Bell Let’s Talk: Are all of Bell Media’s newsrooms independently choosing to cover it?

On Monday, CTV News President Wendy Freeman appeared at a CRTC hearing in Gatineau looking into the future of local television, and she was asked about the editorial independence of Bell Media’s newsrooms, particularly in light of the Kevin Crull scandal, and journalistic independence code that followed it. Here’s what she said, from the transcript of that hearing:

It’s actually working out very well and what we have done is we’ve put a journalistic independence policy in place and basically so that there is never any interference from anyone that no one can ever influence our news division.

And if someone — anyone that works for CTV News feels that they are being pressured or influenced by someone, that they can come to me and that I now have a place to go if I feel that I am being pressured or influenced. And in the end, it is my choice on what we cover and what we do, and I have the final say.

But the independence policy was distributed across the company and in the end it basically says that no one has the right to interfere in our news gathering and in our news, and in our news editorial decision-making. And it has been going well. Thank you for asking.

Bell Media hasn’t published this independence code, but apparently its journalists can go straight to Freeman with any issues, and she reports directly to BCE CEO George Cope.

Two days later, there’s a test of this independence code as BCE does its annual Let’s Talk campaign to raise money and awareness for mental health. A laudable cause, to be sure, but it’s also an ad campaign with Bell’s logo all over it. (I first wrote about that aspect five years ago, and there was a followup counterpoint a year later.)

This year, as it has previously, Bell Media sent out a press release promising wall-to-wall coverage across its properties, including CTV News Channel, CP24, TSN, RDS, BNN, local CTV News stations and news-talk radio stations, plus newsy shows like eTalk and Innerspace. Everything under the Bell Media umbrella was going to talk about this issue.

So how does that square with the journalistic independence code? How are journalists supposed to feel independent if BCE is having them all report on a Bell campaign?

I put the question to Freeman, and here’s what she wrote back to me:

Thanks for checking in. I can confirm with complete certainty that all decisions to cover Bell Let’s Talk day and it’s mental health initiatives by CTV News outlets are made completely independent of corporate influence. CTV Newsrooms are unequivocally free to choose the news they cover.

Bell Let’s Talk Day is a news story every year that is of significant national interest.  It is being covered by a wide range of news outlets, including the CBC.

Millions of Canadians are engaged, making it Twitter’s #1 trending topic nationally and #2 worldwide. From politicians and the royal family to celebrities and athletes,  Bell Let’s Talk Day is clearly of interest to many, and as a result, newsworthy.

With regard to the press release cited in your note, we often announce in advance our coverage plans for news of national importance and of interest to viewers, always subject to change of course depending on the news of the day.

I’m still a bit skeptical about the influence Bell has over its newsrooms’ coverage. Here in Montreal, CTV News at noon had a five-minute remote interview with Mary Walsh near the top of the newscast (she did the rounds of CTV stations), and later another five-minute interview with a pro wrestler. During both, there was a graphic overlay of how many texts, calls and tweets were contributing to the campaign. That graphic, of course, used Bell’s logo, its colours and its fonts.

Mutsumi Takahashi interviews Shayne Hawke on CTV Montreal

Mutsumi Takahashi interviews Shayne Hawke on CTV Montreal

Does anyone believe CTV News would be doing this if this was a Telus campaign? Or a Manulife one? No, it would probably be covering it like CBC and others are covering today’s events: as an average news story about a trending topic, not a news event that requires special attention.

I certainly wouldn’t expect newsrooms to announce their coverage plans days in advance.

But who can be angry about more attention to mental illness, right? It’s a good cause, so why would a news director choose not to report on it, unless out of some malice? Is it so bad to hand over CTV News to Bell’s corporate PR people for a day for some joint venture for charity?

I’m a bit concerned that CTV News and other Bell Media news outlets are being a bit too passive about corporate interference, despite what Freeman says. I certainly wouldn’t expect any of their newsrooms to note the fact that Bell has many employees that don’t enjoy mental health insurance coverage, for example. (Though that’s a larger issue about freelancers and contract workers replacing permanent employees that’s affecting lots of sectors in the economy.)

But I’m more worried about the slippery slope. When CTV News, Bell Media and BCE see themselves as part of the same family, with journalists and corporate PR working so closely together, it’s easier for people to get the impression, like Crull did, that they have the same interests, or even that one is subservient to the other.

Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Maybe all of Bell Media’s newsrooms independently choosing to cover the same issue on the same day is normal and has nothing to do with the fact that the issue is being pushed by Bell Media’s parent company.

Or maybe I’m just being heartless because I’ve never had a mental illness and I should just shut up and let this one slide.

23 thoughts on “Bell Let’s Talk: Are all of Bell Media’s newsrooms independently choosing to cover it?

  1. Wageslave

    I didn’t record conversations, but managers made it very clear weeks in advance that this event would be covered.

    There is no way a low level manager at the CP2-3-4 level is going to do anything but ask how high when the pr flacks say any bell event is taking place

    Reply
  2. Media Man

    Actually, you’re not heartless, this is corporate shilling at its finest…A gross misuse of a corporate charity to blow it’s own horn.. This blog is right on….And why doesn’t Bell give the same attention to other important charities.

    This article also hits home with some Bell hypocrisy. having just replacd full timers, ith lots of contract workers and no benefits..

    http://canadalandshow.com/article/lets-talk-about-how-my-job-bell-gave-me-mental-health-issues-and-no-benefits

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  3. Goalrender Interference

    How can anyone with a straight face say that this is anything other than a use of the news departments that Bell owns for free advertising? And that the choice of topic for the marketing campaign was chosen spacifically to shield it from criticism for violating journalistic independence? You don’t need to worry about the slippery slope because you have already reached the bottom of the slope- you can’t get a more blatant example of corporate interference than running ads for your parent as if it were news.

    Reply
    1. Graham

      If a complaint were to be made for this obvious transgression, where would you make it? CRTC? Bell itself? Thats where Bell knows the waters get murky.

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        If a complaint were to be made for this obvious transgression, where would you make it? CRTC? Bell itself?

        It depends what the complaint is, exactly. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is the industry’s self-regulating body, but its mandate doesn’t really cover things that aren’t broadcast. If you can’t find anything wrong with the stories themselves, they might not be able to do anything.

        You can complain to the CRTC itself if you believe a CTV station is not respecting its conditions of licence, but it’s unclear what condition would be violated here.

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      2. Dilbert

        Graham, you hit the nail on the head. the CRTC has shown again and again to be either powerless on most subjects. They have been working under a sort of regulatory capture situation for probably the last decade or so, with the major companies pretty much able to bend, break, and ignore every rule in the books to get what they want. When the CRTC says “no” it’s generally not a no, but a “rephrase the question better” (see Astral Media purchase).

        Since the CRTC appears to have a hard time standing up to the industry for things that it’s clearly responsible for, asking it to deal with something that isn’t exactly in it’s mandate is likely to end up with no results.

        The Broadcast Standards Council should be the best bet, but again, it is effectively run by the media companies which means it will never come down hard. So you won’t get much satisfaction there either.

        Yoru only hope (honestly) is that the new-ish Liberal government decides to take action in the next couple of years to change the crumbling media landscape in Canada. The CRTC is having all sorts of meetings to talk about the future in vague terms, but are mostly concerned with positioning the deck chairs properly. Real change will come with a new mandate and new regulation IN LAW to limit ownership and to break up the vertical monopolies in Canadian media. The numbers of job losses at the alter of improved bottom line results for companies making a billion or more profit a year is a sickness that needs to be cured.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          They have been working under a sort of regulatory capture situation for probably the last decade or so, with the major companies pretty much able to bend, break, and ignore every rule in the books to get what they want.

          Doesn’t the CRTC set the rules? If the commission is under zombie control of the illuminati, wouldn’t they just change the rules?

          The Broadcast Standards Council should be the best bet, but again, it is effectively run by the media companies which means it will never come down hard.

          The CBSC has no power to fine or otherwise punish broadcasters. Its power is in naming and shaming. Press councils are generally similar.

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          1. Dilbert

            “Doesn’t the CRTC set the rules? If the commission is under zombie control of the illuminati, wouldn’t they just change the rules?”

            The snark detector just maxed out.

            Seriously, regulatory capture ain’t the Illuminati, it’s a serious situation where the major players in an industry have ended up with too much power, the proverbial “too big to fail” situation, and as a result the CRTC has spent the last 20+ years in a deep, deep slumber allowing the big media players to get bigger and bigger without very much control. Even when they say no (Astral sale) they are really saying “yes, just make it sound better”.

