TVA journalist fired for plagiarizing Rue Frontenac

You probably didn’t know until this week about a journalist named Stéphane Malhomme.

It’s OK, though, because two years out of journalism school, and a month into a job as a web editor for Canoe, his journalism career is over.

In case you didn’t hear, Malhomme published an article on the website of Canal Argent, TVA’s business network, about this guy Martin Tremblay who is fighting the government over tax money he thinks he doesn’t owe them. Nothing particularly special about the story. It’s topped with a quote from Tremblay (from an “exclusive” interview on Argent), and has a bunch of background below.

The article has since been pulled, but Google Cache still has it, and it was republished through the Agence QMI service, and appeared in the Journal de Montréal.

It didn’t take long before the folks at Rue Frontenac, the website of the locked-out journalists and other workers at the Journal de Montréal, saw this piece and noticed that it bore a striking resemblance to one written by Martin Bisaillon that same day.

In fact, the resemblance was more than striking. Though the stories are not identical, some sentences and even entire paragraphs are. But Canoe’s story makes no reference to Rue Frontenac.

Rue Frontenac cried foul, and by the next day TVA apologized for the plagiarism and said it had fired Malhomme. (As a contract worker, Malhomme did not have job security from the union.)

For the record, I’ve copied both versions below, with the identical phrases in bold:

Rue Frontenac version TVA version
L’ex-financier offshore Martin Tremblay ainsi que sa famille viennent encore d’obtenir gain de cause contre le fisc, qui leur réclamait près de 20 millions de dollars.

Tremblay avait été innocenté en janvier 2009 d’une accusation d’évasion fiscale par une décision du juge Réal Favreau, de la Cour canadienne de l’impôt. Toutefois, l’Agence du revenu du Canada en avait appelé de la décision en avril 2009.

Dans un jugement rendu le 12 mai dernier, la Cour d’appel fédérale a maintenu cette décision par deux voix contre une.

Dans un paradis fiscal

Le litige opposant les Tremblay et l’Agence du revenu du Canada portait essentiellement sur le déménagement de la famille saguenéenne – le père Gérard, la mère Danielle et leurs deux enfants, Martin et feue Hélène – vers les Bahamas en 1994.

L’objectif déclaré de ce déménagement était de soustraire au fisc le maximum des fruits de la vente pour 33 M$ de la société familiale Télésag à Vidéotron, à la fin des années 1980.

Avec l’aide d’une armée de fiscalistes et d’avocats, les Tremblay, en accord avec l’ancienne direction de Vidéotron, ont concocté un montage financier visant à faire «rouler» les actions privilégiées et les débentures qu’ils avaient obtenues lors de la transaction avec le géant de la câblodistribution.

Il en a résulté que Vidéotron a émis plus de trois millions de ses actions subalternes, d’une valeur de 44,2 M$, au profit des Tremblay en échange des actions et des actifs d’une société à numéro.

Sitôt la cession réalisée, la compagnie a été liquidée par Vidéotron, tandis que les Tremblay s’en allaient vivre sous le soleil du paradis fiscal des Bahamas.

Pas un dividende imposable

Mais en 2004, le fisc leur a envoyé un avis de cotisation leur réclamant 9,4 M$ en impôt, plus les intérêts et les frais, soit un total de plus de 20 M$.

Les Tremblay ont alors porté cette décision en appel, alléguant que la transaction n’était qu’un échange d’actions n’ayant pas généré de revenus.

Au cours de l’audience tenue devant le juge Favreau, il y a deux ans, les avocats du gouvernement ont plaidé que cet échange était en réalité une distribution d’actifs au profit de la famille et qu’il s’apparentait au versement d’un dividende imposable. Ni le juge Favreau, ni la Cour d’appel ne leur ont donné raison.

Martin Tremblay de retour aux Bahamas

Rappelons que Martin Tremblay a défrayé la manchette en janvier 2006 quand il avait été appréhendé par la DEA à New York et accusé d’avoir blanchi pas moins de 1 milliard de narcodollars à l’aide de sa banque d’affaires Dominion Investments, basée à Nassau.

En fin de compte, l’affaire s’est conclue quand il s’est déclaré coupable d’avoir laissé transiter dans les comptes de sa société 20 000 $ US provenant d’agents doubles à la solde de la DEA qui avaient mis des mois à le piéger.

