Why it matters when separatist Péladeau flexes his media baron muscles

By Toula Drimonis, for The Tyee

By Toula Drimonis, for The Tyee

In 2000, Pierre Karl Péladeau told the Globe and Mail: "I don't think it's my role to comment on politics. It's not even of interest to me. I run a global company." Fast forward to 2014 and he's fist-pumping on a campaign trail, declaring his undying love for Quebec and his goal to see it become a country. On April 7, if the PQ is re-elected, the threat of another Quebec referendum becomes more than just speculation and enters the realm of the possible.

PKP's foray into politics would have been fine if it were any other businessman flip-flopping. But this isn't a man who made his millions selling used cars or peddling appliances. This is a man who controls the way voters get their news. While the media mogul, worth close to $700 million according to the latest Quebecor filing, stepped down as CEO of his company in May, he is still its largest shareholder and chairman of its media and television branches. It's supremely naïve to assume that he still doesn't have a say in his media holdings' editorial lines or that the people in his newsrooms aren't acutely aware of who the boss is.

In "Warnings from Quebec," an excellent Tyee series focusing on media ownership concentration in Quebec, and the distorting effect it has had on the politics and civic life of the province, journalist Kai Nagata wrote, quite presciently I might add, about the disturbing link between media oligarch and political influencer. The series was written three years ago. With PKP now throwing his hat in the political rink, that link is even more pronounced today than ever.

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"The Journal [de Montreal]," Nagata writes, "remains Canada's number three paper, with an estimated weekly circulation of 1.9 million. In total, Quebecor prints 37 dailies, plus seven free papers aimed at transit users… "Quebecor's TVA network also runs the top-rated television newscast in every local market in the province, plus the top-rated 24-hour cable news channel. Its online news portal, canoe.ca, pulls in 4.1 million unique visitors per month. That's more than half the total population of the province. What this means is that Quebecor has positioned itself as the primary gatekeeper of information in francophone Quebec. But it also occupies a second, related role — as the purveyor of distraction."

Nagata continues: "What this means is that a single company holds disproportionate power in defining the public conversation in Quebec. By deciding what to talk about, and what not to talk about, Quebecor can put invisible boundaries around the ideas its customers encounter — and even suggest which ideas are legitimate."

Factor in the question of language, and Quebec's many unilingual francophones are a captive audience. It's a dangerous predicament.

One of the most stringent codes of journalistic conduct is reporting without bias. "Gotcha journalism," the deliberate manipulation of the presentation of facts in order to portray a person or organization in a way that varies from an accurate or balanced review of the facts, is considered highly unethical because it's deliberately biased reporting. It still doesn't stop many publications from doing just that. The Journal de Montréal is famous for its sensationalistic, fear-mongering front pages that play to Quebecers' deep-seated fears and prejudices regarding their linguistic and cultural survival. The kind of hot button issues and emotionally charged front pages that serve to both boost the bottom line and separatist fervour.

"We're all eating Halal!" was sprawled on the Journal de Montréal's front page a few years ago. Never mind that a further investigation netted very little in the way of actual evidence to that claim; it was enough to start widespread Islamophobia and fear of immigrants that has only increased since the PQ's Charter of Quebec Values was introduced.

Speaking of the Charter as the defender of feminism (a claim that many ardent feminists have rebuked repeatedly, since forbidding ostentatious religious symbols in public service and preventing hijab-wearing Muslim women from working in hospitals and schools hardly furthers the cause of equality among sexes), the Journal de Montréal was one of the first to offer its pages and its support to Les Janette, a group of prominent Quebec Charter-supporting women. Among them was PKP's now former wife and well-known Quebec TV personality, Julie Snyder. One can't help but wonder what kind of behind-the-scenes influence PKP's as-yet unannounced party affiliations had in these editorial decisions.

Tabloid politics

The Journal de Montréal is also notorious for its tabloid-style exposés that seem to push buttons when it comes to the sticky business of identity politics. Quebec's English community is repeatedly chastised for not knowing enough about French celebrity culture. "Who is Marie Mai?" was recently the heavy-hitting question being asked of many of us, alluding to a popular pop singer that — gasp! — too many terrible Anglophones failed to identify. And, of course, a year can't go by without a front page story terrorizing the average Quebecer about the precarious nature of the French language in downtown Montreal.

The paper's sovereigntist leanings are no big secret. In an interview with Maclean's writer Martin Patriquin, former Journal reporter Émilie Dubreuil stated: "If you are an old sovereignist, we don't name you to the Senate, because we don't have one. Instead, you get a column in Le Journal de Montréal."

But the danger in having media and politics mix here is that Quebecor, which also owns TV network TVA and cable company Videotron, not only controls how Quebecers see themselves and the rest of Canada, but also how the rest of Canada sees Quebec. With Péladeau's purchase of the Sun News Network, the media mogul-turned-politician is now also controlling the Quebec-bashing tone coming from the ROC. Péladeau is essentially controlling how the ROC sees Quebec (a whiny, self-indulgent, have-not province), while simultaneously controlling how Quebecers see the rest of Canada seeing them. It's practically Machiavellian.

