Opinion

Nagata: The Roots of 'Fox News North'

Beware the agendas of media barons. Sun News Network's vitriol feeds a wider erosion of our public conversation. Last in a series.

By Kai Nagata 14 Sep 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Former CTV News Québec City bureau chief Kai Nagata is The Tyee's Writer in Residence. A version of this piece translated into French is available on Kai Nagata's blog Freedom 24, here.

In the second part of this essay, yesterday, I wrote about the brief and unfortunate romance between the Parti Québecois and Quebecor. When the party leader ordered the caucus to support the media company's arena project, five MNAs bolted and the party plunged into a tailspin. Speaking to Jean-Martin Aussant, one of the newly independent lawmakers, he told me he believes Quebecor has found a far more natural dance partner: a former PQ cabinet minister now launching a new right-wing, nationalist party.

Public opinion

The special law protecting the arena deal was supposed to pass unanimously in the spring. It didn't, principally thanks to -- not the PQ implosion -- but the heroics of two independent MNAs from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Éric Caire is a fiscal conservative from the Québec City region, originally elected under the right-wing ADQ banner. Amir Khadir is the leader of Québec Solidaire, a quasi-Marxist alliance of Montréal-based social justice activists. (Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel was, until recently, a member.)

When Quebecor's CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau came to the National Assembly to testify before a parliamentary committee on the arena law, we were treated to the heartwarming sight of two elected officials actually doing their job. That is, they asked PKP (on his own live television channel) exactly how the deal benefited anyone aside from Quebecor.

Éric Caire was the star of the committee hearings. Limited by his independent status to very little speaking time, he adopted a rapid-fire, courtroom style of interrogation. In under two minutes, he forced Péladeau to expose his central bluff: the idea that if the bill didn't pass immediately, the arena itself would be scrapped.

Caire, no doubt besieged by furious, hockey loving constituents, stepped back and let Khadir take the lead on part two: a dramatic vow to filibuster the bill itself until the clock ran down. Using the filibuster as an excuse, Premier Jean Charest announced the debate would resume after summer holidays and washed his hands of the matter.

For his pains, Khadir has been summarily tarred and feathered by -- who else? Quebecor's editorial hit squad, backed up, it would seem, by the population at large. This impression of a massive emotional wave is achieved through the use of independent public opinion polling, a very powerful tool indeed. Politicians dismiss polls when asked about them publicly, but they are secretly obsessed. It was poll data that convinced Pauline Marois that the arena was the shortcut to a PQ sweep of the ridings around Quebec City. And it is poll data that Quebecor has begun using as a blunt instrument to bludgeon unyielding obstacles, in this case opponents to the company's arena plans.

That week a black rectangle appeared instead of the front page of the Journal de Québec. The entire front of the newspaper was printed flat black, with huge white letters spelling out in French: "ANGER RUMBLING IN Quebec City". The sub-headline read: "Exclusive Poll".

Inside, the numbers told the tale. Are you in favour of the arena project? A whopping 83 per cent replied yes. Are you satisfied with the government's handling of the special law? Fifty-nine per cent replied no. Do you believe pushing back the vote on the special law could delay construction of the new arena? Sixty-four per cent replied yes. That question stood out, because of what the premier had said all along: his government had already earmarked the money and construction would go ahead as planned -- hockey team or no hockey team. Péladeau merely suggested the opposite, and the mob, as it were, ruled.

Even more disingenuous was a poll question premised directly on this fiction: "Who, according to you, is primarily responsible for delaying construction on the arena?" Thirty-four per cent replied Amir Khadir. The second-place villain, at 27 per cent, was Denis de Belleval -- the man challenging the deal in court, and another favourite target of the Quebecor columnists.

The firm commissioned for this exclusive poll, and many others across Quebecor's media properties, was Montréal-based Léger Marketing. Here I must tread carefully. Léger is highly regarded within the sector of market research. Using a diverse array of proprietary polling methods, it regularly produces accurate snapshots of voting intentions and public opinion on key political issues. Independence is what gives such a firm its credibility. But Léger's relationship with Quebecor raises legitimate questions about that independence.

