With the arrival of media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau as the Parti Québécois' star candidate in the working class Laurentian riding of Saint-Jérôme, questions about ties between the PQ and the Péladeau-owned Quebecor empire are multiplying. Are close links between government and media putting our democracy in danger?
Péladeau has been the talk of the campaign since Sunday's announcement, but the questions predate his official entry into politics. On Friday, CJAD 800 reported that the PQ unveiled three Quebecor media personalities as candidates last week; two in the same day.
Joining the roster is former student leader Martine Desjardins and Quebec Order of Pharmacists president Diane Lamarre, both are also contributors to Péladeau's Journal de Montréal/Québec.
Earlier last week, former TVA reporter Alexis Deschênes was unveiled as a PQ candidate; La Presse's Denis Lessard writes that Deschênes stood up for the journalists Péladeau locked out in 2009.
"He told anyone who would listen," Lessard said, "that he had enough of reports being dictated to him by upper management."
Deschênes now welcomes Péladeau into the PQ fold and says the media baron never put editorial pressure on him as a reporter.
There are some dissenting voices within the Quebecor family, most notably CJAD 800 contributor Lise Ravary. But Ravary is one of the few; popular libertarian columnist, radio host and PQ critic Éric Duhaime has not written in French in nearly two years (he only writes in English for Sun News, from Montreal).
Last week, another critic, Joanne Marcotte, was fired as a Journal columnist and her database of work appears to have been erased from Quebecor media websites (she's now blogging on her own, and still very critical of the PQ). On Twitter, Marcotte wrote that she assumes she did not "fit into the family" anymore. The newspaper said today she was fired for insulting Quebecor colleagues in a radio interview. Quebecor has made no clear statement on Duhaime, but executives have insisted in recent days that the organization is still editorially balanced.
Aside from Quebecor media personalities, the PQ's cabinet includes ministers who were also former journalists: Bernard Drainville (Radio-Canada), Pierre Duchesne (Radio-Canada) and Jean-François Lisée (Radio-Canada, l'Actualité). Lisée the journalist was also critical of Quebecor in 2010.
Le Journal/TVA vs. Sun News
The contrast in editorial direction between Péladeau's Quebec and Rest of Canada media properties is stark, but strangely complimentary.
Both the Journals and Sun papers are tabloids, relying heavily on controversy and human interest; a strategy that has proved successful for Péladeau in both linguistic camps.
His Quebec writers, like star columnist and TV host Richard Martineau, rely heavily on identity debates for content. This is part of one recent column on opponents to the Charter of Values:
“Imagine succeeding in convincing Western intellectuals on the benefits of the veil. It’s the kind of magic trick that the KKK would have loved to accomplish…Imagine what the Nazis could have accomplished had they succeeded in convincing the world that Jews wore their yellow stars VOLUNTARILY…they could have sent pretty Jewish girls on TV to say, while batting their eyelashes, that they ADORE wearing their symbols of enslavement, no, really, it’s super cute, there are light yellow ones, dark yellow ones, some in silk, some knitted…”
Over in the RoC, columnists like Brian Lilley have been denounced for so-called "Quebec-bashing" - mocking Francophones and Quebec culture. Lilley apologized during the Sochi Olympic games for hosting an entire segment on Sun News Network on why using the correct Francophone pronunciations of athletes' names was an annoying burden.
"Some people sell cheap perfume," The National Post's Andrew Coyne writes today. "Mr. Péladeau is in the cheap emotion end of things, peddling different brands of phoney outrage to different audiences."
Do Péladeau's columnists in the RoC as well as in Quebec further his goal of sovereignty, or are their opinions part of a diverse tapestry of views within the Quebecor network?
The Charter of Values, a PQ Production
Péladeau's newspapers, since the first "reasonable accommodation" crisis of 2007, have been featuring prominently reports and columns on ethnic integration in Quebec society, or more accurately, an apparent lack thereof.
The crisis, highlighted by Hérouxville's law targeting Muslim honour crimes in 2007, boosted then Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) leader Mario Dumont to the position of leader of the official opposition (his party later folded and many members joined the Coalition Avenir Québec). Dumont is now a host on Péladeau's news network, LCN.
Hérouxville, and the Bouchard-Taylor Commission called in response to the issue (whose findings were ignored by the PQ in drafting a new solution), is seen as a precursor to Drainville's Charter of Values.
On Sunday, The Canadian Press reported that, to defend Bill 60, Drainville cited an American law dating back to segregation-era America. In 1919, anti-Catholic sentiment boosted a call for legislation to prevent Nebraska nuns from wearing religious garb in public schools. The measure inspired a similar law in 1923 Oregon (now repealed) which was, according to CP, fueled by support from the Ku Klux Klan. Drainville has not responded to the report and the issue has not yet been reported on in Quebecor media outlets.
Aside from frequent pro-Charter of Values columns and broadcasts produced by Péladeau employees, some of the "grassroots" support for the issue can also be traced back to the mogul.
His wife (perhaps ex-wife as of December, it's not clear), Quebecor TV personality and producer Julie Snyder, was part of a group of prominent Quebec women who launched Les Janettes: "Feminists" for the Charter of Values. Snyder even acted as their spokesperson on Radio-Canada and, according to The Gazette's Don Macpherson, her company helped with the effort: "The contact email address for the (Facebook) page is at Snyder’s production company, and the 'location' for it is the company’s street address."
Snyder's company, Les Productions J, produces Quebecor programming like La Voix and Le Québec, une histoire de famille, which takes a sentimental look at the history of Quebec families. It was also involved in the post-production of La Première, a TVA documentary on Pauline Marois' ascension to power as Quebec's first female Premier.
Les Productions J is located in a suite directly next to the PQ's on the first floor of a Papineau Ave. office complex. Snyder's company, according to La Presse, helped the filmmaker obtain government subsidies for the project.
The filmmaker himself, Yves Desgagnés, is a PQ campaign consultant. La Première is now being offered for free on Quebecor/Videotron's On Demand cable service, Illico, as some customers have begun boycotting the TV provider (a rival to Bell's service - Bell Media is CJAD 800's parent company).
Are all of these clear and indisputable links between government and media merely a coincidence, a byproduct of a sprawling media empire?
Are critics in Francophone media afraid to speak out?
The most scathing critique of Péladeau and the PQ so far this week does not come from Quebec media, but from Coyne in Toronto:
"Which Péladeau was one to believe? The arrogant plutocrat of the morning, or the humble democrat of the afternoon? He still hadn’t said he would sell the shares, after all. Would he conform with the conflict of interest laws, or would the laws be made to conform with him?"
Quebec's non-Quebecor media establishment owes it to the population to ask tougher, more pointed questions about links between the PQ and media; with a plethora of 'vedette' candidates, this campaign risks becoming a popularity contest instead of a healthy and productive democratic exercise. It is a test, a test of media maturity and rigour: I hope Quebec's journalists don't disappoint.