Backstage

Allegations of media bias

The journalists of Quebec are inevitably caught up in the conflict between the forces of sovereignty and federalism

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 21 1998
Backstage

Allegations of media bias

The journalists of Quebec are inevitably caught up in the conflict between the forces of sovereignty and federalism

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 21 1998

Allegations of media bias

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Backstage

The journalists of Quebec are inevitably caught up in the conflict between the forces of sovereignty and federalism

Jean Charest was killing time on the day of the Quebec election when he asked a friend a question that was troubling him. How, he wanted to know, could he counter the relentlessly negative spin of the French-language media covering him ? Forget it, Charest was told—life’s like that for federalist leaders in Quebec, so expect the worst. Several days later, Charest’s adversary, Lucien Bouchard, had a similar complaint—about the English-language media. No wonder, Bouchard said, anglophones dislike him: their media describe him as “dangerous, negative, ungrateful, vindictive, [and] vitriolic.” Finally, Bouchard and Charest agree: the media of each official language group are ganging up on them. Actually, lots of people agree. Anglophone journalists think the majority of francophone counterparts are sovereigntists. Francophones believe pretty much all of their Anglo colleagues are federalists.

Both are probably right. For anyone doubting the ability of journalists to be dispassionate,

Canada’s unity debate is Exhibit 1.

Historically, the debate between anglophone and francophone journalists as to who is more biased has been a form of guerrilla combat: each privately criticized the other, but neither declared open warfare. Anglophone journalists have long muttered about pro-sovereigntist bias in the francophone media. The Globe and Mail's, Jeffrey Simpson— hardly a redneck—has written of “the filtering procedures of the Quebec media.” But lately, the other side has been crying foul. In a breathtakingly condescending speech in Toronto in 1997, Roger Landry, the publisher of Montreal’s La Presse, took anglophone bias and francophone fairness as a given. “I know of no media in English Canada going out of their way to be fair and equitable to the Parti Québécois,” he said. (Wrong: several Englishlanguage media outlets have reporters sympathetic to sovereignty, and both national newspapers, among others, carry columns by francophones discussing Quebec issues.) The fact, Landry added, that francophones are split between federalism and sovereignty “forces Quebec media to demonstrate a more neutral attitude.” That view also surfaced at a meeting of the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists in November, 1997, during a panel discussion. One panelist produced a long list of alleged abuses and inaccuracies about Quebec produced by the English-Canadian media. Some were inarguably sensationalist—such as a Saturday Night piece of February, 1996, that said “chaos, terrorism and violence are now a safe bet” in Quebec. But many comments regarded as offensive would be seen as truisms by anglophones. Among those cited, a 1996 Toronto Star editorial said: “Unlike Quebec, which has made French the only official language, Ontario has no law elevating English. Nor has Ontario passed coercive laws. Merchants can adver-

tise in any language that brings in business.” Which part is inaccurate, or unfair? And anglophones do consider Bouchard to be all the things he listed above: after all, he seeks to divide their beloved home—which he has said in the past is “not a real country.”

On the whole, francophone journalists are far more bilingual (85 per cent compared with 14 per cent among anglophones, according to one survey), and tend to regard political reporting as a near-sacred calling. Members of the national assembly press gallery are called “the national press” and some stay put for their entire careers. But with the exception of a reporter at La Presse who makes the rest of the country his beat, francophone journalists go elsewhere in Canada only to cover intergovernmental meetings—hardly a way to learn about real life beyond their borders. In turn, visiting Anglo journalists are easy to spot in Quebec: they start fretting about deciphering the menu the moment they travel into francophone territory east of Montreal’s Blvd. St-Laurent—*ƒ they are so bold.

During talks on the dying Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, Quebec journalists hectored Robert Bourassa, telling him why he should not agree to anything. Some Anglo journalists whiled away their evenings talking strategy on Quebec with other premiers. Does patriotism transcend journalism in such cases? Both sides might say Yes—but they would be talking about different countries. In 1990, French-language networks replayed images of a Quebec flag being burned in Brockville, Ont., dozens of times. But when Canadian flags are desecrated or torn down in Quebec, there is no sign of equivalent outrage. In the 1995 referendum, No-side strategists considered coverage on the Réseau de l’Information (RDI)—the French-language counterpart to Newsworld—so pro-sovereigntist that they dubbed the network R-D-Oui. For example, when President Bill Clinton spoke on behalf of Canadian unity, RDI’s report gave prominence to a rebuttal by Quebec’s deputy premier, Bernard Landry. Nonetheless, an independent analysis of RDI’s referendum coverage showed strict balance: news reports featured 285 Oui supporters, and 284 for the Non. Whether or not you consider RDI biased probably reflects your own beliefs.

Two things that the Englishand French-language media share are a fondness for apocalyptic language and a vested interest in prolonging the unity debate. Bad news is good news for journalists, and a country teetering on the brink is more compelling to report on than, say, a speech by Sheila Copps. But the problem goes deeper: journalism both influences a community’s values, and reflects them. Canada’s Englishand French-speakers have sharply different views about their relationship with each other. The media reflect that rift, sometimes subconsciously. One man’s truth is another’s lie: it’s no surprise that neither side considers itself the fibber.