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At Bell Media, Editorial Meddling by Execs Appear to be a Recurring Problem

Today, the Globe and Mail’s James Bradshaw reports that Bell Media President Kevin Crull issued orders last Thursday to staff banning CTV media outlets from including CRTC Chair Jean Pierre Blais in coverage of the recent TalkTV decisions. Interviews with Blais that had been planned for CTV show Power and Politics were cancelled at the last minute and footage of Blais was dropped from coverage at Bell’s thirty TV stations across the country.

Senior news editors and junior journalists feared for their job and mostly went along, although CTV National News anchor Lisa Laflamme and senior journalist, Robert Fife, refused to bend. The fact that this story has broke is an index of rancour in the ranks of journalists and news execs within the Bell media empire. That we know about this at all is due to some of these journalists and news executives deciding to go public with their concerns about the heavy-handed editorial meddling they are experiencing, and probably not just on this occasion.

Indeed, such concerns appear to be part of a recurring pattern. I gave a glimpse of such problems in my Bell Memos post back in late 2013, where I laid out a chain of emails originating with Bell Media President Kevin Crull calling on news executives and editors at Bell TV and radio outlets across the land to cover a report that cast Canada’s three biggest wireless companies – Bell, Rogers and Telus – in a positive light compared to what most studies on the subject conclude.

Soon after I released the Bell Memos post, I was approached by a journalist at Business News Network (BNN) with claims that the Crull emails I cited was not an isolated instance. They chimed well with their own experience at BNN, I was told. Senior editors and news managers at the BCE-owned TV channel have also adopted editorial policies and interviewing practices that give special treatment to BCE executives who appear on BNN shows such as Business Day and Streetwise, according to my source.

A redacted copy of my correspondence with BNN Insider and the memos, emails and stories they provided can be found here.

Among the content is a memo from Bell CEO George Cope calling on Bell staff to contact CRTC chair J. P. Blais – replete with his email address — to register their dismay with the CRTC’s decision in October 2012 to reject Bell’s first attempt to take-over Astral Media. The idea that all Bell employees would share such a view is presumptuous to say the least, while also sending out a signal that if they aren’t already of this view, then perhaps they should be.

The materials also outline a series of events where BNN programs have been stage-managed through “pre-interview editorial meetings” that allowed BCE executives to broadcast the company’s views on matters of public policy and corporate interests in the best light possible. As examples, BNN insider pointed to interviews of BCE executives in relation to:

  • BCE’s response to the CRTC’s decision on October 18th 2012 to kill the first version of BCE’s attempt to acquire Astral Media,
  • US telecoms giant, Verizon’s, possible entry into mobile phone market in 2013,
  • the Canadian Government’s wireless policy designed to help foster a viable fourth national wireless competitor across the country,
  • the 2014 700 MHZ spectrum auction.

As BNN insider told me, “In all my years as a journalist I’d never witnessed such editorial interference or ‘bullying’ tactics. I was shocked.” They also asked me to “keep my name off-the-record as this could jeopardize my career prospects”.

BNN Adopts Pre-Interview Meetings for Interviews with BCE Executives

According to BNN insider, the pre-interview editorial meetings just mentioned are unique only to its coverage of BCE. According to these procedures, when BCE execs are to appear on BNN programs their interviews are often preceded by special ‘pre-meetings’ “with the ‘interviewee’ on what to ask and how to ask it”. Pre-meetings are arranged by senior news managers and editors and often include program hosts as well as journalists who will be talking to the guest from BCE and asking questions on air.

Pre-meetings are also sometimes used to discuss who might make a good ‘guest’ with an opposing point of view to create the semblance of balance and objectivity. However, BNN insider states that the editors’ intent seems to be more of an attempt to stage manage opposing points of view and to ensure that BCE execs appearing on BNN are not broad-sided by their critics, rather than a bona fide effort to ensure the widest range of expression possible.

Sometimes these meetings can actually be useful, as when BCE’s resident experts give tutorials to journalists on complex technical and policy issues surrounding mobile phones and spectrum auctions, for instance. Crucially, however, even in these matters it is BCE’s experts framing the technical issues not independent ones.

The upshot, however, is that such practices look more like stage-managing the news than independent journalism.

