Closeup/The Media

No news is bad news

How the Quebec press is failing the Quebec people

David Thomas December 12 1977
Closeup/The Media

No news is bad news

How the Quebec press is failing the Quebec people

David Thomas December 12 1977

No news is bad news

Closeup/The Media

How the Quebec press is failing the Quebec people

David Thomas

Quebec’s major newspapers are in distress. So are their readers. While René Lévesque was off in Paris joining the Legion of Honor and the Pépin-Robarts national unity suggestion box was trundling across the country, Quebeckers weren’t getting the news. Not, at least, in anything like the quantity they need as they agonize over their collective future. Wide bands of paper, meant to be darkened by photos and type, yellowed with age as they stretched tautly through idle presses in Montreal and Quebec City. Journalists and their bosses were locked into a struggle for control of those presses once they spin into action again.

Three newspapers were shut by labor conflict and, no matter which side claims victory in the end, the fight exposed and excited tensions that can only cause newspaper quality to deteriorate in Quebec. A spectre abhorred as much by the strikers as by their bosses, it may mean triumph for the cheap sex-and-crime sheets which moved in quickly with their substitutes for the 440,000 buyers deprived of their daily habits. On the pavement in late-November, no settlement in sight, were 2,500 pressmen, office workers, truck drivers and journalists. And the thousands of morning commuters with tabloid addictions did without the considered, human political reportage of Montréal-Matin, staring instead, as they flashed under the streets of the city, at mangled school buses and crisp burn victims buttered across the grisly pages of Journal de Montréal, inarguably the junkiest daily in Canada. Only a few thousand copies behind the leading La Presse before the strike, Le Journal de Montréal is likely to emerge with permanent title to La Presse’s proud slogan Le plus grand quotidien français d'Amérique. And once it becomes the continent’s biggest French newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal will set the tone for the others.

With both Le Soleil in Quebec City and La Presse in Montreal closed, the evening alternative was television, no longer much of a substitute in the province. News is treated as a necessary inconvenience by the private French network, while RadioCanada, complains one reporter, “is so tamed by Trudeau’s attacks that self-censorship prevents us from doing our jobs.” Radio-Canada coverage of the government’s painful handling of the RCMP scandal was so timid it cheated federal opposition parties whose lunges at the Liberals were going almost unreported. Public television, in Quebec, has become state television. Montreal’s two English newspapers

The Montreal Star and The Gazette continued but few French Quebeckers trust them for political news.

The morning after a recent power failure blackened the province, The Gazette reported: “In the Montreal areas, the West Island was the hardest hit. There, hundreds of families ate supper by candlelight and mopped water from defrosted refrigerators off kitchen floors.” The paper made no effort to explain why the interruption was harder to cope with in the English suburbs than in the French neighborhoods where power was cut for just as long. And incredible though it may seem for newspapers that touted bilingualism for more than a decade as the salvation of Canada, Montreal’s English newspaper managers are rarely competent in French. They are out of touch with the society surrounding them and it shows.

Two months after the first newspaper walkout began, Gazette editor Mark Harrison answered the telephone in his fourthfloor office partitioned away from the

newsroom. The 28-year newspaper veteran, who quit The Toronto Star after the election of the Parti Québécois govern-

ment to take charge of the troubled Gazette, was asked about the crisis of the Quebec press. “What crisis?” he asked.

Harrison’s bewilderment is understandable. The forces that finally, inevitably collided in this, Quebec’s latest autumn of confrontation, had been unleashed long before The Gazette editor arrived in town.

The strikes that hit Le Soleil, then La Presse and by ricochet Montréal-Matin, would not be thinkable at an English-language newspaper. At Le Soleil, reporters stomped out at the end of August, insisting their stories pass untouched from typewriter to press unless they agreed to

changes. At La Presse, the strike is illegal. The union walked out October 6 after sports reporters refused to take orders from a new sports editor. The union members chose their own supervisor but management suspended the mutinuous writers and their elected boss and the strike was on. We won’t be back, the departing staff cried over their shoulders, until journalists are given a veto over the appointment of their supervisors. Montréal-Matin was dragged into the conflict by La Presse pick-

eters on the theory that, since both newspapers are owned by Paul Desmarais, both should suffer the rage of the workers.