And the winner is…

Close to Christmas last year, the media company commissioned a poll on the "2010 business personality of the year". The winner was Pierre Karl Péladeau. An executive from Léger Marketing appeared on Quebecor's 24-hour news channel to explain why. First of all, Péladeau had launched his new 3G wireless network amid much (Quebecor-generated) fanfare. There was also the lockout at his newspaper, the Journal de Montréal. And of course he was omnipresent in coverage of the Nordiques saga, as a prospective team owner.

All reasonable points, made at a slow time of year for news. But the poll still raised eyebrows. After all, the CEO of Léger marketing, Jean-Marc Léger, is on the board of directors at Quebecor's television network. He also writes opinion pieces for the Quebecor papers. In fact, he's one of the columnists called out by The Gazette's Don Macpherson as a xenophobe.

Léger isn't just publicly critical of ethnic groups who demand accommodation while "holding contempt for our French language and culture." He's critical of "aboriginals living on government subsidies while disrespecting the laws of the land." In fact, in one column alone, written in June, he took shots at Canadian passports, the governor and lieutenants-general, the provincial Liberals, anglos, and "street bums".

I'm glad Jean-Marc Léger has opinions. I have some too. One of my opinions is that polling firms should maintain a nominal level of independence from their clients. If a media company intends to publish poll data as "news" to advance its own business interests, my opinion is that a polling company interested in maintaining its own credibility should refuse the contract.

Simplest of all, I believe that public opinion polls should be premised on reality, and the questions should not be written based on the client's existing editorial. I have no evidence of any such complicity between Léger and Quebecor. But I do have questions. How does the market research CEO ensure his political opinions are restricted to his newspaper columns? What is the process when his company receives a contract offer? How much back and forth is there over the wording and order of the questions? Basically, what mechanisms are in place to ensure independence from big clients like Quebecor?

I called Léger Marketing and put some of these general questions to the research director. He told me my questions would be best handled by the CEO himself. After several requests, I have yet to hear back from Jean-Marc Léger. Quebecor also declined comment. The impression I'm left with is that public opinion is being wielded to advance private interests, via a cowed political class. On that front, I'd love it if my mind could be set at ease.

État de situation

Nothing I'm saying here is particularly novel. I have no hot scoops, only publicly available information. But I feel compelled to write about Quebecor for two reasons.

The first is that, for such an influential cultural institution, the company isn't held up to much public scrutiny. The locked-out writers, now gone from the Journal de Montréal, provide some notable exceptions. Media blogger Steve Faguy is another. His Gazette colleague Don Macpherson sometimes sticks his head above the parapet. There are private radio jocks who ridicule Quebecor, and academics, like Marc-François Bernier, who warn of the power of its media convergence model.

But most people shrug and keep their mouths shut: politicians, because they have too much to lose, and journalists, because they're either paid by Quebecor or a competitor, which blunts their criticism. (Or because they're aware of Quebecor's penchant for costly lawsuits.) When I worked for CTV, a subsidiary of Bell Media, I had orders to avoid discussing the budding telecom war between Quebecor and Bell. I can't produce email evidence, because kai.nagata@bellmedia.ca no longer exists. At the time, the directive made sense to me, because I knew I couldn't possibly be objective. Still, I felt a strange sensation covering the political wrangling over the Quebecor arena, knowing I was working for Péladeau's main rival. (The Canadiens, the Nordiques' old rival, now play in the Bell Centre in Montréal. Bell was apparently the other secret bidder on the Québec City arena contract, but was rejected in favour of Quebecor.)

I'm partly writing about this stuff because it feels good to finally be allowed to. But the real reason for this piece is because I see what's happening in Québec as a blueprint for the rest of the country.

I mentioned the company's 37 daily papers. Since buying Osprey and Sun Media, Quebecor has become the largest newspaper chain in Canada. If you read the Kingston Whig Standard, the North Bay Nugget, the London Free Press, or Fort McMurray Today, you're reading a Quebecor paper. Same goes for the Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, or Calgary Sun. Those free "24 Hours" commuter tabloids are Quebecor content too.

