Quebec media is in crisis. Six of the 10 regional weekly papers in the province owned by Groupe Capitales Médias have now declared bankruptcy, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Faced with growing global competition in the online era, advertisement and subscription revenue has plummeted drastically for media across the board, leading to a discussion about the future of media in the province.
Groupe Capitales Médias, which owns the regional papers Le Soleil, La Voix de l’Est, La Tribune, Le Nouvelliste, Le Droit and Le Quotidien, is unable to pay its more than $26 million in debt. In order to make sure that these papers can stay afloat until the end of the year, the CAQ government has given GCM $5 million in emergency financial aid. This is in addition to the $10 million already given to the media conglomerate in 2017 by the provincial Liberal government.
The Quebec National Assembly held a commission on the future of the media on Aug. 28. This meeting saw media groups, La Presse, Le Devoir, Cogeco, CGM and Métro Média plead for government subsidies to aid media. The president of La Presse, Pierre-Elliott Levasseur, claimed that “if there is not quick restructuring help [from the government], we place the sustainability of La Presse at risk.”
This dire financial situation also affects radio. Cogeco, which owns the 98.5 FM radio station in Montreal as well as stations in Gatineau, Sherbrooke, Quebec City and Trois-Rivières, claimed that radio ad revenue has fallen from $1.627 billion in 2013 to $1.520 billion in 2017. This is due to the fact that more and more companies chose to advertise with giant American companies online instead.
Quebecor moves in for the kill
Standing out like a sore thumb in this debate is billionaire media baron and owner of Quebecor, Pierre Karl Péladeau. PKP argued against the government subsidizing La Presse when he said that the media should not “make taxpayers pay for their whims … after the obvious failure of their [business] model.” This line of reasoning is quite hypocritical coming from PKP, as Quebecor receives more than $14 million in government subsidies on average per year, mostly for its magazines. These subsidies represented 91 per cent of Quebecor’s magazines’ profit margin in 2016.
For PKP, the Quebecor business model shows the way forward. He argues that the only way to save these six bankrupt newspapers is to merge the GCM into the “ecosystem” of Quebecor. But what would this mean? According to him, the Quebecor business model has been one of “optimizing manufacturing processes and cleaning up collective agreements.” The term “cleaning up” here has a simple meaning for Péladeau who locked out the Journal de Montréal employees for more than two years from 2009-2011 when he was consolidating his media empire. The consolidation of the Quebecor media empire over the years means that Péladeau now controls 77 newspapers, 22 magazines, and 13 publishing houses. Quebecor also owns Groupe TVA, the largest French-language TV network in North America, which runs 15 channels and possesses four subsidiaries.
Before taking GCM under its wing, Quebecor wants to see the collective agreements renegotiated, with two-thirds of their 350 or so permanent employees let go and the Quebec government paying for the severance pay.” In addition, PKP wants the $10 million debt to the government to be canceled and the leases of the buildings occupied by these newspapers to be terminated, also at the expense of the government. For capitalists of all stripes, subsidies are good, as long as they are not going to their competitors.
Capitalism and the ‘free press’
Many are now worried that Quebecor will gobble up more and more media and will therefore dominate the political discourse in the province. But this is nothing new. Quebecor papers like the Journal de Montréal and the Journal de Québec have played a central role in manufacturing a false crisis on the question of immigration and the so-called debate on secularism which has dominated the political discourse in Quebec for years. Their editorials churn out daily defenses of the CAQ government’s most reactionary policies.
This situation led Québec solidaire MNA Catherine Dorion to intervene in the parliamentary commission to recount her history of working for the Journal de Québec where she was repeatedly censored. She was explicitly told that she could not criticize PKP or anyone who worked for Quebecor for that matter. Her superior even called her to get her to take down a Facebook post she had made criticizing the lack of diverse opinions in the mainstream media in Quebec. She finished by asking PKP: “How can you guarantee us that there will not be six additional papers where it will be taboo to criticize you, you or Quebecor, that there will not be six more papers which promote Helix, Videotron, the Videotron centre and all of the other businesses which you own?” He had nothing to say in response.
Dorion later doubled down: “The concentration of the press is a danger for democracy and Quebecor is clearly an example of this.” PKP didn’t seem phased by that argument, claiming that the concentration of the press is a “false problem.” He then showed what he meant by that when he said, “Maybe it is better to have a concentration of the press then have no press at all.”
Not surprisingly, Quebecor papers have published a plethora of articles attacking Dorion, to which she replied “Take a look today at the reaction in opinion pieces of those who work for Quebecor … Its unanimous. They all defend their boss.”
In response, the Journal de Montréal published an article arguing that ideologically censoring journalists was standard practice for bourgeois media. The article quoted the collective agreement of the La Presse employees which stipulates that “each editorialist can express themselves … their ideas and opinions within the limits of the ideological orientation,” and that “the commentary, analysis, editorials or other writings … should not be hostile to La Presse.” But that is precisely the point. Here we have it from the horse’s mouth: independence of the press is an illusion under capitalism.
What is to be done?
This current debate lays bare the rottenness of the so-called free press under capitalism. While defenders of capitalism claim that the free market leads to a free press, what we are witnessing is precisely the opposite. As in all other industries, the big eat the small and concentration becomes the norm. Furthermore, the different capitalists who own the media outlets are in no way “objective” and assert their influence on which opinions can or cannot be published.
The media crisis also demonstrates the weakness of Quebec capitalism, which is a small fish in a big pond. Historically, the Quebecois bourgeoisie have used the state to push back the dominant Anglo bourgeoisie and carve up a piece of the world market for themselves. The subsidies given to Quebecor and other media outlets over the years is not at all a new phenomenon, but is the way Québécois capitalism has survived over the years.
The reality is that in this debate we are presented with a false dichotomy. Either the taxpayers hand private media outlets millions of dollars, or we let the Quebecor empire further consolidate its grasp on the news. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Under capitalism, there are always limits to which opinions journalists and columnists can defend or not in the mainstream press. It is in the interests of big capitalists like Péladeau to control what is said, shaping public opinion in the process. There will be no genuine freedom of the press as long as the media is run as a for-profit machine.
Workers in the industry know very well how to run the papers, television and radio. The media must be taken out of the hands of the bourgeois parasites and placed under the control of the workers in the industry and the working class as a whole. Only in a society where shaping public opinion is not a business can freedom of the press actually exist. Only under socialism, with the media under democratic workers’ control, would people be able to genuinely voice their opinions through the media.