BCE Inc. has introduced a new journalistic independence policy to strengthen autonomy at its flagship news broadcaster after the company’s head of media was dismissed in April over his attempts to intervene in coverage.
The new six-page policy was shared with CTV News staff on Thursday morning, and is designed to reinforce “independence and non-interference between BCE and CTV News,” according to a copy obtained by The Globe and Mail. The policy formally took effect on June 1.
It also boosts the authority of the president of CTV News, Wendy Freeman, clearly stating her “absolute editorial privilege” and giving her a direct line to BCE CEO George Cope to address any concerns about the broadcaster’s independence in future.
The policy is the fruit of an internal report drafted by a committee of board members after Bell Media president Kevin Crull was ousted for interfering in coverage of a March regulatory decision mandating so-called “pick-and-pay” options for television subscribers. In late March, The Globe and Mail revealed that Mr. Crull called Ms. Freeman less than an hour after the decision was released and ordered her to exclude Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), from news coverage on Bell-owned networks.
“I want to reinforce Bell Media and BCE’s commitment to the principles of journalistic independence and integrity,” said Mary Ann Turcke, who succeeded Mr. Crull as Bell Media’s president, in a memo to staff. “... Journalistic independence is the cornerstone of our credibility as a news organization, and our news organization is a cornerstone of our brand.”
Bell Media is a division of BCE Inc., which also owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.
The policy seeks to ensure news “is covered in a fair, accurate, balanced and unbiased manner,” and is expected to work in tandem with codes of ethics CTV News already subscribes to through the Radio Television Digital News Association of Canada (RTDNA) and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB).
After Mr. Crull’s meddling in news coverage was first reported by The Globe, Mr. Blais of the CRTC called the revelations “disturbing,” and reminded broadcasters of the standards they are expected to uphold as a condition of being licensed.
“Any interference, whether direct or indirect, actual or perceived, undermines the principles of news independence and can erode the credibility of CTV News which is critical to maintaining the trust of viewers,” the policy states.
The policy doesn’t prevent contact between CTV News and BCE executives. But when covering news relating to BCE or its interests, the news staff is “solely responsible” for determining coverage, according to the policy, “with full discretion and control, and without interference” from any BCE employee. And while BCE may still offer ideas for news coverage to CTV News, the editorial team will decide whether to pursue a story and how to cover it, the policy says.
For news decisions, the “absolute and final privilege” resides with the president of CTV News, Ms. Freeman. But now, should she have concerns about independence or compliance with the policy that can’t be settled through normal channels, the policy states she “can address said matters with BCE’s Chief Executive Officer and/or the Chair of the BCE Audit Committee.”
“We welcome this clear and strong showing of support,” Ms. Freeman said in an e-mail to staff on Thursday.
A spokesperson for Bell Media said the company has no further comment on the policy.
BCE does not plan to release its internal report on the matter, written by a committee of board members that included BCE chair Thomas O’Neill, audit committee chair Paul Weiss, and Ian Greenberg, the co-founder of Astral Media, among others.
The new journalistic independence policy refers to CTV News but covers “all applicable news divisions owned by BCE, including radio.”
With files from The Canadian Press.Report Typo/Error