Is Quebecor evil?

CORRECTION: This post originally stated that only one case of a scab working for the Journal had been proven. There are actually two that have gotten rulings from the labour board. Thanks to J.F. Codère for pointing it out in a comment.

N.B.: Une version française de ce billet a été publié dans Trente, le journal du Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec.

I’ve always liked to think of myself as open-minded. It’s a good quality for a journalist, and one that I don’t think enough of them have.

For most of this blog’s existence, there has been a major labour conflict at a Quebecor-owned newspaper – the Journal de Québec in 2007 and 2008, and the Journal de Montréal in 2009 and 2010. In between there have been all sorts of depressing news for journalists in general as the media industry seems to be in a state of slow collapse.

Like many of my journalist colleagues, my first reaction to Quebecor’s lockout of its two largest newspapers was to take the side of the workers. Whether or not I agreed with what they wrote when they were employed by Quebecor, they are mere pawns in the media game being played by the great Quebecor Empire. They are the Luke Skywalkers to Pierre Karl Péladeau’s Darth Vader.

But in my admittedly limited experience as a journalist, I’ve learned that situations aren’t nearly as black and white as they may seem to be. Society’s villains aren’t all Hitler-like caricatures of pure cartoonish evil, motivated solely by greed and hatred of puppies. And its heroes aren’t all pure good.

So while some may throw it out as a given, I sit here and ask myself a question that requires a lot of thought before I can answer:

Is Quebecor evil?

Two years

Since just after midnight on Jan. 24, 2009, 253 journalists, editors, salespeople, office workers and other members of the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal have been locked out of their offices at 4545 Frontenac St. Since then, they’ve lived this second job, honing their journalistic skills (and enjoying some freedoms they didn’t have before) while waiting for this labour conflict to be resolved. They’re in a state of suspended animation, The Gazette’s Mike Boone describes. Though to many of the journalists, they might describe it more as a state of temporary freedom.

The first problem is that while the number 253 has been repeated enough to become a catchphrase for the union, and that is technically the number of employees who have been locked out, it comes with a lot of asterisks. It includes, according to the employer, 45 non-permanent employees and 29 people who have either retired (like Bertrand Raymond) or quit for other jobs (like Fabrice de Pierrebourg). A minor point, perhaps, and one that doesn’t change the union’s arguments, but to suggest that de Pierrebourg is among 253 people “walking the streets” is dishonest.

Since the lockout, the Journal de Montréal has used its own pages to explain its side of the conflict, saying the journalists are overpaid, underworked and unwilling to accept new technologies and the new business model that has to be followed to survive in this new media environment. The union counters that the Journal was profitable even with its large staff, and that the massive layoffs and unfettered rights to replace unionized journalists with non-unionized agency reporters was unacceptable.

A protester at the Journal de Montréal workers' march makes a point about Pierre Karl Péladeau's salary

When the union recently rejected a formal offer to end the conflict, the Journal again published its side, pointing out how much the workers would get paid and how generous the severance pay would be for those laid off. The union, however, objected to the even more massive layoffs (they would have kept only about 50 of the 253, including only 17 journalists), and provisions against continuing Rue Frontenac or working for La Presse (the Journal has since said they would be willing to let these drop if it got them closer to an agreement).

Considering how much hiring is going on at QMI Agency (more on that below), I can’t fathom another explanation for this massive cut other than a desire to continue to operate the paper as it has run during the lockout: A few journalists doing hyped-up feature reports, and the rest being filled by internal and external wire copy.

The massive layoff plan is one that might backfire in the Mont Laurier area, where former Quebecor journalists have started an independent paper. A similar thing happened in the Saguenay region, where a lockout at Quebecor’s Le Réveil ended similarly with massive layoffs. Lucky for Quebecor that the Montreal francophone market is so saturated it’s hard to see a publication like Rue Frontenac becoming profitable on its own.

Orders from on high

At the annual conference of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, there was a panel discussion specifically about Quebecor, the “elephant in the room,” and whether its policy of convergence represents a threat to freedom of the press. The panel might have been a useful – if heated – discussion if only someone from Quebecor had been present. But as you can imagine, attending a discussion with locked-out workers and others that was more than likely going to turn into non-stop Quebecor-bashing wasn’t high on Péladeau’s list of things to do. And, because Quebecor didn’t defend itself, Quebecor-bashing is exactly what happened.

Journal lock-outé David Patry recounted a few stories about what life was like while he still worked in the Journal’s newsroom as an entertainment reporter. He said articles were dictated to him (he used an example about a conflict between Radio-Canada’s Sylvain Lafrance and Péladeau, a case that is in the news today because it’s before the courts). He says these articles had wording he didn’t approve of, and he was forced to sign the articles even though he didn’t write them or agree with their contents.

Patry also produced an email from his boss, forwarded from the editor-in-chief, which asked him to retaliate against a La Presse reporter for unfavourable coverage. He pretended to work on it to placate his angry superiors, and the issue eventually went away.

Even in his short time there, he says, he has plenty of similar stories, as do his colleagues. It was so bad, he said, that those colleagues advised him to pick his battles, otherwise he would be spending most of his days locking horns with management.

The story made some headlines (Le Devoir, La Presse, and of course Rue Frontenac), even getting the attention of the Globe and Mail’s Norman Spector.

After the conference, Michelle Coudé-Lord, the arts section manager at the heart of Patry’s accusations, spoke with Benoit Dutrizac on 98.5FM. She didn’t deny sending the email he quotes from (she explained that it’s normal in newsrooms for an editor to send an email that might not be considered “elegant”), but did say that Quebecor handing down orders from on high doesn’t happen, and that she has never gotten phone calls from Péladeau telling her what he wants to see in the next day’s paper.

She dismissed the union’s complaints about the paper’s coverage as “union propaganda” and said this was all about settling personal gripes between union members and the newspaper’s managers.

I’ve never worked at the Journal de Montréal. I don’t know any of its managers. I don’t know whether these kinds of orders are given and where they come from. I suspect the non-managers who worked there don’t even know for sure. (Patry’s email could be traced back only to EIC Dany Doucet.)

