CANADA

Fifth columns and the fourth estate

DAVID THOMAS December 8 1980
CANADA

Fifth columns and the fourth estate

DAVID THOMAS December 8 1980

Fifth columns and the fourth estate

Montreal

Unlike the CBC, whose fragmented network offices nestle in crannies all over Toronto, sibling Radio-Canada thrusts nakedly into the Montreal skyline—and into the sometimes promiscuous and paranoid heights of French-Canadian politics. Usually it is RadioCanada reporters who must defend themselves against accusations by federal politicians that they are closet separatists. But last week the state of siege had attained the executive offices high in the Radio-Canada tower as the network’s top bosses moved to thwart what they fear to be an attempted putsch against them by the Trudeau government in collusion with some of their own journalists.

Called on the grey carpet last Friday before Radio-Canada’s four highest news executives was Ottawa political reporter Paul Racine who had, earlier last week, publicly accused his superiors of incompetence and said he hoped heads would roll before Christmas. That was too blatant

for the news bosses to ignore—particularly for Information Director Marc Thibault, who told Maclean’s he had been warned by political sources in Ottawa that Radio-Canada putschists were conniving with politicians to bring about the executives’ downfall. That, warned Thibault, would mean the end of Radio-Canada’s journalistic independence.* Reporter Racine denies the existence of such a cabal, as does his colleague and equally vociferous complainer, François Perreault.

But Thibault is convinced that some of his reporters supplied internal news service documents to members of the Commons Communications Committee which, last month, reviewed Radio-Canada’s performance. The detailed, though unconfirmed, report of the attempted putsch holds that government plotters were led by Communications Minister Francis Fox and Prime Minister Trudeau’s principal secretary, Jim Coutts, both displeased by

Radio-Canada’s news neutrality on national unity. The alleged collusion by journalists was in exchange for a presumed promise of positions of power.

Compounding Radio-Canada’s tribulations is a month-long strike by its 180 reporters working inside Quebec. Significantly, the striking union has publicly sided with the bosses in the alleged putsch attempt. It repudiates any anti-management intrigue in Ottawa where colleagues, though working for the same news show, belong to a separate union and continue to collect salaries.

In a curious switch from the usual, it is Quebec politicians who are now complaining that they are being treated unfairly by Radio-Canada journalists. Because Ottawa reporters continue to work, the network succeeds in broadcasting specials on Trudeau’s effort to rewrite the constitution while Quebec’s government and oppo-

sition parties are denied television coverage of their attempts to block it.

The strike inevitably evokes memories of a 1959 walkout by producers which stirred nationalist feelings among many Quebec broadcasters, prime among them television journalist René Lévesque. But the similarity is illusory because the striking journalists exhibit little sympathy for the plight of Lévesque’s news-hungry government. Money is the critical issueexperienced reporters now make about $30,000 a year with overtime—but management will not negotiate a substantial pay raise lest it become a benchmark for another 6,000 CBC and Radio-Canada employees deep in contract talks.

And despite the wailing of provincial politicians, there is little evidence that viewers miss Radio-Canada newscasts. More than the public may be tuning out of Radio-Canada. Its assailed Information Director Thibault confided at week’s end that he intends to quit in six months’ time—but only after rooting out and crushing any underlings trying to hasten his fall from Radio-Canada’s tormented tower.

-DAVID THOMAS

*Targets of the apprehended putsch also include Radio-Canada Vice-President Raymond David and lesser executives Pierre O’Neil and Marcel Desjardins.