Can CTV News and BNN be trusted to report on themselves? Depends on Kevin Crull’s mood

Was Bell Media President Kevin Crull misinterpreted by the managers under him? Bell won't say.

Bell Media President Kevin Crull made a major gaffe that cost CTV News its integrity.

CTV News has a solid reputation for integrity, built from decades of strong journalism and a deeply entrenched culture of professionalism. It’s not perfect, and it’s vulnerable to the same biases that affect all other media, but I have no doubt that if a source tried to use financial or other pressure to affect how a CTV News story was told, that person would justifiably be told to get lost.

So when people start spouting conspiracy theories about CTV News coverage, I’m very skeptical. Yeah, them not reporting on some minor thing involving a competitor could be direct orders from Bell Media’s president, but more likely it’s because some assignment editor didn’t think it was newsworthy.

Now, I’m starting to wonder if I should rethink the assumption that CTV News wouldn’t throw away decades of work building its reputation because of a senior executive’s narrow-minded attempt to intentionally bias a story.

On Wednesday, the Globe and Mail reported that Bell Media President Kevin Crull interfered in news coverage of last week’s CRTC decision involving channel packaging, effectively ordering CTV News President Wendy Freeman to forbid Bell-owned news outlets from interviewing CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais.

The report, based on sources that would not be named publicly, was damning:

Mr. Crull told Ms. Freeman he was in charge of the network and that Mr. Blais was not to appear on air again that day, according to accounts of the exchange.

After the call, sources say, Ms. Freeman contacted CTV staff to tell them of the directive from Mr. Crull and not to use clips of Mr. Blais, telling some she felt she would be fired if they did not comply. Other CTV employees were concerned for their jobs, according to a source.

Hours later, Blais issued a statement expressing concern about CTV News’s editorial independence. It amounts to little more than a wag of the finger, and does not suggest any consequences if Bell continues to act in this way. It says complaints should be directed to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, but doesn’t say the CRTC itself or its chairman will complain.

Finally, after initially downplaying the story through a spokesman, Bell Media issued a statement credited to Crull apologizing for his actions:

I reached out to the CTV News leadership team to let them know I felt the focus on the CRTC itself by CTV and other Canadian news organizations would be better placed on a broad and necessary discussion of the impacts of the CRTC’s decisions on consumers, our team members, and our business.

It was wrong of me to be anything but absolutely clear that editorial control always rests with the news team. I have apologized to the team directly for this mistake. Indeed their strong and straightforward reaction to my intrusion only heightens my appreciation of their independence, integrity and professionalism. It is crucial to note that CTV’s coverage of the CRTC’s decisions was fair, balanced and extensive, and stands up in comparison to coverage of the issue by any Canadian news organization.

In short, I’ve re-learned a valuable lesson from the best news team in the business.

Re-learned indeed. Because this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2013, Crull was accused of trying to meddle in CTV News coverage of a policy issue affecting Bell. There too, Bell’s statement said news decisions rest with the news team and are not directed by Crull. I asked Bell’s spokesperson if there was a failure of communication there, and if the news team should have been better educated that Crull does not direct news coverage. The response I got was a refusal to comment further.

Crull’s apology is a good step, but an entirely empty one. It contains no mention of any measures to prevent this from happening again. It fails to address the accusation that Crull told Freeman “he was in charge of the network” or reassure CTV News and BNN employees that their jobs are not in jeopardy if they cover a story in a way that Crull or BCE don’t like.

Crull credits the “strong and straightforward reaction to my intrusion” even though the reaction was the exact opposite of that. No one called Crull to defiantly say he had no business interfering in news coverage. They followed his order until finally by the time of CTV National News they decided to ignore it. Then they anonymously complained to the Globe and Mail. Nothing about this was straightforward.

That’s not a complaint against CTV News staff. It takes a lot of guts to go against the boss. My point is that if he thinks he has no influence over CTV News, he’s out of his mind. If the Globe’s report is accurate, Wendy Freeman thought she’d be fired. That’s serious, and it requires a much more serious response than “oops my bad but it was no big deal”

Crull also says “CTV’s coverage of the CRTC’s decisions was fair, balanced and extensive” which means either he thinks it doesn’t matter that they censored the commission’s chairman because they eventually stopped censoring him, or he doesn’t think it’s important for a TV story about a major CRTC decision to include comments from the CRTC.

