A photo of Bell Canada headquarters in Montreal in 2011.
Bell Canada headquarters in Montreal in 2011. Credit: oknidius / Flickr

For a full month, Lisa LaFlamme continued to anchor Canada’s most trusted newscast, even though her bosses told her she was being fired and CTV National News—for which she’d satisfied an audience of more than a million viewers a night- would be turned over to someone else.

She was at the top of her game. The most recognized broadcaster in the country after 11 years at the helm, chosen as Canada’s best news anchor multiple times, doing her job each night proudly wearing her Order of Canada pin on her lapel. Yet she was told that CTV was going to take the news in a “new direction” and she didn’t fit.

By some harebrained management directive, she was told to pretend nothing was amiss, and they’d get around to working out the details of her departure and the identity of her successor and when they’d take her off the air. Night after night since late June, LaFlamme calmly and compassionately brought Canadians news of the war in Ukraine and the historic visit of atonement of Pope Francis without letting on to viewers—or her own staff—that it was all coming to an end.

LaFlamme a class act to the end

That’s class.

That’s professionalism.

As for CTV management, from Bell Media president Wade Oosterman on down, it’s a pubic relations disaster, one of the worst corporate blunders in the history of Canadian television. Viewers are outraged, and a petition calling for her reinstatement has been signed by hundreds of thousands of people. Morale in the CTV newsroom has cratered. Management has clammed up, opening the door to wild speculation that LaFlamme’s departure had something to do with her grey hair, or her age, or the fact that she’s a woman, or that she clashed with higher-ups about the news budget.

They even got scooped on their own news story.

Last Monday, LaFlamme took to Twitter from her cottage to announce “I have news.” She said she’d been fired on June 29 and felt totally “blindsided” and “shocked and saddened” by Bell Media’s decision to terminate her contract two years early.

More or less caught with its pants down, CTV issued a tepid press release confirming her departure, blaming it on “changing audience patterns” and a “business decision,” and naming a chosen successor, who inconveniently happened to be out of the country on vacation. The fact that she was being replaced by a Muslim veteran journalist, Omar Sachedina, seemed to get lost in the shock.

It got worse. Forced to respond to speculation that LaFlamme was a victim of sexism or ageism, Bell Media complained it was the victim of “false narratives” in media coverage, expressed “regret” for the way LaFlamme’s departure was handled, and announced it would conduct “an independent third-party internal review” of newsroom culture.

On Thursday, Bell Media executives tried to regain control of a furious newsroom by holding a town hall meeting with staff that raised more questions than it answered.

Michael Melling, the company’s head of news, and Karine Moses, senior vice-president of content development and news, admitted that LaFlamme’s exit had damaged the CTV brand.

“I know the team is hurting right now … I am sorry for anyone who has been dragged into this,” said Melling, the relatively new executive who apparently pushed for LaFlamme’s exit.

Moses, who is Melling’s boss, said the company decided to “move on” from LaFlamme to pursue its “vision” based on factors including audience trends.

But neither executive was able to explain what the new vision is or what it is based on, and Moses went to lengths to avoid even saying LaFlamme was fired. LaFlamme’s former executive producer, Rosa Hwang, pressed the two executives to clarify whether the decision to end the anchor’s contract had to do with age or gender, asking: “What factors made you think she wouldn’t align with the vision?”

“Was it her age?”

Moses replied: “No. Seriously, I’m a woman. … I’ve been here 25 years. And do you really think I would fire a woman because she’s a woman?”

“So she was fired then?” Hwang asked.

“That’s not what I’m saying, but you know what I mean,” Moses said. The Toronto Star reported that a moderator cut off Hwang’s line of questioning to move to another topic and the meeting ended in half an hour with many other journalists lined up to speak.

The public silence and lack of accountability of Bell Media executives has made a bad situation worse. To say there are too many “false narratives” and then refuse to speak to media about them is hypocritical.

To say in a press release that LaFlamme is “leaving her job” instead of being fired is dishonest.

To toss the problem to “an independent third-party internal review” is nonsensical. What does that even mean? That it will be conducted by someone independent? From outside the company? Or someone currently employed at Bell Media? If so, how are they independent?

The issue should be the competence of the people who chose to fire LaFlamme, and how they mishandled that. CTV’s national newscast audience dwarfs that of rivals Global and CBC. Its public face was an outstanding journalist of 35 years standing who exuded credibility and humanity. Why meddle with success? She’s only 58, far younger than the legend she replaced, Lloyd Robertson, far younger than the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge was when he stepped down. Both of them were given graceful exits with a proper on-air celebration of their achievements.

Lisa LaFlamme was frog-marched out of her chair without a proper chance to even say goodby.

Her class, professionalism and news sense will be missed—certainly by all her viewers and, I suspect, by anyone who thinks some new “vision” can replace a seasoned journalist just telling the news as it is.

John Miller

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy...