Politics

Bell Media in the political crosshairs as heritage minister calls job cuts 'extremely disappointing'

Bell's decision to lay off thousands of its employees — including hundreds of journalists — has drawn the ire of the federal heritage minister, who said Thursday the telecom giant has broken a long-held promise to deliver quality local news.

Profitable firm announces 4,800 jobs cuts, hikes its dividend payout to shareholders

Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill after Bell Media announces job cuts
Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill after Bell Media announces job cuts, in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Bell's decision to lay off thousands of its employees — including hundreds of journalists — has drawn the ire of the federal heritage minister, who said Thursday the telecom giant has broken a long-held promise to deliver quality local news.

Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill after Bell said it would slash 4,800 jobs, Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said past governments allowed the company to consolidate media and buy up local TV and radio assets in exchange for a commitment to maintain these services.

"In the past decade, when acquisitions were allowed by these big companies, it came with a promise," St-Onge said. "Today, they backed away from that promise."

St-Onge said it's not like Bell is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

"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 up their end of the bargain, which is to deliver news reports," she said.

WATCH: Heritage minister asked about BCE job cuts, local news changes 

Heritage minister asked about BCE job cuts, local news changes

2 months ago
Duration 1:03
Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge was asked Thursday about the latest round of cuts at BCE, which includes Bell Media layoffs and changes to local news.

After announcing the job cuts, Bell said it would push ahead with a more generous dividend payout to its shareholders.

Bell said it would hike its already substantial dividend by about 3 per cent to $3.99 a share, putting it among the highest payouts for a company traded on the TSX.

It also said the layoffs were prompted in part by "increasingly unsupportive federal government and regulatory decisions," a reference to a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decision that demands Bell allow wholesale access to its fibre networks.

NDP MP Peter Julian, the party's heritage critic, said Bell's layoffs are "horrible."

"We need professional journalism. We need to be able to tell stories about each other and our country. The federal government has simply not been there. They've ignored what's a deepening crisis," Julian said.

"They've been asleep at the wheel. The government needs to start taking this seriously."

Bell's layoffs come after CBC/Radio-Canada said it expects to cut 600 jobs this year. Asked what the government will do to help prop up a news industry on the ropes, St-Onge said there could be more money coming for the broadcasting sector once Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, is fully implemented.

The legislation passed Parliament last year and it's now up to the regulator, the CRTC, to decide how much foreign streaming giants should pay to support Canadian content and production.

"There's still a few months to go in the regulatory process at the CRTC," St-Onge said Thursday.

"The cultural industry is having a hard time, the news sector is having a hard time. We need everybody to hold strong over the next few months."

The Bell Media Studios, in downtown Toronto, are pictured on Feb. 8, 2024.
The Bell Media Studios, in downtown Toronto, are pictured on Feb. 8, 2024. Bell announced Thursday it's laying off 4,800 employees. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been critical of that bill, which he has long derided as a form of censorship because it empowers the CRTC to regulate more platforms and the content they disseminate.

"We will move quickly in the early part of my term to overturn C-11 and other censorship and put Canadians in charge of what they see and say online," Poilievre said.

He blamed Bell's cuts on what he described as a poor business environment caused by high taxes, burdensome red tape and uncompetitive policies.

Bell claimed CTV takeover would be good for the industry

Bell pitched its 2010 takeover of CTV (the company already owned a portion of the broadcaster) as a transaction that would "pay significant tangible benefits to the Canadian broadcasting industry."

In a media statement about the takeover, the company said it would oversee "significant commitments to new Canadian programming" and a "local news expansion," with hundreds more hours of programming and dozens of hires.

"Our plan offers significant, tangible and positive improvements for our nation's broadcasting system," said the company's then-president and CEO George Cope.

But with this announcement Thursday, Bell is doing the opposite, dismantling big chunks of the company's local media assets outside of Toronto.

The company is selling off dozens of radio stations and scrapping virtually all of its local noon-hour and weekend TV newscasts.

The Bell Media Studios, in downtown Toronto, are pictured on Feb. 8, 2024.
The Bell Media Studios, in downtown Toronto, are pictured on Feb. 8, 2024. Bell Media is slashing CTV's local news output. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It's laying off national reporters and ending some CTV News Channel programming. It's promising some sort of overhaul of its long-running investigative journalism program, W5.

It's also taking the axe to hours of programming on its business channel, BNN Bloomberg.

Just last year, Bell announced it was cutting 1,300 positions, shutting or selling nine radio stations and closing two foreign news bureaus.

In its financial results released Thursday, Bell said revenue declined last year due to a slumping ad market and programming disruptions from the Hollywood actors' and writers' strikes.

But, as St-Onge said, the company still makes money from its media division.

The unit generated $697 million in 2023, a six per cent decline from the year before.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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