Quebecor’s media wars: It takes two to tango

It seems a week can’t go by without Quebecor or one of its journalistic outlets picking a fight with a competitor. Whether it’s an unwritten company rule to bias its news coverage in this fashion or simply an astonishing coincidence, I can’t say for certain. But either way the result is the same: lots of mudslinging in the direction of Quebecor’s enemies.

And, unfortunately, the response to a lot of this mudslinging is mudslinging in the other direction. Rather than see dispassionate analysis of important issues presented with balance, we’re bombarded with fact-massaging attacks from both sides and left to our own devices to try to pick out truth from truthiness.

Here’s a few examples of the battles it’s been waging recently:

A reaffirmation ceremony broadcast on Sun News Network Oct. 19, 2011, includes federal employees pretending to be new Canadians

Quebecor vs. Canadian Press

Here’s a scoop for you: visual media is faked all the time in journalism. There are “photo opportunities” in which political figures shake hands and smile, pretending to do something important when they’re really just mugging for the cameras. Press conferences feature backdrops that have flags or corporate logos or focus-group-tested talking points or irrelevant stock photos.

Journalists aren’t always the victims. Subjects of TV interviews are asked to pretend to walk down a hall or work at their desk to provide B-roll for editors. Print photographers get subjects to pose, look in a particular direction or have a particular facial expression to create a scene that tries to reflect the story being written about them. TV newscasts feature fake backdrops of the city and have segments that are pre-taped.

But in all of this, there isn’t any actual lying. If something isn’t live, they won’t put the word “LIVE” on the screen (except when they rebroadcast something later and forget to remove it or cover it up). And nothing is done to intentionally misrepresent the news.

When news broke on Feb. 2, by way of a story by Canadian Press reporter Jennifer Ditchburn, that a Sun News Network segment showing a citizenship ceremony included federal bureaucrats masquerading as new Canadians, I wondered whether the issue was really as scandalous as some people made it out to be.

To summarize, Sun News wanted to do a citizenship ceremony in its studio in the weeks before Canadian Citizenship Week last fall. In discussions between a Sun News producer and the federal immigration department, that CP obtained through an access-to-information request (The Hill Times goes into detail of how this story came about), it became clear that a full citizenship ceremony was too long for the network’s needs. Instead, they decided on a “reaffirmation ceremony”, which actually exists. It’s more brief, includes the same oath and can be done by anyone who is already a citizen. That meant people could become citizens through a full ceremony, then go to the Sun News studio and repeat their oath for the cameras. Kind of like politicians in sod-turning ceremonies or anything else where something is formally “launched” after it’s already been operational.

In the immortal words of the Sun News producer (who apparently now works for CBC), they could “fake the oath.”

The second hiccup occurred because the federal department setting up this photo op couldn’t find enough new Canadians to participate in this unnecessary ceremony on a work day. In a delicious bit of irony, the network that complains about people doing frivolous things instead of working for a living was left in a sticky situation because the people it wanted for its frivolous activity were too busy working for a living.

An unnamed federal bureaucrat, apparently desperate for this opportunity to go ahead and facing Sun’s rejection of an alternate plan of simply going to a real citizenship ceremony and filming there, fatefully decided to round up some federal employees and have them pose as new Canadians for the segment.

Sun News says it had no knowledge that federal bureaucrats were posing as new Canadians, and there’s no evidence that they did. When the CP story came out, the government apologized to Sun News for the deception, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney denied any knowledge of this fakery.

And yet, there was lots of talk of this story in non-Quebecor media. Many journalists, columnists and commentators attacked Sun News, particularly because of the “fake the oath” quote. Many of them erroneously referred to the network as “Sun TV”, which makes me question how informed they really are about what airs on it.

Sun News deflected criticism onto the government, but also on the reporter who broke the story. Sun News accuses Ditchburn of bias against Quebecor and in favour of the CBC because she has appeared on CBC News Network programs for which she was financially compensated. They also accuse her of failing to disclose that the producer in the story now works for the CBC, a fact Ditchburn said she was unaware of because names in the documents released to her were blacked out.

While I believe Ditchburn when she says she didn’t know the identity of the Sun News producer, and I don’t question her journalistic integrity, I agree with Sun News commentators like Ezra Levant and Brian Lilley who say Ditchburn should disclose her paid gigs with the CBC when she reports directly about the public broadcaster. Of course, since this story had nothing to do with the CBC, that wasn’t necessary in this case.