If Crull is serious about respecting the editorial integrity of CTV News and protecting it from himself, some serious measures need to be put in place, because otherwise we have only Crull’s assurance that this won’t happen again after it already happened at least twice (and possibly more — Dwayne Winseck quotes a BNN employee saying it was common for Bell brass to get special treatment in their news coverage).

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is not the appropriate body to deal with this. It acts based on complaints, and if anonymous sources hadn’t come forward to the Globe and Mail, no one would have known about this intrusion.

Crull needs to do more than apologize. He needs to launch an independent investigation into the editorial integrity of Bell Media’s news operations when dealing with stories about Bell. He needs to put a stronger wall between himself and CTV News/BNN, which prevent him from contacting news managers about news coverage. And he needs to offer guaranteed assurance that whistleblowers exposing attempts to meddle in CTV News coverage won’t be punished for coming forward.

Meanwhile, other large media companies should similarly put in place measures to protect their newsrooms’ integrity: Quebecor, Shaw Media, Rogers, Cogeco, Transcontinental and others often put their journalists in positions where they have to report on their parent companies. What assurance do we have that they aren’t getting similar orders from their CEOs about how to do it?

Yes, this is an argument about vertical integration. But non-integrated companies are not immune to this kind of interference. Even the smallest community newspapers can have publishers who put the bottom line above journalistic integrity. The difference is that CTV News has the budgetary resources to hire an ombudsperson or other independent person who the public can trust to blow the whistle whenever journalism is threatened by self-interest.

Until these major steps are taken to restore and preserve trust, unfortunately Mr. Crull’s actions have caused CTV News to lose the benefit of the doubt.

UPDATE: CTV National News included a story about Crull. It did not include any interviews with Crull or anyone at CTV News.

And the Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey has a more satirical take on the news.

19 thoughts on “Can CTV News and BNN be trusted to report on themselves? Depends on Kevin Crull’s mood

  1. Don

    Excellent summary of the events and Crulls’s predicament. Thanks. You nailed it. In this case, I struggle to believe that Freeman et al, with such stellar credentials, would ever be afraid of being fired by Crull. At least they shouldn’t have been. That would be worse for Crull because the story would have come out anyway but in a more unpleasant (and hugely expensive) report.

    But I think an inquiry is a resource sapping exercise which should never have been necessary. Crull has tarnished the corporate and personal brands of all off and on-camera personnel. Crull must leave or be walked out. It’s the only option left to BellMedia. I worked at Bell and saw people lose their jobs over actions that pale in comparison. Crull has stolen the integrity and positive news brand perception from CTV that is worth infinitely more than other internal improprieties would ever be. Keeping him on speaks loudly about Bell’s real integrity as a reputable media organization.

    Reply
  2. Dilbert

    “Yes, this is an argument about vertical integration.”

    It’s the case made against vertical integration. It’s the perfect example that the CRTC should be latching onto and using as the hammer to put the nails into the coffin of this insane set of business arrangements.

    The time is here for the Canadian govenrment to stand up and say “no more” and to pass specific and detailed laws that block certain types of media ownership combinations, and that set solid unavoidable guidelines for the breakup of these monopoly players. This has long passed the point of being a problem, and clearly the CRTC is unwilling and unable to take anything more than stuttersteps towards dealing with the real underlying issues of the Canadian industry.

    You have a real problem when operating on the public airwaves is apparently a break even or money losing concept, but operating as a cable channel is a recipe for 20-50% profits every year. You have bigger problems when the companies that control the distribution also control the content and the selection of programming that people can see. It’s compounded when those same players are also the biggest players in the internet and digital distribution world as well. You cannot cut the cord, you cannot get away from the duopoly that most people face.