In tandem with the Crull memos sent out across CTV1 and CTV2 and to local TV and radio stations across Canada – both today in relation to the CRTC’s Talk TV decisions and back in the late summer of 2013 at the height of the “Wireless Wars” – suggests that editorial meddling within Bell Media is extensive and routine. Such practices do not bode well for the state of the news at Canada’s largest communications and media company. They undermine the editorial autonomy of the news and compromise journalists’ work, while tarnishing the credibility of news organizations more generally in the public’s eye.

A Timeline and Synopsis of Key Events

The meetings, memos, emails and so forth given to me begin on October 19th, 2012, the day after the CRTC issued its landmark ruling that flatly rejected Bell’s take-over bid for Astral Media. They continue until the end of August 2013 when the “Wireless Wars” were at a high boil, with BCE executives appearing on BNN several times to make the case against allowing the US telecoms giant Verizon to enter the Canadian cell phone market, and against the Harper Government’s wireless policy.

October 19th, 2012 — Cope’s Memo to Bell Media Editors and Journalists: the CRTC Got it Wrong in Bell Astral 1.0

The morning after the CRTC’s landmark decision rejecting BCE’s bid to take-over Astral, BCE CEO George Cope emailed a memo to Bell Media staff relaying his anger with the decision as well as the company’s determination to do whatever it took to overturn it. Assuming that everyone within Bell Media was reading from the same hymn sheet, Cope called on those who felt so inclined to email CRTC chair J.P. Blais to let him know their views, with Mr. Blais’ email provided in order to make the task all staff were being called upon to do all that much easier.

The assumption in Cope’s email that journalists, editors and media workers across Bell Media are at one with the company’s views on the CRTC’s decision (or any issue for that matter) clashes with the principle that journalists and editors must use their own professional judgments to reach their own conclusions rather than assuming that they share a commitment to BCE’s corporate interests and views on matters of public policy.

October 19th, 2012 – Cope Goes on Business Day to Further Tell Everybody Why the CRTC Got it Wrong in Bell Astral 1.0

Later that day, Cope appeared on the BNN program “Business Day”. However, before he did, senior editors at BNN convened an hour-long “pre-show” meeting to help set the stage.

The senior editors at the meeting decided to sideline the usual hosts of the program in favour of two BNN journalists who had been working the Bell – Astral file: Paul Bagnell and Andrew McCreath. True, Bagnell had been covering the Bell – Astral merger and so had good knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the deal. However, even if that was the bona fide reason for this decision, the usual hosts were told not to recap the interview or to ask their own questions, but also to let the audience know that others with opposing views had been invited to appear but had apparently turned down the offer. It was an unusual move, and it was one that left some shaking their heads and unhappy.

Journalists Rattled

That things were getting uncomfortable inside BNN on October 19th became more apparent as news that Cope was coming on to “Business Day” to discuss the CRTC’s Bell Astral decision began to spread among those working on other BNN programs. As the emails show, journalists began to consider their own stories for the day, but while they did the assignment editor made it clear that one thing they would not be covering was BCE. Indeed, while fielding queries about a third story that was needed to fill out the Streetwise segment for the day, the Assignment Editor stated bluntly, whatever the journalist had in mind, it would “Definitely not [be] BCE”. The company line on that story had already been set elsewhere and they were not about to cross it.

A key point in this exchange is that the two of the journalists involved are not full-time BNN journalists at all. Instead, they parlay their roles as business reporters at the Globe and Mail (where BCE also holds a 15% ownership stake as well and Bell Media President Kevin Crull is a board of director) into the Streetwise segment they, at least at the time, had been hosting at BNN — another indication that the media world in Canada is a small place, indeed, with BCE casting a long shadow over it.

We’ve Gotta Democracy Problem

In sum, today’s report from the Globe and Mail’s James Bradshaw reveals another piece in what is a pattern. Given the examples I have presented, this pattern is one that has also been persistent across time. That they straddle much of the time frame since Bell re-entered the media business – and journalism – after re-acquiring CTV in 2011 should give pause for concern about the wisdom of allowing such extensive consolidation to begin with.

That these events have come out at all is in some ways a relief and a modest victory insofar that they imply that journalists are so upset with the state of affairs that they are blowing the whistle. They are an index that things are not well within BCE’s telecoms, media and internet empire and amongst its journalist rank and file.

Ultimately, given it’s dominance across the length and breadth of the mediascape in Canada, this is an indicator that we have a media problem of major significance. It is also a reminder why allowing such vertically-integrated media giants was a bad idea to begin with. The room for conflicts of interest is just too great and the hubris and will-to-power of those at the top seemingly impossible to keep on a short leash.