Sun News wasn’t entirely blameless in this fake oath affair, even if we do believe their denials (and I do). The news anchors seemed to be under the impression that they were seeing a real citizenship ceremony, even though the judge was quite clear that it was a reaffirmation ceremony.

But the lesson coming out of this scandal isn’t that Sun News is fast and loose with the truth. As Chris Selley in the National Post points out, this story got far more coverage than it deserved. (There are certainly far better reasons to attack Sun News’s integrity.)

No, the lesson here is how casually the government seems to treat reality, and how the slippery slope of staged news events is finally getting to the point where people are outraged. It’s a lesson all media should take to heart.

Krista Erickson and Margie Gillis on June 1, 2011.

Quebecor vs. the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

If there’s a single piece of video that the average Canadian saw with respect to Sun News Network, it was the interview between Canada Live host Krista Erickson and dancer Margie Gillis on June 1, 2011. After hammering the idea of public funding for arts, and using video of an interpretive dance by Gillis to mock her repeatedly, Gillis agreed to appear on the network to defend herself and all other publicly-financed artists in Canada. For 20 minutes, Gillis was hammered with questions from an increasingly irate Erickson. While one could argue that Erickson should have shown Gillis much more respect despite their differences of opinion, Gillis was given an opportunity to speak and explain why public financing for arts is a good idea and hardly as scandalous as Sun News was making it out to be.

Thousands of Canadians weren’t satisfied, with that, and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council received a record 6,676 complaints about the segment (the vast majority of whom, I’m guessing, did not watch it live). The CBSC had to go to the unusual step of asking people to stop filing complaints, since its decisions are not based on the number of complaints it receives.

On Feb. 3, the day after the “fake oath” story broke, the CBSC announced its ruling that the “aggressive” interview did not violate the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ code of ethics. Though it may have lacked “courtesy” and “politeness”, there were no “nasty personal insults” directed at Gillis.

The decision was controversial. Marc-François Bernier of the University of Ottawa argued that the CBSC should have applied the journalistic code used by the RTNDA, which demands journalists treat sources with courtesy.

The media, which went after Sun News for the “fake oath” story and had blasted the network last summer for the Margie Gillis interview, were largely silent about the CBSC ruling, treating it as a simple news story and offering little commentary. Sun News even argued on Twitter that this story was being ignored, despite dozens of pieces written about it in major media. (And another CBSC ruling, about an ad for an adult phone line airing during an episode of Batman on Teletoon at 1:30am, is probably more interesting but received zero coverage in generalist media.)

While the ruling about the Gillis interview was covered, there’s been little analysis other than Sun Media’s showboating and Bernier’s rebuttal. Probably because the CBSC’s ruling is reasonable, and while Sun News should have the right to be annoying, this was hardly the type of eye-opening interview that should prompt moderate or left-leaning commentators to go out on a limb in Sun News’s defence. (The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle tried, defending Sun News’s right to be “obnoxious” while continuing to hurl insults at it.)

Bernier’s piece does bring up one important distinction: The difference between a television broadcaster in general terms and a news service in particular. Sun News was judges as the former, but not particularly as the latter. Quebecor has no public editor or ombudsman, and its major media outlets don’t participate in press councils. So other than the CRTC, which regulates it, and the CBSC, which private broadcasters are required to participate in, there’s no one to judge whether Sun News’s news practices are proper.

Quebecor vs. the Quebec film industry

This one kind of came out of nowhere.

You’d think that an Academy Award nomination for a Canadian film would be reason to celebrate. And for most, it is. Quebec films have been nominated five times for the foreign-language Oscar, and won once (The Barbarian Invasions in 2003), which is still far behind other countries.

But as everyone was singing the praises of Philippe Falardeau and his film Monsieur Lazhar, Sun News went on the attack. It brought on someone from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (Sun News gives the group regular airtime and never challenges their positions) to say that the vast majority of funding for the film comes from the Canadian and Quebec government, through direct financing, tax credits and other programs designed to encourage film production.

Because that video was posted online, a lot of commentary from Quebec film defenders was based on it. See: The Gazette, La Presse, La Presse, La PresseLe Soleil. Presse Canadienne even got a comment from Quebec’s culture minister on the subject.