    Bell just showed us clearly what happens when one company controls the news, the distribution of the news, and a big chunk of what might be alternate sources for the news. BNN, CTV news CTV local channels, the biggest pieces of the Angle radio market…. why isn’t the CRTC really dealing with this problem?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      You have a real problem when operating on the public airwaves is apparently a break even or money losing concept, but operating as a cable channel is a recipe for 20-50% profits every year.

      Sure, but how does ending vertical integration or breaking up Bell solve this problem?

      Reply
      1. Dilbert

        “Sure, but how does ending vertical integration or breaking up Bell solve this problem?”

        Pretty simple, actually. If the broadcast networks and the cable channels were not owned by the same people, it’s very likely that the broadcasters would work to have the CRTC amend the laws regarding cable channels to stop their double dipping (both ad money and subscription), or create a system of double dipping that is equal for all players.

        If you believe the numbers, bell, shaw, and rogers all either break even or lose money on OTA tv. However, because each of them (a) makes 20-50% profits on their cable channels, and (b) make additional 10-20% profits as a cable distributor, they aren’t complaining too loudly. Net net, Bell Media made about a 25% profit last year, plus the profits from distribution as FIbe or BellTV.

        Breaking it up (seperating ownership of OTA, cable, and the distribution networks… and internet for that matter) would get players on each side looking out for their own part of the industry. They would pull on the financial blanket to get more on their side, and would likely change significantly the look of Canadian broadcasting.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          If the broadcast networks and the cable channels were not owned by the same people, it’s very likely that the broadcasters would work to have the CRTC amend the laws regarding cable channels to stop their double dipping (both ad money and subscription), or create a system of double dipping that is equal for all players.

          But they’ve been doing that already. Or, rather, they’ve been trying to convince the CRTC to find a way to give the broadcast networks some additional revenue to make them profitable again. Both VI companies like Bell and non-VI companies like CBC and V have been doing this, without success so far. Without vertical integration, companies like Rogers and Quebecor (whose stronger cable interests have made them less vocal on the broadcast side) might be pushing harder, but it’s not like the CRTC is unaware of the problem or that nobody is bringing the issue up.

          Reply
          1. Dilbert

            ” but it’s not like the CRTC is unaware of the problem or that nobody is bringing the issue up.”

            Yes, but they are bringing it up almost in an abstract sort of way, sort of like knowing you are in bad shape and have glogged arteries and high blood pressure… but not doing anything about it until after the heart attack kills you or the stroke leaves you unable to care for yourself.

            Bell, Rogers, Quebecor, and Shaw very specifically don’t want to change the game too much because they make out like bandits on every other level, so giving it up and losing a bit on OTA isn’t really that painful. At best, they will perhaps agree to the OTA people getting a prescription for blood thinners or perhaps an aspirin, but they are unlikely as hell to do anything about the actual situation because they know the money to pay for it will likely come out of their very (some would say sickeningly) profitable cable and distribution businesses.

            WIthout VI, the various players would be constantly fighting for what is best for their individual parts of the business. With VI, the companies are fighting to figure out the best way to milk the cow (the consumer) until they are dry.

            Reply
  3. Media Man

    Well I have to appear on this one..Dilbert, as always, you rock and are right on..I was either gonna reply to you or go my own…But I’ve also said the same thing..on the TV stuff and the Bell_Astral merger, Which I believe, is even worse..

    But it gets worse, besides the TV interference, I also have evidence, ( emails from BellMedia people) that there’s corporate interference from the top about what music is played at the local radio stations ( Virgin Radio-Mtl, Majic100 –Ottawa, for example) and interferes with the local PD’s and MD’s….Their commitment to play 30 % of CanCon be emerging artists is a sham, which should have been a condition of licence. This means, for example, more indie artists should be played on local stations…

    I can give you three or 4 examples of local music with an even better beat than some American syrupy pop..So who’s checking up on this. Yes I am upset, because of what I was told…

    So Steve, how do I whistleblow this stuff out there..maybe I’ll give it to you for the Gazette, I don’t know…Bell must be put in its place…

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      But it gets worse, besides the TV interference, I also have evidence, ( emails from BellMedia people) that there’s corporate interference from the top about what music is played at the local radio stations ( Virgin Radio-Mtl, Majic100 –Ottawa, for example) and interferes with the local PD’s and MD’s

      Unless that “interference” is to insert songs by Kevin Crull and the Crulltones into the playlist, it’s not the same kind of interference. Bell deciding from a corporate level what music gets aired on radio stations might suck for local music directors, but it’s not unethical.