            Only recently has the CRTC finally shown a little gumption and desire to at least talk about change, and that is mostly because the Canadian public is yelling pretty loudly about it all.

            “The CBSC has no power to fine or otherwise punish broadcasters. Its power is in naming and shaming.”

            When the media companies pay the bills, the naming and shaming doesn’t happen much at all either. Rather, it’s more like a bunch of old men tut-tutting because someone did something scandalous. It’s a powerless body that exists only to absorb the public’s complaints and neuter them as best they can so the big media guys don’t have to answer for them.

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  4. Marc

    Wendy Freeman is a fantastic writer of propaganda. Just look at that response she gave to your inquiry – it’s epic! Of course the cause is laudable and very important, but the way Bell handles it turns it into astroturfing at its finest.

    Reply
  5. Dilbert

    I think that while Bell head office / higher ups may not come down and say “you must cover this as much as you can”, you can be pretty sure that any of the station managers or department heads who chose not to cover it would be in seriously deep shit the next time they get a job review. The pressure to conform in a place like Bell, especially as they continue to downsize and cut “waste”. You don’t want to be considered waste, so you toe the line.

    Needless to say, it’s another reason why such concentration of media ownership is a terrible idea. They both make the news and report it, you have to imagine nobody within those TV or radio stations will call it out as the blatant use of charity in shameless self-promotion.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      you can be pretty sure that any of the station managers or department heads who chose not to cover it would be in seriously deep shit the next time they get a job review.

      If Bell Media gave a negative job review or disciplined a manager for such a decision, they might put themselves in an actionable position. I think the pressure is more subtle than that.

      Reply
      1. Dilbert

        Oh, you know they would never come out and write it down on a paper or add it to a personnel file, but you gotta know they would be keeping score. The fear that they are keeping score is in no small part why this stuff gets such big wall to wall coverage in the Bell Media world – nobody but nobody wants to be the guy (or the girl) who forgot to suck up to the bosses.

        The negative job review would be more like “doesn’t work well with others” “:doesn’t understand the company vision” “doesn’t communicate well with head office” and things like that. Disciplining someone could be as easy as firing them from a management job and re-hiring them 6 months later in sales. Not saying it has happened, but well…

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  6. Graham

    I’m sure Bell did not say anything. That wouldn’t be unethical. However if you’re a program director who is smart enough to pick up the “wink wink nudge nudge”, you better fall in line. #BellLetsTalk

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  7. Former BLT Spokesperson

    I was a Bell Let’s Talk spokesperson a few years back. Bell’s corporate PR people contacted in December to confirm my contact details and my availability for Bell Let’s Talk Day. They told me they had no influence as to if any of their stations contacted me for the interviews because each newsroom exercises editorial control of who they interview and were independent of Bell corporate. My name and a brief blurb about me was simply included amongst several other people’s. I know corporate PR wanted me interviewed on specific programs but none of their requests were granted. I should also note that 3 of my interviews on Bell Let’s Talk Day a few years ago (that were live) were canceled in favour of breaking news as I was waiting in the green room to go into the studio. They decided to air breaking news in my slot and rather than offering me another slot, they just kept going as if it was another other day. On one hand I was disappointed that some of my interviews were canceled but on the other hand it was refreshing to see that some other stories took precedence over Bell Let’s Talk Day.

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  8. Mario D.

    I really appreciate that campaign because nobody and i mean nobody is doing anything about mental illnesses .
    I do feel a je-ne sais quoi of awkward about it ,wondering if this is not rather a massive Bell publicity idea guarantying that a that date, the market is all theirs…
    I do not mind about Bell promoting through their properties that campaign as if it was nothing else than a initiative to promote it s brand. Let s not be blind and accuse Bell of being the only one to do it !

    Again through your questioning about it you are underlying what is most important, the mental illnesses…But THIS is nothing new in society.

    Reply
    1. Dilbert

      Mario, that feeling is because it’s BELL’s let’s talk rather than “LET’S TALK”. It’s first and foremost about what Bell is doing and how greatly concerned BELL is about stuff, and how BELL is working to make a difference. If they look their name and logo off the project, just put a quite reminded line at the bottom or something… it would be much easier to take. This seems to be way more about promoting BELL, than actually doing anything about the underlying cause they support.

