OTTAWA—Canada’s broadcasting regulator has issued a sharply worded reminder to Bell Media that it has a statutory duty not to interfere in the work of its CTV journalists, calling a report of meddling “disturbing.”
The warning follows a Globe and Mail article that says Bell Media president Kevin Crull intervened in how journalists reported a major regulatory decision last week. The decision had not gone the way the corporation had hoped.
The Globe says Crull demanded that journalists not give any airtime to Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) chairman Jean-Pierre Blais. CTV President Wendy Freeman is said to have communicated that edict to journalists, reportedly explaining that she feared for her job.
Blais had just announced rule changes requiring broadcasters to offer a low-cost package to consumers and to allow them to “pick and pay” other individual channels. He had appeared at a news conference, and also did individual interviews that day.
Blais put out statement Wednesday that reminded Bell of its responsibilities under the Broadcasting Act.
“That a regulated company does not like one of the CRTC’s rulings is one thing. The allegation, however, that the largest communication company in Canada is manipulating news coverage is disturbing,” Blais wrote.
“Holding a radio or television license is a privilege that comes with important obligations that are in the public interest, especially in regards to high-quality news coverage and reporting.”
Crull did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Broadcasting Act, which the CRTC applies as it gives out licenses, specifically points to “freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence” of the networks.
The Globe report says that CTV Ottawa bureau chief Bob Fife, along with chief anchor Lisa LaFlamme and Freeman, ultimately refused to abide by Crull’s edict for the evening national newscast.
Blais said in his statement that one of the pillars of Canada’s broadcasting system, and even Canadian democracy writ large, is the independence of its journalists.
“An informed citizenry cannot be sacrificed for a company’s commercial interests,” Blais wrote.
“Canadians can only wonder how many times corporate interests may have been placed ahead of the fair and balanced news reporting they expect from their broadcasting system.”
Three years ago, Crull and other Bell executives appeared before the CRTC as parent company BCE Inc. applied for its merger with Astral Media.
At the time, Crull insisted that Bell never interfered on the editorial side.
“…Our news operation operates entirely independently and covers stories one hundred per cent based on their view of the journalistic value of that story and covers all perspectives and has never one day, or one story had an intervention from this management team,” Crull said.
Blais, who declined to do interviews Wednesday, has emphasized the importance of quality news and journalism in public comments before.
“Broadcasters are custodians of the television system as a public service. They therefore have a special obligation to ensure that the system reflects our identity, contributes to our democracy and enhances our safety and security,” Blais told the London, Ont. Chamber of Commerce in January.
“Broadcasting can’t only be a purely commercial undertaking whose sole focus is to increase profits.”
In 2013, CTV stood its ground as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office threatened to bar a cameraman from travelling on the government’s plane. Dave Ellis had asked an unscheduled question of the prime minister during an event in New York.
CTV is a division of Bell Media, a company with assets in TV, radio, and the Internet. Bell Media in turn is owned by BCE Inc., the country’s largest telecommunications firm.