The Quebec Press Council has released its latest decisions on public complaints about journalists. Here’s a roundup of some of those and earlier ones I haven’t talked about yet that have been released since January:
Jean-Marc Fortier v. Louis Poulin/”Cool FM” CKRB-FM
Fortier issued a complaint to both the press council and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council against Poulin for saying a swear word on air on May 1, 2009. Specifically, he’s quoted as saying “Je vais le dire là parce que je le pense : ç’a pas de chrisse de bon sens.”
The CBSC found against the station for using the swear word on air, forcing it to air its decision. But the press council found nothing wrong with it (it’s not the council’s job to police profanity). What the press council did have a problem with was the fact that the station refused to cooperate with the council and hand over a recording of what was broadcast.
That refusal is probably related to a general feeling among private broadcasters that the press council is redundant, since they already have to submit to the CBSC. Astral, TQS, RDS and others raised a stink about it a little over a year ago, causing the council to respond that it would act on complaints even if the media outlets in question aren’t members and refuse to cooperate.
Charles Lespérance vs. La Presse
Lespérance took issue with an article by Éric Clément published in La Presse on July 9, 2009, about a city employee losing a case before the labour board. Lespérance’s issue was that La Presse slapped the label “EXCLUSIF” on top of it, which was particularly embarrassing for the paper because the Journal de Montréal came out with the same news on the same day. Lespérance said calling it an exclusive was sensationalistic, inaccurate and dishonest.
The council agreed only that the label was inaccurate, and that while there can never be any guarantees that news labelled “exclusive” is truly so, a news outlet should only use the term when there’s a “very strong probability” that they’re the only ones to have access to the information. Since the news in question here was a ruling by a government body that was freely available online, the council found La Presse clearly jumped the gun.
Coverage from Le Devoir and Radio-Canada.
Front commun des personnes assistées sociales du Québec vs. Stefan Dupont/CHOI-FM
If you’re aware of the parties involved, the nature of the complaint is hardly surprising: the complainants took issue with Dupont’s comments about government handouts to people on welfare and other forms of social assistance on March 10, 2009.
CHOI refused to respond to the complaint. It too chose only to cooperate with the CBSC. The council nevertheless found against it.
Coverage from Le Devoir, Le Soleil, Rue Frontenac and the Journal de Québec (which quotes Dupont saying he’s not a journalist and so shouldn’t have to answer to the conseil de presse). And a response from the front commun.
Alexandre Popovic vs. Richard Martineau/Journal de Montréal
Popovic complains about a column Martineau wrote that was published in the Journal last August, just after the one year anniversary of the death of Fredy Villanueva in Montreal North. Martineau condemns a march that took place on the anniversary because police arrested one person who had the components of a molotov cocktail in his backpack. Popovic accused Martineau of launching stereotypes against the protesters and using one incident to unfairly tar the entire event in bad faith (Popovic is a spokesperson for the group that organized the march).
The paper responded that Martineau is a columnist and free to have his own opinions and use hypothetical scenarios to make a point. The council ruled that Martineau has the right to his own opinions, but not his own facts, and that making an “abusive generalization” was not something he was entitled to do.
Coverage from Rue Frontenac (naturally).
Montreal mayor’s cabinet vs. Éric Clément/La Presse
Another Éric Clément EXCLUSIF, this one about a member of Montreal’s executive committee, André Lavallée, having been once a member of the Front de libértion du Québec. The cabinet, acting on Lavallée’s behalf, complained to the council that La Presse was sensationalizing this information because it was already public knowledge (a fact Clément reported on in a follow-up piece). The complaint accused Clément and La Presse of bad faith, and of getting wrong the fact that Lavallée was “breaking his silence” because people had already known about his past with the FLQ.
The council rejected the complaint, noting that Lavallée’s past was not in fact public knowledge, and had not been brought up in his previous election campaigns.
Fernand Ouellet vs. Jean-Luc Mongrain/LCN
Ouellet complained that Mongrain invited only the two main candidates – Gérald Tremblay and Louise Harel – to a debate during the last municipal election. He accused Mongrain and LCN of depriving the public of information they could have used to cast an informed vote.
Even though LCN refused to cooperate (TVA is no longer a member of the council), the council rejected the complaint, ruling that it was reasonable to invite only the two leading candidates, and in any event Projet Montréal leader Richard Bergeron was also invited to his show on another date and was given an opportunity to make his case.
Victor-Lévy Beaulieu vs. Marc Cassivi/La Presse
Beaulieu, a well-known writer, complains of a piece from Cassivi published Oct. 22, 2009, that accuses Beaulieu of xenophobia based on an email Beaulieu sent out.
The council wouldn’t rule on whether the accusation was defamatory (that’s an issue for the courts), and did caution that “xenophobic” was a strong word to use, but nevertheless dismissed the complaint.
Haydar Moussa vs.
Lisa Lise Ravary/Châtelaine
Moussa complained that a piece in the magazine and a blog post on the website by Ravary in March 2008 that had “inexact” and “incomplete” information that Moussa says indirectly ties him to Hezbollah. The council found that Ravary’s criticisms of a poem by Moussa were not inappropriate (and, in fact, she wasn’t the only person to criticize him) and rejected the complaint, even though Châtelaine did not cooperate with the council.