Here comes the Sun Network

You've probably heard of the Sun News Network, even if you don't watch it. They're "Canada's home for hard news and straight talk," or unofficially, "Fox News North." It's a comparison the network encourages, as the whole point is to openly promote a right-wing agenda. In that vein, the Sun chain has taken to calling the CBC "the State Broadcaster", and much effort is spent filing access-to-info requests demanding how much the taxpayer spends on CEO Hubert Lacroix's morning yogurt, etcetera.

If you haven't seen Sun anchor Krista Erickson shout down contemporary dancer Margie Gillis over arts grants, the "interview" effectively encapsulates what Quebecor's English-language network is all about. (The hypocrisy becomes clear when you realize that Quebecor took home $3.7 million last year in federal publication grants. And that's peanuts, next to the cost of a taxpayer-funded hockey arena.)

Or consider correspondent Brian Lilley's "commie hunt" within the Ottawa press gallery. Or host Ezra Levant's passionate defence of the tar sands. Through a strange alliance with Alberta conservatives, Quebecor is working to expand beyond its home province, and continue its project on a national scale.

In 1997, a frustrated ex-Reform Party MP named Stephen Harper co-wrote the following: "a strategic alliance of Québec nationalists with conservatives outside Québec might become possible, and it might be enough to sustain a government." At the time, he was chafing under what he called the "benign dictatorship" of Liberal government. But his fascination with Québec nationalism was not just a passing flirtation. The philosophical overlap remains, and it leads to some strange echoes.

During his majority-winning campaign, Harper robotically repeated the same metaphor: "A sea of troubles is lapping at our shores. Under our leadership, this country, Canada, is the closest thing the world has to an island of stability and security." This notion of a beleaguered island should be immediately familiar from sovereignist discourse. In Harper's hands, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cutting ties to the larger world

I talked earlier about the glass aquarium walls being lowered into place. That's exactly what's happening to Canada. It's not just our government's status as international environmental pariah, with a reputation for lobbying on behalf of energy companies and a mantel full of "fossil of the day" awards from climate summits around the world. Nor is the phenomenon limited to our loss of a seat on the UN Security council, even as we crow about our warrior skills and U.S.-compatible weapons. Or even our regressive cuts to public science and statistical knowledge, which in turn justify law-and-order policies that have other advanced democracies shaking their heads.

No, we're actively severing ties with the outside world. Our government de-funds international humanitarian organizations if they offer abortions -- or too much comfort to Palestinians . At the same time, we're tightening immigration restrictions, imposing visas and deporting thousands of people every year. You can build glass walls out of language, like in Québec. Or you can build walls out of fear. Fear of being subsumed by the Other. Fear of terrorism, fear of crime, fear of economic collapse. This is the environment under which media convergence functions best -- where a population is broken up into individual households and kept ignorant, anxious, and entertained by the same company.

In 2001, Québec politicians were advised in committee hearings to keep an eye on Quebecor's pattern of vertical integration. Company executives testified that there was nothing to fear, MNAs nodded in agreement, and the company continued its acquisitions. A decade later, Québec politicians were asked to update the province's anti-scab laws. The issue was that Quebecor was defying the spirit of the labour laws by electronically crossing the picket line during the lockout at the Journal. That's how management was able to print a whole newspaper every day while 253 employees picketed outside. Pierre Karl Péladeau testified before a committee, salved MNAs' concerns, and again, no action was taken. If the arena law passes, Québec MNAs will be complicit in cementing Quebecor's complete media dominance in the province.

Complicity is one thing -- active participation is another. It's not a coincidence that Stephen Harper sat down for lunch in 2009 with Rupert Murdoch and his president of Fox News, Roger Ailes. Kory Teneycke was at the table too, as Harper's official spokesman. In 2010, Teneycke joined Quebecor Media. He's now vice president of Sun News Network. However, it's not as simple as Stephen Harper creating a de facto propaganda wing and then bulldozing everyone else. Right now, Quebecor appears to be the ideological ally of right-wing politicians, but its competitors are learning fast. Shaw, Rogers and Bell each have telecom empires and television divisions (Global, CityTV, and CTV). Each is watching Quebecor's movements closely.

