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Trudeau 'pissed off' by Bell Media's 'garbage decision' to lay off thousands

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024 in Ottawa.  (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

A fired-up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unleashed on Bell Media on Friday, calling its move to lay off thousands of employees — including hundreds of journalists — a "garbage decision."

"I'm pretty pissed off about what's just happened," Trudeau said during a press conference in Toronto.

"This is the erosion not just of journalism, of quality local journalism at a time where people need it more than ever, given misinformation and disinformation ... It's eroding our very democracy, our abilities to tell stories to each other."

On Thursday the media company — which owns CTV and BNN Bloomberg — announced 4,800 jobs "at all levels of the company" would be cut. Bell said it's the largest round of cuts in nearly 30 years.

It's also the second major round of layoffs at the media and telecommunications giant since last spring, when six per cent of Bell Media jobs were eliminated and nine radio stations were either shuttered or sold.

Bell also announced it is ending multiple television newscasts and making other programming cuts after its parent company announced widespread layoffs and the sale of 45 of its 103 regional radio stations.

The stations being sold are in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

'I'm furious': Trudeau

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

"I'm furious. This was a garbage decision by a corporation that should know better," said Trudeau.

"We need those local voices and over the past years, corporate Canada — and there are many culprits on this — have abdicated their responsibility toward the communities that they have always made very good profits off of in various ways."

On Thursday, Bell chief legal and regulatory officer Robert Malcolmson blamed the federal government for the cuts. He said Ottawa is taking too long to provide relief to media companies and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission [CRTC] has reacted too slowly to a "crisis that is immediate."

The Bell Media Studios in downtown Toronto are pictured on Feb. 8, 2024. Bell Media is ending multiple television newscasts and making other programming cuts after its parent company BCE Inc. announced widespread layoffs and the sale of 45 of its 103 regional radio stations.
The Bell Media Studios in downtown Toronto are pictured on Feb. 8, 2024. Bell Media is ending multiple television newscasts and making other programming cuts after its parent company BCE Inc. announced widespread layoffs and the sale of 45 of its 103 regional radio stations.

The Bell Media Studios in downtown Toronto on Feb. 8, 2024. Bell Media is ending multiple television newscasts and making other programming cuts after its parent company BCE Inc. announced widespread layoffs and the sale of 45 of its 103 regional radio stations. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We've been advocating for reform for years. It's not coming fast enough and when it does come, it doesn't provide meaningful help," he said.

Malcolmson also said the job losses were directly tied to regulator direction on Bill C-11, which updates the Broadcasting Act to require digital platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and TikTok to contribute to and promote Canadian content.

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

On Thursday, federal Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge accused Bell of breaking a long-held promise to deliver quality local news.

"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.

Poilievre vows to overturn C-11

One of C-11's main critics, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, has referred to the bill as a form of censorship because it empowers the CRTC to regulate more platforms and the content they disseminate.

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

"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 Thursday.

On Friday, Trudeau took aim at the Conservatives and other critics who have accused his government of greasing the palms of news organizations.

"We have been stepping up over the past years, fighting for local journalism, fighting for investments that we can have, while all the while fending off attacks from Conservatives and others who say, 'No, no, no, you're trying to buy off journalists,'" he said.

Trudeau suggested his government will be "demanding" better from corporations like Bell, but it's not yet clear what that would look like.