Sun alleges reporter’s condo deal damaged his and newspaper’s integrity

Saturday, January 22nd, 2005

Jeff Lee

Vancouver Sun reporter Wyng Chow destroyed his own integrity and put the newspaper’s credibility in jeopardy by accepting a benefit from a developer he was covering as a real estate reporter, the Sun’s lawyer said Friday.

In a final argument before arbitrator Rory McDonald, Donald Jordan said Chow, 56, crossed the line when he mixed a personal dispute with Concord Pacific Ltd. with his job as a business reporter. And he said Chow’s acceptance of a “deep discount” on a condominium he bought from the company in 2001 showed a “lack of a moral compass” that justified the newspaper firing him last month.

But Carolyn Askew, who is representing Chow and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, of which he is a member, said in her summation that Chow did nothing wrong in trying to resolve a long-standing complaint he had with Concord Pacific as a legitimate, but unhappy customer of one of their condominium units.

And she accused the newspaper of engaging in a selective attack on Chow, a 32-year employee, instead of addressing the basis of a telephone tip to editor-in-chief Patricia Graham that included an allegation that Chow had received a “sweetheart deal.”

The anonymous tipster complained that the newspaper was overly positive in reporting on real estate matters, and accused it of tailoring coverage to drive advertisers to its Homes section. The tipster named Chow as an example of what was wrong with the newspaper’s business coverage.

Askew said the newspaper’s decision “deflected the criticism of the paper on to Chow” and that no other reporters or the newspaper’s own culpability were investigated. “Patricia Graham totally ignored the substance of the complaint — that the entire Vancouver Sun is pro-development industry,” she said.

But Jordan said such an allegation was preposterous. Chow was the only person named by the tipster, and the paper owed a duty to investigate.

“We allege conduct by him that impinges on his own integrity and the integrity of the Sun in general,” Jordan said. “There is not a single person in the newspaper industry who can say that what Mr. Chow did was right.”

At issue is whether Chow could have been perceived to be in a conflict-of-interest for accepting a $39,000 discount from Concord Pacific on a $308,000, 19th-floor condominium in the Waterford project. At the time, he was writing as the Sun’s real estate reporter and frequently quoted Concord Pacific officials.

Graham fired Chow in December after the paper conducted an investigation and discovered he had paid a below-market price for the condominium. The union is seeking full reinstatement; the company is asking McDonald to uphold Chow’s dismissal.

Chow said the deal was a settlement for his complaint that the floorplan of a townhouse he bought from Concord in 1995 was altered without his authority. There was testimony that in 1997, Concord adjusted the price by about $15,000 to reflect the altered floor plan.

Jordan said this adjustment resolved Chow’s complaint, and that the further discount on the later unit could not be justified. Askew said both Chow and Henry Man, Concord‘s former chief operating officer, felt a price reduction on the Waterford condo was necessary and fair, and that the newspaper couldn’t suggest otherwise.

She also reminded McDonald that the paper has no written code of conduct. In the absence of written policies, which some other print and broadcast media have, the newspaper can’t fairly accuse reporters of not adhering to a strict standard, she said.

And she pointed out that the newspaper wasn’t alleging Chow was biased in his reporting.

But Jordan told McDonald there are three universal concepts of ethics in journalism that every reporter understands: It is wrong to make up things, to claim other peoples’ work as your own, and to accept money or benefits from people you cover.

If Chow had a difficulty with Concord Pacific as a customer, he should have disclosed it, Jordan said. But it wasn’t until after the tip was made that the company learned of the situation.

McDonald reserved judgment and said he would rule within 10 days.

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