One lesson is that you don't have to invest in production quality to retain viewers. Quebecor's sets are chintzy, its graphics cheap, and its international content largely provided via Skype and Google Earth.

Another lesson is that you don't have to invest much in enterprise journalism -- people will still watch stock footage and talking heads, so long as the opinions are entertaining.

Another lesson is that you don't have to tell all of the truth, most of the time. People can't notice, if you fill up the gaps in their day with spectacle and distraction. So all the big players are simultaneously pulling resources out of more challenging coverage, and happily substituting easier content -- which, when it doesn't parrot the Conservative message track, tends to reinforce a compatible sense of fear or negativity. Quebecor is just a little ahead of the curve.

Already, Quebecor's mobile phone service (Videotron) is available in parts of Ontario. Sun News is only available by subscription for the moment, but its viewership is slowly growing. Meanwhile, the newspaper chain is holding strong. The stage appears set for a pitched battle between four vertically-integrated telecom giants, and already there's a guaranteed loser: the citizen. It doesn't matter who wins, or who buys who. The point is that these are entities concerned primarily with their own survival and profit, not the interests of a healthy democracy.

So times are not likely to get better in corporate journalism. After all, the least-profitable division of a telecom company seems a poor choice for riches and resources in the middle of a turf war.

The public conversation

I graduated from journalism school right into the recession. I told myself over and over again how lucky I was to get work at the CBC. 2008 is not that long ago, but already I look back with a measure of nostalgia. I remember, as a radio reporter, being assigned to interview Laura Whitehorn when she came through Montréal. A former member of the militant revolutionary group Weather Underground, Whitehorn spent 20 years in prison for her role in a series of bombings and armed robberies in the United States. The interview was a meditation on the place of violence in political resistance, and they played my story on the news.

Another time I produced a documentary about two whirling dervishes, brothers who had converted to Sufi Islam after being raised in a suburban Jewish family. Their grandparents, who had survived the Holocaust, felt deeply betrayed by the brothers' new spiritual affiliation. In their twilight years, however, the grandparents were able to reconcile their love for their grandsons with the big beards and baggy pants and Korans. Holding a microphone in a darkened temple room, headphones amplifying the soaring notes of the Qawwali singer, I dodged dervishes and thought "thank Allah for places like the CBC".

Then they cut 800 jobs. We were informed that tough times had officially arrived. Every week we "casuals" would anxiously crowd around the schedule to see if we still had work. Ratings became very, very important. Special projects went on the shelf. Then more newscasts were added on both the radio and TV services, so the company had fewer people working to fill more air time. Slowly but surely, the range of things we covered and the time we had to work on them contracted.

I didn't realize until much later how fortunate I was for those few months of reprieve. I found my voice as a journalist in that little corner of the media world, just before the roof tore off and the harsh glare of "market logic" shone in. What happened at the CBC had happened long ago at the private networks, and the recession only made them leaner and meaner. The journalists who still have jobs know they are, for the most part, replaceable. That's enough to keep most people in line.

Meanwhile this notion of "objectivity" is being probed and prodded. The thinking for a long time was that consumers wanted it, and would punish media companies for trying to manipulate them. New research is now suggesting that people will tolerate a higher-octane editorial blend.

Certainly the availability of pre-packaged opinions is a boon to today's busy family. Who has time anymore to come up with their own interpretation of events? Already, regular TV reporters are encouraged by consultants to ad-lib a little editorial flavour into their live reports. Opinions are absolutely permitted, so long as they reflect the opinions of the employer, and reinforce the status quo. Other opinions, such as on social media, must carry a corporate disclaimer. These are harsh conditions for the cultivation of a public conversation.

Traditionally, media talk about themselves as a mirror to society. A reflection of reality. In Québec, the looking-glass is actively starting to shape reality. That's a warning worth contemplating, I think, as we travel down the same road.  [Tyee]

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