’The CBC continues to ignore our daily newspapers’

In letters obtained under access laws, Quebecor’s CEO scolds the CBC, even as he pleads for advertising dollars
Quebecor President and CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau speaks with the media after testifying at the Commons Ethics Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday October 20, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

In its home province, at least, Quebecor is very much the incarnation of its name. The company’s myriad media properties are populated by old-time separatists and fleur-de-lys blue nationalists for whom the Canadian flag is a nuisance at best and an incursion at worst. Le Journal de Montréal, the scrappy populist tabloid founded in 1964, remains the organ grinder of choice for Quebec’s long-standing language debates, and it is clear on which side the paper falls. “Soon [the English] are going to call us frogs and pea soup in the street, just like when I was young!” opined Gilles Proulx recently. Quebecor’s news agency regularly publishes the words of former FLQ member Jacques Lanctôt, whose kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross touched off the October Crisis of 1970.

Beyond Quebec’s borders, though, Quebecor’s message is decidedly different. “Coast to coast and as Canadian as you are,” intones the promotional baritone over scenes of flowing rivers and snow-capped mountains, during a commercial for Sun News Network. Far from disparaging it, the network uses the Canadian flag extensively in its branding.

You might call it Canada’s two-faced media empire. Yet while Quebecor’s French and English divisions may be firmly ensconced in their respective linguistic and cultural solitudes, they share the overriding editorial bent of the company itself—and that of its president and CEO, Pierre Karl Péladeau. The reclusive and often contradictory Péladeau has a well-known disdain for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and has used his media holdings to attack the publicly funded Quebecor competitor—attacks that have taken on a new level of intensity over the last two years. Quebecor’s lawyers recently scored a victory against the CBC, when the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the CBC must make public certain financial records.

The CBC, wrote Sun News host and columnist Ezra Levant recently in a typical broadside, is “a mega-corporation that demands a yearly $1.1-billion bailout from taxpayers, violates transparency laws and doesn’t register its secretive lobbying.” Yet Péladeau has been personally petitioning the CBC for a chunk of those taxpayer dollars while his media properties deride the CBC’s very existence. Over a period of 15 months, the Quebecor president, who oversees in excess of 16,000 employees, sent 12 personal letters and one handwritten fax to CBC president Hubert Lacroix requesting (and at times demanding) the CBC print its advertisements and promotions in Quebecor publications.

The letters, obtained through an Access to Information request and posted at the bottom of this article, reflect Péladeau’s combative nature—as well as his belief, however unsubstantiated, that the CBC has a long-running boycott of Quebecor. “[The CBC’s] total absence from [Quebecor daily] 24 Heures and but a small presence in Le Journal de Québec is flabbergasting, while both our competitors Metro and Le Soleil received the lion’s share,” Péladeau wrote in a letter dated Aug. 31, 2009. The Quebecor CEO further admonished Lacroix for what he called the CBC’s “frankly disproportionate coverage” of the labour strife at Le Journal de Montréal at the time. Two months later, Péladeau wrote that it “was unacceptable to democracy” that the CBC hadn’t advertised its municipal election coverage in Quebecor-owned media.

“Dear Hubert, I know that advertising choices interest you, so I include pages from Samedi Magazine,” Péladeau wrote in a handwritten note on Nov. 23, 2009. “Don’t worry, it’s not Quebecor Media that publishes it.” The note included two CBC advertisements that Péladeau had apparently clipped from Quebecor’s dishy (and since defunct) competitor; in his note, Péladeau makes light of Samedi’s low circulation numbers. Another of his missives decries the lack of CBC advertising dollars despite “a rather favourable article” written about a CBC personality in a Quebecor paper. Others still include graphs, pie charts and demographic data supporting Péladeau’s argument against what he calls CBC’s “totally unjustifiable boycott.”

“The CBC continues to ignore our daily newspapers, which are the biggest in Quebec,” Péladeau wrote in his final letter to Lacroix last December. “I can but protest once more this discriminatory attitude toward the group I have the privilege of overseeing, and it is equally detrimental to state television that it deprives itself of reaching an important part of the population.”

While he admits the CBC has never officially boycotted its media, Quebecor spokesperson Serge Sasseville says the facts speak for themselves: “There have simply been no CBC/Radio-Canada ads (except, ironically, in November 2010, when CBC/Radio-Canada went on a campaign to boast about its access to information record) in Quebecor Media since the beginning of 2009, a date which coincides with the beginning of the Journal de Montréal lockout,” Sasseville told Maclean’s via email. As well, “our sales staffs have been informed by media placement agencies working on behalf of CBC/Radio-Canada that they had received explicit orders from CBC/Radio-Canada not to advertise in our publications.” Not advertising in Quebecor publications, Sasseville adds, is akin to “depriving many of the very people that fund the state broadcaster of valuable information about CBC/Radio-Canada programming and coverage initiatives.”

For its part, the CBC says it has “over the years purchased advertising in [Péladeau’s] papers,” Lacroix told Maclean’s via email. “As we have said to Mr. Péladeau in our replies to his letters, we run our campaigns according to our objectives and choose the most appropriate media to ensure their success. That is our business and our expertise. In the same way, we do not suggest to Mr. Péladeau how to build his marketing, promotion or advertising campaigns or launch his programs . . . We would note that Radio-Canada does not receive advertising from Quebecor.”

Doubtless, Péladeau’s anti-CBC campaign is at least partly ideological. What unites the differing editorial stances of his English and French properties, apart from their visceral dislike of the public broadcaster, is a populist, free-market ideology of lower taxes and less regulation. Though it has its own public sector connection: roughly 45 per cent of Quebecor Media Inc., Quebecor’s media group, is owned by Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the province’s pension manager funded in large part by taxpayer dollars.

Then there is the matter of Quebec City’s arena. Quebecor recently inked a deal that would give the company naming rights to the future home of Les Nordiques, should the city land an NHL franchise. The deal, finalized in September, will see some $400 million taxpayer dollars put toward a new stadium, which would then be rented to Quebecor. The deal, which wasn’t put to tender, required legislation to circumvent the government’s own laws against using public funds for a private company.

Like his English and French newspapers, Péladeau’s own political bent is conflicted. His father, Pierre, was in favour of Quebec’s separation from Canada; today, his son owns a cable news channel that peddles the very flag-draped brand of Canadian patriotism Pierre Sr. disdained. Yet Pierre Karl Péladeau remains strongly attached to the Québécois identity. In 2009, after losing a bidding war for ownership of the Montreal Canadiens, Péladeau implied that he didn’t like how the deal was strictly financial; it would have been better, he said, had the team owners better reflected Quebec’s identity. (The team was bought by the decidedly English Montreal Molson family.)

Perhaps there is method in all of Quebecor’s seeming contractions. “He’s a businessman above all else,” says Jean-Martin Aussant, a former Péquiste MNA who has since launched Option nationale, a splinter separatist party. “I think Pierre Karl found a niche and exploited it.” And, in the case of the CBC at least, he’s doing what any good businessman would do, contradictions be damned: trying to hobble the competition.