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Local news cuts at Bell come after it was granted $40M in regulatory relief: St-Onge

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As Bell Media blamed regulators and policymakers for its decision to announce a fresh round of layoffs Thursday, federal and provincial politicians accused the company of unnecessarily killing off local journalism.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge decried the company for breaking 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 its news division, which includes CTV News and BNN Bloomberg, is losing annually.

Facing $40 million in annual operating losses, Bell Media's parent company, BCE Inc., announced it was cutting 4,800 jobs. BCE Inc. has an operating revenue totaling $6.7 billion, up from $6.44 billion a year earlier.

"They are not going bankrupt. They're still making billions of dollars. They're still a very profitable company," St-Onge said Thursday on Parliament Hill.

"And they still have the capacity and the means to hold 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 companies have to chip in, too.

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 some $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 under the new law, which requires tech giants to compensate news producers for content that is shared on their platforms, and from which they financially benefit.

Still, Bell Media is blaming its cuts on the federal government, saying Ottawa took too long to provide relief for media companies.

It also blames the Canadian Radio-television Commission, saying the regulator is too slow to react to a "crisis that is immediate."

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 everybody to hold strong."

Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan, a former journalist, said Thursday that the layoffs are "atrocious" and it's "hard seeing journalists being treated as rounding errors in what I think are healthy profit margins."

And British Columbia Premier David Eby said Bell Media has "overseen the 'en-crap-ification' of local news."

He said the layoffs — along with the sale of 45 of the company's 113 regional radio stations — is "catastrophic."

"Bell and corporations like Bell have overseen the assembly of local media assets that are treasures to local communities. They bought them up. Like corporate vampires, they sucked the life out of them, laying off 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 off, and any funding that is going to Bell or any other corporation needs to come with the key guarantees in terms of jobs and maintaining professional journalism," NDP House leader Peter Julian said.

When St-Onge was pressed on the cuts by the Bloc Québécois during question period, she stated in French that the Liberal government would not be giving any more money to billionaire companies.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre responded to the cuts on Thursday by placing blame on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He said high taxes, burdensome red tape and an uncompetitive business environment "is driving our jobs and our money out of the country to foreign nations that are prospering at our expense."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2024

With files from Anja Karadeglija in Ottawa and Sammy Hudes in Toronto

Correction

In a story Thursday about job cuts at Bell Media, The Canadian Press erroneously reported that the company was cutting 4,800 jobs. In fact, the total number of job cuts applies to Bell Media's parent company, BCE Inc.

The story also misstated how much money tech giant Google has agreed to pay Canadian news outlets, which is $100 million a year. 

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