Opinion

A Tyee Series

Kai Nagata: Warnings from Québec

Why concentrated media ownership is great for corporate profits, dangerous for democracy. Part one of three.

By Kai Nagata, 12 Sep 2011, TheTyee.ca

JeanBaptisteCelebration

In a province with so much to celebrate, why is Quebecor's media so often alarmist?

Imagine a world where your morning newspaper is published by the same company that produces your children's textbooks.

The same corporation also owns your local TV news station, plus the national 24-hour news channel. In fact, they own the cable service, so they decide which channels to offer. Several of those channels also belong to the corporation, so if you find their regular news programming boring or depressing, you can watch celebrity news. Or sports. Or game shows. Or reality TV. Or kids' shows. They even have a movie channel. In fact, they make movies, so if your attention span is long enough, you can watch a film produced by the same company that publishes the magazines and novels that you read.

They also produce the music that you listen to. If you want to buy more tunes, they run the online store. That's where you can get concert DVDs and box sets of your favourite shows, produced by the same corporation. They also own your internet service provider -- and the cell phone network. So if you want more news and views that you can't find in the newspaper, well, there's an app for that. Actually, there's a whole news site, with stories from all across Canada. They own that, as well as the press agency that filters and wholesales all the content, nation-wide. They also design the ads you see in between their other content -- online, in print, and on TV. It doesn't matter which "platform" you turn to -- their content is there, cross-promoting their other content, on other platforms.

If you need to get away from all this, they put on concerts (featuring the same artists that populate their universe of hit records and reality shows.)

But for truly sustained distraction, nothing beats professional sports. That's why they own your local NHL team, run the arena, and broadcast the games. The only catch is -- if you want to watch hockey, you have to subscribe to their cable service.

I'm not describing some dystopian future fantasy. The hockey team is on hold for the moment, but otherwise this is reality in 2011 in francophone Québec. The corporation is Quebecor, and the media assets described are real. It's possible, especially if you don't speak English, to spend a day, a week, or longer entirely within Quebecor's media universe.

What this means is that a single company holds disproportionate power in defining the public conversation in Québec. By deciding what to talk about, and what not to talk about, Quebecor can put invisible boundaries around the ideas its customers encounter -- and even suggest which ideas are legitimate. But to shape a whole culture on this level, news media alone is not enough. Hence the entertainment properties, and now the NHL franchise. The return of the Nordiques appears to have become a keystone in the company's long-term business plan -- not to mention a personal fixation of CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. For the past year, voices employed throughout his media empire have been pressing to make it happen.

PKP, as he's known, is faced with a dilemma. To secure a team, he needs an arena. But to secure the arena, he needs to convince Québecers, and their elected representatives, that he stands a reasonable chance of acquiring an NHL team. This is the latest test of Quebecor's political and cultural influence in the province. If it succeeds, the company will be in a position to finance yet bolder acquisitions, and probably mount serious challenges to Canada's three other telecom/media titans -- Bell, Rogers, and Shaw. Quebecor's war against the CBC will also likely intensify.

To be clear, I'm not favouring one broadcaster over another. (More on that later.) What I'm saying is that the accepted doctrine of "media convergence" -- a textbook model of which is practiced by Quebecor -- has dangerous side-effects for us citizen-consumers.

Coming soon

The hockey arena will be front and centre this month when Québec legislators resume sitting at the National Assembly. What Quebecor CEO Péladeau wants from them is a custom-drafted law. The bill on the table right now would retroactively protect the 25-year management deal he signed with the City of Québec. (The city and the province have already agreed to split up to $400-million in construction costs. Quebecor won't spend a cent to build the actual arena.)

The reason the lease agreement needs urgent protection from court challenges is because it might well be illegal. The city never issued a public call for tender, and a lawsuit pending in Québec superior court aims to have the agreement annulled for that reason. The citizens spearheading the lawsuit say the deal is also unfair to taxpayers. They compare it to renting out a $400,000 home for $375 a month. Another estimate comparing Canadian NHL franchises pegs the Québec City lease at 20 to 50 per cent of market value. Independent legal experts say provincial legislators will set a perilous precedent if they rubber-stamp this deal. Yet the special law stands a good chance of passing.

