Kevin Crull, the CRTC, and CTV News: Is apology enough?

Note: News that Bell Media president Kevin Crull has apologized for interfering in news coverage has meant I’ve had to revise this blog entry, and change its headline.

The headline I originally proposed was “Bell Media President Kevin Crull Must Resign.” And my opening paragraph was, “Bell Media president Kevin Crull should resign. He has behaved dishonourably, and tendering his resignation is the honourable thing to do. Here’s why.”

Here’s the rest of what I wrote. At the end, I’ll talk about resignation vs apology.

It was recently reported that Crull, who is president of Bell Media, interfered with the journalistic independence of producers and reporters at CTV, a TV station that Bell owns.

Crull didn’t like a decision made by the CRTC (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission). So he reportedly ordered Wendy Freeman, the president of CTV News, to make sure that CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais didn’t get any airtime on the Bell-owned station.

This was a flagrant violation of the fundamental tenets of journalistic ethics. According to the tradition of that honourable profession, according to sound ethical reasoning, and according to the tenets of the Code of Ethics of RTNDA (the Radio Television Digital News Association), journalists need to be free of interference from outside forces (including, for example, advertisers) and corporate bosses. Their duty is to report in the public interest, not in the corporate interest.

In particular, the RTNDA code stipulates that journalists must “Refuse to allow the interests of ownership or management to influence news judgment and content inappropriately.” Of course, Crull himself isn’t a journalist, so he himself isn’t bound by the code. But his position as head of a media company implies a need to respect the code nonetheless. You can’t plausibly run a company that employs professionals subject to such a requirement if you don’t intend to respect it. You couldn’t run a company that employs engineers and instruct them to build bridges out of papier mach&eacute. So Cull’s attempt — successful, at least in part — to interfere with reporting at CTV is a dire offence.

Normally, the head of a company has fairly wide latitude, ethically, in pursuing the best interests of the company. It’s your job, as the person entrusted with the care and feeding of a corporation, to do your best to protect its interests. But that task must always be carried out within the limits of the law and society’s ethical code. And media companies are in a special category. A significant portion of the value they bring to the table — the reason so many people are willing to watch, read, or listen — is that they make a promise, explicit or implicit, to report news based on what’s newsworthy, not based on what’s conducive to the corporation’s own interests.

Since some might wonder, I’ll point out that I’m not technically a professional journalist myself — I’m a professor who dabbles at blogging — but I take my independence seriously, and I assure you that the first time anyone in management at Rogers Media (owner of CB) tries to tell me what to write here at Canadian Business, that will be the very last day I write for them. Luckily, that has never happened. And even more luckily, I have another gig and so I have the luxury of saying “bye-bye” if anyone tries to tell me what to write. The journalists at CTV don’t have the luxury.

That is why I had concluded, when I drafted this piece, that Kevin Crull needed to resign. But instead, he has apologized. That’s a good move. Is it enough? Maybe. But anyone in a position like his — at the head of a media empire — ought to have the good judgment not to do things that require such public apology in the first place.

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