It was an act of knee-jerk unionism that may just kill the money-losing Montréal-

Matin, if not immediately then after a painful try to recoup lost circulation. Montréal-Matin reporters are decidedly unenthusiastic as they loiter about their strike headquarters on St. Lawrence Boulevard, behind the Old Brewery Mission for derelict drunks. Is it the union’s fault, or is it Desmarais’ for having moved Montréal-Matin from its old building to one next to La Presse where a labor strike would predictably spread from one to the other. “We are the hostages in someone else’s fight,” spits out a striker brazen enough to openly defy union solidarity.

Concentration of newspaper ownership and primitive, reflexive unionism share part of the blame for Quebec’s newspaper

mess. But there’s more to the story. There is the competition between the journalists’ drive for professional liberty and the prerogatives of capital. And then, hanging like a mist over the moors, there’s the apprehensive mistrust between Young, indépendantiste journalists and their older federalist bosses. Demands that stories remain untouched by the hands of editors, or that editors be elected by reporters, would be farfetched at an English newspaper. At French newspapers, reporters’ egos are bigger and stronger than the copy desks.

Senior editors avoid directly reprimanding their journalists for unwelcome bias. They do it from a distance, publicly. La Presse publisher Roger Lemelin, creator of the lamented Plouffe Family television serial, is one of Quebec’s few federalists who exhibits an emotional attachment to Canada. In one of his rare editorials, Lemelin lashed out at the assistance given the Parti Québécois election campaign by the “cossacks of journalism who, with no sense of decency, turned their backs on all professional objectivity.” More recently, Le Devoir editor-in-chief, Michel Roy, used his columns to note “the active sympathy” the Quebec press has manifested toward Lévesque and his government: “Quebec journalists, obviously won over to his goals, have not always practised the virtues of objectivity, honesty and modesty.”

Journalists, in Quebec, live closer to politics than their English confreres. They are, in fact, the source of Quebec’s best politicians. Among them: Pierre Trudeau, Gérard Pelletier, Jeanne Sauvé and, on the other side, René Lévesque and eleven of his caucus members. For many working reporters, elevation of the Parti Québécois from opposition to power spoiled the easy harmony of personal passion and professional instinct that let them rip into the Bourassa Liberals without conflict of conscience. Once the PQ became the government, however, professional ethics demands a critical coverage of its works. But most journalists, like most Quebeckers according to polls, approved of the government’s style and actions.

Popular inside Quebec, the government still seemed fragile at first, its legitimacy undermined by English Canadian politicians and commentators who treated the Parti Québécois as a subversive gang of zealot«. Quebec reporters were in the same uncomfortable squeeze as war correspondents, anxious to relate the unfolding drama but careful to avoid helping the enemy by exposing their side’s weaknesses. The first loyalty of Quebec journalists, like that of Quebeckers generally, has always been to Quebec. “Even those who say they want to stay in Canada do so because they think it is best for Quebec,” says Le Devoir's Roy. That “Quebec first” attitude explains why such a staunch advocate of Canadian unity as Le Devoir director Claude Ryan was the only editorialist to urge that voters choose a Parti Québécois

government. The risk a PQ government would mean for Canada, reasoned Ryan, must be accepted to save Quebec another stagnating dose of Robert Bourassa.

Though Ryan immediately turned his pen against the new government, other journalists chose to stay loyal to their dreams, resolving their personal crises by trading their roles as observers for those of actors. The National Assembly Press Gallery alone lost six reporters to the political staffs of PQ ministers. Pro-independence attitudes of most Quebec reporters owe nothing to Parti Québécois infiltration or conspiracy. Support for independence has always been highest among the university

educated middle class. Young doctors, lawyers and architects, too, are sympathetic to independence but journalists, because of the nature of their work, are more visible.

