2011.10.28 | CWA Canada Local 30213 | Canadian Media Guild
Quebecor media outlets were all but silent today on uncharacteristically public accusations that it is waging a "dirty war" against the CBC.
CWA Canada's largest Local, the Canadian Media Guild, pulled no punches when it came to the defence of the public broadcaster, which has been moved by the Harper Conservatives to the top of a list of federal institutions being examined by Parliament's Access to Information (ATI) and Ethics committee.
Opposition MPs who sit on the committee describe the controlling Conservatives' targeting of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a "farce" and a "witch hunt," pointing out that it is only one of several federal institutions and departments that are challenging the scope of the powers of the information commissioner.
The CMG, which represents thousands of workers at the CBC, testified Thursday that Quebecor/Sun Media has flooded the Crown corporation with hundreds of requests for internal documents, many of which were rejected under exemptions in the legislation that protect journalistic or creative endeavours.
Marc-Philippe Laurin, president of the CBC branch of the CMG, told MPs that many of those requests, such as asking for anchors' salaries and bidding for commercial and sports properties, aren't in the public interest and are to do with competition.
Karen Wirsig, the CMG's communications co-ordinator, testified: "It is a war being waged by Quebecor, a private media company that has, what we believe should be obvious to everyone, a private commercial interest in diminishing the role and presence of its main competitor, CBC, especially in the province of Quebec."
In a brief submitted to the committee, entitled Paving the Access Ramp to Retribution, the CMG notes that "it is fair to say that the line between corporate interest and journalistic practice at Quebecor is not a solid one."
It cited comments published last month on j-source.ca by University of Ottawa journalism professor Marc François Bernier, who wrote:
'Quebecor Media campaign against CBC/SRC goes well beyond a healthy critique of a public institution and well beyond denigration. It seems more and more like a propaganda campaign that violates journalism's code of ethics.' [CMG translation]
Aside from its commercial interest, says the CMG brief, "Quebecor has an additional motivation: filling its news hole with hyped-up stories about CBC and ATI. So far, the company's significant investment in information requests of CBC has been a no-lose proposition. If the company gets some of the information it is looking for, it can use it for whatever purpose suits; and when it doesn't get everything it wants, it can launch a multimedia campaign full of tendentious reports about the 'Secretive CBC lacking accountability' . Finally, if this kind of reporting succeeds in convincing Parliament that the public broadcaster deserves less public money, Quebecor also benefits from the hobbling of a key competitor."
"Access to government information is an important public policy that doesn't work very well in practice," Laurin said in a news release a week prior to the Guild's appearance before the committee. "Our members on the frontlines use access to information regularly to break important stories in the public interest. At a time when journalistic resources are shrinking, it's taking more and more time to get hold of information. That's what needs to be addressed.
"Instead, the committee has been drawn into a 'dirty war' aimed at undermining the public broadcaster as we head into a difficult federal budget and appears to be serving the interests of a private company," Laurin said. "In Quebecor's case, ATI is being used as a weapon and not a tool."
"We're not saying that the committee shouldn't examine CBC's approach to access to information," Laurin added. "But MPs need to consider the CBC in the context of all of the other federal departments, agencies and institutions that have a poor record in providing information to the public. We urge the committee to look at improving the law to make it clearer and more proactive."
The only coverage by a Quebecor media property of Thursday's hearing was an online so-called news report headlined: CBC pals gang up on state broadcaster. (Quebecor's print and broadcast media insist on referring to the CBC as a "state" broadcaster as if it was a news agency controlled by a communist government.)
Senior national reporter Mark Dunn wrote that the CMG, which he said "rakes in millions of dollars a year in dues from its members at the broadcaster," defended its employer but "avoided talk of how looming CBC budget cuts would affect its revenue stream…"
He went on to report that the CMG "attacked Quebecor … for holding the Crown agency accountable."
NDP MP Charlie Angus said during an earlier committee meeting that "We're trying to establish whether CBC is being accountable to the taxpayer or CBC is being undermined in a campaign by their number one competitor."
Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Peladeau, said Angus, "has made no secret of his deep opposition and uses his newspapers across the country to demand that CBC be put out of business."
Yesterday, Liberal MP Scott Andrews characterized what was going on in the committee as an "ideological war between the Conservative Party and their beef against the CBC."