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  9. Patrick

    Refreshed to see I’m not the only one who picks up on the corporate fudging by the nation’s most hated corporate entity. The Bell campaign can be smelled a mile away. Sure, it’s a campaign for a great cause… but have you seen any others of its grandeur? Probably not- because this one can get coast to coast coverage in every Bell-owned newsroom. But is the mental health campaign really NEWS? Is this campaign PARTICULARLY something that should be on a news show? No. Covering mental illness is fine when it’s à-propos or when an event happens which involves the issue. But assembling the entire country’s news resources to cover it is a HUGE waste of airtime. All those repeated interviews with the same people, etc. I say they should just make a 15 minute production and slop it on the website. That’ll do fine. But then Bell wouldn’t get to splash their logo in 2-hour long suppertime advertising campaigns, now would they?

    As one commenter above pointed out, CTV News is no longer on a slippery slope, it’s coasting down the mountainside on a toboggan. There really isn’t much integrity left any more. But that’s what happens when you let a huge corporation that’s already shown over decades that it is greed and corrupt buy the biggest TV chain in the country. CTV News is still my favorite to watch, but that’s only out of habit (BTW I watch CTV Atlantic instead of CTV Montreal). I noticed a lot of integrity lost during the elections. The journalists aren’t even TRYING to be impartial anymore (Sure, we were all happy – but at least try to be nonpartisan, Ms. Laflamme!). All this, plus the gutting of the stations, laying off of well-known news personalities, down-sizing left and right… In 5 years, there won’t be much left except maybe a website… and you’ll have to watch CTV News via Netflix.

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  10. Mike

    How is this different from CBC’s Sounds of the Season event for local foodbanks that is plugged on CBC TV and on their CBC News website? Media typically do not report on or promote events of their competitors. This event will not get a mention by Bell or Rogers properties. CHIN radio in Toronto sponsored an free annual family event on Canada Day for many years. It was not to my knowledge, reported by competing broadcasters. I think this is about branding. If the corporate objective is to raise the profile of the issue, this is what they should do. Bell’s Let’s Talk is about a social issue. It is also a Bell initiative, not a Global TV initiative. Kevin Crull was about interfering with how a news story was reported.

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      How is this different from CBC’s Sounds of the Season event for local foodbanks that is plugged on CBC TV and on their CBC News website?

      Sounds of the Season is a CBC Toronto event (I’ve never heard of it because it’s not advertised in Montreal). I would argue that’s different from promoting a campaign by your parent company.

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      1. Mike

        I agree and believe that all broadcasters do the same. Sounds of the Season is a Toronto event. CBC Montreal’s 2015 Christmas Sing-In charity drive is a Montreal event. It is not the Christmas Sing-in. It is promoted as the CBC Montreal Sing-In. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/cbc-montreal-sing-in-2015-1.3319263. Bell is able to capitalize on the brand recognition of their product which is no different from CBC and as such, are able to raise more money and awareness. If you are suggesting that it would be a good career move to give your employer due consideration, I would agree. I would then see this as a business issue that is not related only to Bell.

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    2. Dilbert

      Mike, the difference I think is tone. The CBC thing is about the charity, and isn’t linked in any way to CBC’s business – they don’t give more money if you listen more or anything like that. The cause is primary, and the CBCs involvement is about promoting the cause and not themselves.

      BELL’s situation is exactly the reverse. From the stacked media coverage and the prominence given to their logo and name in the campaign, it’s all about BELL and a lot less about the topic at hand. Having their stations use a particular graphic (where the BELL name is about as large as the cause title) and the use of their corporate name to identify the cause (It’s BELL’s Let’s Talk, not Let’s Talk). Again, it’s about tone.

      It’s also about getting all of your corporate media players to give “wall to wall” coverage. Technically good for the cause, but do you honestly think they would do it if their name wasn’t such a prominent part of the deal? If it was just Let’s Talk and the graphics didn’t include BELL’s name in big letters on the screen for an extended period of time, do you think they would do the same?

      If the answer is no, then you know the difference between BELL and the CBC version of charity and community giving.

      Reply

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