“French newspapers,” Roysays, “have a perspective a little more Latin, more liberal than the English press. Reporters have the latitude to analyze at the same time as they give the news. It’s a cultural trait we can live with as long as it remains within reasonable bounds.”

At Le Devoir, the bounds are wide enough to include direct reporter participation in newsroom management. A month-long strike in 1975 won the point.

Unionized reporters form the majority of the paper’s news committee which meets each Thursday to review performance and plan future coverage. “It is an excellent thing, professionally and psychologically, and has been very beneficial to the newspaper,” says editor Roy who chairs the committee. But he would never accept the union demands facing his strikebound competitors: “I can understand the desire to have a greater say in the production of their newspaper, but I deplore the tendency to want so much security they stumble into the excesses of corporatism.” Striking journalists retort they are defending against the excesses of capitalism and the concentration of press ownership, especially under Paul Desmarais who has Canada Steamship Lines, Voyageur buses and the paper empire of ConsolidatedBathurst to worry about as well as his o

newspapers. Brother Louis Desmarais, after all, has been given time off as president of the laker fleet to take charge of the Council for Canadian LInity, a tribune he uses to blame the news media for the cultural antagonisms threatening Canada, and by unspoken consequence the expanding Desmarais galaxy. Lord Thomson of Fleet, penurious enough to take the underground to work, gladly maintained

The Times as a money losing voice in defense of the political and economic order that nurtured his network of investments. Some of the journalists striking against Desmarais suspect he, too. has political designs for his newspaper holdings. Plans to issue a thin morning edition of La Presse

for distribution outside Montreal were fouled by the strike. It was to have been heavy on politics and light on sports and advertising.

“The political situation in Quebec no doubt royally displeases the owner of La Presse," says Daniel Marsolais, president of the union local striking La Presse. “The aim of the new national edition, to me, could only be to spread the federalist option.” And in Quebec City, a member of Le Soleil's union negotiating team has similar apprehensions: “We have no proof, but we fear the owners are determined to tighten their control over us before the referendum.” worries Ghislaine Rheault. Le Soleil, technically independent of Desmarais, is considered by its employees to be within his sphere of influence since he put up much of the money for its purchase by good friend Jacques Francoeur.

The extravagant suite 702 of Montreal’s Ramada Inn is the refuge and operations centre of Fernand Roy, labor relations boss of La Presse and Montréal-Matin. It is almost noon and the hefty Roy settles into the couch facingan unlit fireplace, his wide hand suffocating a hotel tumbler packed with scotch. A slim, aristocratically groomed secretary emerges from the adjoining bedroom to intercept the insistent telephone calls as Roy rolls his eyes toward the ceiling and ponders the reasons why journalists belonging to the Confederation of National Trade Unions were simultaneously striking three papers: “Honestly,

we don’t know what they are after. The union keeps complaining about the concentration of press ownership and they are lobbying the government to do something about it. Maybe they’re disrupting the flow of information to justify intervention.” The strike initiatives came, he claims, from the full-time union advisers of the CNTU, always more an ideological movement than a bread and butter union from the time it was erected by the Roman Catholic Church as a barrier against the “Communist” internationals moving into Quebec from the United States. Ironically, over the years since, the American based international unions settled into tame, dol-

lars and cents unionism while their Quebec rival abandoned Catholicism for a new faith and vocabulary inspired by Karl Marx. By definition, unions are always right, the bosses always wrong. To doubt or question is heresy.

Nuance does not muddy the visions of André Dalcourt, paid adviser to the striking locals suspected not only by management but by a growing share of the picketing reporters as a manipulator of elected union executives. La Presse workers were so divided and confused a month after they hit the streets, they voted to form a special committee to investigate and report on the cause of the conflict. Dalcourt has his own

absolutist explanation: “All union members at all newspapers have as their priority the limitation of the effects of press concentration.” Why? Firstly, to protect jobs that disappear with newspaper fusions and, secondly, “to combat ideological concentration.” To accomplish both, the union is urging journalists everywhere to fight the use of syndicated columnists and the use of their own copy in other newspapers. Dalcourt argues journalists have the moral right to full control over “the product of their labors.”