Ezra Levant's and Brian Lilley's over-the-top ignorant rants are the Sun News flip side of Richard Martineau's and Mathieu Bock-Côté's alarmist navel-gazing. They are opposite sides of the same coin. And it's Péladeau who provides the coin. Now what would a self-proclaimed separatist who "wants to build a country for his children" possibly have to gain from getting both Quebecers and the ROC riled up? The proof is in the pudding chômeur, and this glaring conflict of interest begs many valid questions.

Tale of two newspapers

Media critic Norman Solomon once called the media an echo chamber — meaning it basically echoes what those deemed important have to say. But what if it those who own the chamber only echo what and whom they deem important, based on their own political biases? What then?

Never have I been more painfully aware of that reality in Quebec than yesterday morning, as I casually glanced at the front pages of the Pierre Karl Peladeau-owned, pro-PQ Journal de Montréal and the Desmarais-owned pro-Liberal La Presse.

Sprawled all over the Journal de Montreal was former Quebec premier Jean Charest's face (barely visible during this campaign, yet still used as ammunition for the Liberals' corruption scandals association) and the headline "Exclusive: Charest's agenda under the microscope. Anti-corruption unit, political financing, well known names involved. At the bottom of the page (in smaller font, almost as an afterthought) was a footnote: PQ also visited by anti-corruption unit.

In sharp contrast, La Presse's front page stated: "Illegal financing: Anti-corruption unit also targets the PQ."

It was clear to see which side these two news outlets were on, as the clash between sovereigntist and federalist leanings was on full display for anyone looking at the papers side by side. So blatantly easy that it made many people in my immediate circle laugh with cynical resignation. But many people in my immediate circle are journalists and political junkies — the kind of people accustomed to reading three to four newspapers a day, and linking to dozens of articles on multiple websites for their information. What happens to those who have neither the time, nor the inclination to do so? What happens to those who choose to read, listen, and watch only a limited viewpoint, or only what confirms and comforts their biases (as many are apt to do)? What happens when the vast majority of news sources in the province are concentrated in the hands of the few?

When media barons seek office

Even more alarming, what happens when a media mogul, like Pierre Karl Péladeau, who has the power to control the dissemination of information, decides he can run as a star candidate for the PQ, and flippantly brush off all concerns regarding the very real ethical compromises at stake.

Journalism is in the business of pointing the reader's attention to what is important and why. Information is currency in today's world. Without it, democracy can't function, or is — at the very least — severely compromised.

Over the years, however, as media ownership has become more and more concentrated in the hands of the few, there has been an increasing trend of distrust in the media's reliability to report the news accurately and in an unbiased fashion. It bears repeating that the press is not a special interest group; it is the primary means by which the public is kept abreast of the activities of its elected officials; it's democracy's watchdog.

However, the type of media convergence currently being seen in Quebec points to an inherent unfairness and imbalance in the way information is communicated to the people. With a provincial election two weeks away, and with the gloves coming off on all sides, demagogy in print has the potential to affect the democratic process.

Arguments can certainly be made that La Presse is owned by the Liberal-loving, staunch federalist Desmarais family.

The late Paul Desmarais, the controlling shareholder of Power Corp, was estimated to be worth US$4.5 billion. Over the years political observers repeatedly pointed out the enormous influence he had over Canadian federal politics. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien even sat on the board of the Power Corporation of Canada.

But there's a huge difference between a newspaper owned by a party supporter and a powerful media empire owned by a minister-to-be (if not, potential party leader). It begs inevitable questions of media impartiality, equity, and objectivity. How can balanced coverage of candidates and parties be achieved when it's at the discretion of the editorial management? And the person signing their cheques is a candidate with the party currently in power.

Bye, bye press council

There's a conflict of interest so blatant here, it's mind boggling that it doesn't seem to have given PKP more grief. Even when he declared that he wouldn't sell his Quebecor shares unless ordered to by the Ethics Commissioner, the grumbling lasted a few days, but the aftermath seems to have been negligible.

It should be noted that Quebecor is no longer a member of the Quebec Press Council. It walked away in 2010, in disagreement with certain judgements rendered against it, essentially removing itself from any journalistic accountability and scrutiny.

Many can counter argue that there's no such thing as editorial impartiality and that all reporters (regardless of whether their boss is PKP or not) ultimately lean the way their political convictions go. It's human nature… To demand complete neutrality and eliminate all bias in media reporting, one would have to cling to the belief that the only journalists who can provide balanced and fair coverage of events would be the ones with absolutely no political allegiances; vocalized or otherwise. We all know that's not the case.

Reporting (and more specifically, political analysis) requires critical thinking, solid quantitative and qualitative data analysis, top-notch research, logical sequential thinking, and being able to see the big picture. Are we supposed to believe that all this goes out the window the minute someone starts forming a political preference?

It's possible for someone to be an effective, conscientious and accurate journalist and still have strong political leanings. British journalist John Burns, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the London bureau chief for The New York Times once said: "I have to be accurate; I don't have to be impartial."