So why is a cash-strapped government about to build a stately pleasure dome for a multimillionaire, then hand him the keys?

How did we get here?

Understanding why will tell you a lot about Québec. And understanding Québec might tell you something about where the rest of us are headed.

People in English Canada have good reason to pay close attention to the arena saga, silly as it might seem. That's because Québec is no longer as different as we might like to imagine. Sometimes I think of it in terms of an aquarium. Québec is a relatively small tank, bounded by the glass walls of language and culture. In that tank, Quebecor is indisputably the big fish. But what Quebecor has achieved within Québec is something being actively tested on a larger scale in English Canada. It's not just competitors emulating Quebecor's business model. What I'm saying is that a certain strain of political ideology operates very well in a certain kind of aquarium. Glass walls are already being lowered into place to contain Canada. And Quebecor is working hand-in-hand with the people running this unprecedented cultural experiment.

The gatekeepers

It's hard to overestimate Quebecor's omnipresence in the Québec media market. None of its individual competitors come anywhere close. Quebecor took in $4 billion in revenue last year. That means there are 40 countries on this planet with a GDP smaller than Quebecor. Last year the company kept $230 million in profit. Quebecor didn't just stay in the black through the recession, it grew and expanded. Its media division is still highly profitable, despite cries of collapse in the broadcast and print industries. Consider this: during a bitter, 27-month lockout at its flagship daily newspaper, circulation actually increased.

The union finally capitulated in April, leaving the Journal de Montréal with more readers and fewer employees. The paper was targeted all along for boycott by its own locked-out writers -- but next to the Quebecor megaphone, their voices were faint and muffled.

The Journal remains Canada's number three paper, with an estimated weekly circulation of 1.9 million. In total, Quebecor prints 37 dailies, plus seven free papers aimed at transit users. It also owns more than 200 community weeklies and specialty publications. Within Québec, the company claims that its newspapers alone reach 90 per cent of all households in a given week. We're still just talking about the print division. Quebecor's TVA network also runs the top-rated television newscast in every local market in the province, plus the top-rated 24-hour cable news channel. Its online news portal, canoe.ca, pulls in 4.1 million unique visitors per month. That's more than half the total population of the province. What this means is that Quebecor has positioned itself as the primary gatekeeper of information in francophone Québec. But it also occupies a second, related role -- as the purveyor of distraction.

Last year, nine out of the top 10 TV shows in Québec were produced by Quebecor. With the TVA network plus seven specialty channels, the company airs 23 out of the 30 top-rated programs in the province. Aside from producing films, the network curates and dubs English-language movies for broadcast.

Quebecor's periodical division is also prolific and ubiquitous. Standing in line at the supermarket in Québec City this spring, I checked to see how many magazines on the rack were published by the same company. The answer? Nine out of 11. Dream homes, weight loss, and, of course, celebrity gossip -- featuring the same home-grown stars that populate the rest of the Quebecor cosmos.

Out of the 11 Québecois albums last year that went gold or platinum, 10 were put out by Quebecor's music division. These endless triumphs are in large part due to the phenomenon of cross-promotion, where media properties across all platforms are pressed into service offering positive reviews, promotional time on talk shows, and other exposure. The convergence model is clearly fantastic for business. I think it's also worrisome for democracy.

'What's good for Quebecor. . . '

As with any major corporation, it’s important to remember that Quebecor is run by human beings, some of them very fine ones. My limited face-to-face interactions with Pierre Karl Péladeau have been cordial, even enjoyable. More to the point, he employs 16,000 people, many of them respected colleagues and personal friends. Quebecor needs these people in order to make all that money, and not just for its top executives. Forty-five per cent of the media division is owned by Canada's largest public pension fund, the Caisse de depot et placement du Québec . So when PKP says "what's good for Quebecor is good for all Québecers," he's partly correct.

At the same time, the company candidly refers to its customers as "revenue-generating units". Taken along with Quebecor's treatment of its own workforce, you might wonder how much respect it has for the rest of us.

During the lockout at the Journal de Montréal, several union leaders spoke out in solidarity with the picketers, even though their own members' retirement portfolios are indirectly tied to Quebecor's financial performance. The unions asked the pension fund to exert some leverage, as the largest shareholder, to resolve the lockout. That didn't happen. As I see it, the company's decisive victory this spring over its own most powerful union reinforced a double mandate:

One, to do whatever is deemed necessary to maintain brisk profits.

