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Eby says the true part about Big Media out loud

A hard line against behemoths such as Bell is needed now more than ever

Canadian PoliticsMedia Canadian Business

It’s too bad that David Eby, BC’s new NDP premier, isn’t Canada’s prime minister, because at least he isn’t afraid to take on Big Media in this country. We call him The Tall Guy out here on the Left Coast because Eby stands six-foot-seven, but what he had the courage to say on Thursday was even grander than his towering stature. Eby was as outraged as most Canadians were when the news came down that Bell Media was axing 4,800 employees, fully nine percent of its workforce, selling 45 of its 103 radio stations and cutting its weekend and noon-hour CTV newscasts. “On behalf of all British Columbians that have watched their local news station slowly turn to garbage by these companies … I just want to say: shame on you,” a visibly upset Eby said off the cuff at a press conference on an unrelated matter. He referred to media owners as “corporate vampires” that have “overseen the encrapification of local news” and added that “the impact on communities in British Columbia of their unrestrained corporate greed … is profound.”

Eby’s comments came after Bell announced its annual financial results and a major restructuring of its operations. “Bell and other corporations like Bell have overseen the assembly of local media assets that are treasures to local communities,” he added. “They bought them up, like corporate vampires, sucked the life out of them, laid off journalists.” Bell is selling 21 of its radio stations in BC to Vista Radio, which is based on Vancouver Island and has promised no layoffs. “Now they say it is no longer economically viable to run these local radio stations, it’s no longer economically viable to have investigative news and they were allowed to do this,” continued Eby, who called on the federal government to intervene. “The fact that they cannot find it possible with all of their MBAs to operate a few local news stations in British Columbia to ensure people get accurate, impartial, reliable information in an age of disinformation and social media craziness is such an abandonment of any idea of corporate responsibility.”

Eby was BC’s attorney-general for five years before being elected by his party in late 2022 to replace leader John Horgan, who stepped down as premier for medical reasons. A Vancouver lawyer who worked for years with the poor on the city’s drug-infested Downtown East Side, Eby then headed the BC Civil Liberties Association for four years after authoring its resource The Arrest Handbook: A Guide to Your Rights. He is also humble, joking for a 2016 magazine profile that he “broke a lot of hearts in high school, but most of them were basketball coaches.”

The problem is that communication is a federal responsibility, and the broadcasting regulator Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications (CRTC) commission has for decades allowed telephone and cable companies like Bell and Rogers to acquire more and more broadcasting assets. Federal Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge also criticized Bell for breaking its promise to invest in news and noted that the Online Streaming Act, which came into effect last year, abolished fees that will save the company $40 million a year while it will also benefit from the $30 million allocated to broadcasting from the $100 million Google has promised in annual funding under the new Online News Act. “They are not going bankrupt,” she said. “They’re still making billions of dollars. They’re still a very profitable company and they still have the capacity and the means to hold their end of the bargain, which is to deliver news reports.” Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, a former CTV journalist, called the layoffs “atrocious” and said journalists were being treated as “rounding errors in what I think are healthy profit margins.”

Bell is one of Canada’s most profitable companies, as its 2023 operating earnings rose to $10.4 billion from $10.2 billion in 2022, while its profit margin held steady at 42.2 percent. Its annual dividend to shareholders, however, increased only 3.1 percent to $3.99 a share after 15 years of at least five percent hikes, and its stock price fell about $2 on the news to about $37.50. Its Bell Media division, which includes the CTV network, cable channels such as TSN and BNN Bloomberg and its broadcasting stations, is not quite as profitable. Its 2023 earnings fell 6.4 percent to $697 million and its profit margin fell slightly to 22.5 percent. Bell’s telecom division makes a profit margin of more than 44 percent because Canadians pay among the highest prices in the world for cell phone service, cable TV and Internet access. The company is currently in a dispute with the CRTC, which has ordered it and Telus to share their high-speed fibre networks in Ontario and Québec with competitors in an attempt to bring prices down. “Government and regulatory decisions … undermine investment in our networks, fail to support our media business in a time of crisis and fail to level the playing field with global tech giants,” said Bell President and CEO Mirko Bibic, who added that the company will also be cutting back on its capital expenditures as a result.

If its latest cutbacks sound familiar, it’s because Bell made similar deep cuts just last June, laying off 1,300 from its Bell Media division, shuttering CTV’s bureaus in London and Los Angeles and closing six radio stations, including two in Vancouver. It also laid off hundreds of workers abruptly in 2021 and closed several radio stations.

Canada has been called “three telcos in a trenchcoat” for the enormous power the country’s media giants wield, but that number fell last year when the toothless Competition Bureau proved unable to prevent Rogers, the country’s second-largest media company, from taking over Shaw, which dominated cable TV in Western Canada. I’d like to think that Eby has been reading my columns, which I recommended to him recently after BC joined an advertising ban on Facebook when its parent company Meta decided to block links to news stories in Canada rather than pay tens of millions a year to carry them under the Online News Act. I wrote to give Eby the real story behind the dispute and offered to drive the hour south to brief him on it. I got a polite official letter back two months later which basically said nothing, but I suspect he may have taken my recommendation because some of his outraged language sounds familiar. The “encrapification” line, however, definitely comes from Toronto-born science fiction author Cory Doctorow, who coined the term “enshittification” to describe an effect of digital media.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who called the layoffs and cuts “a garbage decision by a corporation that should know better,” is suffering the same dilemma his father did 40 years ago in attempting to reform Canada’s media. Pierre Trudeau balked as prime minister at pushing through a Newspaper Act in the early 1980s that would have limited chain growth because he needed press support to repatriate our Constitution from the UK and enact the Charter of Rights. After being re-elected with a minority in 2021, Justin Trudeau is now knee-deep in problems including a housing crisis, inflation and plummeting public support which may limit his willingness to take on the media. Then again, if he took his lead from Eby, he might actually win points with the public. A series of blunders on his watch has made a mess of our media, which already needed a lot of cleaning up, so a very hard line against behemoths such as Bell may be needed now more than ever.

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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