In the past three years there have been at least three formal reviews involving Bell Media newsrooms, in response to complaints over incidents that included alleged bullying by managers, sexual harassment, and the use of the N-word during an inclusive-leadership training session.
Now, as the company prepares to embark on another review, this one triggered by growing backlash over the dismissal of long-time CTV National News anchor Lisa LaFlamme, staff members say they are apprehensive that the process will not lead to substantial change – because, they say, past reviews didn’t either.
The Globe and Mail learned of the previous reviews in interviews with dozens of people who work in Bell Media’s news divisions in a variety of roles, both local and national. The Globe is not naming them because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal company matters.
Exactly what the latest review will entail is unclear. Bell Media did not respond to questions from The Globe about its scope. According to an e-mail sent to the national news team, the investigation will be conducted by Sarah Crossley and Laura Freitag, two employment lawyers with Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP.
On Friday, Bell Canada chief executive Mirko Bibic announced that Michael Melling, Bell Media’s vice-president of news, would be taking a leave pending the outcome of the review. Mr. Bibic pledged that the company would act quickly to make any changes recommended by the investigators.
Mr. Bibic said he was “satisfied” that Ms. LaFlamme’s “age, gender or grey hair” did not play a role in the decision to remove her as anchor.
Bell Media announced Mr. Melling’s leave after CTV News journalists – acting through human rights and employment lawyer Paul Champ – sent a letter to Mr. Bibic, as well as Bell Media president Wade Oosterman and Bell’s board of directors (BCE Inc.). The letter expressed a lack of confidence in Mr. Melling’s leadership. The journalists also voiced concerns about a toxic work environment, and alleged that those who speak out are punished. They asked that the third-party review be conducted off-site, so that employees feel comfortable expressing their concerns without fear of retribution.
One of the three previous reviews centred on the workplace culture at CP24, a specialty news channel in Toronto, of which Mr. Melling was the general manager between December, 2018 and December, 2021.
In late 2020, a three-page anonymous letter was slipped under the door of a local office of Unifor, the union that represents some CP24 employees. The letter alleged ongoing bullying, racism and sexism within the newsroom, and the writer included a long list of specific incidents they said had taken place between staff and managers. The writer said the problems had been long-standing, and had continued under current management.
Randy Kitt, the director of media for Unifor, confirmed that a union representative met with Bell Media’s human resources department to discuss the allegations.
According to a written record of that meeting, the contents of which were recounted by a source connected to the file, whom The Globe is not naming because they were not authorized to speak about it, human resources told the union that Bell Media’s workplace practices division – which handles internal investigations – had reached out to all the people named in the letter, and that those staff members “did not disclose any issues.”
The Globe interviewed three of the people who were named in the letter as victims of harassment. Two said they had no idea the letter existed until a few days ago, when it began to circulate in the newsroom during the recent upheaval. And two said they don’t recall ever having been contacted about a harassment review.
One of the three said they do remember receiving an e-mail from human resources during this period. They said the message asked if they wanted to discuss any issues with harassment in the workplace. The employee said they found the e-mail confusing, and that they did not feel comfortable disclosing their concerns to an internal Bell Media investigator.
Despite the fact that Bell Media’s internal review did not find any issues, the company hired an external investigator. This review was led by workplace consultant Judith Martin-Trudeau, according to documents viewed by The Globe.
At the time, Mr. Melling – who was also in charge of CTV News Toronto – described the external review as a “temperature check” for the newsroom. Staffers say they were not told that it was prompted by an anonymous complaint letter.
One person who was described as a victim of harassment in the letter said the writer’s account of those events was accurate. But the person said they did not feel comfortable talking about their issues with Ms. Martin-Trudeau.
“I didn’t have any trust in the third-party investigation. I didn’t think it would make any sort of a difference if I shared negative instances,” the person said. “Speaking up, truthfully, puts a target on your back.”
The Globe viewed a screenshot of a May, 2021 virtual meeting in which the external review’s findings were presented to staff members. The investigation found “interactions sometimes described as direct and harsh from leaders,” and a “stressful environment in the newsroom where yelling, raised voices and outbursts can occur.”
But little has changed at CP24, staff members say.
“If you want to know what the company thought about that review, about the toxic culture in the newsroom, Michael [Melling] was promoted at the end of the year,” said a person who participated in the review.
The Globe put questions about this review to Mr. Melling for comment. He did not respond directly. “Serious and damaging anonymous allegations about me have been made or published in recent days that are categorically not true,” he said. (In his statement, he also said it was “categorically untrue” that he had raised questions in a meeting about Ms. LaFlamme’s grey hair, as the Globe reported, citing a senior CTV official who heard the comment.)
In March, 2021, Bell’s human resources department received a complaint regarding the use of the N-word during an “Inclusive Leadership Development Program” training session for senior Bell managers.
According to one account, contained in an e-mail viewed by The Globe, two managers participating in the training used the word in the span of about 90 seconds. The facilitators, who were outside contractors, did not address the slurs. Two other training participants – a Black man and a racialized woman, both Bell Media managers – raised objections and asked that the session be stopped immediately. When the facilitators continued, both participants left the video meeting.
Shortly after, the complaint was filed with human resources.
The next day, an e-mail went out to the managers who had taken the training. “We acknowledge that this incident was not handled appropriately … We do not support the use of this expression nor the historical justification for [its] use,” the e-mail said. “It is clear there is an ongoing need for continued education and awareness around the impacts of systemic racism. We need to be aware that our words, regardless of our intention, can have a profound and harmful impact on individuals.”
The e-mail concluded by saying Bell had addressed the matter with the vendor. In the future, it said, facilitators would be better equipped to navigate conversations around racism. One person who complained was told the company would review the incident. But they were not given an update on the outcome, e-mails show. (E-mails about this incident and Bell’s handling of it were circulated among some racialized staff members within the company.)
Subsequent e-mails show that Bell used the same facilitators for this year’s inclusivity training. The racialized woman was forced to take the course again, despite raising objections, e-mails show.
Bell Media spokesperson Christy Sullivan told The Globe in a statement that, in the March, 2021 session, a team member had used “very inappropriate language” and that “the employee who was managing the session with the facilitator is no longer with the company.”
“Appropriate measures were taken, including providing additional support to the participants, namely additional HR support and opportunities to air concerns,” Ms. Sullivan added. (Bell Media did not respond to follow-up questions about the fact that two managers are alleged to have used the slur. The company also didn’t say whether the person who is no longer with Bell left in connection with this incident.)
In mid-2019, Bell Media conducted another internal review after a staff member filed a sexual harassment complaint against a co-worker. The company’s investigator determined the woman’s allegations were unfounded. Bell Media ordered her to avoid contact with the co-worker. In response, she filed a union grievance and the matter went to arbitration.
In November, 2021, arbitrator Ian Anderson concluded that the internal investigator’s assessment had been wrong. The arbitrator believed the woman had been sexually harassed by the co-worker. Bell Media was ordered to pay the woman $5,000 as damages for pain and suffering.
For Unifor’s Mr. Kitt, this case is an example of how the grievance process can be better than a review paid for by a company.
“If you look at this case, that person comes forward to us, [Bell Media does] an internal investigation. It comes up flawed. We filed a grievance. We get some justice,” he said.
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