But the end product – the content of the Journal de Montréal – speaks for itself. Not only is it populist (it always has been the populist newspaper, for better or for worse), but it’s right-wing populist, and has gotten more so over the past few years (particularly since left-wing columnists refused to contribute to a locked-out publication). There’s focus on gas prices, government waste, and CBC executive business expenses. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Péladeau’s opinions so clearly match those of the Journal.

I suspect the situation is much more subtle than what is being implied. While Péladeau does have a reputation as a micromanager (again, I don’t know if this is actually true), I can’t imagine he has the time on his hands to tell each of his media properties what they should report on on a daily basis.

So Quebecor has middle managers, just like any other large company. They’re the ones who make the day-to-day decisions. But I’ve yet to see one get fired for publishing coverage too friendly to Quebecor and its assets. And they know that. This conditions them to hesitate before doing anything that might look poorly on the Quebecor empire, and encourages them to embellish when writing things that put Quebecor in a good light. It lessens the credibility of the newspaper in the eyes of its readers (at least, those who notice what’s going on), but those managers don’t have to worry about their jobs.

The head of the Journal de Montréal protest passes a TVA/LCN news van here to cover it.

The non-blackout

One thing that’s been interesting to look at is the coverage Quebecor’s media properties have given to the lockout itself. It’s within Quebecor’s business interests to downplay it, even hide it from its consumers. But doing so would go against journalistic principles.

On one hand, the words “Rue Frontenac” don’t appear on the Journal de Montréal’s website – except in articles about the conflict itself – and rarely appear in news stories from other Quebecor outlets, despite putting a lot of stories into the open that are later reported on by those newsrooms. Compared to other media, who regularly credit Rue Frontenac’s journalistic scoops (as much as “professional” journalists are prepared to credit competitors for their scoops), Quebecor is clearly less willing to credit a union website for its stories – a problem that may have contributed to one case of plagiarism and a journalist being fired.

In one extreme case of self-censorship, a Rue Frontenac sticker on the laptop of blogger Cécile Gladel was blurred in a video profile of her for the Canoe website. I doubt there were high-level orders to do this, but it gives an indication of what the front lines think should be standard procedure at Quebecor – and their bosses aren’t tripping over themselves to set these journalists straight.

On the other hand, coverage of the lockout has been pretty straight from Quebecor’s properties. At the recent protest in favour of Journal de Montréal employees and calling for a change in the laws regarding strikebreakers, a TVA/LCN van and reporter were present and an Agence QMI story highlighted the size of the crowd and gave their demands a voice (while also giving space for a response by the Journal itself).

The naysayers

There are those who decide to use their star power to try to bring about change by boycotting Quebecor. But they are outnumbered by those who are far too dependent on the media Quebecor controls to commit career suicide by refusing to cooperate with them. Bernard Landry, for example, decided (though reluctantly) to give up his Journal column after the lockout began. But star columnists like Richard Martineau, Joseph Facal and Stéphane Gendron are still contributing. Flipping through the pages of the paper, the words “collaboration spéciale” appear next to a lot of smiling faces.

When Quebecor-owned Archambault announced its list of finalists for its Grand Prix littéraire, author Gil Courtemanche announced he didn’t want to be a finalist and would refuse such an award, because of what Quebecor is doing to the locked-out Journal de Montréal workers. He also invited his fellow finalists to join him in his protest, putting them in an uncomfortable position.

One of them, Jean-Simon Desrochers, said that should he win, he would donate the $10,000 prize money to the STIJM union representing locked-out Journal workers. But as Steve Proulx points out, could that union accept money that comes out of the hands of Quebecor?

A coordinated campaign has been launched to boycott the Journal de Montréal

The boycott

The CSN and STIJM recently launched a campaign to boycott the Journal de Montréal, and the protest last weekend had that boycott as its primary message.

The purpose of a boycott is obvious: the Journal takes its strength from its readership and the advertising money that brings in. Convince everyone to stop reading it, and people stop placing ads, seriously hurting the Journal’s bottom line.

But that’s much easier said than done. The fact that the unions are launching this now, almost two years into the lockout, isn’t because they didn’t want people to boycott the Journal before, it’s because their attempts to convince Journal readers to take their side have so far failed. In fact, despite having few journalists and lots of wire copy, the Journal’s readership has actually gone up since the lockout.

The CSN and STIJM say this is because Quebecor is dumping the paper, handing it out for free to boost its reader numbers at the expense of subscription revenue (and hey, if they don’t have to pay 253 workers, they probably don’t need most of that money anyway).

It’s true that lots of Journal de Montréal copies are being given away freely. But that happened before the lockout, and La Presse and The Gazette also regularly give out free copies.

The reality is that people who continue to read the Journal de Montréal don’t care about the locked-out journalists and other workers. Some of them may have been convinced by management’s argument that those workers are overpaid, spoiled brats who are unwilling to adapt to the new media reality. Others are disconnected with the issue, and see this conflict as being between the Journal and its union and having nothing to do with them.

The STIJM and boycott supporters can’t fathom why people would continue to read a newspaper that has so little original content (essentially limited to reports from managers and columns by freelancers), but we’re talking about a market that has two free daily newspapers, one of which (Metro) is the most read paper on the island.

There are people who support the boycott, but many of them didn’t read the Journal in the first place, preferring more intellectual or pro-union fare like La Presse or Le Devoir.

Considering how long this lockout has been going, I find it hard to believe this boycott campaign will make enough inroads into the Journal’s readership numbers to have any impact. And even if it did, Quebecor has more than enough money to keep the paper running through an extended lockout.

A union-sponsored survey suggests that Quebecers see Quebecor’s journalists as the ones most likely to make their reporting follow the wishes of their corporate bosses. But clearly they’re not so worried about this that they’ll stop reading the paper.

CSN's Claudette Carbonneau hasn't shied away from taking negotiations to the media

Negotiation by blog post

The high-profile nature of this labour conflict has meant a lot of negotiation in public, even while talks with a mediator go on behind the scenes. And by “negotiation in public”, I mean competing press releases, letters in Le Devoir, and now emails to L’Actualité blogger Jean-François Lisée.

