Cross Posted from my Mediamorphis blog.

Earlier this week, the Globe and Mail’s James Bradshaw reported that Bell Media President Kevin Crull tried to ban 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.

Some CTV journalists, however, refused to bend, notably National News anchor Lisa Laflamme and senior journalist, Robert Fife. The President of CTV News, Wendy Freeman, did the same, despite reportedly fearing for her job. Others, however, did yield, and the pressure was there for all to see.

The CRTC’s chair, J. P. Blais blasted Bell for fiddling with the news, calling the allegation that “the largest communication company in Canada [was] manipulating news coverage . . . disturbing. . . . An informed citizenry cannot be sacrificed for a company’s commercial interests”. “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”, he wondered aloud.

Crull issued an apology within the day, but it hardly seemed to offer the contrition the situation demands. Others were far from impressed (Faguy, Geist, Nowak). Some called for Crull’s resignation; others for Great Walls of Editorial Independence and Freedom Within the Newsroom to be resurrected (Faguy, Nowak). I am doubtful that such measures are either effective or desirable.

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.

These concerns appear to be part of a recurring pattern, as I first suggested 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 relatively 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 were the tip of the iceberg. Interference is rampant. 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. BNN is in a shambles and being run on a shoestring.

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 to register their dismay with the CRTC’s decision in October 2012 to reject Bell’s first attempt to take-over Astral Media. Blais email address is conveniently provided. The idea that Bell employees would or should share such a view is presumptuous to say the least.

The materials also outline events where BNN programs have been stage-managed through ”œpre-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, ”œIn all my years as a journalist I’d never witnessed such editorial interference or ”˜bullying’ tactics. I was shocked.” They also asked me to ”œkeep 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’ ”œwith 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 and his interventions in coverage of the CRTC’s Talk TV decisions, these events 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 ”œWireless 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 ”œBusiness Day”. However, before he did, senior editors at BNN convened an hour-long ”œpre-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 ”œBusiness 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 ”œDefinitely 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, the report from the Globe and Mail’s James Bradshaw earlier this week is part of a pattern. This pattern appears to be persistent across time, straddling much of the time frame from when Bell re-entered the media business – and journalism – after re-acquiring CTV and Astral in 2011 and 2013, respectively. This should give pause for concern about the wisdom of allowing such extensive consolidation and, in particular, vertical integration 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 Bell’s dominance across the mediascape in Canada, we have a media problem of major significance. The regulatory green light to vertically-integrated media giants was a bad idea to begin with and this is one reason why. 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.

Yet, Crull’s outbursts and these attempts to micromanage the news might also be a sign that, far from being the unshakeable behemoth that it would like to be, Bell may be stumbling, as Michael Geist suggests. Having bet the farm on vertical integration, Bell appears to be discovering that in an internet- and mobile-centric media environment, things — with a little help from the regulator — may turn out to look more like lego-land, with people picking and choosing their devices, network and content in a cobble-it-together-as-you-go-along way, rather than taking what they are offered from within a well-integrated system based on big bundles and a giant pyramid of power, as the company seems to have imagined.

If Bell’s pursuit of the “walled garden 2.0” strategy through its take-overs of CTV and Astral in 2011 and 2013 fail, it won’t be the first time. How many people remember Jean Monty hanging out with the gurus of convergence Gerald Levin and Steven Chase from Time Warner and AOL in New York at the height of the dot.com era? Having drank the convergence kool-aid at the turn-of-the-21st century, Bell execs came back from New York and went on a buying spree, taking over and then trying to run CTV and the Globe and Mail between 2000 and 2006. The venture was a colossal failure — a key story in the company’s modern history that has been excised not just from the news but the company’s annual corporate history, aka its annual reports.

In the end, this is not just a Bell problem or even just a media and journalism problem but a democracy problem. Canada’s largest telecoms and media giant appears to be using its media outlets to advance its own corporate interests, to meddle in government policy, and to shape the overall communications environment in which more and more of lives unfold.