Moreover, this is not just a media problem but a democracy problem. In essence, one of Canada’s largest telecoms and media giants appears to be using its media outlets to advance its interests and to meddle deep in government policy while torquing news coverage of such matters.

The CRTC’s Latest Talk TV Decisions: Sweeping Change or Plus Ça Change?

Yesterday the CRTC announced the second phase of its Talk TV decisions (Blais Speech; Decision). The Commission’s efforts are being cast as a significant overhaul of the regulatory framework for TV in Canada, but are they?

Out with the Old (Maybe)

Cast against the anachronism of film and TV quotas forged in the 1920s when Canada was still a member of the British Empire and the CBC just coming into being a decade after that, followed by the Broadcasting Act of 1968, and a long chain of events ever since, Blais’ message was clear: the regulatory edifice built up over the past century must be cleared away. The 21st century is the “Age of Abundance”, and with people increasingly using broadband internet and mobile devices to access content from around the world, the time for change is now.

Some Significant Steps Forward

At the top of the list of things to be discarded are Canadian content quotas during daytime hours. In prime-time, half the hours must still be filled with Cancon while quotas for pay and specialty cable channels have been harmonized downwards to 35% versus their current range from 15-85%. Genre protection for specialty TV channels will be eliminated and licensing requirements for discretionary channels with less than 200,000 subscribers have been dropped.

These moves open room for new services to emerge and could make it easier for people to pick and pay for TV channels they want — depending on the next instalment of the CRTC’s “Talk TV” decision next week.

Another cornerstone of the CRTC’s new approach to TV is to go from protection to promotion, and from a focus on quantity to quality, it says. The CRTC wants to encourage the production of fewer but bigger budget, higher quality TV programs that it hopes can attract Canadian and global audiences. While such efforts have been in the works since the late 1990s, the greater sense of urgency attached to this goal and changes in the means to get there are new.

To such ends, two new pilot projects were announced to fund big budget productions. The Commission also encouraged the government to change the Canadian Media Fund so that financial support can be funnelled to fewer but larger production companies and without the requirement for them to have a licensing agreement in place with a broadcaster (read: Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor, or the CBC) — in essence cutting out the middleman and giving independent producers direct access to CMF financial support. There is also a push for more international co-productions, and to get the fruits of such efforts into as many foreign markets and as many distribution platforms as possible, from Netflix, to Apple, Amazon, and so on.

The CRTC also adopted measures that aim to help staunch the problems that have beset journalism in the past several years. To this end, TV news services will be required to dedicate at least 16 hours a day to original programming, maintain news bureaus in a least three regions outside their main live broadcast studio and to have the “ability to report on international events”. Given the fact that news budgets have been slashed across the country for years, one can hope that such measures may help to stem the tide.

Beware of Vested Interests Wrapping Themselves in the Flag and the Public Interest

In a world in which the forces of the status quo loom large, these changes will rattle some. Anticipating resistance from some well-established quarters, Blais took aim at those who would fight to turn-back the clock:

If you hear criticisms of our decisions ask yourself this question: Are the arguments advanced by these critics those of the public interest or are they rather those that find their true roots in private entitlement, dressed up to look like they are founded on the broader public interest? This town is full of lobbyists whose job it is to spin their client’s private interests into something else, to wrap themselves up, as it were, in the flag, and to puff about Parliament Hill with an air of shock and dismay.

Three Steps Backwards

If we stop the discussion here, then yesterday’s ruling appears to take on the industry and its’ phalanx of lobbyists in order to yank Canadian TV into the 21st century. However, other measures give cause pause for concern.

A Cull of Independent TV Production Companies is Needed

First among these is the CRTC’s view that too many independent television production companies exist, many of which are set up for one-off projects and then wound down. Pointing to an estimate that there are 900 such companies, the CRTC argues that

. . . This project-by-project system hinders growth and does not support the long-term health of the industry . . . . The current situation is no longer tenable. The production industry must move towards building sustainable, better capitalized production companies capable of monetizing the exploitation of their content over a longer period, in partnership with broadcasting services that have incentives to invest in content promotion.

Yet, stand back and questions immediately emerge. The idea that there are 900 firms appears inflated alongside the Canadian Media Production Association’s estimate that 350-400 such companies exist and that a quarter of them have been created for specific projects and wound down immediately afterwards. Moreover, about 20% of those firms account for 80% of the industry’s revenue.

