Marc-François Bernier - Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa and holder of the Research Chair in Canadian Francophonie Communication specializing in journalism ethics.
Stunning revelations were made at the recent annual meeting of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ-professional federation of journalists of Quebec). They are in blatant contradiction with what Quebecor Media executives solemnly assured Quebec parliamentarians nearly 10 years ago in seeking permission to go ahead with their convergence strategy.
During a workshop last Saturday on the extent of Quebecor Media’s influence, David Patry, a journalist with the Journal de Montréal who has been locked out for nearly two years, denounced the fact that he had been encouraged and even required to write and sign articles attacking Radio-Canada as well as a journalist from the daily newspaper La Presse. His colleague, Régys Caron from the Journal de Québec, also denounced what he considered to be interference by management. A number of other similar cases could likewise be exposed. This behaviour is part of a slur campaign against Radio-Canada, which is supported by some journalists who seem to be united under a common front.
If grounded in reality, these hard-hitting statements lift the veil on certain practices by Quebecor newspapers, if not by other media in the group. These indications suggest that Quebecor might be engaging in wilful propagandizing (hammering, repeating the same arguments) or even misinformation (deceiving the public by hiding facts that are pertinent to understanding the events). Such behaviour pushes the damaging potential of its media to an extreme, all in the name of freedom of the press, of course.
However, in February, 2001, during parliamentary committee hearings in Quebec City, Quebecor Media was in agreement with the “social consensus that decisions on the choice of information, the slant taken in presenting it and its dissemination should not be hindered by the influence of media group owners. [...] In our view, it is important for news professionals to be able to work freely and make editorial decisions based exclusively on professional objectivity criteria” (Submission by Quebecor Media, public hearings of the Quebec National Assembly’s Committee on Culture on the impact of ownership patterns in the media industry, February 1, 2001, p. 20).
The submission maintained that “the stronger and more consolidated a news company is, the less likely it is to restrict the independence and autonomy of its journalists.” Quebecor went on to state that “the creation of large media companies in Quebec could have very positive impacts on conditions for practicing the journalistic profession.” The stance was largely based on a legal analysis of freedom of the press that supported the company’s theory. But the facts are uncompromising and tell a different story.
Research we conducted in 2007 at the request of the Fédération nationale des communications (FNC - CSN) revealed that journalists from Quebecor were experiencing a form of professional distress because it was so difficult for them to produce honest, quality news. Compared to their colleagues at Gesca and Radio-Canada, they underwent more self-censorship and felt compelled to promote the interests of their company. They placed the interests of the owners and shareholders above those of the public and had less freedom in their work.
Moreover, a recent study entitled Baromètre des média 2010 by the holder of the research chair in journalism ethics at the University of Ottawa (www.CREJ.ca) reported that 50% of Quebecers are of the opinion that Quebecor Media uses its journalists more than any other media company to serve the economic and political interests of its executives.
Another research study we conducted last year revealed that journalists in Quebec massively reject media convergence because they are concerned that the diversity of news will be reduced, jobs will be lost, their workload will increase and their freedom will be hampered.
This already poor track record is exacerbated by Quebecor’s decision to withdraw from the Quebec Press Council and join the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC). The CBSC is entirely funded by private broadcasters. That does not mean that it is useless, but its mandate is more limited. It will not examine complaints about Quebecor Media’s newspapers and websites. It should be recalled that Quebecor Media stated to parliamentarians that it was committed to becoming more active within the QPC and that it would not leave the Canadian Press, yet that is precisely what happened.
Convergence appears to be increasing in Quebec in all media conglomerates. But time and again, investigations and testimonials demonstrate that Quebecor is where journalistic freedom and integrity are the most heavily abused. That is not to say that quality articles and reports are not produced. It would be absurd to think otherwise. But the normal work that is produced cannot excuse the behaviour that journalists have been denouncing over the past several years.
The denials by a Journal de Montréal spokesperson on 98.5 FM Tuesday are not enough to dispel the individual and collective evidence that has emerged from our investigations or refute remarks made publicly by certain journalists.
Obviously Quebecor is an essential player in the promotion and production of culture and creativity in Quebec, but it must be acknowledged that its ethical and democratic track record is severely tarnished.
Besides court proceedings, which are not always appropriate and cost more than what stands to be gained, there are no serious and effective ways to penalize this kind of manipulation of information or to condemn such a hijacking of the journalistic mission. The Quebec Press Council is powerless and vulnerable, elected officials seem frightened by this media giant, legislators turn a deaf ear to journalists, researchers lack the necessary means, etc.
No one is obliged to turn to Quebecor-owned media to get news, but the media are so powerful and ubiquitous and their convergence is so pervasive that the empire is becoming increasingly successful in imposing its choices and interests in political debates that concern us all. We know now that to achieve this, it must sometimes violate the ethics, values, integrity and freedom of its journalists for the benefit of the company’s freedom and prosperity.