      Reply
  4. EO

    Bell has made other questionable moves with BNN in recent months, like the exceptional decision to cut live to a launch event for CraveTV where Crull was speaking about the new platform. BNN rarely cuts to live events unless they’re major developments, mostly (I think) because it’s a drain on resources. The channel hardly touched on the launch of Roger’s Shomi (if at all), which started operating around the same time, yet it banged the drum on Crave throughout the launch day, including it in top-of-the-hour news updates alongside the latest economic news.

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  5. Fred Ennis

    The problems started back in the 70s with the growth of cable TV. At the time, the CRTC should have made a decision that a corporation could own the pipeline or the programming, but not both.

    As for Kevin Crull, I’m sure he will have to disappear from Bell’s corporate offices. While part of me would like to see a long-drawn-out embarrassment for the guy, it may take a while for his board of directors to realize how much the guy has embarrassed the entire corporation. Kevin Crull has underlined the major problem with big corporations owning broadcast undertakings. We can’t believe a story about the company that owns them is being presented in an unbiased way.

    Personally, I’d like to see the CRTC use this as a reason to offer CTV a limited license renewal next time around, a move that would make more corporate execs think twice about interfering with legitimate news judgement by people they have hired to project credibility and professionalism in their news broadcasts.

    I spent many years in the business, I am delighted I got out before it turned to this turgid festering mess.

    Fred

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  6. Joe Clark

    One of your paragraphs is missing end punctuation.

    “Ombudsman” is a Swedish word and does not need to be made faux-gender-neutral. No “ombudsperson” exists anywhere.

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  7. Dilbert

    Oh, one other thing to toss out there: Bell Media’s pre-tax profit on their cable and specialty channels is almost exactly equal to their advertising income. In simple terms, if specialty channels could not accept advertising, the financial picture would change dramatically.

    I couldn’t easily find a fast breakdown per channel, but it would be very interesting to see what the results would be (theoretical, of course) if these channels had to choose between a subscription model or a sponsor / advertising supported model.

    For what it’s worth, if you take their pre-tax profits and distribute it out evenly to every cable / sat subscriber in Canada, you would get about $3 a month off. Add in Shaw, Rogers, and the like and the average cable bill could drop $10-$20 a month based on the double dipping profits of these companies.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Bell Media’s pre-tax profit on their cable and specialty channels is almost exactly equal to their advertising income.

      Bell Media pre-tax profit for specialty and pay channels: $400 million. Advertising income for those channels: $479 million.

      I couldn’t easily find a fast breakdown per channel, but it would be very interesting to see what the results would be (theoretical, of course) if these channels had to choose between a subscription model or a sponsor / advertising supported model.

      They’d all have to do with a lot less money. Premium services that are expensive would move to a subscription model, and popular but cheap programming would be free. I don’t think the consumer would win out, though. A few of Bell’s channels (the Much-branded all-music channels) have already abandoned advertising because it wasn’t worth it.

      For what it’s worth, if you take their pre-tax profits and distribute it out evenly to every cable / sat subscriber in Canada, you would get about $3 a month off.

      Yeah, that’s about right. About $400 million divided by 12 million subscribers divided by 12 months, about $2.77. But since Bell Media is not a non-profit company, I’m not sure what the point of this calculation is.

      Reply
      1. Dilbert

        ” Premium services that are expensive would move to a subscription model, and popular but cheap programming would be free. ”

        The point is that if you pay for a channel, you shouldn’t have to pay AGAIN by having to watch ads. It’s the basic trade off of free TV, you get free entertainment in return for the TV station selling ad space during that programming.

        A good comparison would be radio. OTA radio is generally commercially supported. Subscription models (online, sat radio, etc) are “ads free”. You pay a fee and you no longer are subject to advertising. It’s part of what makes the product attractive.