Lisée’s involvement started with a blog post dated Nov. 29 in which he openly suggested to Péladeau that he take the high road, dropping his defamation suit against Radio-Canada’s Sylvain Lafrance, dropping any restriction against laid-off Journal workers going to the competition, and even financially supporting Rue Frontenac as a separate journalistic enterprise by advertising with them.

Péladeau himself responded a few days later, skirting Lisée’s suggestions but saying they had withdrawn their anti-competition demans. Péladeau also released a draft agreement signed a few weeks before the lockout began that suggests the two sides had come to an agreement in principle before CSN pulled the plug.

CSN’s Claudette Carbonneau responded, and in effect brought the discussion back to the claims from both sides that they both have offers on the table and are waiting for the other side to respond.

Péladeau responded again, in which he broke down that mystical 253 number (as I explained above), suggested that the CSN is pulling the strings and intentionally prolonging this conflict in order to serve its political purposes, and continued to list union demands that he considered entirely unrealistic.

The discussion has ended there for now. The mediator has asked both sides to cut it out and take their arguments to the bargaining table. Lisée, unencumbered by the mediator’s demands, has put out five public questions for both Péladeau and Carbonneau, hoping to get answers to some tough questions they might not want to answer.

UPDATE: Péladeau has responded to Lisée, suggesting he doesn’t want to talk directly about the conflict but also saying he would be willing to help distribute Rue Frontenac at competitive rates. He also takes irrelevant jabs at both Radio-Canada and La Presse, and points out that his father was the one who shut down the Montreal Daily News (a short-lived competitor to The Gazette), as a counterexample to those who saw Péladeau Sr. as the ultimate friend to the worker.

As for the independence of his newsrooms, I’ll quote from Péladeau directly:

Quant à l’indépendance des journalistes, c’est un concept dont il faut bien comprendre l’application au sein d’une salle de rédaction. Un journaliste ne se loue pas un bureau dans une salle de rédaction comme un coiffeur loue une chaise dans un salon réputé où il reçoit librement sa propre clientèle, selon son humeur. Une salle de rédaction n’est pas un collectif de joueurs autonomes qui laissent libre cours à leurs envies du moment; elle possède une structure, un esprit de corps, et le journaliste y œuvre au sein d’une équipe.

L’éditeur, le rédacteur en chef ou le directeur de l’information font chaque jour des choix éditoriaux et livrent des affectations en conséquence. Il ne s’agit pas là de contrôle de l’information, comme cela s’est entendu lors d’une séance de défoulement collectif au dernier congrès de la FPJQ. Il ne s’agit là que de simples préceptes organisationnels auxquels n’échappe aucune entreprise.

Ces accusations de contrôle sont pourtant reprises à l’envi à l’endroit des médias de Quebecor et ce, depuis plusieurs années maintenant, comme si La Presse ou Le Devoir laissaient leurs propres journalistes entièrement libres de choisir les nouvelles à publier.

He also suggests that Quebecor has no need for an ombudsman or the Quebec Press Council, I guess because he thinks the readers can judge for themselves.

Not putting his journalists to any independent verification of their work is a big strike against Péladeau when it comes to his commitment to proper journalism.

14 lock-outs in 14 years

After a lock-out was called at Le Réveil in the Saguenay (a conflict that has since been resolved with 20 of 25 workers getting laid off), the union issued a press release saying that Quebecor had called 14 lock-outs in 14 years, including one at the Journal de Québec and one at Videotron.

Serge Sasseville, a VP at Quebecor, wrote recently in a piece in Le Devoir that despite the CSN talking point, they have signed 100 contracts in the past five years without work disruption. (The article also says that less than half of Quebecor’s 15,000-strong workforce has a collective agreement.) Rue Frontenac’s Jean-François Codère counters in a comment below that Quebecor’s “lock-out rate” is still much, much higher than the Quebec average.

Still, while Videotron and their two largest newspapers underwent very painful conflicts, the broadcast properties are still on the job, including most notably TVA which agreed to a new contract this summer. There’s clearly a difference here – either the newspaper unions have working conditions that are unsustainable, or the employer values TVA more than it does the two Journals.

Other Quebecor unions are still negotiating new contracts, or in some cases, their first.

La guerre des médias

I have no idea who started it, but for some reason there’s an unofficial war going on between Quebecor on one side and La Presse and Radio-Canada on the other. Part of it is simply competition: Radio-Canada is TVA’s most direct competitor, and La Presse is the biggest threat to the Journal de Montréal. But there’s something more about this war that makes it troubling. Stories abound of personalities from one side being forbidden from talking to the other. Supposedly some TVA and LCN personalities have exclusivity contracts with Quebecor, which won’t allow them to be interviewed on Radio-Canada.

It’s become far too easy to figure out which personalities belong to which camp: Éric Salvail, Julie Snyder and Richard Martineau on one side, Véronique Cloutier and Guy A. Lepage on the other. It’s not absolute (Salvail and Cloutier have appeared on each other’s programs, and Martineau has a show on Télé-Québec), but convergence has created the kind of camps you don’t see elsewhere.

Along with this war has come Quebecor’s accusations of a “secret deal” between Radio-Canada and Gesca, which owns La Presse. These accusations are echoed by some militant sovereignist groups, who dislike Radio-Canada because it’s funded by the federal government, and dislike Gesca because its owners and editorialists are strong federalists.

This suggestion doesn’t come from nowhere. Tune in to current affairs shows on Radio-Canada television and radio, and you see a lot of people from La Presse invited as regular guests or columnists. Names like Marc Cassivi, Nathalie Petrowski, Vincent Marissal and Marie-Christine Blais appear regularly on Radio-Canada’s programs. In May, Quebecor’s Sophie Durocher made a strong argument that this cooperation was bringing both sides too far together. Even Radio-Canada’s union has brought forward concerns that the network’s shows too often bring in La Presse journalists and columnists instead of in-house experts.

