Bell Media's president has apologized for intervening in CTV's news coverage of a landmark regulatory decision on the television industry, promising he has "re-learned a valuable lesson."
Kevin Crull released his apology on Wednesday evening, hours after Bell, which owns CTV, received a stinging rebuke from the head of Canada's broadcast regulator, Jean-Pierre Blais, who called Mr. Crull's actions "disturbing."
Both statements came in response to a Globe and Mail story detailing how a long-running feud between Bell and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission erupted last Thursday.
Mr. Crull became angry with the CRTC's so-called pick-and-pay decision last week.According to sources close to the network who spoke on condition of anonymity, Mr. Crull directed senior news staff at CTV, the country's largest private broadcaster, to exclude Mr. Blais from coverage of the story on Bell-owned networks. The ruling will give consumers more freedom to choose individual TV channels as part of cable and satellite subscriptions, but it could also affect Bell's bottom line.
Sources said some CTV staff feared for their jobs as a result, including Wendy Freeman, president of CTV News.
In a four-paragraph statement released on Wednesday, Mr. Crull said he reached out to CTV's news leaders to express his regret. "It was wrong of me to be anything but absolutely clear that editorial control always rests with the news team," Mr. Crull wrote. "I have apologized to the team directly for this mistake." (Read the full statement.)
He also sent a personal apology to all CTV News staff. "I also want to re-iterate my admiration and unwavering support for Wendy, and thank her for her leadership," he told staff. "We are all fortunate to have her at the helm of our news organization."
Bell Media is owned by BCE Inc., which has a 15-per-cent stake in The Globe and Mail. Mr. Crull is a member of the newspaper's board of directors.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Blais addressed The Globe's story by issuing a statement condemning Mr. Crull's conduct. In it, Mr. Blais noted that the Broadcasting Act entrusted the CRTC with defending freedom of expression and journalistic independence, which he called "pillars" of broadcasting and of democracy. (Read the full statement.)
"An informed citizenry cannot be sacrificed for a company's commercial interests," he said. "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."
Mr. Blais acknowledged the rising tension between Bell Media and the CRTC over various decisions, but he added: "That a regulated company does not like one of the CRTC's rulings is one thing. The allegation, however, that the largest communication company in Canada is manipulating news coverage is disturbing. Holding a radio or television licence is a privilege that comes with important obligations that are in the public interest, especially in regards to high-quality news coverage and reporting. … We expect Canada's broadcasters to live up to their responsibilities and adhere to a high standard in their news and information programs."
He added that complaints about the matter should be directed to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for investigation.
The incident began not long after last Thursday's 4 p.m. release of the "pick-and-pay" decision. Shortly after the news was released, Mr. Blais gave a six-minute interview on BNN, a Bell Media-owned business news station, with reporter Greg Bonnell.
Within minutes, Mr. Crull called Ms. Freeman, sources confirmed. 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 Mr. Crull's order and not to use clips of Mr. Blais for the time being, telling some she felt she would be fired if they did not comply.
Minutes before the CTV show Power Play went to air at 5 p.m., CTV cancelled a scheduled appearance by Mr. Blais and scrambled to fill the airtime. A CRTC spokesperson confirmed the cancellation. A news story filed for 6 p.m. local newscasts by CTV reporter John Vennavally-Rao contained no footage of Mr. Blais.
Later that day, sources say, Ms. Freeman regrouped with CTV's chief anchor Lisa LaFlamme, Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife and a news producer, intending to push back. Together, they decided they could not run a major CRTC story without including Mr. Blais, and defied Mr. Crull's demand. The 11 p.m. national newscast had a clip of Mr. Blais discussing the decision's impact. Mr. Fife reported the story, as he was deemed less vulnerable.
Neither Ms. Freeman nor Ms. Laflamme returned requests for comment on Wednesday. Mr. Fife referred an interview request to a Bell Media spokesman.
"Their strong and straightforward reaction to my intrusion only heightens my appreciation of their independence, integrity and professionalism," Mr. Crull said in his statement on Wednesday.