The Hamilton Spectator

Bell’s broken news promises

- ANDREW PHILLIPS ANDREW PHILLIPS IS A STAFF COLUMNIST WITH TORSTAR.

That was quite the rant Justin Trudeau went on last Friday after Bell Canada announced yet another round of deep cuts to its media division. “This is a garbage decision,” he fumed. “I’m furious.”

Sounds like me and my pals lamenting the decline of the media over coffee on Saturday morning, but with this big difference: he’s the prime minister and we’re not.

When the PM tees off on a big company like that, it should mean something. It’s emotionall­y satisfying for those of us who care about the state of the news media to hear his words, but if it stops there then his government will look even more impotent.

Because BCE Inc. (Bell Media’s parent company) didn’t just cut newscasts at CTV stations and its other properties as part of a bigger layoff of 4,800 people. It went out of its way to blame the government for those cuts. It claimed it had no choice because of “the current regulatory and public policy environmen­t” — decisions by the government and the agency that regulates broadcaste­rs, the Canadian Radio-Television and

Telecommun­ications Commission (CRTC). Behind the corporate language Bell was spitting in the face of the government.

Every mainstream news organizati­on (including Torstar) has made cuts. But the way BCE and Bell Media are handling their latest round is particular­ly egregious. Take, to start with, the losses that BCE says it’s been taking in its media division. BCE claims Bell Media lost $40 million last year. I say “claims” because I know from experience how big companies can arrange their internal finances to show losses where that’s convenient. It’s impossible for anyone not privy to the details of their operations to judge that number.

But even taking that $40 million at face value, it turns out it’s the same amount BCE was handed by the government last year in the form of lower licensing fees when the Online Streaming Act came into effect. Heritage Minister Pascale StOnge says the company made commitment­s on news coverage at that time and is now tossing those promises aside. Here’s a crazy idea: how about demanding the company give back all or part of that $40 million it got on the back of those broken promises?

And speaking of broken promises: when the CRTC grants broadcaste­rs access to the public airwaves by approving their operating licences they pledge to do various things — like air a certain amount of Canadian content and, in the case of Bell Media, air a number of hours of local news. That’s the deal for obtaining what was, historical­ly at least, literally a licence to print money.

But last June Bell Media told the CRTC it wanted out of its commitment­s to local news, commitment­s it made as part of getting its operating licence in 2017. The CRTC didn’t act on that request; instead of holding hearings on renewing broadcaste­rs’ licences the agency renewed them all automatica­lly.

It looks like BCE just got fed up with waiting for a chance to make its case to the CRTC and decided to take unilateral action. Simply announce the cuts, lay off employees and dare the CRTC and the government to do anything about it. And to hell with those promises about local news.

BCE’s profits are down, but it’s hardly a basket case. It made $2.32 billion last year. It paid its CEO, Mirko Bibic, almost $14 million in 2022. I figure it would just about cover the editorial budgets of the Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun rolled together.

Here’s another crazy idea: how about holding this company to account? How about requiring it to live up to the commitment­s on news it made for the right to use the public airwaves? How about having a broadcast regulator with teeth, instead of an impotent bystander?

But if nothing is done, Trudeau’s tough words won’t mean a darn thing.

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