Une longue enquête menée par l’auteur de ces lignes pour le compte du Journal de Montréal en 2007-2008 a démontré que cette histoire a été montée de toutes pièces par les autorités américaines. Qu’à cela ne tienne, Martin Tremblay a été condamné à 34 mois de prison. Il a terminé de purger sa peine en juillet 2009 et est retourné vivre auprès de sa famille aux Bahamas.

Dans cette affaire, Tremblay a engagé une poursuite contre la GRC qui n’a pas encore été entendue.

L’ex-investisseur offshore Martin Tremblay vient encore d’obtenir gain de cause contre le fisc, qui lui réclamait un total de près de 40 M$ en comptant intérêts et retards selon ses dires. Revenu Canada a été débouté pour une seconde fois dans ses poursuites.

En entrevue exclusive à Argent, M. Tremblay a déclaré: “Je suis soulagé. Soulagé, mais peu surpris d’avoir gagné. Je savais que nous avions des bases solides et à l’époque, tous les avis juridiques que nous avions pris nous donnaient raison.”

L’Agence du revenu du Canada avait déjà déposé une accusation d’évasion fiscale à l’encontre de M. Tremblay, accusation déboutée par la Cour canadienne de l’impôt en Janvier 2009. Non découragée, l’Agence du revenu du Canada revenait à la charge en Avril de la même année. Dans un jugement rendu le 12 mai dernier, la Cour d’appel fédérale a confirmé cette décision à deux voix contre une.

Dans un paradis fiscal

Le litige opposant les Tremblay et l’Agence du revenu du Canada portait sur le déménagement de la famille saguenéenne – le père Gérard, la mère Danielle ainsi que leurs deux enfants, Martin et feue Hélène – vers les Bahamas, en 1994.

“Je suis content pour mes parents, ils ont un certain âge et vont pouvoir avoir un peu de repos, et globalement pour toute la famille ca va nous permettre de passer à autre chose,” a t il déclaré, espérant que l’imbroglio légal serait bientôt clos.

Au-delà d’un climat plus clément, cette relocalisation avait l’objectif déclaré de soustraire au fisc le maximum des fruits de la vente pour 33 M$ de la société familiale Télésag à Vidéotron, à la fin des années 1980.

Les Tremblay s’étaient entourés à l’époque de fine fleur des fiscalistes et avocats d’affaires, pour monter une structure financière visant à faire fructifier les actions obtenues lors de la transaction avec le géant de la câblodistribution.

Ainsi, Vidéotron a émis trois millions de ses actions subalternes, d’une valeur de 44,2 M$, au profit des Tremblay en échange des actions et des actifs d’une compagnie à numéro. Sitôt la cession réalisée, la compagnie a été liquidée par Vidéotron, tandis que les Tremblay s’en allaient vivre sous le soleil du paradis fiscal des Bahamas.

Pas un dividende imposable

Mais en 2004, le fisc leur a envoyé un avis de cotisation leur réclamant 9,4 M$ en impôt, plus les intérêts et les frais, soit une somme qui totalisait déjà plus de 20 M$.

Les Tremblay ont alors porté cette décision en appel, alléguant que la transaction n’était qu’un échange d’actions n’ayant pas généré de revenus. Les avocats du gouvernement ont plaidé eux que cet échange était en réalité une distribution d’actifs au profit de la famille et qu’elle s’apparentait au versement d’un dividende imposable. Ni le juge Favreau, ni la Cour d’appel ne leur ont donné raison.

Martin Tremblay de retour aux Bahamas

Martin Tremblay a déjà été inquiété par le fisc, en janvier 2006 quand il avait été appréhendé par la DEA à New York et accusé d’avoir blanchi 1 milliard de narcodollars à l’aide de sa banque d’affaires Dominion Investments. Une affaire ou M. Tremblay avait aussi eu gain de cause, même s’il avait purgé une peine de prison. Il avait fini par plaider coupable à des accusation extrêmement réduites, avoir laissé transiter dans les comptes de sa société 20 000 $US provenant d’agents doubles à la solde de la DEA qui avait mis des mois à le piéger.

C’était ensuite au tour de M. Tremblay de répliquer, intentant une poursuite contre la GRC qui n’a pas encore été entendue.

That’s a lot of bold. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt in these kinds of cases, assume there might be a reasonable, innocent explanation, but I found it hard to come up with one here.

I asked Malhomme what happened, but he refused to comment on the matter, or, despite multiple invitations to do so, explain his actions for the record. (Journalists have all sorts of innocent-sounding explanations about why they plagiarize, usually citing some unintentional mistake in editing.) Neither TVA nor its union responded to requests for comment on the case.

