August 18, 2022
Perhaps you had an “I knew it” moment when you read that CTV executive Michael Melling raised the question of national news anchor Lisa LaFlamme’s silver hair colour a few months before he fired her.
We are still learning in bits of divulged information what led up to LaFlamme’s dismissal from her job at the top rated national news show, a role in which she could only be described as wildly successful if that description doesn’t distract from the journalism gravitas she offered Canadians.
As a now retired but life long union staff representative in the media industry, I handled hundreds of dismissals. Each time there was a lot going on below the water line that the public (or the rest of the workplace) didn’t ever hear about. So if we pass judgment on someone’s firing, we can only base it on what we are permitted to see or what emerges later (the circumstances of Wendy Mesley’s departure from the CBC is a textbook case of waiting for the full story).
LaFlamme has said all she wants to for now. She is referring working reporters to her posted video statement. Melling isn’t talking, other than a press release written in corporate-speak that cites appealing to a younger audience.
Melling was on trial in the press and social media this week. It’s fair to say the judgment by a jury of his peers and the general public is guilty as charged. The Globe’s Robyn Urback qualified that today in a column by reminding us that salary dumping of top-earning stars is a ruthless commonplace in media and especially Bell Media since Wade Osterman took the reins.
Still LaFlamme’s firing remains a very disturbing story about hair colour and the general circumstances of a powerful male executive butting heads with a strong (and more respected) female subordinate.
Melling started his career at the small-ish CTV station in London, Ontario. He didn’t have the reputation as an ogre, more like flinty-eyed but a good listener. Not the kind of BBPD (bad boss personality disorder) you fear working for.
He was good at what he does —-finding economies, containing costs—- and was promoted in December 2018 to a job that included running Toronto’s Cable Pulse 24. That all-news channel is one of CTV’s most financially successful properties at a forty per cent net profit according to CRTC filings. The age of the staff skews 35-ish.
Melling became General Manager of CP24 six months after the 25 on-air reporters and hosts voted to unionize. The issue was pay. It had been a problem for years before he got there.
This is where I joined the story, assigned by Unifor to negotiate the first collective agreement. As soon as we got the confidential salary information it became clear why the staff had opted for the union: the salaries were egregiously polarized by gender, the worst I saw in my thirty-year career as a union negotiator. Most of the female reporters had been at the station several years and were far below the journalist salary line at CTV’s other Toronto news outlet CFTO-TV which has been unionized for decades.
Melling didn’t cause that but he wasn’t eager to fix it either.
Sitting across from him in contract negotiations, Melling did not look very pleased to be there, but my guess is that was either his game face or his dismay at us messing with his budget.
The negotiations took some time to arrive at the standard salary structure in a unionized newsroom which is always a laddered job rate ending in a “maximum” salary for most of the staff, with a handful of top-earners retaining their existing salaries above the union rate with cost of living raises. All staff have the freedom to negotiate more pay in excess of the so-called maximum.
Although the CP24 negotiations were not unlike crawling across broken glass, we reached an agreement to an accelerated phase-in of pay equity. Knowing Bell Media corporate culture as I do, the decision to cough up more salary came from someone well above Melling’s level. (The silver lining in the silver lining is that the station’s exceptional profitability went up).
I am pleased to say that CP24 continues to operate as a money-machine for CTV without having to fire top journalists in a pivot to a younger audience.
And that observation is my take-away from this sordid story. If the executives at Bell Media believe that the path to a younger audience (and retaining the older audience) lays through firing the Lisa LaFlammes of the world, heaven help the whole organization and the rest of the staff still working there.