And then there’s Exhibit A, an actual deal between Radio-Canada and Gesca to share resources, signed in 2001. They say the agreement (which kept editorial control entirely separate and doesn’t call for nearly the kind of convergence being claimed) ended in 2003 and there is no deal linking the two editorially. But the agreement itself hasn’t been publicized, and brings up perfectly legitimate questions about whether the two organizations are working too closely together, and whether they believe their audiences are one and the same.

It’s easy to cherrypick examples and leave out all the counterexamples. Yes, there are a lot of La Presse people on Radio-Canada, but there are also people from Le Devoir, L’Actualité and other publications. Durocher herself was a guest on multiple occasions on Christiane Charette’s show in the months before her column that criticized it.

It’s also been pointed out that people in the Quebecor empire, particularly those who are TVA and LCN personalities, choose not to accept invitations on Radio-Canada’s shows.

According to people I’ve talked to, if this deal exists, it is so secret even the people who work at these two organizations don’t know about it. And I don’t see how they’re supposed to implement it if they don’t know what it says.

I think it’s pushing things a bit too much to suggest there’s a conscious effort at either Radio-Canada or Gesca to conspire together and give each other special treatment. But I would be surprised if there weren’t subconscious factors in play here. For one, you know how they say that the enemy of your enemy is my friend? I imagine Quebecor’s war is creating a lot of resentment among these two groups, creating a natural – though unofficial – alliance. If that’s the case, much of this supposed alliance could be Quebecor’s own making.

The other thing to consider is that La Presse and Radio-Canada share a similar type of audience. While the Journal de Montréal and TVA are populist media who put a high value on what attracts a lot of eyeballs, La Presse and Radio-Canada are more full of themselves concerned about having a proper balance between attracting their audience and educating them. They sit somewhere between the populist Quebecor properties and the intellectual but not very popular outlets like Le Devoir.

Of course, these aren’t the only news media here. Corus’s (soon to be Cogeco’s) 98.5FM, particularly the shows with Paul Arcand and Benoit Dutrizac, are also serious but popular journalistic outlets, and they also invite journalists from other media on their shows. But they seem to be in this zone between the two camps in the media war, with guests more from places like Le Devoir, V, Télé-Québec, Voir and elsewhere. It’s anecdotal and inconclusive, but this struck me as I was going through the lists of their recent interviews.

A copy of a receipt for a café au lait, yogurt and muffin from CBC boss Hubert Lacroix

What does Hubert Lacroix eat?

The war between Quebecor and its perceived enemies doesn’t just extend to what guests are invited onto talk shows. Quebecor’s news agency is also on a campaign against CBC/Radio-Canada, having its journalists file thousands of access-to-information requests against the public broadcaster seeking everything they can legally get their hands on (the law doesn’t allow them to get information related to journalistic endeavours, but does allow them access to things like expenses of board members, which they’ve tried to turn into scandals).

The CBC was so overwhelmed it took forever to respond to them (something QMI also tried to turn into a scandal). Eventually the CBC responded with an open letter explaining its side – and attacking Quebecor while assuring the public it fully intends to be transparent. It also put “over 70,000 pages of documents” resulting from access to information requests on its website. (This is actually a pretty good idea – can Agence QMI claim an “exclusive” or a “scandal” something that CBC has released on its website?)

Quebecor defends the practice of rifling through CBC executive expenses, saying it’s their duty to keep civil servants honest, whether they work for the CBC or any other government-funded agency. Sasseville also suggested that journalists at Gesca weren’t doing enough to criticize the public broadcaster, perhaps because so many Gesca journalists get income on the side from Radio-Canada.

The CBC continues pressing Quebecor, accusing it of exploiting its vast media empire to settle a personal mission of Péladeau’s. It’s a charge Quebecor’s Brian Lilley denies, but it’s clear from his blog post that this is more than just journalistic curiosity into CBC’s use of taxpayer money: it’s gotten to the level of conventional wisdom there that the CBC is a “money drain”, to use the title of their series.

QMI’s campaign against the CBC is justified by a perceived tendency of their journalistic competitors (including, of course, the CBC itself) to refrain from criticizing the public broadcaster. And the more people say that Quebecor is going too far, the more justified they feel in going after this supposed sacred cow.

To demonstrate, Lilley points out that “the state broadcaster has generated far more complaints to the federal information commissioner than other government departments or agencies”, without pointing out that according to his news agency’s own report, “many” of those complaints come from Sun Media itself.

Scabs and anti-scabs

According to the union, a large part of how the Journal de Montréal is still published is the use of “scabs”

Simply put, scabs are strikebreakers, which are illegal in Quebec, a province that has very pro-union labour laws. A company in a strike or lockout can’t hire workers to enter the workplace and do the work of those workers in conflict. Only managers can perform those tasks.

Still, the union claims the Journal is violating the law, secretly having scab labour doing the jobs of locked-out journalists. They claim “dizaines” – a claim that is far from proven. So far, only a single case two cases (thanks J.F.) have been proven, according to labour board decisions so far. Sylvain Prevate from 24 Heures was in violation of the labour code when he was in the Journal building putting together pages during the ADISQ gala in 2009. That proof came from a Rue Frontenac journalist who had to trick him into admitting he was there. There was also – as Codère points out below – freelancer Guy Bourgeois, who was asked to conduct interviews. In that case, the proof was in the Journal itself.

There are no regular inspections to prove that the Journal is complying with the law, and it’s essentially up to the locked-out workers themselves (who are prohibited from being on the property owned by the Journal) to prove that their employer is breaking the labour code.

This scab business actually goes back to the Journal de Québec lockout, which began in 2007. A labour board decision, reached after the conflict had been resolved, ruled that the Journal made use of scab labour through a pretty sketchy setup involving subcontractors. But that decision was overturned in court, which ruled that they weren’t scabs because of the technicality that they never entered the workplace – the Journal de Québec offices.

Quebecor learned from the Journal de Québec lockout, and setup a news agency called Agence QMI (“QMI Agency” in English, the QMI standing for Quebecor Media Inc.). The basic idea is simple: Allow companies in Quebecor’s vast media empire to share content with each other. It’s similar to what Canwest did with its Canwest News Service (now Postmedia News) and some major U.S. newspapers – McClatchy-Tribune, New York Times, L.A. Times/Washington Post all have their own wire services.

But QMI Agency also has the advantage of being able to provide the Journal de Montréal with local and regional content in the event of a lockout or strike. There’s 24 Heures and LCN for local news, the Journal de Québec for stuff from the provincial government, Sun Media for the rest of the country, 7 jours for entertainment news, Argent for business news, etc. Add on international wire services, and the managers can take care of the rest.

Like Canwest/Postmedia, Quebecor’s decision to setup QMI Agency was mainly to replace Canadian Press so they could save money and compete with the national cooperative (now privately owned) news service. But it clearly formed part of the plan for the Journal to deal with its lockout.

Having lost the Journal de Québec case in court, and failing to have QMI journalists declared strikebreakers, the unions are now turning to the government to change the law so that workers don’t have to physically enter the workplace to be considered scabs.

It’s a pretty simple case – the law already bans scabs, but was written at a time when work couldn’t really be done outside a workplace. Changing the law would simply update it for the realities of 21st century technology.

The Liberal Party’s youth wing supports such a change, and the Parti Québécois has tabled a bill to make it. But it’s still far from clear if t will pass. That depends on Jean Charest and his Liberals.

La Presse’s Vincent Marissal suggests some reasons why it hasn’t come to be yet.

In the meantime, Quebecor can’t be faulted for following the law, even if many people may disagree with it, and even if it may seem unfair.

The hearings

One thing the government has agreed to do is hold parliamentary hearings into the Journal de Montréal lockout, where Péladeau has been invited – but not obligated – to testify.

As you can imagine with parliamentary hearings, expect this to become political somehow. If the Liberals don’t immediately make it clear that they support changing the law on strike-breaking, the PQ will pounce on that and label the Liberals enemies of the worker. And even if they do, there’s the ADQ who will take Quebecor’s side, and Amir Khadir who’s clearly on the union’s side and wants to see Quebecor broken up.

It’s hard to predict in advance what will come of the hearings (besides the bickering). Maybe nothing substantial, maybe something serious like a campaign to force Quebecor to divest some of its media holdings. Or maybe a change of the anti-scab law that will put Quebecor in a difficult position. One thing is for sure: Quebecor is going to fight hard against any attempt to take on its bottom line, and I wouldn’t expect them to hesitate to use that giant media empire to further their cause.

UPDATE (Dec. 15): The hearings have been confirmed, with at least one prominent Liberal suggesting the anti-scab law is out of date and should be changed.

The Caisse

Quebecor’s supposed evility (evilness? evilment?) has gotten to the point where some are calling on the Caisse de dépôt et placement to step in. You see, in 2000, when Rogers was set to buy Videotron, the Caisse provided enough financing so that Péladeau’s Quebecor could purchase the cable company instead to keep its profits in Quebec. The deal gave Péladeau control over Videotron’s telecom services and TVA’s broadcasting assets. In return, the new Quebecor Media Inc. is owned 45% by the Caisse.

While it’s not controlling power (Quebecor itself owns the majority of Quebecor Media), it’s a bargaining chip. The only problem is that the Caisse doesn’t concern itself too much with political issues, and the government doesn’t want to force its hand, which would put Quebecers’ money at the whims of the political desires of the party in charge.

If the Caisse is letting the lockout continue, it’s not because it wants to be evil, it’s because its primary concern is making money for Quebecers, not satisfying a few locked-out journalists and their union backers.

Should we boycott Videotron to express displeasure at Quebecor?

My dilemmas

In February, during a brief period when I was unemployed (it lasted from 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 1 to mid-afternoon on March 1), I had discussions with someone from QMI Agency about a job in the rapidly-expanding news agency. There was a grand total of one sit-down discussion and no formal offer, but I debated internally for quite a while about whether I could work there. It was one thing working for Quebecor (plenty of respectable journalists do), but to take a job at a news agency that is being blamed for allowing the Journal lockout to drag on so long, while those locked-out workers are walking the picket lines, I just wasn’t sure.

I asked for advice from some friends and respected colleagues. When I started off a theoretical question to one about working for the devil, she immediately shot back “is it Quebecor?” Another fellow journalist said I shouldn’t hesitate to jump on the offer.

In the end, The Gazette needed some extra staff and I was offered another contract there, one I happily accepted.

Almost a year later, I’m facing another dilemma, this one about Videotron.

Videotron is Quebecor’s big moneymaker. Its revenue is twice that of the next largest division (the newspapers) at $2 billion a year, and its profits represent 75% of Quebecor’s income, according to its latest annual report’s financial statements. Take Videotron out of the equation, and you bring Quebecor to its knees.

My parents have been Videotron cable subscribers since it took over CF Cable TV. When I moved out on my own, I signed up for Illico cable and Internet, and I’ve been with them since.

A few weeks ago I started getting mail from Bell, announcing that its Fibe TV service was soon going to be available in my area. I was tempted by some of its selling points – a free PVR for three years, lots of HD channels (even though I don’t have an HD television set), and at first glance it seemed I might save money compared to what I currently pay Videotron.

Then I remembered that Bell has the worst customer service of Canada’s telecom companies. And that their offer of à la carte television service is only in Quebec (because that’s where Videotron operates), and that said à la carte service has a bunch of holes in it. CNN isn’t available à la carte, for some reason.

The thing is, I actually like Videotron. Service interruptions have been few and far between, it offers true à la carte television service selection, and I’ve never been gone over my Internet download cap. Sure, I’d like to pay less than $100 a month for TV and Internet, and I’d like to have more options for free video on demand than TVA and more TVA. And I think we should have more than one option for digital cable in Canada’s second-largest city. But Bell is making it clear that it’s only giving customers choice because they’re being forced to by Videotron’s competitive pressure, and I’ve yet to see any evidence that its newfound commitment to customer service has made any difference in its quality.