But the segment was followed up with an even more incendiary commentary by host Krista Erickson a few days later on the primetime show Byline. That wasn’t posted online, so I’ve uploaded it above. In it, Erickson loses her temper and says viewers should call up (read: harass) Monsieur Lazhar’s producer, micro_scope, and demand to be told “how much these producers are paying themselves.”

It was so over-the-top that even perennial Quebecor defender Sophie Durocher said their anger was misdirected.

This isn’t a case of fraud, or even of extravagant waste of taxpayer money. This is a case of public funding (much of which Erickson and Lilley don’t pay for because they don’t live in Quebec) being used to finance culture. It’s not being done secretly, and most Canadians (and particularly most Quebecers) agree with the system in general.

There’s a legitimate debate here, as some have tried to point out, notably Voir blogger Ianik Marcil. But the facts are simple: These films wouldn’t be made without public financing. Sun News would prefer it that way, but many others – particularly in Quebec – want the government to step in to ensure that a unique and vibrant culture can survive amid the pressures of poor financing and foreign intrusion.

And, of course, there are far better examples Sun News could have used than the most critically acclaimed Canadian film of the past year. Plenty of others are much bigger money holes. It’s not clear if Sun News used this as an example because it wanted to show it wasn’t afraid of going after the big fish, or just because it doesn’t know about other films financed by the government.

Quebecor vs. CBC math

After months of attacks from Quebecor – particularly Sun Media, which has an entire section devoted to attacking the public broadcaster  – the CBC finally decided to fight back a few months ago, saying that Quebecor is getting money from the government as well. It threw out the figure of $500 million – about half of the CBC’s direct parliamentary funding – as going to Quebecor.

There are a lot of problems with this figure. For starters, more than half of it doesn’t exist. It’s not real money. Instead, it’s an entirely imagined savings Quebecor may have gotten because the government set aside wireless spectrum for new entrants in the last spectrum auction. Analysis shows that, had Videotron been forced to spend as much as Bell, Rogers and Telus did for new spectrum, it would have spent $333 million more than it actually did. That might be true, but that’s hardly a handout. Videotron paid lots of money for its spectrum licenses.

The figure also includes money Quebecor gets from production tax credits and the Canada Media Fund. But the CBC is also a recipient of these kinds of funding, on top of the $1 billion it gets directly from the government. And the figure ignores the fact that Videotron pays more into the CMF than TVA and other Quebecor services get in return.

And yet, Lacroix continues to use the figure.

Quebecor vs. La Presse

While on the English side Quebecor’s main journalistic enemies are the CBC and anything else funded by taxpayer money, on the French side one of its two main sparring partners isn’t funded by the government. Instead, La Presse and the Gesca chain of newspapers is owned by Power Corporation, which is controlled by the Desmarais family.

I don’t know exactly what the issue is. Maybe it’s the perception that Gesca works too closely with Radio-Canada, which is financed by the government. Maybe it’s the perception that the Desmarais family is using its control of a major media player to further other interests (La Presse has been accused – with little corroborating evidence – of being silent about Canada’s oilsands because of Power Corp.’s interests in that industry). Or maybe it’s just that Pierre Karl Péladeau has something personal against the Desmarais family and/or La Presse.

The cause seems irrelevant now, because like any other long-running conflict, the players are concerned only with retaliating for the latest attack.

So it’s not surprising that when the Journal de Montréal learned that Caisse de dépôt head Michael Sabia and Premier Jean Charest spent some time at Sagard, the private mansion paradise owned by the Desmarais family, it went all out. Photos of the “domaine” were published day after day in the paper (11 times in 12 days, according to Le Devoir) as it stayed on the story, even though as Le Devoir’s Bernard Descôteaux points out, there’s nothing particularly scandalous about it, other than the well-known issue that people with a lot of money tend to be friends with people who have political control.

Eventually, La Presse responded by way of chief editorialist André Pratte. He predictably defended the Desmarais family that owns his newspaper and started launching attacks against Quebecor. That started a back-and-forth with Péladeau whose contents are so predictable I’m not going to bother linking to them.

My intention isn’t to create some equivalency between La Presse and Quebecor Media, to pretend that their journalistic ethics are on the same level. But it’s disappointing how little self-criticism there has been from La Presse, particularly on the editorial page, considering how morally superior La Presse sees itself from the Journal de Montréal and other Quebecor media. And even if La Presse is 100% right in this case, to use its own editorial pages to defend itself smacks of immaturity.

