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Howard Levitt: Many questions arise as Bell Media scrambles to handle the Lisa LaFlamme fallout

Former CTV broadcaster Lisa LaFlamme
Former CTV broadcaster Lisa LaFlamme

The Lisa LaFlamme debacle is quickly blowing up in Bell Media Inc.’s face. So what does it do? Call for an investigator. It is so textbook.

One might wonder why it did not do that three months ago when former etalk co-anchor Danielle Graham made even more pointed accusations of gender discrimination. Of course, at that point, heated public opinion was not demanding Bell Media heads.

Over the past few years, much of corporate Canada’s crisis management has increasingly consisted of informing angry constituents that they are having their crisis “investigated.” But what does that actually mean?

Typically, they bring in a hired gun with an incentive to obtain more assignments. And how does the investigator do that? By providing a report or recommendations that management are happy with and, therefore, are induced to use that investigator again as well as recommend them to other companies.

But, more critically, the real impact of the investigation is to act as a smokescreen, deferring further anger and kicking the scandal so far into the future that the public’s attention has turned elsewhere by the time the investigator reports.

Does Bell Media really need to investigate? What facts are unknown to it? It made the decision to fire LaFlamme, knows why it did it and knows whether it was tainted, as alleged, by her age or gender.

If management at the highest level made the decision, there is nothing to investigate. If it was lower management, then higher management can call them on the carpet tomorrow and get the answers they need. And they can do so far more effectively than some outside investigator with no powers and no knowledge of Bell Media’s policies, culture or personnel.

If the investigator reports, what exactly is anyone going to find out? Will the report be released publicly, not be released or, like the Jian Ghomeshi investigator’s report, be heavily redacted so that it doesn’t reveal any information that people don’t already know.

If there are recommendations, and if anyone ever finds out what they are, will it be something with teeth so that the appropriate heads roll? Or just the usual amorphous statements such as “we are embarking on a new cultural journey,” signifying nothing but more pap (and more LaFlammes)?

And why is the “newsroom” being investigated rather than senior management who made the call?

As for the law, if she was indeed fired for letting her hair go grey, that is illegal age discrimination. If she was fired to put a man in her place, that is gender discrimination. And in human rights law, if even one of the reasons for her dismissal was based on age or gender, it is illegal, even if she would have been fired for other reasons anyway.

It’s hard to imagine any good reason for firing the highest-rated anchor on any station in the country, one who brought in more than one million viewers a day, with concomitant ratings and advertising dollars. It seems outrageous on its face.

That means Bell Media will have a very heavy burden of proving that gender or age discrimination were not among its reasons, especially if a court or human rights tribunal believes that the comment respecting her greying hair was actually made.

If it was, and if Bell Media did something illegal, then what is the responsibility of that large Canadian company? Shouldn’t whoever committed what is an illegal act be fired themselves — and for cause? And should not the board of directors, with its responsibility for corporate governance, be the entity demanding that investigation. And if it doesn’t, is that a breach of its fiduciary duty?

Now, who should conduct the investigation? Not a hired gun, but an unimpeachable retired judge who will command the respect of those investigated, Bell’s employees and the public.

Somehow, I don’t think that is likely to happen, but I hope that the public will not relent until it does. Because Bell Media is not just another big company. LaFlamme and those few in her position are trusted advisers to millions of Canadians daily and Canadians see themselves in how they are treated by their employers.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. 

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