Leung

On August 3, Inside the CBC posted the entry, “CBC proposes approving employees’ personal blogs.” Within 24 hours, CBC’s official employee blog received 60 replies. Another 40 were posted before the end of the month. Many were unhappy with the ideas proposed by management, and several responses called the rules “heavy handed” and “way over the line.”

The controversial posts discussed an email containing a draft of proposed guidelines that would advise all CBC employees to ask permission to maintain a personal blog, and constrict the content of those blogs if they identify themselves with the corporation in their entries.

The document attached to the original email, which was circulated erroneously, contained the following text:  “…the blog cannot advocate for a group or a cause, or express partisan political opinion. It should also avoid controversial subjects or contain material that could bring CBC/Radio-Canada into disrepute … To start and maintain a blog of this kind, you need your supervisor’s approval.” The guidelines (not policy, as higher-ups were quick to point out) got the attention of those who blogged as CBC employees, both openly and anonymously, as well as those who blogged regularly about the corporation.

Just over two months later, on October 12, CBC’s official blogging guidelines, titled “Self-Publishing and Self-Expression on the Internet,” were issued. Although considered an improvement over the original leaked version, the guidelines still say some employees’ blogs are not fully under their control: “Journalists must get permission for all outside freelance and journalistic work, including written articles for self-publication or blogs.”

About 8,500 CBC employees — those having a corporate email address — were sent the missive. The official guidelines received better reviews than the original, but still not warmly by all. Then again, those who took it upon themselves to create an unofficial guide over a year ago think it’s a workable document.

Blogging has had a high-profile history at CBC. It became an essential communication tool for employees during the acrimonious extended lockout that started in August of 2005 and lasted for eight weeks. There were about 50 active bloggers during that period. Several websites still remain active, including Ouimet’s The Tea Makers and Peter Janes’s Planet CBC, which serves as an agglomeration of many personal blogs of CBC employees.

One popular criticism of both the draft and the final version of the guidelines is the vagueness of what is or isn’t acceptable. What exactly is “controversial” in this context? How explicitly do you need to identify yourself in order for the guidelines to apply? And just how deeply into an employee’s online activity do the guidelines penetrate? Justin Beach, a freelance web producer and social networking consultant who runs publicbroadcasting.ca, posted his concerns by writing, “Overall I’d have to say that this policy is dangerous … This policy does not, in any way, recognize the realities of how people use the internet.” He says the guidelines are ambiguous: “Over a given period of time, everyone at the CBC will violate the policy, because it’s almost unavoidable if you use the internet. What they’re basically saying is, ‘Don’t really use the internet.’ At least that’s how I read it.”

For recording engineer and seasoned blogger Joe Mahoney, it’s much too late for that. He’s been blogging for several years, and anonymously created and maintained the CBC Workerbee blog during the lockout (eventually revealing his identity in the blog’s final post). In October 2005, Mahoney started another blog,Assorted Nonsense, which is still active, and where he identifies himself as a CBC employee.

But there may be changes in how Mahoney personally uses the internet. He has been a CBC employee for 19 years, and this week makes the move into management. “Whether I’ll be able to continue to blog once I’m a manager,” he says, “I don’t know.” He doesn’t think it would make much of a difference, but adds, “I mentioned it and my boss said, ‘I don’t think you’ll have time for it.’”

If Mahoney does have time, his would be the second CBC management blog. The first is The Tea Makers, on which all entries are posted under the pseudonym Ouimet. “Maybe with some justification, maybe not, Ouimet is afraid of reprisals,” says Mahoney. “We’ve all advised that person to remain anonymous, just in case.”

When the official guidelines were released in October, Mahoney posted them on his blog with the message, “I will be adhering to it in every way, shape and form.” In fact, he supports them. “This is a good gesture on the part of CBC and I don’t think it should be interpreted otherwise,” he says. “The sheer fact that they mention the manifesto in a positive way suggests to me that they’re extending an olive branch. I don’t think there’s any intention to be unreasonable.”

And it’s true. An older document dubbed “The CBC Blogging Manifesto” was referenced in the “Self-Publishing and Self-Expression on the Internet” guidelines, with the explanation: “While not formally sanctioned, it nonetheless offers good advice to those wishing to blog about CBC/Radio-Canada, or to those wishing to carry out any similar self-publishing activity.”

Back in summer 2006, Ouimet assembled a group of 10 bloggers for the purpose of creating such a document. Contributors included Mahoney, Beach and Janes, who had set up Planet CBC during the lockout. “It came about because there weren’t guidelines,” says Mahoney, “and we were asking for them.” The resulting unofficial guide listed practical suggestions for blogging responsibly about the corporation.  “For better or for worse, you are representing the CBC when you blog about it,” the manifesto advises. “Keep this in mind with every word.”

Janes is not a CBC employee and his relationship “is entirely informal and unofficial.” He maintains Planet CBC, as well as his own personal blog. His employer, TVWorks, released its own blogging policy in September. “Three or four years ago I asked if there was a policy, and we’ve just had one come out in the last couple weeks.” As for CBC’s guidelines, he says, “It seems a little late, but I know things take a long time.”

Mahoney doesn’t think the guidelines will change how CBC employees will blog. “All of us have been blogging responsibly from the beginning — if we hadn’t the guidelines would have been a lot harsher,” he says. “We can post whatever we want, but if we start vilifying CBC or slandering colleagues we can expect consequences. All of us get that.”

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