Dwayne Winseck, an Ottawa-based media analyst, came out with a rather shocking allegation on his blog on Tuesday: Bell, which is in the middle of a very public battle with the Conservative government and others over rules for an upcoming auction of wireless spectrum, sent memos to news directors at CTV asking for them to cover a study that was favourable to Bell’s position.
Attached to that post is a Word document with partially redacted emails. One is from Kevin Crull, the president of Bell Media. Titled “Fw: Wall Report 2013”, it gives some highlights from a report that came out in July that seemed to show wireless prices in Canada were lower than the U.S. The recipients of this email included Wendy Freeman, president of CTV News.
The other two emails are forwards of the report, one by Chris Gordon, who runs Bell Media radio and local TV news, and the other by Kevin Bell, general manager of CTV Vancouver Island, apparently forwarded from Gordon.
“Kevin is asking if this report can get some coverage today on Talk Radio. National news is covering for TV,” Gordon wrote in his email. “Kevin Crull our President wants us to give this report some coverage. It’s a report on phone charges in Canada,” Bell wrote in his.
Damning charges, if they’re true. Michael Geist picked up the story on his blog. Since neither of them had comment from Bell, I went to get one myself.
Here’s their statement, issued through Scott Henderson, VP of communications for Bell Media:
The Wall Report was a key news story covered by most major news outlets. CTV News and Bell Media Radio provided fair and balanced coverage and stand by their journalistic integrity.
Our news divisions are independently managed and have the full power to make editorial decisions, as outlined in the CTV News Policy Handbook (excerpted below).
2.32 Stories Concerning CTV or Affiliated Companies
Stories concerning the CTV Television Network, affiliated companies or shareholders should be covered in accordance with the same standards of fairness, balance and accuracy applied to any other story. Stories should be neither underreported nor over-reported. Reports on our parent companies, Bell and BCE should include an acknowledgement that they are the owners of our networks. CTV News employees invited to participate in stories should be treated with the same standards as other contributors.
2.33 In-Kind interviews and Product Reviews
Our journalism must remain free from undue commercial influence. If we compromise our principles for financial gain, we damage our credibility and the audience will turn away. If you receive a request to cover an event, review a product or interview an individual who has a commercial relationship with the company, that coverage should be proportional to the event’s newsworthiness.
From time to time, as President of Bell Media, Kevin Crull communicates to his Senior Leadership Team items of interest to the business. Kevin Crull’s e-mail with the Wall Report attached did not request coverage by Bell Media news properties.
Regardless, there is never any expectation for our news divisions to cover issues affecting the company – those decisions rest with the news directors alone and are based on the newsworthiness of the issue. When these issues are covered by Bell Media news properties, we are transparent with our viewers and listeners by acknowledging that Bell is our parent company.
In short: Yes, Kevin Crull sends emails like this one with news about stuff affecting Bell. But no, these emails should not be interpreted as Crull directing CTV News to cover these issues.
I asked Henderson whether the statement in Chris Gordon’s and Kevin Bell’s emails suggest a communication failure here. His response: “We have no further comment.”
In case you’re curious, here’s how CTVNews.ca covered the report: a Canadian Press story (which tends to be a good option when news outlets have to post news stories about themselves) packaged with a video of a CTV News Channel interview with the person who did the report. The video ends with a disclaimer from the anchor that CTV News Channel is owned by Bell Media.
I’ve seen enough CTV News reports about its parent company to know that it doesn’t toy with its reports to make the big bosses happier. But Crull and his executives must be well aware of the pressures that journalists face when it comes to stories about their employers and parent companies, and how much easier it is to follow a suggestion from a boss than it is to argue against it. Not to mention that the amount of importance given to a story is just as important as the content of those stories.
And while it’s perfectly fine to say in an official policy that CTV News deals with its parent company fairly, emails like this from the boss give the opposite message. The head of Rogers or Public Mobile or Option consommateurs can’t send an email to every BCE employee by simply pressing a button. If anything, Bell and Bell Media should be extra careful about even the appearance of possible conflict or interference in news coverage, and this seems to be the exact opposite of that.
At best, these emails show an embarrassing communication failure within Bell Media that needs to be corrected quickly. At worst, they’re indicative of a serious issue of journalistic ethics within the organization, and of the need to separate the business operations of Bell and Bell Media from the editorial operations of CTV News, BNN and Bell Media Radio.
Either way, those who are already convinced that vertical integration is ruining the Canadian broadcasting system have another talking point to bring up about the Evil Bell Empire.
Simply put, I, like others, told you so, the Bell-Astral deal has been the worst business deal for Canadians ever approved.