It’s the kind of stuff we expect from Quebecor.

Hard on Restricted to four hours a day when the kids are asleep

Quebecor vs.

You know the story. Someone told Sun News about the racy series Hard that was available on Radio-Canada’s website. It’s a series from France’s Canal+ whose main plot revolves around the pornography industry, so there’s a lot of naked people having sex in front of cameras. It doesn’t fit into the classical definition of pornography, where the plot is secondary to people having graphic sex on screen, but it’s not exactly fit for consumption by children, either.

Sun News edited together a string of video of sex scenes to spark outrage. They sent reporter Kris Sims to Parliament Hill to get MPs’ reactions, and tried to turn it into a news story as well, even though the CBC had not received a single complaint about the series from the public.

Some MPs were indeed outraged by the footage taken out of context. One who didn’t bite was Heritage Minister James Moore (whose department the CBC is under), who pointed out that Sun News “is in the business of doing after the CBC”. He also reportedly said that Sun News would be shut down as soon as Quebecor got its way and the CBC was shut down.

For those remarks, Sun Media issued a name-calling editorial saying that Moore had to be fired immediately. For them, it wasn’t even an option, but rather an inevitability. Canadians and Prime Minister Stephen Harper couldn’t possibly stand for this insult to Sun News.

Three weeks later, Moore is still heritage minister, and Sun Media is complaining that the “consensus media” isn’t picking up the CBC porn story.

Moore’s statements, though controversial, are half-right. Sun Media is in the business of going after the CBC. They want it shut down and/or privatized. They don’t hide that. And they’re going to keep filing access to information requests, criticizing every mistake and drumming up any controversy they can until it happens.

But Moore’s conspiracy theory that Sun News would disappear once the CBC gets mothballed is absolutely crazy. First of all, the CBC isn’t going anywhere. Too many Canadians believe in it, even if they don’t watch or listen to it much.

And if somehow the CBC was eliminated, it would be Sun Media’s biggest success ever. Quebecor would be insane to shut down something that had achieved that level of power.

The future of Sun News isn’t dependent on the CBC. It’s dependent on whether Sun News makes money. And that’s dependent on ratings and subscriber income.

Anyway, I’m getting off track. Back to Hard.

Sadly, as with Quebecor’s other media wars, everyone has to take a side and stick to it. There can’t be acknowledgment that parts of the arguments from both sides are valid, and that defensiveness has led to ridiculous positions being taken.

The CBC’s response that Hard isn’t pornographic was certainly a bold one to make. And it’s not as ridiculous a position as Sun Media’s blowhards make it out to be. But when Sun News later aired the clips from Hard along with video of CBC VP Kristine Stewart (who’s responsible for CBC’s English services, not, Lacroix got mad, sending a letter to Quebecor’s board bringing it to their attention. CBC legal counsel Daniel Henry also wrote to Sun News, saying “placing Ms. Stewart on the same screen as graphic sex scenes is indefensible morally and legally.” (The full letters are posted on Quebecor’s website as a PDF.) As Brian Lilley points out, they’re just showing CBC programming (albeit edited out of context). It’s crass, but is it defamation?

Hard is inappropriate for children, and should have considered content age appropriateness when it designed the system. It responded by restricting the viewing of the show to between midnight and 4am Eastern Time, which is a crude but simple way of responding to such concerns. It’s unclear if this was done because of a request from Moore to restrict the program, or if it was simple second thought after all the attention was brought to it. The move certainly goes against CBC’s argument that there’s nothing wrong with the show.

But whether Hard is pornographic is beside the point. Sun newspapers have Sunshine Girls, and there’s plenty of racy stuff that airs on channels owned by Quebecor. Their real issue, as Sun News boss Luc Lavoie highlights, is that is taxpayer-funded, and Quebecor sees it as an unfair competitor to services like Videotron Illico on demand and its website. It wouldn’t be more acceptable to Quebecor if this website was just carrying PG-rated programming. They’re just hoping that attaching the “pornography” label to this will get enough people outraged, and it hasn’t.

