RCMP supervisor's support for BCE-Astral deal criticized

Rival companies are asking why a high-ranking RCMP officer in B.C. has written a letter to Canada's broadcasting regulator in favour of media giant BCE Inc.'s plan to acquire Astral Media.
BCE Inc. chief exec George Cope, left, is stewarding his company's takeover of Astral Media, which Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau opposes.

A high-ranking RCMP officer in B.C. has written a letter to Canada's broadcasting regulator in favour of media giant BCE Inc.'s plan to acquire Astral Media, a letter that the companies' rivals are denouncing.

Insp. Dana Hart says Mounties at the detachment in Terrace, which he runs, "rely on our local Astral Media extensively to inform the public" about safety issues in the area.

For instance, the Northern B.C. city's Astral-owned TV station collaborates with the Mounties on filming and airing Crimestoppers video re-enactments, which help solve crimes, Hart writes.

Hart also wades into broadcasting policy in his letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

"BCE's acquisition will not only yield benefits for Astral's specialty and pay telelvision services and radio stations, but also for the Canadian broadcasting system as a whole in terms of investment and innovation. It will also help to ensure the production of new Canadian content," he writes on letterhead bearing the RCMP and Government of Canada logos.

Quebecor, Cogeco piqued

A group of rival companies lashed out Thursday, saying it's inappropriate for the RCMP to make such submissions to the CRTC, which has to approve the takeover.

Read the letter

Click here to read RCMP Insp. Dana Hart's letter to the CRTC in support of BCE's takeover of Astral Media.

Montreal-based media giants Cogeco Cable and Quebecor, as well as Halifax's Eastlink, point out that the RCMP is funded by tax dollars, and they have asked Heritage Minister James Moore to have the RCMP letter withdrawn.

Another federally funded agency, Telefilm Canada, also wrote to the CRTC in support of the Astral takeover, prompting questions about its motives. Telefilm finances and promotes Canadian movies, which would air on BCE-owned channels like CTV and Bravo and Astral channels The Movie Network, Mpix, HBO, Cinépop and Super Écran.

The rival companies say they have now concerns about the independence of the two federal bodies reviewing the acquisition, the CRTC and the Competition Bureau. The companies' chief executives — Louis Audet of Cogeco, Pierre Karl Péladeau of Quebecor Leo Bragg of Eastlink — have also asked that the federal lobbying commissioner investigate the matter.

Concerns about media concentration

The Terrace RCMP detachment did not immediately return calls or emails asking why it had written a supporting letter. The city's Astral-owned TV station, CFTK, operates as a CBC affiliate and gets most of its programming from the public broadcaster.

A number of organizations and major Canadian companies have come out against BCE's acquisition of Astral. Cogeco, Quebecor and Eastlink have been fervently campaigning against it alongside Quebec consumers groups like Options Consommateurs and Union des Consommateurs. Communications companies Telus and Rogers are also lined up against the deal.

The deal's opponents say that BCE's post-takeover TV assets would have a 45 per cent share of Canada's English-language audience and a 35 per cent stake in the French-language market. BCE disagrees, saying the figures would be 33.5 per cent for English and 24 per cent for French. The CRTC's upper limit for media concentration is 35 per cent.

If approved, the combined Bell/Astral media conglomerate would own 79 television channels, 107 radio stations and more than 100 websites across the country.

With files from The Canadian Press