I am guessing CRTC Chair Mr. Blais must now be having sleepless nights. Astral would have been better off sold to various players for the different segments of their business.
So the president of Bell tells his execs “get me some coverage on this report” and his execs send out an email to its radio, TV and news divisions that the boss wants us to do something about this report in your newscasts.
Really, this is a surprise?
I would get these kind of requests from the owners of Standard Radio and later Astral Media all the time. I’m sure other program directors and news directors at non Bell Media stations do too.
How many times did we get an email about the boss’ favourite charity or favourite cause. Can you interview this person on the talk shows. Can you cover this event.
It is part of the game.
We do it and move on.
All this to say, this is not unique to Bell. It happens all the time and if people in radio and TV are honest, they will tell you the same thing.
And before we all get high and mighty about this … we are just as bad. Today it’s Bell’s pet project … tomorrow it is our pet project … our favourite charity or cause will find its way in news coverage and talk shows or bits between songs.
Frankly, I’m more concerned about all the people losing their jobs because of the Bell/Astral deal. Where is the outrage over that. Why isn’t the RTNDA, the CAB, the CAJ or the regional and provincial broadcasters associations up in arms over this. Local news coverage is impacted by this more than a request from the boss to say something on air about the cost of cell phones.
Hundreds of families are impacted by these job losses. Careers are in ruin. People are unemployed and risk losing their homes when the severance runs out.
To me, this is the real story about the Bell/Astral deal.
This is what has been alleged, but the emails don’t prove this, and Bell denies it. Bell Media’s president (not to be confused with the CEO of Bell Canada or BCE) sent an email with the study to some executives, who apparently interpreted it as a request for coverage when they sent emails down the line.
Because so far the layoffs have been managers, not journalists or on-air staff (as far as I know).
I think you are being a bit naive here. Bell Media’s president sending it down to them says “this is important”, without a doubt. He wouldn’t waste their time with it, he wanted coverage. Plain and simple, the different departments did their job, which is to support their bosses even if it means that the news was either biased or intentionally incomplete.
“Because so far the layoffs have been managers, not journalists or on-air staff ”
Bell has been very careful so far to be giving the axe to less obvious people, ones that most of the public would not know. Obviously the Astral merger means they will have to many technical people, and the firings in sales suggests they spotted overlap there as well. I don’t think they will make the move for on air / in front of camera people until the merge is complete enough that they cannot be undone easily (ie, too big to fail, too integrated to break up). On air people should start to get worried probably early next year, when the office integration across Canada will be completely.
I agree. The email sends a clear message, as evidenced by the comments from executives that passed it along. My point is that he doesn’t explicitly request coverage, he’s only interpreted to have done so by his staff. That’s Bell’s explanation, and I’m not saying I believe it.
They’ve lost quite a few senior executives. I don’t see how they qualify as “less obvious”. As I understand it, the cuts are starting at the top and working their way down. But because the number of radio stations hasn’t gone down, they still need on-air talent to work there. Most of the cuts are happening in jobs like IT, HR, business and legal where there would be more redundancy.
“How many times did we get an email about the boss’ favourite charity or favourite cause. Can you interview this person on the talk shows. Can you cover this event.”
This really is not the same thing. Having a station manager or owner ask you to try and save a few puppies or raise awareness for a charity car wash is not in any way the same as having the VP of a multi-billion dollar corporation telling the news media he controls to shape public opinion by delivering a message that is misleading but good for his agenda.
They did the same thing for the CRTC hearings on Astral, constantly emailing employees telling them to submit letters of support, and now they are filling employee inboxes with constant reminders to get their anti-Verizon letters in. Even worse than preying on the frightened lowest-rung by coercing employees to support their woe-is-me Verizon lie, is trying to influence news. Bell is disgusting through and through. They aren’t fit to hold media properties beyond the mindless fluff they care most about anyway.
You ain’t seen nothing yet. Bell is hasn’t even scratched the surface of abusing its power.
Bullshit behavior like this will lead to a call for amalgamation and nationization of all media and the retrieval of Dominique Payette’s report so what she wrote can be implemented.
Yes, because the way to stop abuse of market power is to eliminate competition altogether.
And is same thing happening in the French-language media?
Let us not forget that the CRTC enabled the mergers and acquisitions which have made Bell and Crull as big as they are (or think they are). The most bogus part of this story is the CRTC claiming they refused a meeting with Bell because they do not conduct their business behind closed doors. That’s exactly what they’ve done for years to the benefit of the broadcasters and the detriment of independent producers, the creative community and most of all the Canadian consumer.
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