Of course bias still creeps in subconsciously, in the choices made, the subject matters covered, the people interviewed.

Media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), in consultation with the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, sponsored an academic study in which journalists were asked a range of questions about how they did their work and about how they viewed the quality of media coverage in the broad area of politics and economic policy. They were also asked for their opinions and views about a range of recent policy issues and debates, including their political orientation.

Interestingly enough, the study concluded that much more was learned about the political orientation of news content by looking at sourcing patterns rather than journalists' personal views. The survey results indicated that the way bias can creep in is in a reporter's choice of sources to check, failing to hear and report dissenting voices, or always turning to the same "experts" or government officials to interview, while leaving labour representatives and consumer advocates at the bottom of the list of people to call.

Since it's not robots but human beings bringing you the news, perhaps it's time we started to recognize the improbability of journalistic objectivity and focused instead on fairness and accuracy as barometers of a job well done. Of course, that would also place the onus on information consumers to do their own due diligence to determine the fairness of the source, rather than the objectivity, and employ some much-needed critical thinking.

But here again, there is a big difference between a reporter's potential political bias and an entire newspaper's biased editorial line. The former can be observed and controlled by an experienced editor. The latter can't because the editorial line comes from the very top.

Canada needs diverse media

Journalism's first and most important function is to inform and challenge the status quo.

How do you do that when you're owned by the status quo? It's a question being asked more and more as media sources are being gobbled up by conglomerates and profit becomes a priority over public interest.

Is it any wonder that there's such a general malaise with journalism in general these days and a lack of trust on the part of readers? It's arguably the reason why more and more independent sources of crowd-sourced information are popping up to fill the void.

Concerns about the disproportionate power exercised by the media in a democracy become more compelling as the industry itself becomes more concentrated. While Quebecor's reach and influence are unequaled, is it really any different elsewhere? Around the world, media concentration in the hands of the few has been raising red flags for decades.

Media convergence and concentration of media ownership spawns media oligarchies which can compromise democracy and the dissemination of information. Commercially-driven companies focus on profit, not the public interest. It's a trend that can prove to be dangerous.

In an article written by Lawrence McCurry for Canadian Dimension magazine, pointing to mainstream media's failure to cover the G20 Summit fairly, he states: "In 1990, 17.3 per cent of daily newspapers were independently owned; whereas in 2005, one per cent were." Think about that for a minute.

The Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications launched a study of Canadian news media in March 2003. In its final report, released June 2006, it expressed concern about the effects of the current levels of news media ownership in Canada. Specifically, the Committee discussed their concerns regarding the potential of media ownership concentration to limit news diversity and reduce news quality. It's only nosedived since then.

At stake: democracy

Democracy is an imperfect and delicate system and what happens if public channels of communication cease to provide the substantive information that is critical for its operation?

What happens when those who control the message are simply able to communicate it better and much louder, simply because they have both money and power on their side? And what happens when those who control the message control it for their own self-serving political or financial gain?

Robert W. McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy, a book published in 1999, focuses on exactly that; the concentration of media power in the hands of the few and how its enormous influence can be used for purposes other than serving the public, but of advancing personal agendas.

"Media fare is ever more closely linked to the needs and concerns of a handful of enormous and powerful corporations, with annual revenues approaching the GDP of a small nation," McChesney argues. "These firms are run by wealthy managers and billionaires with clear stakes in the outcome of the most fundamental political issues, and their interests are often distinct from those of the vast majority of humanity… "By any known theory of democracy, such a concentration of economic, cultural, and political power into so few hands — and mostly unaccountable hands at that — is absurd and unacceptable."

And yet, here we are.

With 10 days to go, the possibility of the PQ forming a majority government and calling a third referendum looms on the horizon. It's disconcerting to the majority of Quebecers who don't think a referendum is anywhere near a priority, and it's disconcerting to many Canadians who are fatigued by the prospect.

But what should be more disconcerting than the possibility of a perfectly legal election and referendum taking place (fall where the chips may), should be the possibility of media bias and interference.

Now more than ever, media education is vital for today's newspaper readers and media watchers. People need to learn to approach news with a discerning and probing mind and from a multitude of sources. Media education isn't about having the right answers, but about having the selective reasoning required to ask the right questions or question the facts (and the particular slant) being presented. Democracy depends on a vigilant and informed public.

Even if ever-encroaching media ownership concentration has made sure that the odds are severely stacked against us.

This column was originally published in The Tyee. Toula Drimonis is a writer and editor based in Montreal, with over 12 years in the print media industry, having worked both as editor and news director for a number of TC Media publications. While there, she wrote an award-winning opinion column. A former TV researcher and co-host for CJNT-Global, she routinely appears on panels to discuss women's issues. Her freelance work (with a particular focus on Quebec politics, feminism, and social issues) has appeared in PolicyMic, the Huffington Post, and Le Journal de Montréal. She is a frequent contributor to CJAD, the top-rated English radio station in Montreal. Follow her on Twitter @toulastake.

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