And two, to extend its editorial battle against organized labour, and, for that matter, the political "left" at large.

That's a pretty sweeping claim, and indeed journalistic bias is a tough thing to prove. Quebecor declined to offer comment for this article. More significantly, the company is no longer a member of the Québec Press Council. The independent, voluntary watchdog is presided over by retired justice John Gomery -- yes, he of the sponsorship scandal, Mr. Probity himself. The Press Council has no power to sanction news organizations, but it does investigate complaints relating to journalistic standards and ethics. In 2010, Quebecor took exception to some of the judgments rendered by the Press Council and simply walked away.

As put by the province's federation of professional journalists, Quebecor no longer has "the slightest credible mechanism to independently receive and process public complaints".

Executives will declare there is a firewall between the newsroom and the board room. Former employees will tell you something very different. I can't offer any insight, never having worked there. So rather than evaluate the 'journalistic bias' of Quebecor content, I propose 'economic bias' as a more fruitful way to understand how the company's various subsidiaries -- including the news division -- work in harmony.

Think of it this way: Quebecor's journalists function within business units that not only compete with other corporate outlets, but are all tentacles of the same business empire. Here's an example discovered by the competition at La Presse: Quebecor is taking steps to eliminate the iPhone from the fictional world of its TV dramas. Producers were asked to fill out a survey on which of their characters use the Apple smartphone, and whether viewers are exposed to distinctive Apple ringtones. Why? Because Quebecor's cellular data network doesn't support the iPhone.

The logic is painfully simple. And indeed across Quebecor's entire entertainment empire, you would be hard-pressed to find a song or a book or an article that might undermine the parent company’s bottom line -- or even question the economic model that it's premised on. Once you see the pattern, it's difficult not to find the same logic in Quebecor's news coverage of the arena saga (a direct conflict of interest) or indeed its editorial voice in general.

Through a glass, darkly

I find it quite depressing to consume Quebecor's news content for any length of time. (Not that they have a monopoly on depressing content.) Aside from the usual sensationalist mayhem, it's worth looking at the extended editorial projects to which Quebecor devotes the most time and energy. These are the special multi-platform series, each with its own set of graphics, each instalment of which spawns a barrage of negative editorial, voiced by in-house pundits who jump back and forth between TV interviews and newspaper columns.

"Le Québec dans le rouge" ("Québec in the red") is the clearinghouse for any story focused on government debt. Viewers are first reminded that Québec has the largest debt of any Canadian province, then subtly asked whether they support tax increases to fight the deficit. In other words, there's no way out.

"Où vont nos impost?" ("Where do our taxes go?") is a rolling litany of government waste -- including a week-by-week tally of all expenditures and investments, fed by innumerable access-to-information requests. Front-page scandal: $1.7 million to take care of plants in government buildings.

"Otages de la route" ("Traffic hostages") was a multi-day, wall-to-wall special report on suburban commuters and the many reasons why their gridlocked misery is unlikely to abate.

The list goes on. It's not just public finance and infrastructure -- health care, education, immigration policy, natural disaster response -- all can be subjected to the central thesis: that Québec is broke and broken, being ridden off a cliff by a gang of free-spending buffoons.

Perhaps there is an element of accuracy to the last point. Politicians, after all, tend to make short-term decisions, motivated by concerns for their own political survival. But businesses, as Quebecor reminds us with the arena deal, make 25-year plans. Corporations succeed when they adhere to a consistent vision -- or a core ideology. And there is certainly a core ideology at Quebecor.

In conjunction with the small-government, pro-business, anti-labour, low-tax vision common to "small-c" conservatives across Canada, the company espouses and promotes a troubling brand of Québec nationalism. Veteran columnist Don Macpherson of the Montréal Gazette has repeatedly pointed out what he sees as virulent xenophobia in Quebecor's editorial pages. (You might be surprised by who's writing these columns. More on that in Part III.)