There are all sorts of important issues coming out of this debate. Does a show about pornography that doesn’t censor pornographic scenes become itself pornographic? Should the CBC be using tax dollars to buy foreign programming and make it freely available to Canadians? Should the heritage minister be able to censor specific programming or make other demands related to programming? Is within the CBC’s mandate, particularly because of how many non-Radio-Canada shows it makes available?

But we can’t debate any of those things, because Sun News has decided to polarize the issue. Rather than an honest and informative debate, we’ve descended into sarcastic name-calling. Either you’re with Sun News and want the CBC and CRTC shut down, or you’re with the CBC and want the government to buy pornography and shove it down the throats of our children. There’s no middle ground.

Quebecor vs. CBC’s advertising department

Another petty argument comes from an apparent two-way advertising boycott. Radio-Canada isn’t taking out ads in Quebecor newspapers (notably the Journal de Montréal), preferring instead to go with La Presse (though some independent producers do their own advertising and do put ads in Quebecor media). Similarly, CBC prefers not to advertise in Sun newspapers. (Though the CBC denies there’s any systematic boycott of any Quebecor media.)

In response, Quebecor doesn’t advertise in La Presse or on Radio-Canada.

It’s a silly dispute, but because advertising is money, it takes on a lot of importance. Quebecor boss Pierre Karl Péladeau has written to the CBC and the government to complain about this. For Quebecor, the CBC must be advertising to all Canadians. It’s even provided cost estimates and audience numbers to show how many more people they would get if they advertised with Quebecor.

And when someone points out Quebecor’s own ad boycott, they pull out the excuse that they’re a private company and can do what they want.

It’s ridiculous to fathom the idea of imposing rules on the CBC about where it advertises, but it’s just as silly for a government agency to refuse to advertise in a newspaper because it doesn’t like the opinions that newspaper publishes.

Unfortunately, silliness and pettiness aren’t deterrents to Quebecor and its enemies when they have their sights set on each other. They’re not thinking straight because all they see is red.

7 thoughts on “Quebecor’s media wars: It takes two to tango

  1. Jonathan

    Actually, the “Hard” case is more complex than that.

    First, as someone who did watch the entire first season and a few from the second one and I can assure you that calling it “pornographic” is far-fetched. It does revolve around the porn industry and has a lot of references to it, but there wasn’t a lot of nudity, let alone outright porn. Nothing more than a few boobs here and there (and once – ONCE – full frontal male nudity and he was “au repos”). As such, it was classified 16+, and deserved nothing more.

    In fact, it was more of a comedy about our relationship with pornography and, even more so, about the relationship of the main character with her family and friends.

    That being said, what I think is really disturbing in that particular case, is the CBC ( changing its programming after it was criticized by Moore. This was political intervention in the CBC programming and that’s unacceptable.

    Should have more robust warnings when its shows contain content unsuitable for children? Maybe. Should censor Hard because of Sun News and James Moore comments? No.

  2. Jimmy Jack

    i absolutely love how PKP is stirring up all kinds of shit. I couldn’t care less that he gets richer if it helps hasten the downfall of the the embarrassment that is the CBC/SRC.

    I just wish he would bring the Sun newspaper chain to Montreal and wipe out the Gazoo as well.

    No offense Steve, but your paper has seen better days. Aside for a couple of really really really good metro reporters, the newspaper isn’t fit for bird cage lining.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I just wish he would bring the Sun newspaper chain to Montreal and wipe out the Gazoo as well.

      They tried that in the 80s. It failed.

      Besides, there is a Sun paper in Montreal. It’s called the Journal de Montréal.

      Aside for a couple of really really really good metro reporters, the newspaper isn’t fit for bird cage lining.

      Good thing nobody’s forced to buy it, I guess.

      1. lop

        Actually, you are, kind of.. The Gazette seems to be the only paper in the family that limits how many on-line articles you can read over a 30 day period (20 articles) without a paid subscription


        1. Fagstein Post author

          The Gazette seems to be the only paper in the family that limits how many on-line articles you can read over a 30 day period (20 articles) without a paid subscription

          And you’re forced to read those articles how?

  3. dave

    How does this play out when Quebec-or City gets an NHL team and management of a brand new areana paid for with public money? Seems they’re asking for all kinds of taxpayers cash for an NHL team that they of course will have broadcast rights to.

    1. Jimmy Jack

      I agree , the Quebec City arena deal is a complete scam . Unfortunately all three provincial parties seem to be going along with it.


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