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Lisa LaFlamme ouster leaves tensions high at CTV News. ‘Colleagues are sad and scared’

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More criticism flowed Tuesday over what some past and present CTV News employees are describing as a “culture of fear” within the organization, a day after it emerged that the network had ended the contract of Lisa LaFlamme, one of Canada’s best known journalists.

A number of Canada’s other prominent broadcasters, meanwhile, were emerging to voice support for their colleague.

Several CTV News employees who spoke to the Star on Tuesday said the end of LaFlamme’s more than three decades with the company marked the loss of another female role model within the organization.

“In the last eight months, we lost the two most senior women at CTV News. Wendy Freeman and Lisa are both gone,” said one longtime employee.

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Like other employees who spoke to the Star, they asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about their job and about the possibility of career repercussions.

Freeman had stepped down as the head of CTV News in December after more than 25 years at the network. She had led the news division since 2010, overseeing news, information and current events programming including CTV News, BNN Bloomberg and CP24.

Michael Melling, who has worked his way to the top of the company after joining as an editorial assistant back in 2003, was named a vice-president in January.

Several CTV employees who have spoken to the Star have laid the blame for what they describe as the difficult current climate at the feet of Melling, the head of news, while one said the issues in the organization predate him, but have been “amplified” during his tenure.

“With Michael Melling’s arrival, Wendy Freeman, who was a barrier-breaker, was gone. Wendy was the first woman executive producer of CTV National News and the longest-serving head of news,” said the longtime employee.

Bell Media and Melling have not responded to the Star’s requests for comment this week.

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LaFlamme, who had been chief anchor and senior editor at CTV National News, took to social media Monday to announce that her contract had been terminated.

“While it is crushing to be leaving CTV National News in a manner that is not my choice, please know reporting to you has truly been the greatest honour of my life,” the 58-year-old said in a video statement.

One Toronto employee described the mood among employees in the newsroom on Tuesday as “tense.”

“No one is talking much,” said the producer. “There’s a lot of whispering, speculation still.

“There still hasn’t been any sort of team meeting or address from Michael Melling or leadership,” they added. “My colleagues are sad and scared about what’s next and fearing retaliation for speaking out.”

LaFlamme had been anchoring the network’s National News since 2011, part of a 35-year career with CTV during which she covered the war in Afghanistan, federal elections, natural disasters, the global pandemic and, most recently, the papal visit to Canada. She has been named during her career to the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.

A producer corroborated the account of a longtime employee who told the Star on Monday that LaFlamme had “spoken up where she has seen a lack of coverage and where to devote more resources … on the (war in) Ukraine, for example.”

Managers at CTV were told to inform staff that LaFlamme’s departure was a business decision and that the show was “going in a different direction.”

Starting next month, Omar Sachedina will assume the role of chief news anchor and senior editor of CTV National News.

Rosa Hwang, LaFlamme’s executive news producer, has not been in the newsroom this week and has not been in touch with colleagues, multiple sources confirmed.

“There’s a lot of young women in the newsroom whose mentors are gone, and they are inconsolable and wondering what that means for their futures in the business, because the most senior women in the newsroom are not there,” a producer told the Star.

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“For us women in the newsroom, we knew we could always go to Lisa and Rosa for advice on difficult stories, and ask them about how to approach these stories. They had our backs, along with Wendy Freeman.”

Randy Kitt, with Unifor, the union that represents editorial staff at CFTO-DT (also known as CTV Toronto or Channel 9) and technical staff at the national newsroom, said they’ve heard issues have existed for a long time.

“We’ve heard year after year that there is a culture of fear there, where they treat their employees poorly. … We’ve had several organizing drives there where people would tell us they’re afraid, that there’s a high staff turnover,” Kitt said.

One former employee, who left last year, described what he felt was a toxic culture at CTV News.

He said people are “constantly being yelled at” because there’s a disconnect between management and editorial staff.

“I can’t tell you how many times I was berated and would spend hours with my therapist, who would say ‘This is not normal,’” said the former employee.

He said there appeared annual worries about who could be let go.

“I can tell some of the most senior, well-respected anchors or reporters in this country (are afraid) because they say to themselves, ‘I make too much money, I might be on the chopping block this round.’”

The source said he did not personally have a bad experience with Melling, describing him as “gracious” during a conversation about moving to one of the network’s other stations.

“He was open to having that conversation,” he said.

Meanwhile, several heavyweights of Canadian broadcast journalism said Tuesday they were perplexed as to why LaFlamme, who won best national news anchor for the second year in a row at the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards in April, would be let go.

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“Eliminating one of the public’s most visible advocates of responsible journalism, a woman who broke the glass ceiling and sustained a ratings lead for a decade, is a strange way of protecting a rare legacy news brand, and ensuring reliable journalism endures,” wrote Kevin Newman in an online post, was the chief anchor of Global National from 2001 to 2010 and was also substitute anchor of CTV National News with LaFlamme.

Ian Hanomansing, co-host of CBC’s The National, told the Star he was “shocked” at CTV’s decision.

“I was sitting in my home watching the video and I actually wondered if it was a parody,” he said.

Hanomansing said he wasn’t sure he accepted CTV’s explanation for why LaFlamme was let go.

“What is the real reason for parting ways with her, when she’s as good as she is, when she’s on top of her game, when she clearly wants to do this and she does it so well, and the newscast it does so well both in terms of ratings and also in terms of the quality of the newscast. If you put all that stuff together, then why would you do it?”

Joanna Chiu is a B.C.-based staff reporter for the Star. She covers global and national affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu

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