A matter of comparison

It’s hard to judge whether a company is evil without looking at its competition. Postmedia Network, the company I work for, has also abandoned Canadian Press for its own news service, and it’s also centralizing and outsourcing much of its operations, reducing what it considers redundancy in staff. Global Television has gutted local stations to centralize operations, even to the point of having fake local sets computer-generated through green screens. CTV has forced its local stations to rename their newscasts to “CTV News” and incorporate the national brand. CBC/Radio-Canada has implemented convergence plans that have seen TV and radio newsrooms come together. Rogers is trying to buy the Toronto Maple Leafs in order to profit from its TV distribution and blackmail fans into subscribing to its cable service and specialty channels. V, formerly TQS, doesn’t even have a news department. Transcontinental runs community weekly newspapers whose newsrooms are so bare they’re absolute jokes. Corus cancelled local programming at a bunch of regional radio stations to be replaced by a show out of Montreal. And now those stations are being bought by Cogeco, which wants an exception to the CRTC’s media concentration rules so it can own a much larger piece of Montreal’s radio pie.

The list goes on.

There are media companies and news organizations that try not to be evil, either because they’re run by benevolent dictators, because they’re non-profits, or because they’re too small to turn into giant soulless corporate machines. Those organizations tend to stay marginal or die out completely.

Large corporations aren’t good or evil. They’re machines without a conscience, with enough layers to separate the people who make decisions from the people those decisions affect. Their goal is to make money for shareholders, who are themselves a few layers removed from the details of how their money is made. Appealing to their conscience is pointless. If it’s more profitable, all things considered, to throw grandma under the bus, they won’t hesitate to do it.

Quebecor’s primary mission is no different from that of any other large company: It wants to make money.

So to answer the question…

Is Quebecor evil?

I don’t know. To answer yes or no to that question is to ignore how grey the whole issue is.

But if you’ve read all of the above, my opinion no longer matters. You have enough information to decide for yourself.

UPDATE (Dec. 31): Le Devoir’s Stéphane Baillargeon on the stupid war between Radio-Canada/Gesca and Quebecor.

14 thoughts on “Is Quebecor evil?

  1. Jean Naimard

    Of course Québécor is evil! Any organization that deals with billions of dollars annualy is evil. It has to! Croporations are psychopathic, their decision are solely based on the amount of money they will generate (or save), and this is always bound to hurt someone who can’t defend himself.
    Of course Le ’Ournal de Mauryal is Pédaleau’s mouthpiece! Just as La Praïsse (Le quotidien français le plus épais d’amérique) is Desmarais’ mouthpiece. Both have their agenda, La Praïsse being federalist, and Le ’Ournal, increasingly right-wing (or at least, anti-government through populist irrelevant “examples”). The only reason why Le Devoir is not popular is that it has that intellectual tinge which is anathema to much of the population issued from lumberjacks and habitants and it does not have enough écrapou and too much text.
    I have been boycotting Pédaleau’s for a very long time, starting from when a cousin regaled us with tales of Pédaleau’s (père) legendary stinginess when he worked as a stripper (another job gone through technological advancement) at one of his regional rags, 30 years ago. Like no coffee, no lockers, no coat hangers, little silly stupid stuff that doesn’t cost much and that is worth more in employee satisfaction than it would cost in pennies.
    Like father, like son, only with an added micromanagement (doubtlessly due to psychopathy induced by juvenile drug consumption — like any son of very rich fucker, Pédaleau Jr indulged in hard drugs during his adolescence, thanks to the boring suburban life). When he inherited his father’s empire, he started pissing money all over, and weren’t for his Vidéoétron cash-cow, he would be a mere footnote by now.
    * * *
    There is another thing that permeates the whole press industry.
    100 years ago, newspapers had open agendas (of their owners — freedom of the press is really freedom of the owner of the press) that they pushed aggressively. Then it emerged that journalists should be objective, neutral (or at least, appear so). But technology changes, and nowadays, thanks to the internet, everyone and his dog can publish anything and they can reach as big an audience as a big press conglomerate with an extensive distribution network.
    And who is going to the cornerstore to buy a newspaper in this weather when you can pull news stories on your web browser without bothering to put your undewear on? With more and more people contracting out work or telecommuting, passing by the corner store on the way to the bus stop is getting a thing of the past.
    Worldwide, newspapers are dying, and they will continue to die unless they adapt. Perhaps in a way this is what Pédaleau wants to do whith his “convergence” (I love that word: it combines «verge» and «con»), but what Pédaleau fails to understand is that the end of big press empires is over, because like in dinosaur times, the world now belongs to nimble, swift outlets that cannot exist with the big managerial overhead of the administrative layers big organizations need.
    Journalists can howl at “non journalist” bloggers as much as they want, the fact is that a new media is emerging, and journalists as we know them are not going to be a significant part of it.

    Reply
  2. Jean-François Codère

    Good post, Steve.

    I’d just like to correct to add 2 facts quickly.

    First, there has been two, not one, case of scabs. The first one went a bit under the radar. http://www.ruefrontenac.com/nouvelles-generales/55-enjeux/7980-scab-journal-de-montreal

    Other complaints have been filed and are pending.

    The second fact is about the Quebecor argument that they’ve signed 100 deals during the timeframe in which they’ve launched 14 lock-outs. I personally have a problem with this argument because it kind of suggests that a one-for-one ratio would be good and that their 100-14 is stellar. But let’s get back to facts: last year in Quebec, according to data by the Labour ministry, there’s been 1725 deals signed for only 60 conflicts, of which only 7 were lock-outs.

    This means that while Quebecor would roughly have a 12% “lock-out rate”, the rest of Quebec has a mere 3,4% “conflict rate” and a microscopic 0,4% “lock-out rate”. Lock-outs are 30 times more frequent at Quebecor that they are elsewhere. That puts things in perspective.

    I would have loved to use data covering a longer period of time (the same as Quebecor) for the rest of the province, but I just couldn’t find right away everything I needed on the ministry’s website. I doubt it would have given a much better comparison from Quebecor’s standpoint.

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  3. wkh

    tl;dr but I wanted to point out YOU TOTALLY JACKED MY IDEA FOR THIS POST but that’s okay because I don’t have a blog, so, yeah…. whatever. But obviously you know my thoughts since YOU TOTALLY JACKED MY IDEA FOR THIS POST. ;-)

    To answer the Q: I don’t think corporations can be evil. They are run by human. Yes, I think PKP is evil, and a douchebag. And I think his father died too soon and needed to teach the boy some PR skills. But what does he give a shit, he’s still making tons of money.