Quebec’s English press is spared from such intensely ideological unionism but it is not immune to confrontation between „ reporters and their bosses. Late one Friday § just before the Quebec election, Gazette re| porters discovered that publisher Ross § Munro had written a panicky, anti-PQ edio torial slated for a rare front page display í

the next day. Munro, a former World War II correspondent, had been transferred by Southam Press Ltd. from the Edmonton Journal to the financially and editorially pained Gazette, the only one of Montreal’s six dailies to have lost circulation last year.

Premier Bourassa, aware at the last he was in grave difficulty, had begged Munro to shake recalcitrant anglophones out of their pouting resentment of his language legislation and unite against the PQ. Munro’s editorial warned that a PQ government would be a “calamity” for Quebec. His reporters; particularly those raised in Quebec, tended to share the Claude Ryan theory that if the PQ meant calamity, the Liberals promised catastrophe. And they were, above all, offended that The Gazette intended to frighten readers.

The staff reacted quickly, circulating a statement dissociating themselves from the publisher’s editorial and, though there was no union to protect them, succeeded in having their declaration of dissent published. Editors who refused to sign because of their management status got in their own subtle protest by sending Munro’s editorial to the composing room complete with its 12 glaring errors of grammar and syntax. There were no direct reprisals, but a year later 15 of the 36 journalists who signed the protest had quit the paper. Gone too were the editorial page editor, the managing editor and the city editor. Morale deteriorated drastically, and a year, almost to the day, after the revolt the newspaper guild easily won an organizing blitz of Gazette reporters, up till then impregnably anti-union. Replacements were recruited in Ontario; bilingualism an asset, but not essential.

Editor Harrison does not believe the inability of Gazette management to read competing newspapers and understand the

language of Quebec makes it impossible to produce a passable newspaper: “I would feel much happier and more confident about some areas of my function if I were fluent in French. My French course starts next week. Though I’m under no illusion that it will make me fluent, I hope it will give me a better grasp of the language than I now have. But I don’t accept that the inability to be fluent in French is a massive impediment in editing an English newspaper in Montreal. I don’t accept that for a moment.”

Harrison’s confidence is extraordinary. The Gazette, which started two centuries ago as a French newspaper and then went bilingual before converting to English, is on the verge of reversing the evolution under his editorial direction. A quarter of the paper’s readers are bilingual Frenchspeakers, a market that will have to grow if The Gazette is to survive the flight of English Quebeckers from the province. Harrison denies staff rumors that mock-ups have been made for a French-language section, but admits the bilingualization of the paper is under study: “What is being considered is that somewhere down the line we reflect our French readership, that we carry something in the paper in French. It’s a long-term thing that we haven’t really done much about.”

For the time being, the paper is having enough troubles with language. The Gazette is one of few windows English Quebeckers have on French Quebec and its politics. That window is badly fogged. Errors printed by The Gazette tend to

spread unchecked through the community, introducing bizarre new myths to the besieged minority’s political folklore. Last summer, The Gazette headlined: MORIN CALLS SOME PUPILS NON-PERSONS. The expression, evoking the spirit of a Soviet pogrom, became rooted in the vocabulary of English Montreal. The only weakness of the headline and accompanying story was that education minister Jacques-Yvan Morin did not use “non-persons” or anything like those words to describe immigrant children illegally enrolled in English schools. The reporter responsible later conceded: “It was probably my interpretation of what he said.”

Harrison defends his reporter: “English Montrealers, just as French Montrealers, are entitled to arm themselves with whatever pejorative terms they wish to in pursuit of their side of the debate. Hell, if Lévesque can brand every statement by Pierre Trudeau ‘blackmail, barbarism, piracy’ or whatever, I see nothing very unusual with using the term ‘non-persons.’ ” Perhaps Harrison is right. In a climate of political tension it is not unusual for reporters, editors and publishers to be drawn into the storm. But, inevitably, as they become part of the story, they lose their capacity to cover it.cÿ