A problem of education?

Like me, Malhomme is a graduate of Concordia University’s journalism diploma program, a one-year intensive program designed for people who had undergraduate degrees in some other field to get the basics of journalism.

At Concordia, the most common explanation for academic cheating is ignorance of the rules. Some claim cultural differences led to a misunderstanding, or say they just didn’t know how to cite things properly.

Had Malhomme simply not known how to cite a source for a story? Had Concordia’s journalism program failed to educate him properly about the dangers of plagiarism?

I put the question to Mike Gasher, the chair of the department. Though he said he found it “very hard to believe” that Malhomme, whom he qualified as an “excellent student”, would have been involved in a case of blatant plagiarism, he says that in general the department takes plagiarism “very seriously.”

I don’t know what goes on in each and every one of the 79 course sections we offer each year, but instructors are encouraged to watch for plagiarism (and any other form of cheating), and we distribute to all students a department handbook, which includes a code of ethics (also posted in all our classrooms).  The point we try to underscore is that a journalist’s single most important attribute is his/her reputation — carefully built, easily destroyed.

I have a vague memory of my time in the program five years ago (before the classrooms they now teach in were even built), and though I don’t recall any specific lecture about plagiarism among the media ethics and introduction to reporting classes, it was pretty clear to me that plagiarism (or fabulism – making stuff up) would not be tolerated.

“We have maybe one or two students per year — out of more than 240 — accused of cheating,” Gasher says, including the undergraduate students in the statistics. He’s not sure how many of those were guilty, or how many weren’t caught in the first place. I’m not sure if a value of one per cent is high or low, and I’m not sure if the reason the number isn’t higher is because people know the consequences or because there isn’t enough investigation.

Gasher himself says he’s “never had a single case” of plagiarism since he started teaching in 1997, probably because he requires students submit a contact list of every source in their stories. Something as simple as that is pretty good for keeping out fake sources (well, most of the time), though I’m not sure it would have made any difference in this case.

Since Malhomme won’t comment, I don’t know for sure if it was ignorance that led to this. But based on the above, I’m willing to guess it’s not.

So why did this happen?

Too much work?

The second reason given for academic cheating – this one by people who admit they knew what they were doing was wrong – is that they were overworked, didn’t have time and panicked.

Though I can’t say this for a fact, I have a theory as to what might have happened here, because it’s something that happens all the time.

Imagine a young journalist working for a website, expected to write not just one or two stories a day but 12 or 15 (online journalists tend to be expected to have more output than print ones). This journalist gets an email from the boss with a link to a story at RueFrontenac.com. The boss wants their website to match the story. So the young journalist is asked to write the story, using Rue Frontenac’s as background. But in the process of rewriting the story, too much of the original gets inserted, and eventually the writer is exposed.

Introduction to matching

Matching is something that happens all the time, and it existed long before the Internet. When one newspaper (or other news outlet) comes out with an exclusive, or just happens to break a story first, another decides to match it with one of their own, to make sure their own readers, listeners or viewers get the information too.

This is done in one of two ways:

If the information in the story can be independently verified, the story is basically re-reported. The journalist calls the same sources, gets the same details (perhaps more) and produces their own story. Usually in these cases, the original source isn’t mentioned. The ethics of this are debatable, but since the work has been done from scratch, it’s believed to be unnecessary to credit whomever broke the story.

This happens in radio and TV all the time. Assignment editors read the morning paper, see some interesting story, and assign a reporter to cover it, usually talking to the same sources. Occasionally, the reverse happens, with the broadcast outlet breaking the news and the newspapers re-reporting it.

When newspapers do this nowadays, especially for big stories, they try to both match and advance the story, coming out with more details than the original had. If they can get a scoop of their own about some detail of the story, it mitigates failing to get the original scoop.

This is an example of why competition is good for journalism.

If the information in the original story can’t be independently verified, the story is rewritten but credited. When you see a story in the paper that said “LCN reported last night” or “a source told CNN” or “according to a report in a French-language Montreal newspaper”, it’s because the story had anonymous or hard-to-reach sources. The matched story credits the original both for reasons of ethics and to save the ass of the re-reporting news outlet in case the original report happens to be false. (Stories that start “TMZ reported”, for example.)

But this case wasn’t either of these. The reporting wasn’t redone, it was copied. And Rue Frontenac wasn’t credited as a source for the story. Perhaps because the journalist naively believed that the background information about the case compiled by Rue Frontenac was public information and need not have been credited.