    Finally, I think the union demands are over dramatic and a bit rich when they spent years writing anti-union rhetoric for the JdeM. I actually giggled when I heard the Bleu Cols are supporting the workers. That must have come with a spit afterwards.

    Honestly I think the union should give up. PKP has proven a union is irrelevant. Absolutely nothing bad has happened to JdeM (and again what do you expect when you cultivate a union bashing right wing readership? Duh). The unions have tons of money despite what they will tell you and should just have their own paper called Rue Frontenac. Then everyone wins.

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  4. Alex H

    Wow. First of all, congrats for a very well thought out and a fairly balanced article. This whole situation is a tough nut to crack, mostly because there are so many layers to problem.

    The lockout at JdM is both small potatoes and a good indication of the game that is afoot. Quebecor (IMHO) isn’t any more or any less evil than the next profit driven megaglob media company. But they are a little more obvious in their moves, a little more public and aggressive perhaps in their ways of accomplishing their goals.

    The real evil of all of this lies in media concentration.

    From a business standpoint (and even to some extent journalistic standpoint) QMI makes a whole lot of sense. With multiple news outlets under their control, Quebecor is most profitable when they eliminate needless duplication. When send a print reporter from Montreal and Quebec to each cover the same story, when you can send one from QMI (or better, a stringer), and get the story anyway. Send it to both papers, they both run it in their own markets, and everyone is happy.

    With the internet becoming a bigger and bigger source of information for many people, they need to be able to use those same stories online as well, to serve the people who come that way. That means filling sites such as the new tvanouvelles.com with stories, even if the stories are not “video news” worthy. Again, from a business standpoint, why duplicate the efforts? Add in the new Sun TV news channel, and you have so many outlets that will need content.

    Such intense levels of media concentration means that Quebecor alone controls the new for the vast majority of french Quebecers, from newspapers to TV. They are in a position of both market domination and at the same time the position to self-limit competition inside that marketplace. In simple terms, TVA isn’t going to try to “out scoop” the JdM on a story, nor are they going to call the reporting into question if they are wrong. If you are French and living in the province of Quebec, you have few choices except to deal with Quebecor at some point or another.

    The difference between Quebecor and, say, CTV (aka Bell) is that the changes made inside the CTV network local stations were done more carefully, slowly taking away autonomy from the individual stations, and moving everything (including running the local news) to the Toronto offices. At this point, CFCF is exactly like JdM, unable to stand by itself, entirely dependent on the stream of content and services from affiliated companies and the parent companies.

    It all comes back to media concentration, possibly the biggest evil of all.

    The Rue Frontenac people need to understand: What was will no longer be. The playing field hasn’t just shifted, it has been dug up and sent to recycling. The JdM right now is successful, and significantly more profitable without them. People buy the paper, people watch the news, and that is life. The lockout has only proven that (except for a couple of exceptional cases) they are able to operate without issue – or at least operate in a way that the public doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about the difference. The public has spoken, the journalists were not adding enough value to make them worth paying for. It is sad to say it, but it is true. But that lack of value comes from the non-competitive nature of the industry, where there are no competing news organizations, just co-oper-tition where everyone stays in their little corner of the empire and doesn’t do anything to make anyone else upset. The market as set just doesn’t need more than a few of the Rue Frontenac people to make it work.

    It’s sad, but it’s what it is.

    So yes, Quebecor is evil, but only as evil as they need to be to keep up in a marketplace that is likely to only have one or two big french media companies owning all the toys, and only a few english media companies owning those properties.

    Oh Steve, as for your Videotron account, don’t worry – switching to bell is just taking the money from one evil conglomerate and moving it to another. Plus because of fees and must carry channels, packages, and all that stuff, they all end up with the same amount of money anyway in the end.

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  5. mephistau

    La réalité c’est que le JdM a depuis longtemps vogué sur sa “notoriété”;
    ça se lit bien au resto.

    Ça fait 2 baux qu’ils sont en lockout mais ont eut de la difficulté à trouver de la nouvelle (et le seul qui avait ce talent a été recruté par la rue St-Jacques).
    Tant qu’à payer pour de l’Associated Press, aussi bien l’avoir gratuit.

    Ça doit être ça le prix à payer pour avoir été payé pour faire 4 jours de copier/coller et/ou taper quatre chroniques en 15 minutes par semaine.

    Personne ne connaît les chroniqueurs/journalistes de l’ancien JdM parce qu’ils ne servaient qu’à emplir du papier entre deux pubs.

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  6. sco100

    That updated two-scab thing is funny.

    If memory serves well, the first culprit was really only guilty of having lent a hand to colleagues for four hours or so during what amounted to media rush hour. A one-shot deal really.

    The additional sin JF Coderre puts forward concerns some hapless columnist who interviewed someone, which is, of course, a big NO-NO according to the old labour contract (NO interviews if you havent paid your union dues)… The truth is it’s really, at most, just 30 minutes of vaguely scabbish behaviour, a mere half-hour, at best, which can’t be seen seriously as an overall downfall into the evil scabs’ cesspit for that poor columnist.

    If I remember correctly, the guy asked questions and reported the whole endeavour in the form of a Q&A format in his column… Does that one-shot deal make him a wall-to-wall scab? The guy obviously did what he thought was his job. No malicious intent here. Singling him out as a scab is a perfect example of what has alread sunk unions in the eyes of younger generations.

    Other than that, that last dossier of yours was amazing on all counts.

    Congratulations, Sir !

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The truth is it’s really, at most, just 30 minutes of vaguely scabbish behaviour, a mere half-hour, at best, which can’t be seen seriously as an overall downfall into the evil scabs’ cesspit for that poor columnist.

