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CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais Shows Some Spine In Tussle With Bell President

"The allegation that the largest communication company in Canada is manipulating news coverage is disturbing." CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais
“The allegation that the largest communication company in Canada is manipulating news coverage is disturbing.” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais this afternoon released a strongly worded statement “on journalistic independence”, in a thinly veiled warning to Bell Media president Kevin Crull.

Far from being an intervention, or running the risk of inserting himself into the story, Blais invokes both section 2(3) of the Broadcasting Act and the Code of Ethics developed by the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada, which asserts that “Independence is a fundamental value and we will resist any attempts at censorship that would erode it. Electronic journalists will resist pressures to change or alter the news. Intrusion into content, real or apparent should be resisted.”

The Globe & Mail, of which BCE owns a 15% stake, is reporting that after last week’s announcement of unbundling legislation to be rolled out over the coming year, Bell Media president Kevin Crull directed CTV news, wholly owned by Bell, to airbrush Blais from its news coverage.

After giving an interview on BNN, also owned by Bell Media, immediately after the unbundling announcement, an apparently livid Crull contacted CTV News president Wendy Freeman and directed her to cancel appearances by Blais in the immediate future.

An interview that Blais was scheduled to give to Don Martin on the 5:00 p.m. CTV show Power Play was abruptly cancelled, and a report on Blais’ announcement slated for the 6:00 p.m. news had Blais or any mention of him edited out of the report.

Astonishingly, CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme and Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife defied Crull’s order, deciding instead that any discussion of what amounted to a major news story of national importance ought to perhaps include some mention of Jean-Pierre Blais. LaFlamme and Fife, in what ought to be seen as an act of bravery, decided to take their profession seriously and report the news.

The net result of this friction, spurred by Bell’s hatred of any directive by the CRTC to mandate a pick-and-pay model for cable subscribers, is that everyone has grown a spine and Crull is looking very much the bad guy, as he should since he basically dared journalists working for CTV to take RTDNA’s Code of Ethics at face value.

There can be no ambiguity around the directive “Intrusion into content, real or apparent should be resisted,” and Crull’s apparent belief that the rules don’t apply to him ought to be cause for worry.

We don’t live in Russia or China, after all, where central control of the media is practiced as statecraft. As Canadians, we enjoy sneering at those countries and don’t dream that we’re in danger of drifting into similar territory ourselves. But media freedom, like freedom in general, is hard-won and needs constant vigilance.

The government’s response, crafted by Blais on behalf of the CRTC, is to be applauded for upholding the principle of press freedom while issuing a very carefully worded yet frank warning directed squarely at Kevin Crull.

“That a regulated company does not like one of the CRTC’s rulings is one thing,” writes Blais. “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.”

Bell has been blowing smoke throughout Blais’ chairmanship, in response to the decision to eliminate simultaneous substitution of ads during the Super Bowl (a major source of revenue for Canadian networks), or the rejection of Bell’s attempt to buy Astral Media, or directing Bell to lower the rate it charges customers for viewing “exclusive” content on mobile devices pending the result of a court case to decide whether the practice is legal at all.

All unambiguously great rulings for Canadian consumers.

Blais has proven, over and over again, that he’s the right man for the job and is acting overwhelmingly in the interest of Canadians to achieve a balanced, fair and forward-looking communications policy that looks to strengthen the Canadian media ecosystem without kowtowing to special interests or living in the past.

The statement from Blais, obviously aimed at Crull’s behaviour, is unprecedented. Crull is likely banking on the idea that Blais is another spineless bureaucrat who would never push back against intimidation that relies on market dominance for its power.

Big mistake. Blais is pushing back, knowing that in a fight between the CRTC and Bell, the public will side with the CRTC.

Blais, for all the talk on social media and online comment sections about the ineffectiveness of the CRTC, is in a position to show why regulation is not only needed, but why it matters. As much as people love to mouth off about the CRTC and government telling them what they can and can’t watch, they hate the big telcos like Bell and Rogers all that much more.

Crull will lose this fight, while Blais knows that he’s working the right side of history.

The fact that Jean-Pierre Blais has got Kevin Crull this miffed should be taken as a positive sign for Canada’s media future.

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