OTTAWA – As Bell Media blamed regulators and policymakers for its decision to announce a new round of layoffs Thursday, federal and provincial politicians accused the company of unnecessarily shutting down local journalism.
Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge denounced the company for reneging on its promise to invest in news after it was granted more than $40 million in annual regulatory relief.
That’s the same amount the company said it loses annually from its news division, which includes CTV News and BNN Bloomberg.
Facing annual operating losses of $40 million, Bell Media’s parent company, BCE Inc., announced it would cut 4,800 jobs. BCE Inc. has operating revenues totaling $6.7 billion, up from $6.44 billion a year earlier.
“They are not going to go bankrupt. They are still making billions of dollars. They are still a very profitable company,” St-Onge said Thursday on Parliament Hill.
“And they still have the ability and the means to fulfill their end of the bargain, which is to deliver news reports.”
St-Onge said the government has worked to help the news industry and, at some point, businesses will have to pitch in as well.
The Liberals’ update to broadcasting law, the Online Streaming Act, came into effect last April. It abolished certain licensing fees, which St-Onge said will save the company about $40 million a year.
Bell Media is also expected to receive money because of the Liberals’ Online News Act, which came into effect late last year.
Broadcasters are expected to receive $30 million through a side deal the government struck with Google.
It agreed to pay news outlets $100 million a year to avoid being regulated by the new law, which requires tech giants to compensate news producers for content shared on their platforms and from which they benefit financially.
Still, Bell Media blames its cuts on the federal government, saying Ottawa was too slow to provide relief to media companies.
He also blames the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, saying the regulator is too slow to react to an “immediate crisis.”
The CRTC is expected to release final regulations aimed at helping the news industry in the coming months. Until then, St-Onge said, “we need everyone to stay strong.”
Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan, a former journalist, said Thursday that the layoffs are “appalling” and that it is “difficult to see journalists being treated as rounding errors in what I believe are healthy profit margins.”
And British Columbia Premier David Eby said Bell Media has “overseen the ‘crap-ification’ of local news.”
He said the layoffs – along with the sale of 45 of the company’s 113 regional radio stations – are “catastrophic.”
“Bell and corporations like Bell have overseen the assembly of local media assets that are treasures to local communities. They bought them. Like corporate vampires, they took the lives and fired journalists,” Eby said Thursday.
The federal NDP said this should serve as a wake-up call for Ottawa and its relationship with corporations.
“The federal government needs to start showing leadership, first and foremost, and any funding that goes to Bell or any other corporation must come with key guarantees in terms of jobs and maintaining professional journalism,” said NDP House Leader, Peter Julian.
When St-Onge was pressed about the Bloc Quebecois cuts during question period, she stated in French that the Liberal government would not give more money to multi-billion dollar companies.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre responded to the cuts Thursday by blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
He said high taxes, burdensome bureaucracy and an uncompetitive business environment “are shifting our jobs and our money out of the country to foreign nations that are prospering at our expense.”
With files from Anja Karadeglija in Ottawa and Sammy Hudes in Toronto.