The Gazette, as an anglophone paper, doesn't directly compete with the Journal de Montréal or its battle fleet. But Gazette readers, as anglophones, are consistently derided by Quebecor columnists. The Journal de Montréal is famous for sending an undercover reporter around the city during the Christmas shopping season, applying for part-time retail jobs in English. The sensationalist conclusion was that if you can get a part-time, minimum-wage job without speaking French, Québec's francophone identity is in imminent peril.

Stirring up fears of immigrants

The same kind of nonsense is applied to immigrants, who -- especially Muslims -- are routinely the targets of fear-fueled sniping by columnists. Witness the extended debate over the accommodation of religious minorities. What op-ed writers, especially Richard Martineau, have done is align political liberalism with a mollesse identitaire – a "weak identity" that supposedly opens the door to a takeover. During the recent federal election campaign, Martineau lambasted Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff for covering their heads to campaign in Sikh temples. Aside from identifying the piece of cloth they wore with the trigger-word "turban," which it wasn't -- he omitted any mention of Stephen Harper's Sikh campaign stops -- where the Conservative leader also sported a colourful bandanna.

Martineau charged on. What's next, he asked -- will Ignatieff and Layton wear earlocks to campaign with Hasidic Jews? Feathered headdresses to go door-to-door on the reserves? Muslim veils? The buttons Martineau pushes are always carefully calculated. Each references a specific point of tension in Québecois society. Will they put on voodoo masks, he asked, and dance around a campfire to pick up the Haitian vote?

Martineau is entitled to his opinions, but it's Quebecor that has identified a market for them. It's Quebecor that hosts his blog, prints his columns, and gives him a daily pulpit on network television.

This summer, following the terror attacks in Norway by a Muslim-hating, Christian fundamentalist that left 77 dead, Martineau vigourously rejected any comparison to Islamic extremism. "Catholic terrorists operate as free agents," he wrote, "whereas on the other side, we're dealing with a veritable subculture of hatred." Christians, he argued, are victims of more than three quarters of global religious persecution. "Contrary to Breivik, who acted of his own accord, the guys with beards blowing themselves up are part of an international movement".

Also this summer, Quebecor went big with the revelation that Parks Canada had been allowing an employee in Québec City to wear a hijab on the job. In fact, the government body was considering stocking optional hijabs and turbans that would match the standard uniform. On television, a clip was played from Parks Canada, explaining that the uniform was a point of pride, and if employees wanted to incorporate religious garb, efforts would be made to standardize the accessories across the country. The argument for secularism was presented in the form of audience comments. The pundit brought on for live analysis was Richard Martineau.

The day Jack Layton died, Martineau warned readers not to make the NDP leader into a saint. After all, the party had once run a hijab-wearing candidate named Samira Laouni.

Add all this vitriol and paranoia together and you come out with a rather baffling picture of Québec. Before I moved there in 2007, I thought of the province as a kind of francophone sister to BC: a socially liberal, environmentally conscious society. A place with universal daycare, lots of women in influential positions, a healthy activist scene, well-funded public institutions, and a strong, vibrant, progressive culture. I found all of these things in Québec, as well as a wonderful spirit of inclusion and curiosity.

But immerse yourself in Quebecor content for too long and you might emerge thinking Québec is a rotting beehive of corruption, teetering on the verge of meltdown. A lonely island surrounded by a hostile anglophone sea, boatloads of would-be suicide bombers washing ashore. A small and homogenous tribe of people, threatened with extinction, their only hope being to pull a blanket of "culture" over their heads. A culture composed of distractions and divertissement, produced and delivered by Quebecor. A sealed-off bubble, populated by home-grown celebrities and, one day soon, hockey stars.

In fact, none of this is particularly true. Québec is hardly a desperate place. But cultivating angst has become a recipe for profit, and power.

Part II will be published tomorrow. It tells the story of a political party that has strayed down this path of fear and negativity. This Spring, the Parti Québecois sacrificed some of its few remaining principles in order to secure a discount arena lease for Quebecor. The move backfired, and 5 of the party's top MNAs quit in disgust. I talk to a man who claims to value the public interest more than his own career.

Part III looks at the power of public opinion polls, and the means by which politicians are influenced by big media. I look at Quebecor's operations in English Canada and the lessons other telecom companies are learning. The essay concludes with a meditation on the state of the public conversation in Canadian media.  [Tyee]

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