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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.