In the aftermath of last year’s dismissal of CTV anchor Lisa LaFlamme, Bell Media President Wade Oosterman told news managers he wanted a more “balanced perspective” in news coverage and suggested they provide a “positive spin” on stories about parent company Bell Canada Enterprises Inc.
In an audio recording of an Aug. 24 meeting, Mr. Oosterman, who is also vice-chair of BCE BCE-T, said he was intent on trying to inject more balance into CTV news programming to attract more “eyeballs” and prevent budget cuts because of declining audiences.
“I will say that I do not find us having a balanced perspective,” Mr. Oosterman said in the recording obtained by The Globe and Mail. “I do find that we – I don’t want to say purposely – but ignorantly lose a lot of eyeballs because we don’t force the conflict between two points of view.”
He did not define what perspective he felt was missing from CTV news coverage, but two former news managers said Mr. Oosterman had expressed criticism of Ms. LaFlamme’s newscast as too favourable to the federal Liberals. The Globe is not identifying the sources who were not authorized to discuss the matter.
“We cannot have a situation where we actively ignore I would say half of the viewers. We have got to fix that. I am not going to say how to do that, but we have to do that,” Mr. Oosterman said in the audio recording.
In the same conversation, Mr. Oosterman said CTV journalists should be helpful in reporting on the telecom giant whenever possible, although he stressed that he did not want them to “shill for the corporation. I am not saying to distort reality to help.”
“But for God’s sake, if there is a choice between helping and not helping – help,” he said, using an example of reporting on BCE’s financials.
“We sometimes report results and, you know, our results are flat and our profits was up 8 per cent and there is choice between headlines and we report revenues are flat instead of profits are up 8 per cent. Why would we take that negative spin instead of the positive spin?” he said.
He also described BCE as a “jewel,” and “for the life of me, I cannot figure out why we are so reticent to embrace that.”
Mr. Oosterman’s comments appear to run counter to BCE’s journalistic independence policy that was designed to reinforce “independence and non-interference” between BCE and CTV News. The policy states: “Any interference, whether direct or indirect, actual or perceived, undermines the principles of news independence and can erode the credibility of Bell Media News which is critical to maintaining the trust of our viewers and listeners.”
The policy was enacted in 2015 after then-Bell Media president Kevin Crull was ousted for interfering in the coverage of a regulatory decision mandating “pick-and-pay” options for television subscribers. The Globe reported in March of that year that Mr. Crull called then-CTV News president Wendy Freeman less than an hour after the decision was released to order her to exclude Jean-Pierre Blais, chair of the Canadian-Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), from news coverage on Bell-owned networks.
In a statement Monday, Tammy Scott, senior vice-president of communications at BCE, said the journalistic code of conduct does allow BCE executives to “offer ideas for news coverage to Bell Media News teams,” but she stressed decisions on coverage are made by editors.
“It is up to the news team to decide whether to proceed with a story, how it will be covered, and the extent of any coverage, with final editorial decision making by the Head of CTV News,” she said. “We are committed to our newsrooms producing journalism that is accurate, fair and complete, as well as ensuring our journalists act with honesty, transparency, and independence.”
Mr. Oosterman called the meeting of more than a dozen news managers from CTV National News, CTV News Channel, CTV Toronto CP 24 and BNN-Bloomberg to discuss the dismissal of the popular news anchor. He was joined by Michael Melling, then-vice-president of news for Bell Media, Karine Moses, president of Bell Media’s Quebec arm, and Robert Malcolmson, BCE’s chief legal and regulatory affairs officer.
Mr. Oosterman said he was “incredibly disappointed” that many of the details of an Aug. 18 townhall about Ms. LaFlamme’s dismissal had been leaked to other media through “selective snippets.”
“We are not a company that is mean-spirited or tries purposely to damage people. I tell you 100 per cent unequivocally Lisa is not no longer with us because of the colour of her hair or her gender or her age,” he said.
Instead of being critical of BCE, Mr. Oosterman said CTV journalists should be leveraging the fact that they have access to millions of mobile and TV screens across the country.
“I don’t get it. There is reticence to do anything if BCE says it or the corporation says it. Please no. Think about it completely the other way. There are 24 million screens,” he said. “How do we maximize the leverage of that because if we deliver stuff to the 24 million screens, we don’t have to cut costs.”
The executive warned that CTV was losing audiences “at a quicker rate here than elsewhere” to on-demand and digital-streaming services and that the network must deliver compelling content or face steep cuts.
“The economics of news are dismal,” he said. “If we don’t get more people to watch our stuff, we need to get, like, serious about cost-effectiveness.”
On June 14, BCE announced it was cutting 1,300 positions, around 3 per cent of its work force, and closing or selling nine radio stations. The company also closed CTV’s London and Los Angeles bureaus and downsized its Washington and Ottawa bureaus.
The company said the job cuts were in response to unfavourable public policy and regulatory conditions, as well as continuing migration of advertising revenue to foreign digital platforms and a shift from cable, satellite and fibre TV subscribers to digital-streaming platforms.
Last week, Bell Media asked the CRTC to drop its spending requirements and dedicated airtime on local television news programming to counter online competition and help offset losses racked up in recent years.