Falun Dafa of Canada vs. Solveig Miller/Radio-Canada Enquête
The group complained about a report from 2008 which it thought was biased against it. The complaint listed more than 20 issues with the report, mostly about presenting information incorrectly or in a biased way. The council analyzed the report and found Enquête was justified in almost everything it said. The only complaint it agreed with was that the report did not properly explain why the group refused to be interviewed for the story on camera.
Luc Archambault vs. Martin Ouellet/Presse Canadienne
Archambault complained about PC’s coverage of an open letter he wrote to Paul McCartney (PDF) as the former Beatle was appearing at the 400th anniversary celebrations of Quebec City. Archambault’s main complaint was that it was referred to as a “petition”.
PC’s response was that it was posted to a petition website (lapetition.be) and invited people to sign it.
The council dismissed the complaint, judging the error to be minor.
Gilles Rhéaume vs. Josh Freed/The Gazette
Rhéaume complained about a column by Freed called “Politics ruin the party” (my headline). I summarized the complaint here. In short, Freed made a reference to the “Apostrophe SS” in a column, which refers to the language police and its alleged Nazi-like zeal to eliminate apostrophe-S-es from commercial signs. This was interpreted by francophones (including Rhéaume) as comparing the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste and other sovereignists to SS officers, which isn’t precisely what he was doing. Nevertheless, Freed made a clarification in the following week’s column.
The council, explaining what the reference meant and noting that it was an old anglophone joke, dismissed the complaint.
Coverage in The Gazette.
Montreal mayor’s cabinet vs. André Noël/La Presse
This complain centres mainly around a headline used for Noël’s story about an SQ investigation into corruption involving a contract to renovate city hall. The Page A1 teaser to the story said the SQ had opened an investigation and “Les personnes visées sont cette fois deux élus de l’équipe du maire Tremblay et des membres de la mafia.”
The article is mainly about a complaint made to the SQ by an entrepreneur who said he was threatened by members of the mafia. The complaint argued that this was not sufficient evidence of corruption and the paper attacked the mayor’s reputation with what was essentially a single-source story.
The council found that the journalist had multiple sources for the main fact of the story – that a complaint had been filed – and dismissed the complaint. However, there was a dissenting opinion in this case, arguing that the allegations tying the mayor and his party to the mafia should have been verified with another source before they were published, and that by giving a blanket disclaimer that some of the information had been verified and some had not, La Presse was depriving its readers of information about what the paper considered true and what it wasn’t able to verify.
Conseil d’assainissement et d’aménagement du ruisseau Lacorne vs. Pierre Limoges/Le Bruchésien
The group complained about articles Limoges wrote for the monthly publication attacking it over the issue of whether the walleye fish could live in the ruisseau Lacorne. It accused him of imprecisely blaming agriculture for polluting the water, for being offensive, sensationalistic, being in a conflict of interest because of his political affiliations years earlier, and of being motivated by a personal conflict and a desire to attack the reputation of a member of the group.
The council dismissed most of the complaints, refused to tackle the legal issue of defamation, and upheld only that the article should have been more accurate about the cause of pollution – there were both agricultural and urban sources, according to a cited study.
The council also raised a big red flag over something it discovered through the investigation – that Limoges lifted passages during his research and used them in his articles without citing sources. Plagiarism is a big no-no for the press council. It also cited him for taking on roles on both sides of the advertising-editorial divide at his publication, which raises ethical issues and is normally to be avoided, even at publications with a small staff.
Harold C. Lehrer vs. Eric-Olivier Dallard/Accès Laurentides
Lehrer’s complaint wasn’t about an article in the community paper, but in the Page 1 headline used to tease it: “Les juifs de Val-David condamnés”. Not only was this incorrect (Jews weren’t forced to pay anything, it was a particular congregation that was fined), but it was also, you know, racist.
The paper’s excuse basically came down to the requirement to have a short headline. The council didn’t buy it, and ruled against the paper, which it also condemned for refusing to issue any correction or clarification on the matter when asked.
Coverage from Le Devoir.
Marc-Aimé Guérin vs. Vincent Brousseau-Pouliot/La Presse
Guérin complained about Brousseau-Pouliot’s coverage of Martine Landry, a former erotic dancer who won a case against the Canada Revenue Agency. In the initial article and a follow-up, Guérin says the journalist got important facts wrong, that he should not have named Landry to maintain her privacy and that he should not have identified her as a former erotic dancer.
The council found that the facts presented by the journalist were indeed correct, that there was no publication ban on the legal case that would have precluded mentioning Landry’s identity, and that there was nothing wrong with describing her as a former erotic dancer (and she was identified as such on a strictly factual basis, not in a malicious or derogatory one).
All of the complaints were dismissed.
In addition to the above, two other complaints – one against André Pratte of La Presse and the other against Joe Morabito of le Courrier du Sud, were rejected because they didn’t meet the criteria of a valid complaint to the council.