        For Cable channels, it’s a double whammy. They charge for service, and they subject you to ads. This model works in the US where OTA channels also collect significant revenues from cable and thus all players on cable are the same. In Canada, since the local stations are not really collecting anything from the distribution of their signals, the system has created an unfair advantage for cable channels in Canada.

        The two solutions are either to have the cable companies pay OTA channels for their signals (which would likely increase cable bills) or to have cable channels no longer able to be both a subscription and advertising model setup. If they charge subscription, they should not be allowed to sell ads. If they want to sell ads, then the channel should be given free to cable companies and passed on to consumers in that manner as well.

        So the $3 calculation is an indication perhaps of the difference for consumers. If each of the big cable channel players was forced to give up one or the other steam of revenue and pick an operating model, consumers could see their cable bills drop. Certain channels might get more expensive (as subscription only) but you can imagine that consumer satisfaction with those channels would increase as a result of either no ads or no fee to watch. Combined with skinny base cable and pick and play, this would be a landscape changeer, one that would likely shut down a lot of unpopular subscriber supported channels that would lose subscriptions and don’t have enough viewers to support their channels, and at the same time could very well give rise to new services that could operate in the new circumstances – quite possibly not owned by the VI legacy players.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          The point is that if you pay for a channel, you shouldn’t have to pay AGAIN by having to watch ads.

          Why not? Who instituted this rule? If HBO offered itself at half-price for people who were willing to watch ads, do you think people would refuse?

          A good comparison would be radio. OTA radio is generally commercially supported. Subscription models (online, sat radio, etc) are “ads free”

          The economics of television and radio aren’t on the same scale. Television is much more expensive, hence the need for higher revenue.

          If each of the big cable channel players was forced to give up one or the other steam of revenue and pick an operating model, consumers could see their cable bills drop.

          Or go way up because subscription channels can no longer offset costs with advertising. And the quality of what is broadcast by those channels would decrease because of the decreased revenue.

          Reply
          1. Dilbert

            “Why not? Who instituted this rule? If HBO offered itself at half-price for people who were willing to watch ads, do you think people would refuse?”

            It’s the creation of an unfair marketplace. For OTA TV stations who cannot collect fees from the cable companies for their signals, they are in a significantly disadvantaged position. With 85% plus of all viewership coming via cable, the OTA channels are very disadvantaged, to the point where they can no longer compete for things link major sports or similar programming. Just like simsub, the artificial situation created has done nothing except drive up the costs of programming.

            Put another way: How much do you think Sportsnet et al would have paid for the NHL if they knew their cable channels had to either (a) live on subscription revenue alone, or (b) live on advertising revenue alone? Answer is MUCH less than they did. Who pays for that huge increase in price? Consumers.

            “Or go way up because subscription channels can no longer offset costs with advertising. ”

            I think it’s much mpre likely that prices would go up, and with pick and play, consumers would choose fewer channels (the ones they actually like, not the ones they are roped into by packages) and the ones that are not popular will die off, rather than making obscene profits while nobody is watching.

            It’s also a bit of crap argument anyway, considering that many of the cable channels replay their content on an 8 hour cycle, and repeat the same episodes of shows for years and years even in prime time. They have been making upwards to 50% profits and doing this, so how exactly do you think the channels would get all that much worse?

            The potential too is that channel operators (both cable and OTA) would move back to actually producing some of their own content, as they can do it for less than what they pay others to do it – they can gain in volume.

            No matter what, any industry with upwards to a 50% profit margin needs a shakeup.

            Reply
  8. Dilbert

    Hey, we can throw one more log on this fire…

    how about some commentary and in depth reporting on Postmedia / Sun deal where the various properties were told to say nothing about the deal?

    Oh wait… too close to home.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      how about some commentary and in depth reporting on Postmedia / Sun deal

      Sure. But it won’t be from me because of the rather obvious conflict of interest.

      where the various properties were told to say nothing about the deal?

      I was never given such an order. I can’t speak to other staff.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: Bell fires Kevin Crull — but that doesn’t solve the problem | Fagstein

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