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CTV News brings in a propagandist to spin the Online News Act

Edge: The lack of transparency by the network is shocking but understandable

Media Canadian Business

Consultants Mohit Rajhans (L) and Andrew Perez (R) debate the details of how Google’s $100 million commitment to Canadian media will be divided among news organizations. Still image courtesy CTV News/X.

A quick compare and contrast shows that while CTV is again doing its best to ensure that the C stands for Corporate, the CBC clings to the quaint, old-fashioned notion of doing quality journalism in the public interest. Their week-ending news analysis shows couldn’t have been more different, with CTV’s program The Debate featuring two pundits few had ever heard of before discussing the big media news of the week, which was Google kicking in $100 million a year to support Canadian journalism. CBC’s program Power and Politics, on the other hand, brought in two industry insiders to give their reaction. “We’ve got 63 million reasons to be smiling right now,” a grinning News Media Canada CEO Paul Deegan told Power and Politics host David Cochrane, calculating that Google would soon be subsidizing each journalist in Canada to the tune of about $20,000. Cochrane countered with math showing that even with Google’s contribution, most Canadian news media would be barely ahead under the Online News Act, which came into force this week, after losing content deals with Meta and traffic from its social networks Facebook and Instagram. Village Media CEO Jeff Elgie, who publishes 25 local news websites in Ontario, agreed that “some will be better off, some will potentially be worse off.” Mention was also made of the fact that, due to its government funding, the CBC would receive only seven percent of the money from Google every year despite employing about a third of all journalists in Canada.

The Debate, as its name suggests, instead featured duelling rather than sequential commentators, although neither was well qualified to speak on the issue. Mohit Rajhans, an entertainment blogger and podcaster, argued that taking Google’s money only increases our dependence on it. “Google is embedded in so much of our lives that an Online News Act isn’t exactly saving the culture,” he told host Mike Le Couteur. Andrew Perez, who was billed as a “freelance writer and media commentator,” simply gushed over the government’s good work despite the program’s own poll finding that more than two-thirds of viewers think the Online News Act will not help news organizations. “I think this is a good news day for independent Canadian journalism and kudos to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge for navigating this complex piece of legislation,” Perez told Le Couteur. “It really rolls out a strong regulatory framework with teeth.” There was no acknowledgement on the broadcast that CTV stood to gain millions from the deal, not even in a so-called “disclaimer” at the end of the segment, which seemed hastily ad-libbed. “Yes, CTV’s parent company is Bell Media,” interjected Le Couteur, “and Bell Media says they’re reviewing the regulations.” That’s just not good enough, and the entire presentation flew in the face of CTV’s insistence that we can trust its editorial standards.

That was hardly the biggest problem with the segment, however. Far from being merely a “freelance writer and media commentator,” Perez is instead a public affairs strategist, more specifically a senior consultant in corporate communications with one of the world’s most notorious spin doctors. New York City-based Hill+Knowlton gained infamy first for white-washing the tobacco and asbestos industries in the 1950s and ‘60s, then went global in the service of dictators everywhere. It was hired by China to repair its image after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, by Turkey to whitewash human rights abuses there in the early 1990s, and by the repressive Duvalier regime in Haiti. By far its most infamous work was done for the Kuwaiti royal family, which paid it more than US$10 million to promote military intervention following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. That campaign, which led to the first Gulf War, famously saw fabricated testimony given to a US Congressional committee that Iraqi troops had ripped Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and left them on the floor to die. The sobbing nurse who testified to the atrocity turned out to instead be the 15-year-old daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US and there were no missing incubators, as CBC’s The Fifth Estate soon reported in a story that won international awards. This sorry example of spin has since gone down in the history of PR infamy and still serves as a cautionary tale of war-time propaganda.

Perez was hired by the Canadian office of Hill+Knowlton more than a year ago, according to his LinkedIn profile, but there was no mention of that on CTV, presumably since it would have been a dead giveaway that what was to follow was almost surely propaganda. Anyone curious enough to look into what qualified Rajhans and Perez to pass judgment on the Online News Act, however, would soon hear alarm bells ringing. The omission continues a pattern of corporate pressure on journalism standards at CTV that was seen most recently this past summer, when a senior executive of the network’s parent company Bell Canada suggested to news managers that they provide a more “positive spin” on stories involving it. The revelations by Robert Fife, Ottawa Bureau Chief for the Globe and Mail, soon saw the departure of Bell Media Division President Wade Oosterman, who had made massive cuts, closing radio stations and CTV’s foreign bureaus and laying off 1,300 workers, most controversially former anchor Lisa LaFlamme, who had let her hair go gray. Fife had not coincidentally been involved the previous time a president of Bell Media was caught interfering with news coverage in 2015. Then Ottawa Bureau Chief for CTV, Fife defied an edict by Kevin Krull, who had ordered CTV News President Wendy Freeman to ban Jean-Pierre Blais, chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, from appearing on the network. Fife, Freeman and LaFlamme decided to instead include footage of Blais in his story that night, which soon led to an exposé in the Globe and Mail that resulted in Krull’s firing.

Bell, which recorded profits of $10.2 billion last year and is set to exceed that this year after recently reporting third-quarter earnings up 3.1 percent, has been locked in a long-running battle with Ottawa to boost the fortunes of its media division, whose profits rose 11.5 percent in the quarter on the back of job cuts. It has asked the CRTC to eliminate all requirements to provide local news on its CTV stations, and even to ensure under the new Online Streaming Act that they can continue to air popular US programming, which is increasingly migrating to online streaming services such as Netflix. At stake is Bell’s streak of raising its annual dividend to shareholders by at least five percent for 15 straight years.

The contrast in coverage of this important media story could not be more marked between our beleaguered public broadcaster, which ironically faces massive cutbacks due to its plunging advertising revenue, and the highly profitable yet seemingly insatiable Bell. The lack of transparency by CTV is shocking but understandable given its corporate demands.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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