The existence of a vast pool of precarious, short-term production outfits is the norm in the film and TV business, not just in Canada but LA, New York, Wellington, London, Mumbai, almost everywhere (see Tinic and Gasher). This has long been the case, not just in film and TV, but the publishing industry since the 16th century and across the cultural industries from the last half of the 20th century (see Miege and Thompson).

Finally, the CRTC’s notion that too many creators exist stands at odds with the idea that it is supposed to be fostering more diversity, not less. Moreover, it also sounds a lot like the tired old ‘national champion’ strategy which has created the highly concentrated telecoms and media industry and high levels of vertical integration that currently exist and which are the source of so many of the problems being faced today to begin with.

Tearing up the “Terms of Trade Agreements”

Yesterday’s decision discards the ‘terms of trade agreements’ between producers and the large vertically-integrated media companies – Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor – that were put in place in 2011 and 2012 after years of protracted negotiations. Consolidation has reduced the number of sources that producers can go to for financing, rights deals and distribution – the real levers of power in the ‘cultural industries’. The terms of trade agreements tried to offset this reality by creating standard terms of trade and a ‘use-it-or-lose-it” clause that required broadcasters to use the rights they acquired within a year or turn them back to the producer; international and merchandising rights were reserved for producers.

Disputes over such issues, especially for mobile and internet rights, continue. They were a cornerstone of license renewals in 2011 and 2012 and a key reason why many of the producer interests reluctantly signed off on Shaw’s acquisition of Global in 2010 and Bell’s take-over of CTV and Astral Media in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Discarding the ‘terms of trade’ deal is another victory for the vertically-integrated giants and a big loss for independent producers, as head of the CMPA, Michael Hennessy, intimated earlier today on Twitter.

Screenshot 2015-03-13 23.20.53

Vertical Integration and “Tied TV”

The CRTC also treads lightly when it comes to TV services delivered over the internet and mobile, such as Bell’s CraveTV and Shomi, a joint venture by Rogers and Shaw. Unlike Netflix, or HBO, CBS’s “all access”, and other services in the US, these services are not available to everyone in Canada over the internet but tied to a subscription to one of Bell or its partners’ (i.e. Telus and Eastlink) TV services in the case of Crave TV or to Rogers and Shaw’s internet or TV subscribers in the case of Shomi. They are defensive measures designed to protect Bell, Rogers and Shaw’s existing business models and the established TV “system” generally.

If the CRTC really wanted to disrupt the status quo then these attempts to leverage old ways of doing things into the emerging areas of distributing TV over the internet and mobile services would have been a primary target for action.

Instead of tackling the issue head-on, however, the ruling seems to skirt the issues by creating a new category — “exempt hybrid video-on-demand” model – intended to encourage companies to offer TV services to everyone over the internet without being required to subscribe to any of the companies’ other TV or internet services. In return, they could offer exclusive content and be relieved of obligations to fund and showcase Canadian content, as Figure 1 below shows. This is the same treatment that all stand-alone OTT services get under the Digital Media Exemption Order, but with the idea that such services could be distributed across the companies’ closed cable networks and the ‘open internet’ as well.

Video on Demand Services Source: CRTC (2015), The Way Forward, para 106.

Bell statement concluded that the decision will not change the way it offers CraveTV; Rogers has remained mum.

The ruling, however, puts the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Consumers Association of Canada’s recent challenge against Crave TV and Shomi on the grounds that the services play fast and loose with the broadcasting and telecoms acts, as well as the CRTC’s Digital Media Exemption Order, on hold (see here). PIAC-CAC responded to the decision by saying that they

are skeptical today’s decision will have the effect of motivating Bell, and Rogers and Shaw, to make their content available online to every Canadian as a true ‘over-the-top’ service. . . . What today’s decision does not do is declare that Bell, Rogers and Shaw are such ‘hybrids,’ and therefore it appears that the commission will allow the closed, tied model to continue.

Plus Ça Change?

Reducing content quotas and eliminating genre protection are important departures from the past, while taking steps to foster better quality program production may produce fruit. The push to rationalize the TV production sector around fewer and more highly capitalized companies, tearing up the terms of trade agreement, and letting Bell, Rogers and Shaw’s ‘tied TV’ offerings off the hook, however, all appear to reinforce the power of well-established players who have pushed so hard to hold back the tides of change that the CRTC claims to be promoting.

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