Global Television news anchor Leslie Roberts has been suspended from the network after a Toronto Star investigation found he is secretly the part owner of a small public relations firm whose clients — lawyers, small businesses and others — appear on his show.
Roberts helps clients with pitches and media training and has tweeted positive comments about some of the clients to his 20,000 followers on Twitter. In one instance, during a morning show on which supermarket shopping was being discussed, he blurted out the name of one of his firm’s clients and suggested viewers “check it out.” At no time did he disclose to viewers his connection to the companies or his public relations firm: BuzzPR.
Roberts is the anchor of Global’s News Hour and the Morning Show. As well, he is the executive editor of Global News. On Thursday, he was suspended “indefinitely” from those positions pending an investigation by the network. The move came a few hours after the Star approached Global for comment on its probe of Roberts.
“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.”
The Star presented its findings to Roberts early this week. Roberts said he had done nothing wrong but would resign from BuzzPR, the public relations firm he owns with a partner.
Here’s an example of what the Star uncovered:
Toronto lawyer Sandra Zisckind of Diamond and Diamond has often been a Global guest, sitting at the anchor table with newsman Roberts with both her name and the name of her law firm in a bold caption on the television screen as she comments on legal issues. The spots, connected to the news of the day (a high profile arrest or liability issues related to something in the news) run for about three minutes — a boon for any company trying to build a business.
What Roberts said he has never revealed, to viewers or to Global, is that he is “creative director” and part owner of BuzzPR, which provided Diamond and Diamond lawyers with media training and helped them get featured on Global news.
The Star found other client companies that are paying BuzzPR for media exposure have appeared on Roberts’ show or other Global shows.
As executive editor of Global News, Roberts holds a prominent role in determining what goes on air. Diamond and Diamond and BuzzPR parted company last fall, but two other law firms are clients of BuzzPR and have appeared on Global. Asked about this, Roberts said that “the next thing I knew I was training the new lawyers.”
“I agree this doesn’t look very good,” Roberts told the Star in an interview this week.
He said he holds an “equity” position in BuzzPR but has never taken a salary, though he has been reimbursed for expenses when he and clients have been out to dinner.
Roberts said he never directly accepted payment from a client to be a guest on his show. However, he acknowledged that each business client pays BuzzPR to get media exposure on Global and other networks.
When at BuzzPR, Roberts said he helps clients with the crafting of “pitches” and then does “media training” for clients, including lawyer Sandra Zisckind.
“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 told the Star.
It is a generally accepted norm in the news business that reporters and news anchors should not have a connection, financial or otherwise, with people or organizations they are covering. This is done to maintain objectivity. If someone does have a connection — for example, a business columnist may have shares in a company he is writing about — then that should be disclosed.
A central figure in this story is a man named Kashif Khan, a Toronto businessman who as owner of Ritchies auction house is known for high profile auctions, diamonds and expensive houses.
The Star interviewed both Khan and Roberts. They said they met about two years ago. Khan was unhappy with work done by another public relations firm. Roberts looked at the news release that had been prepared and told him that “they buried your lead.” That’s news reporter-speak for putting the most important information at the bottom of the page.
Roberts rewrote the release. Khan was happy, and in no time at all the two decided to create BuzzPR, a company that now boasts on its website that it is “Toronto’s top public relations agency.” The Star visited the office and found a locked door with a photocopied sign instead of a nameplate.
“Leslie comes into BuzzPR every day,” Khan said in an interview. “He looks at the creative work and assists people with pitches. If there is a sensitive issue he will do media training.”
When the Star interviewed Roberts, he said he does go into BuzzPR every day, typically between his stint on the morning show and the 1 p.m. news meeting at Global. His name is not listed on the BuzzPR website.
Roberts said he has never asked Global to feature any of his clients. He said that when one does show up on the set, he is surprised. He credits their positioning on the show to the work of other people at BuzzPR.
“At no point have I ever, ever crossed the line,” Roberts said.
Asked by the Star if he had told his bosses at Global, Roberts said he had not. After the Star questioned him, Roberts went to his bosses, who suspended him.
One of the companies that has been featured on Global is Khan’s own Ritchies Auctioneers, which has its offices beside BuzzPR in a building at Yonge-Dundas Square in downtown Toronto.
Khan said there is nothing wrong with Global featuring his high-priced diamond sales (one was $10 million) or a luxury house on the Bridle Path that Khan was offering for sale. Both features ran on Global (other hosts did those interviews).
“There is no scandal, no wrongdoing. In fact it is unusual to find a guy like Leslie with integrity,” Khan said.
When the Star set out to interview BuzzPR clients, not all of them would talk. Jason Katz, a lawyer with Singer Kwinter and a BuzzPR client who has been on the show with Roberts, acknowledged he has been interviewed on television by Roberts but would not say whether he knew of the BuzzPR connection.
“This is getting uncomfortable,” Katz said, and would say no more.
Zisckind would not agree to be interviewed by the Star. Through spokesman Jordan Whelan (who once worked at BuzzPR), she said she was aware that Roberts was affiliated with BuzzPR but did not know he was a part owner.
Over the past year Roberts has used Twitter to promote BuzzPR clients. One was Jacquie Somerville, a life coach whom he featured in a six-minute segment on his show as a “powerhouse public speaker.” He has tweeted about her as well. Somerville said she is a friend of Roberts and would not comment on how she ended up on the morning show. She acknowledged she is a BuzzPR client.
In at least two Global segments, two BuzzPR clients were featured on the same program — in one case, two different personal injury law firms.
On another day, Roberts was chatting on air with fellow hosts about the joys and challenges of supermarket shopping. One of BuzzPR’s clients is Checkout 51, an app developed by Toronto’s Noah Godfrey that promises to save people money on groceries. Seemingly out of the blue, Roberts began extolling the virtues of Checkout 51 towards the end of the segment and invited viewers to “check it out.”
Godfrey told the Star his impression was that Roberts’ involvement in the public relations firm was “at arm’s length.” He said Roberts assisted in “strategy and positioning” but that Global (which did feature the product) did not do as good a job as CTV.
“We figured we would be a lead story,” Godfrey said when asked about Global.
Later in the interview, he said he meant he felt his product was so strong it deserved to lead any news program. “I felt the opposite, almost no benefit from Leslie being involved.”
On its website, BuzzPR states: “We are passionate about being influencers, innovators and trailblazers. We are committed to making our clients a relevant part of the conversation and to building strong, long-lasting relationships between consumers and brands.”
The BuzzPR success, the website says, is the “result of our strong relationships with select media personnel that finds the right medium to unveil your product and bring the world’s attention to it.”