former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

In Canada, a Media Baron Throws His Hat in the Ring, and Raises Concerns

In Blog on March 16, 2014 at 10:47 pm

When media barons use their power and influence to run for political office, the results usually are not pretty.  Silvio Berlusconi  rose to power in Italy, his image burnished by his media outlets. He remained in power long after sex and corruption scandals caused many Italians great embarrassment and likely worsened the nation’s economic woes.

Now, in Canada, that experiment is being repeated, and no one can predict what the results will be.  Karl Pierre Peladeau announced on March 13 that he would run as a Parti Quebecois candidate in Quebec’s provincial election.

It is hard to overstate Peladeau’s status as a media baron. He is the major owner of a media corporation that is the largest broadcaster in Quebec and owns the most  newspapers  in the province. His Sun newspaper tabloid chain is the largest publisher of newspapers throughout Canada.  His Quebecor empire also is the largest magazine publisher in Quebec, and the largest publisher of French-language books in Canada.

Peladeau is charismatic, runs a multi-billion-dollar business, and is well known for his distaste for labor unions, including those representing reporters.  If that weren’t enough, Peladeau is strongly supportive of Quebec sovereignty.  There is talk that Peladeau’s ultimate goal is to be the premier or president of an independent Quebec.

Peladeau’s wife, (they separated last December)  who supports his candidacy, also has a high profile in her own right, producing a raft of reality TV shows.  Beset by her own fertility problems, she convinced the Quebec government to fund fertility treatments for low-income families.  She argued the province needed more taxpayers. 

I don’t presume to fully understand Canadian politics, although I did graduate from the University of Toronto.  But think what the reaction would be in the U.S. if Rupert Murdoch announced he was going into politics.  Now consider what it would be like if Murdoch ran for office and held states’ rights views so strong, he’d support secession and independence for, say, Texas.

Not that I think Canadians are in for a Civil War.   But secession is no small matter.  In 1970, separatist extremists resorted to kidnapping and murder to press their cause for Quebec independence, prompting then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to bring in the troops and curtail civil liberties.  Canadians have held two referenda on the issue, although it is not on the ballot on April 7, when Peladeau runs.

If elected, Peladeau has said he’d put this business interests in a blind trust, dismissing  Quebec ethics guidance that would require divestiture. But a blind trust does not address the major problem.  He’s still the major owner of major media outlets, and it is difficult to think that the owner’s views won’t color the coverage these issues get.  Would senior editors really want to irritate the guy who pays their salaries?

And will Peladeau the politician actually permit dissenting views in the media outlets he cares most about?  Already a columnist for a Peladeau Montreal paper who criticized the Parti Quebecois recently found herself out of a job.  The columnist, Joanne Marcotte, remains an independent blogger and concluded that she was dumped because her views “did not fit in with the family.”

One has to wonder whether the pro-secession forces will have a powerful megaphone to convey this message through Peladeau’s media outlets, ultimately ginning up public opinion to such a fever pitch  that Canada has to deal with the separatist issue once again.  Polls right now show that Quebec voters  have little interest in secession and independence for Quebec, but that could change.

Journalists in the U.S. don’t focus on Canada much, unless a major city like Toronto gets a crack-smoking mayor who has problems with impulse control.  But journalists may want to keep on eye on the Peladeau saga.  It may show us what can happen, even in a country as civilized and moderate as Canada,  when a media baron achieves political power.

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