Of course, there’s another explanation, one that explains why Rue Frontenac is so interested in this.

The union factor

The lockout of 253 workers of the Journal de Montréal will have tomorrow lasted 16 months. Though the union representing those workers had a large war chest, it won’t last forever, and the Journal has still been publishing, making clear that it can keep going as long as necessary without those workers.

Quebecor, which owns the Journal as well as TVA and other news and information outlets, has been on a convergence trend recently, fuelled in part by the new Agence QMI news agency, which allows Quebecor’s properties to exchange content. (That’s why a story written for Argent’s website ends up in the Journal de Montréal. In fact, it’s how a lot of content ends up in the Journal now, making the union question the timing of the agency’s creation.)

One facet of this convergence is a reputation for putting the interests of the company ahead of the interests of good journalism, combined with a reputation for holding grudges and making things personal.

It may be undeserved or only partially deserved, but it seems every week a new piece of evidence pops up here or here that makes you raise an eyebrow. Most could be dismissed innocently by themselves (like a decision not to feature Véronique Cloutier on the cover of the Journal de Montréal after the Gala Artis), but taken together even the most ardent skeptics have to wonder.

If this is truly the case, you can imagine how Quebecor would feel about one of its news outlets crediting a story to Rue Frontenac. It’s just not done. Their stories might be re-reported if they cause big waves, but a Quebecor outlet would never acknowledge a website that is essentially a pressure tactic against Quebecor. (A Canadian Press story was once pulled from Canoe allegedly for the sole reason that it referenced Rue Frontenac.)

The proper thing for Malhomme to have done was credit Rue Frontenac, perhaps even with a link. But he couldn’t do that.

(One thing I could add at this point is that if Malhomme had simply rewritten the Rue Frontenac story – reporting the same information using different words and sentence structures – there probably wouldn’t be a scandal here. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine if the value of the story was in what was reported or the way it was written.)

Why not just link?

Even ignoring the union conflict, it would have shocked me if Argent simply linked to another news outlet for story background. It’s just not done. Traditional news outlets don’t link to much these days, particularly not competitors.

Ask any self-proclaimed new media expert, and they’ll repeat the mantra “cover what you do best, link to the rest“. It just makes so much sense. Why clog your website with the same Canadian Press stories you can find anywhere else online when you can showcase original stories and content people can’t get anywhere else? Why waste a journalist re-reporting a story when someone else has done all the work and you can just link to it?

In newspapers, TV and radio, you need journalists to waste their time re-reporting a story to get it into the new medium. You need to waste valuable newsprint and ink on a copy-pasted wire story from somewhere on the other side of the world because most of your readers don’t subscribe to the New York Times or Le Monde.

Online, though, this isn’t necessary. Except it happens all the time. When Engadget has some new scoop about an Apple product, everyone has to write their own story about it instead of just linking to the Engadget post. When some breaking news about a celebrity hits the wires, editors are scrambling over themselves to get a story about it online and suck up some of that sweet SEO juice like dogs fighting each other for scraps of food accidentally dropped on the floor. The Huffington Post has practically made a business model out of re-reporting things, re-summarizing stories and reposting videos from the late-night comics or all-news networks, profiting off the work of others.

When I see a story or webpage or blog post I like, most often I’ll just bookmark it, adding it to the sidebar. (It’s that thing on the right if you’re looking at this on the webpage, under the headers “From my feeds” and “Recent bookmarks”.) It takes two clicks (sometimes one) and it’s done. So easy. If I have some pithy comment, I might tweet it. If I have something important – or just lengthy – to say, I’ll write a blog post like this one. But even then, I’ll link to the source material and save myself the time spent repeating it.

Maybe there’s a bigger problem here

I’m not excusing what Malhomme did. And I don’t have too much sympathy for him. But there are systemic problems in the way journalism is done, some that may have contributed to what happened here, pressured a young man in a way that a critical mistake cost him a career.

If journalists and their bosses learned to put honesty and fair play above competitiveness, situations like this probably wouldn’t happen.

Not that I expect the system to change any time soon.

UPDATE (June 20): Malhomme breaks his silence in an open letter and interview with Rue Frontenac.

12 thoughts on “TVA journalist fired for plagiarizing Rue Frontenac

  1. Caroline

    Why would it need to be taught? name me one field of work other than MP and piracy where it is acceptable to cheat.

