An Avoidable Potential Conflict

journalism-under-questionLast week the Toronto Star ran this story. It was a mostly pro-mortgage broker article.

It featured Christina Cleveland, a first-time home buyer portrayed as someone learning the benefits of brokers, and Raj Babber, a broker and a director of the Independent Mortgage Brokers Association of Ontario.

The story landed immediately in the crosshairs of real estate critic Garth Turner.

Turner discovered that Cleveland is actually the sister-in-law of Babber, and his firm’s client as well. This potential for bias was apparently not disclosed to the Star (according to it), and the Star didn’t ask, something Turner termed an “appalling breach of reader trust.”

In addition to the article, this testimonial from Christina Cleveland was found on Babber’s website, to which Turner wrote, “Christina Cleveland claims to have first met Raj Babber as a mortgage broker – even though he is the husband of her sister.”

As most anyone in business knows, the perception of impropriety can do as much damage as impropriety itself. Without judging Babber or Cleveland, it’s clear that a reasonable person might view these non-disclosures as intentionally misleading. So why take the risk?

I asked Babber for his thoughts and he provided this comment by email:

The Toronto Star article ‘The pros and cons of using a mortgage broker’ was accurate, balanced, and quite frankly painted the role of the independent mortgage broker in a very favourable light. It did not promote me or my firm, nor was it ever intended to do so.

The article did not identify the woman being quoted as my sister-in-law, perhaps because no one involved in the preparation of the story felt it was pertinent. In any case, the merits of consulting an independent mortgage broker stand. If blogger Garth Turner wants to squabble about that with his fellow journalist that is his privilege.

This is not the type of story we normally cover, but it’s important to address one issue. A broker’s choice to:

a)  recommend family/friends/clients to the media as interviewees, without full disclosure of the relationship, or

b)  use family or friends in testimonials without full disclosure of the relationship,

…can be reputation suicide if uncovered.

It is never worth it, regardless of innocent intentions.

Rob McLister, CMT

  1. Yeah… I’m not in favor of Garth riling up his Internet mob against people, but this is clearly a case of shady marketing. Babber playing dumb at this point is not helping him. Better to admit it at this point and apologize.

  2. The fact that the negative comments come from Garth can simply make this a non issue. But,not knowing that my Doctor was referring me to his brother, the pharmacist, (or vice versa) is missing information that is useful to me as a consumer, regardless if I would perceive such as negative, or as a conflict. Most conflict (misleading?)situations occur when we fail to ask, “would my client potentially act any differently if he knew this information?” For many people, disclosing that your sister in law actually liked your service could be a big selling point !

  3. Babbers comment does not mitigate the damage to this shameless promotion and in my mind make him look like an arrogant liar.
    “It did not promote me or my firm, nor was it ever intended to do so.” So mentioning your name and firm multiple times in Canada’s highest-circulation newspaper is not a promotion?
    “no one involved in the preparation of the story felt it was pertinent.” He should fire his publicist. Not only that, it’s an insult to his own intelligence.

  4. Mr. Babber’s explanation defies logic. The story narrative in The Star was clearly framed in such a way as to be misleading to the reader.
    I’m thankful that the internet (through bloggers such as Mr. Turner) allows for checks and balances so that these kinds of shenanigans can be rightfully exposed.

  5. “because no one involved in the preparation of the story felt it was pertinent”
    Of course no one thought it was pertinent, it was an advertorial. As a reader, when “a friend” (who happens to be your sister) refers you to “a trusted mortgage professional” (who happens to be her husband) I think it’s pertinent.

  6. See how things are bent? She goes from being the sister in law, in the article, to the sister, in Devore’s comment.
    Conflicts of interest are resolved with disclosure, neither Babber nor the Star disclosed the relationship. Half truths are lies.
    Also consider the source of the indignation, Garth Turner & the Toronto Star. Two pillars of journalistic integrity?
    Babber & the IMBA Board should reconsider his role on the Board, to protect the integrity of the Association.

  7. As always the anonymous attackers of the blogosphere rain down abuse on a respected mortgage broker who has volunteered to shoulder the burden of taking on a provincial association presidency, a thankless, selfless, unpaid job if there ever was one.
    Reporters ask for sources and sometimes the only people who will answer the reporter’s calls are those who have a relationship with the referrer.
    In a perfect world there are tons of people happy to be quoted in media that we can refer reporters to but it does not always happen that way. The correct approach would have been to identify the relationship, no question about that and as Rob rightly points out, not being clear about the relationship leads to this type of unwelcome blow back. So while the questions about judgement may be fair, the follow-up comments about Raj’s integrity are highly misplaced.

  8. This nonsense from the head of the Independent Mortgage Brokers Association of Ontario? So self serving….
    He’s the public face representing mortgage brokers?
    He should be removed from his position immediately before be further sullies our reputations.

  9. Hey Ron, I’m selling a magical potion that can cure any disease, my brother will tell you about how great it is. You want in? Seriously Ron, you think that her opinion is unbiased? This is a shameless promotion and he’s _____ to justify it.

  10. its bad and sloppy journalism..they should have asked if there was any connection and the parties interviewed should have declared a conflict

  11. Does anyone ever listen to Garth. Remember in the early 90’s how he criticized financial planner and mutual funds as being bad, then he found out he could make money speaking for financial planners and mutual funds were the best thing possible, then in the late 90’s we were headed into deflation and the value of our houses were going to plummet.
    Personally dealing with family on mortgages can be the most challenging clients. Stressful as if anything screws up you will hers it from your Mother, or worse your Mother-in-Law.

  12. Babber has been around long enough and knows better! (Especially given that he has taken on the lead public role in IMBA)

  13. As a mortgage guy, I would expect you to dislike someone who exposes the deficiencies in real estate, since you stand to lose money if his observations materialize. Now back to the original topic. I don’t doubt that family can be more difficult to do business with, but it doesn’t change the fact that they cannot provide an unbiased opinion the quality of service they received from a family member in the context of this article. If his sister in law had any negative feedback, do you think Babber would have brought this article to the Star?

  14. I am not surprised at all. On the contrary, this is exactly the kind of behaviour that one would expect from your typical mortgage broker. Many mortgage brokers are, in my own experience, a very interesting bunch, and not in a good way.
    And shame on the Torontostar as well.

  15. re summadom and
    ” typical mortgage broker”… Many mortgage brokers…… a very interesting bunch, ….. not in a good way”
    Pretty “aggressive” condemnation of our industry ?

  16. I’d humbly suggest that your experiences are far from indicative of the “typical mortgage broker.” You’ve clearly dealt with the wrong people.

  17. I’m pretty sure that Babber got where he is in the industry because he’s done more than just his sister-in-law’s mortgage. The guy obviously has a good reputation and has built a successful business otherwise he would never have been asked to comment in this article. If you read the article she never even promotes Babber or his company. Both parties merely promoted the benefits of using a mortgage broker which is great for all of us who are brokers. People like Garth Turner are a bunch a wolves looking for a scapegoat. If Babber had referred another client who was not related this would be a non-issue.

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