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CTRC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais speaks to media at the CRTC offices in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
CTRC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais speaks to media at the CRTC offices in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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Bell head meddled in news coverage Add to ...

The owners of Canada’s largest private broadcaster, CTV, and the country’s television regulator have been locking horns for months as the TV network complained about a series of regulatory decisions. Now those tensions appear to have boiled over.

Sources say that when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decided last week to unbundle cable packages, Kevin Crull, president of Bell Media, which owns CTV, became furious and intervened in the way the network’s journalists covered the news.

The winners and losers of CRTC’s unbundling of cable TV channels (The Globe and Mail)

The incident happened last Thursday, not long after the 4 p.m. release of the CRTC’s so-called “pick-and-pay” decision, which will give consumers more freedom to choose cable and satellite TV channels. Analysts predict the change will be bad for the bottom line at BCE Inc., the parent company of Bell Media.

Shortly after the announcement, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais appeared on BNN, a Bell Media-owned business news station, for a six-minute interview with reporter Greg Bonnell.

Almost immediately, Mr. Crull called Wendy Freeman, the president of CTV News, according to sources close to the network who spoke on condition of anonymity. 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.

Mr. Blais was booked for an interview on the CTV show Power Play at 5 p.m., hosted by Don Martin. But minutes before the show went to air, CTV cancelled Mr. Blais’s appearance. A CRTC spokesperson confirmed the cancellation, but said no reason was given. Instead, the program led with Mr. Martin discussing the decision with Mr. Bonnell.

A news story filed for 6 p.m. local newscasts by CTV reporter John Vennavally-Rao contained no footage of Mr. Blais, even though he had spoken to reporters and TV cameras.

Later that day, sources say, Ms. Freeman spoke with CTV’s chief anchor Lisa LaFlamme, Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife and a news producer. Together, they decided they could not run a major CRTC story without including Mr. Blais, and defied Mr. Crull’s order. The 11 p.m. national newscast had a clip of Mr. Blais discussing the decision’s impact. Mr. Fife reported the story, as it was decided his seniority put him on more solid footing than Mr. Vennavally-Rao.

Bell Media spokesman Scott Henderson declined a request for an interview with Mr. Crull, and did not address specific details of the incident. In an e-mail, Mr. Henderson wrote: “Last Thursday’s CRTC decision was extensively featured on CTV, BNN, CP24, CTV News Channel, and our other news properties across Canada. As with previous CRTC announcements, the Chair and his comments were featured as part of our coverage. CTV News has earned its reputation as Canada’s [No. 1] news broadcast through its adherence to journalistic integrity and independence, and will continue to do so.”

Ms. LaFlamme referred a request for comment to Ms. Freeman, who directed inquiries to Mr. Henderson. Mr. Fife also referred questions to Mr. Henderson.

BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail, and Mr. Crull is a member of the newspaper’s board of directors.

Bell’s feud with the CRTC dates back to the telecommunications and media giant’s purchase of Astral Media in 2012 and 2013, one source said. The CRTC originally rejected the deal, and BCE chief executive officer George Cope alleged the commission had “changed and torqued” the rules. An adjusted bid was later approved and the sale completed, but the bitterness lingered.

More recently, Bell has been on the wrong side of several CRTC rulings. In late January, the regulator banned substitution of Canadian ads in U.S. broadcasts of the Super Bowl, singling out CTV’s highest-rated program and potentially costing the broadcaster millions of dollars annually for years to come. The same day, the CRTC declined to boost financial support for local TV stations, some of which Bell says are in dire trouble, and banned Bell Mobility Inc.’s practice of exempting some mobile TV viewing from its wireless customers’ monthly data caps for a $5 fee.

Mirko Bibic, Bell’s chief legal and regulatory officer, requested a meeting with the CRTC’s commissioners to protest against the decision. He was rebuffed, with a CRTC spokesman saying the commission “does not conduct business behind closed doors.”

Bell sought leave to appeal the Super Bowl and mobile TV decisions in court. And Mr. Crull said in a speech at a broadcasting conference on March 6 that Canada needs “a supportive regulatory and public policy framework – enabling rather than undermining content creators. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have that right now.”

Early last week, Bell lost yet again. The company had challenged Rogers Communications Inc.’s right to keep its online GamePlus application, which offers special camera angles and features during hockey broadcasts, exclusive to Rogers customers. The CRTC dismissed Bell’s complaint.

The biggest blow came last Thursday. The CRTC ordered the creation of a smaller, cheaper basic TV package and mandated that all other channels must be available to order separately by the end of 2016. At a public hearing last fall, Bell said such changes would drive down its revenue and push prices up for many customers.

BCE is the only one of Canada’s largest media and telecommunications companies that has made no public comment on the substance of last week’s decision.

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