    Don’t plagiarize and don’t cheat is something you’re told from the very beginning. Right when I started Sec I, we were always told to quote and put footnotes everywhere. Now, all of a sudden, these people get to journalism university, and they need a full class on ”Don’t cheat” ?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Well, first of all, you’re assuming that everyone in a Quebec university had their high school education here, which isn’t always the case.

      Your other point is taken, but the issue isn’t telling people not to cheat, it’s telling people what cheating is.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        Please don’t try to make me believe that there’s a high school anywhere in the developped world that teaches their students it’s ok to cheat and steal. Even if not here, then somewhere else you’re taught the same thing.

        Cheating is taking something you didn’t create or accomplish and claiming it as yours. This world is gonna be a sad one if that needs to be ”explained” further.

        Reply
        1. wkh

          China is no longer the developed world?

          No really throughout most of Southeast Asia finding fabulous things in papers and then writing them down in yours is perfectly fine. They don’t get the concept of finding other sources or “footnotes” or “doing YOUR own research” at all. To them the prize is in finding other people’s good stuff. It’s essentially what you’re SUPPOSED to do.

          Not that this applies to this particular case but just saying.

          Reply
  2. HPL

    Très bonne analyse! J’étudie aussi à Concordia en journalisme et je trouve très intéressant ta manière de faire du blogue et de créer du contenu en anglais, en utilisant fréquemment des thématiques francophones! Ça ramène les deux solitudes montréalaises à se comprendre, bravo!

    Reply
  3. Cameron

    I am having a real hard time with you bringing a full court press on vilifying Malhomme. You show us his Linked In profile and declare his journalism career as being over. Isn’t the real story about how sleazy Québecor is as media conglomerate? Sixteen months of lockout, and Québecor still pretends they do not need the locked out journalists. Whose idea was it to look at Rue Frontenac for stories, anyway? Was it Malhomme’s or his bosses? You do not make it clear. To make Malhomme the personification of evil just seems to be over the top for me. I do not get it Until the guy comments and gives his side of the story, how can you decide you have no sympathy for him? Did the guy make an honest mistake? Where were Malhomme’s editors? Where were his bosses? How could Agence QMI/Canöe/Argent/TVA not fact check this on their own? Seems to me this Malhomme is being a fall-guy for the bigger story. Is it because Malhomme was a “strike breaker”? A non-union worker? I don’t understand. It just seems to me Québecor will stop at nothing to redefine news and media (in Montréal and Québec) in a manner that best suits them, and if they can get away with it, they will. I am just left wondering if this is something personal for you. You have numerous posts of the lack of ethics at TVA over the years. Since I am not apart of the Montréal media conoscenti, I guess I am just not attuned to the seriousness of the crime on the part of the person versus the company as a whole.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Isn’t the real story about how sleazy Québecor is as media conglomerate?

      Not in this case. At least not directly. If it was, would they have fired him?

      Whose idea was it to look at Rue Frontenac for stories, anyway? Was it Malhomme’s or his bosses? You do not make it clear.

      Malhomme refused to answer that question, so unless his bosses come out and say something, we won’t know. Your questions about the details of this case are valid, and I have them too, but I can’t answer them until someone comments for the record.

      To make Malhomme the personification of evil just seems to be over the top for me.

      I don’t think I said Malhomme is evil, much less the personification of it. He made a critical mistake, and was fired for it.

      Is it because Malhomme was a “strike breaker”? A non-union worker?

      TVA is not on strike, and it is unionized.

      It just seems to me Québecor will stop at nothing to redefine news and media (in Montréal and Québec) in a manner that best suits them, and if they can get away with it, they will.

      That may be true, but I have no evidence that Quebecor’s actions are responsible for what happened here. And considering how fast the man was fired, I would guess they weren’t trying to get away with it.

      I am just left wondering if this is something personal for you.

      I’ve never met the guy. Until this story broke, I had never heard his name.

      Reply
    2. wkh

      16 months of lock out kind of PROVES they don’t need the other journalists. I don’t think that’s good but it’s what it is.

      Reply
      1. Jean Naimard

        16 months of lock out kind of PROVES they don’t need the real journalists.

        There, fixed it for you.

        Reply
  4. Jack Ruttan

    It’s depressing, but it reads like the guy was pressured to do that, and then fired when he was caught. Maybe they even promised to back him up, but the bosses need deniability.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: TVA plagiarist speaks out – Fagstein

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