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Worries about the ‘Berlusconization’ of Quebec by Martin Scott

Mar 15, 2014

Media baron Pierre Karl Péladeau’s leap into politics is not a first in Canadian history. But with media concentration as strong as it is today, can we dare to allow it now? 

Source: Montreal Gazette

Pierre Karl Péladeau owns 28 per cent of Québecor’s shares, but they are multiple-voting shares, giving him 73 per cent of the votes at Québecor shareholders’ meetings.
Photograph by: Graham Hughes , THE CANADIAN PRESS

MONTREAL — Publishing a newspaper didn't stop George Brown from becoming a Father of Confederation.

It didn't stop Henri Bourassa, the founder of Le Devoir, from having a long political career.

Nor did it prevent Le Devoir director Claude Ryan from becoming leader of the No campaign in the 1980 Referendum.

So why has Québecor baron Pierre Karl Péladeau's leap into politics sparked the most explosive controversy in the 10-day-old campaign?

The rough ride that greeted the Parti Québécois's star candidate this week demonstrates just how volatile a mixture politics and media have become in an era of convergence and communications giants.

The 52-year-old multimillionaire is "a conflict of interest on two feet" who will turn out to be "a time bomb" for the PQ, predicted Le Devoir columnist Francine Pelletier.

Québecor's media holdings include the Journal de Montréal, Toronto Sun and other newspapers, as well as the TVA network and Vidéotron cable company.

Quebec's federation of journalists issued a similar warning.

"When you mix politics and this kind of power, it's an explosive cocktail," Pierre Craig, of the Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec, told The Canadian Press.

The prospect of a contender for the premier's job who controls 40 per cent of Quebec's media industry is extremely worrisome, he added.

Journalism has been a path to politics throughout Canadian history. Think of Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia or rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada.

Father of Confederation D'Arcy McGee founded and ran newspapers, as did Honoré Beaugrand, mayor of Montreal from 1885-87.

And late premier René Lévesque entered politics after a career in broadcast journalism.

But today, when single companies control vast communications empires, from newspapers to TV stations to websites to cable TV, the notion of a media mogul running for office the old-fashioned way raises alarm bells.

Rémi Bourget, president of the Québec Inclusif movement, warned of the "Berlusconization" of Quebec — referring to Silvio Berlusconi, the disgraced Italian politician and media owner.

Canada is one of the countries with the highest level of media concentration in the western world. The situation is even more extreme in Quebec, where just two companies — Québecor and Gesca — control 97 per cent of the French-speaking press, according to a recent report by INA Global, the Review of Creative Industries and Media.

"We live in an era when we're so dependent on media for everything we know, whether it's newspapers or magazines or TV or films," said Mike Gasher, director of the Concordia Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Studies.

"When media are owned by these huge corporations that have their tentacles all over the place, whether it's politics or other businesses, it just makes you suspicious or mistrustful of anything you read."

Gasher said the idea of Péladeau wielding political power and possibly leading the Yes campaign in an eventual sovereignty referendum is too close for comfort.

"I think it's really uncomfortable. First of all, just the degree of concentration in Quebec and how many properties he has a hand in, it's really a conflict of interest for everyone," he said.

Critics have been warning for decades about the dangers of growing media concentration. The 1968 Davey Committee and 1981 Kent Commission proposed measures for combating concentration of newspaper ownership, such as setting up a council to monitor press ownership and subsidized loans to start up independent publications.

But in the following decades, with deregulation, globalization and the founding of huge conglomerates like AOL/Time Warner and Vivendi-Universal, media concentration was increasingly viewed as inevitable and even desirable.

Governments began actively supporting concentration as the only way to have Canadian or Quebec-owned media companies big enough to stand up to the global giants.

"These corporations now that own media, they're really a different beast," Gasher said.

"The money and power that these people have is right off the charts."

There's nothing new about publishers going into politics or using their news organizations as political platforms, he said.

But Péladeau, whose business decisions have prompted 14 lockouts — including a two-year lockout at the Journal de Montréal that eventually broke the union — is different, Gasher said.

"First of all, Péladeau is not a journalist," he said.

"He's an entrepreneur, he's a businessman. And I think his first interest is business, not journalism. Look at what he did to the Journal de Montréal and the Journal de Québec and those labour disputes. It's different from anything I can think of," he said.

Liberal leader Philippe Couillard called on Péladeau to divest himself of his media holdings after the Québecor tycoon announced his candidacy in St-Jérôme Sunday. Péladeau owns 28 per cent of Québecor's shares, but they are multiple-voting shares, giving him 73 per cent of the votes at Québecor shareholders' meetings.

"What is his influence today and what is, or not, his influence during the campaign or after the campaign?" Couillard asked.

"Just putting them in a blind trust in my view is not sufficient," he said. "He has to abandon all control."

Péladeau initially said he had no intention of selling his shares, mainly out of concern that could take ownership outside of Quebec. Instead, he promised, if elected, to place his majority holdings in a blind trust within 60 days of the election.

The media tycoon appeared to reject any suggestion that he sell his interest in the company even if he were told to do so by Quebec's ethics commissioner, Jacques Saint-Laurent.

However, he later issued a statement that he would "respect the law, the code of ethics ... and all directives issued by the ethics commissioner."

Saint-Laurent has said he's not sure exactly what he might require Péladeau to do if the business tycoon becomes a member of the National Assembly.

Gasher said it's difficult to pinpoint instances of how media ownership influences journalistic content. But he said the concentration of media ownership in the hands of fewer and bigger corporations is changing the journalistic climate.

"You get an increasingly business-friendly journalism. It's more of a creeping change to the journalistic environment," he said.

Péladeau's jump into the political arena raises questions about the role of media in the ongoing debate over Quebec's future, Gasher said.

"If you want to think seriously about the sovereignty option and debate it, it seems to me the media should be the place where that idea gets aired," he said.

"It has the potential of skewing that debate, that the media becomes so much identified with one position or the other, that you can't trust what you're hearing. I think on any of these big political issues, it kind of undermines the whole notion of rational debate through the media."

Alan Contor, a lecturer in media ethics and law at Concordia University, said coverage in Québecor outlets of controversies over reasonable accommodation and Quebec's proposed secularism charter raises numerous red flags.

He pointed to Péladeau's involvement in the Quebec City Colisée as an example of the political influence he already wields.

Contor noted that the initial leaks over the values charter appeared in the Journal de Montréal, and TV personality and producer Julie Snyder, from whom Péladeau recently separated, was closely involved in the pro-charter Janette movement.

"The ties are so close," he said.

"The idea that a blind trust is sufficient is ridiculous," he added.

Gasher said Péladeau must choose between his media involvement and politics.

"I don't think he can wear both those hats. If he can't sell his shares, or it's too much to ask, then I don't think he can be a politician," he said.

© Montreal Gazette