      A couple of things to consider:

      1. According to the freelancer himself, he was asked to change how he contributes to the newspaper, to do this extra work. This wasn’t a one-shot deal.
      2. He told Rue Frontenac that he agrees with the decision, even though it’s about him.
      3. The union argues that this is probably just the tip of the iceberg, and that a lot of other scab work is being done behind the scenes where they can’t see it. The law doesn’t give them much room to fight back legally, so they have to go after these individual cases.
      4. You might consider it “vaguely scabbish,” but it was enough for the labour board to rule against the paper.
      5. He hasn’t been declared a “wall-to-wall scab”, nor I think has anyone suggested he be labelled as such. The judgment says merely that the Journal can’t ask him to do the work of journalists currently being locked out, namely interviews.

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      1. sco100

        I went back to the blog entry you’d posted at the time (“he’s a scaaaaab”) and I even read the CRT’s decision that you’d linked to.

        You’re right. It seems he did write a few portraits/interviews. Still, I don’t belong to a union and it all seems pretty futile to me, just a drop in the ocean compared to the rest of the Journal’s M.O., which was deemed perfectly legal.

        The bottom line is that, for the past two years, the employer has succeeded in implementing that supposedly abominable business model the union was supposed to be standing up against. The employer did so with the repeated blessing of the courts regarding all essential processes, and there’s no turning back now. The union is pretty much grasping at straws by suing over insignificant anecdotes that have little bearing on the big picture. Truth is they lost all the decisive battles.

        Now, they want the law changed to restore some sort of balance of power, as if they hadn’t undermined their own position themselves by putting all their eggs in the judicial basket and by overestimating the amount of public support they could garner.

        Setting up Rue Frontenac as an overly pro-union and anti-Quebecor outfit was a major tactical error in my view. The thing is not bad, mind you, far from that as long as can sift through the propaganda (of course, that’s more or less true of any media). The problem is it’s not making as much as a dent in the Journal’s readership – it’s totally elsewhere on the opinion spectrum and doesn’t really make attractive reading for regular Journal readers. That’s quite a failure if your goal was to weaken your boss.

        The paper version is almost devoid of ads, which means it’s really just a money drain that will end up depleting their war chest further. “Let’s burn whatever money we have left on some expensive endeavour that makes no business sense and gets us nowhere” doesn’t strike me as very Churchillian.

        Anyway, the union’s strategy has been ineffective and erratic from the start. It’s basically just a string of distorted assessments and misguided decisions. Should we now change the law to make up for bad union strategy? Personally, I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean the law shouldn’t be updated, but then you don’t change such a structural law just to boost the bargaining power of a couple hundred people, especially when they have mostly themselves to blame for the situation they’re now in.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Setting up Rue Frontenac as an overly pro-union and anti-Quebecor outfit was a major tactical error in my view.

          I have to disagree with that. The alternative to Rue Frontenac would have been picketing the building on Frontenac St., where they would have made virtually no impact. With Rue Frontenac, the website is regularly quoted in other media (and a thorn in the side of Journal de Montréal management) and has garnered a lot of support from journalists and those sympathetic to the union’s cause.

          Rue Frontenac is a pressure tactic. I can’t see an alternative that would have worked better.

          As for the lack of ads in the paper edition, I think it’s still a bit early. The union says it will require that the paper issue be self-financing (except for the labour which is paid out of the strike fund). We’ll see if there are enough advertisers who believe in this kind of journalism and are willing to risk the ire of Quebecor by supporting their locked-out workers.

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          1. sco100

            Launching RueFrontenac.com as a pressure tactic made sense per se. It’s the positioning they chose that I find puzzling. They ignored their former readers and went for a totally different segment.

            Rather than setting up a fierce opponent that would have hurt Quebecor, they turned their site into a “Look Ma! no hands!” showcase where they thumb their nose at the boss, and flaunt their web skills and newfound freedom, while union supporters who have never read the Journal anyway post comments where they complain the Journal has decayed into such a populist affair that no longer rivals Le Devoir (well not quite, but you get the idea)… It’s all a bit surreal and not particularly efficient.

            As for the paper version, between you and me, no free weekly can support a cast of 20 full-time journalists even with full-page colour ads galore.

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  7. Tux

    Hell yes Quebecor is evil. So are Bell and the CRTC. All three have their parts to play in why internet and wireless access are so damn expensive here, and why the customer service sucks so goddamn much.

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  8. NGauthier

    It is sad because nobody (including me) has the guts to talk about the journalists in lock-out faults. In lock-out, they’re still earning more than most freelancers. Yet, from the beginnings, they’ve asked the freelancers to be on their side and to stop to write for Quebecor publication. For some of them, including me, who decide to stop writing for Quebecor, it meant loosing 80% of jobs possibility (Quebecor owns most of the media outlets). It was hard to loose good collaboration with publications we love, but we believe in the cause. Until, journalists in lock-out start to do freelance jobs in the 20% outlets we still have. What could we do? We need to eat… We also have families. I couldn’t believe than some journalists earning more than I’ve ever done as a freelancer, i.e. 800$/week in lock-out, was doing freelances jobs in my few new outlets. So we need to help them, but they’re so selfish that they don’t care if we’re not able to pay our rent or to provide foods for our family… So some freelances , including me, have started to accept jobs at QMI or other Quebecor outlets. And yet, the lock-out journalists don’t understand, still write in all the non-Quebecor outlets, and make us feel bad to work. Some of us have been bullied from them. We’re just trying to survive. We’re trying o do what we love and what we’re good at. We’ve tried to support their cause but they didn’t support us. They’ve been selfish. In all the lock-out story, the journalists have been thinking about their jobs, not thinking about the other ex-employees who won’t get a chance to write other places. They should have accept last proposition after Quebecor told me they coud keep RueFrontenac. Now, they are all gonna lose. Journalists would easily find other outlets, taking places from many freelancers who will have a hard time. But other ex-employees? They would have been better to leave with a good check in their pocket.
    Excluding those who have a permanent jobs, they’re not so much journalists who support their cause anymore. We’re scared to talk because we’ve seen other to get bullied by them. But they’re stealing our jobs. So dear lock-out journalists who still earn 800$ a week doing not much, having time to develop your own projets & to earn extra money with freelances jobs, let’s talk about solidarity.

    Reply

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