The death of Paul Desmarais, one of Canada’s foremost businessmen, provoked an outpouring of tributes. Mr. Desmarais, who started building his fortune by developing a small bus company in Sudbury and ended up at the helm of Power Corp., an international financial empire, was not only an astute and wise financier, but a visionary: He was among the first to realize China’s potential and a pioneer in establishing Canada’s standing in China.
For me, though, Monsieur Desmarais had another distinction, less stellar but closer to my heart: He owned La Presse, the newspaper where I have worked practically all my adult life.
I hardly knew him. He never came to the newsroom. My livelihood depended on him, although the only bosses I knew were professional journalists. Mr. Desmarais was renowned for delegating power to the managers of his properties, be they insurance companies, paper mills or newspapers. He was a hunter, not an administrator: What he liked was to acquire a company and, once the prey was his, leave it to skilled managers before selling for a huge profit. (Fortunately, he never sold the daily newspapers he had in Quebec.)
There was another reason why Mr. Desmarais never intruded in the newsroom. A true liberal and a tolerant man by nature, he believed in freedom of the press. The editorial page was the only place where he exercised authority; this is the recognized prerogative of all media owners. But there was just one issue that he really took to heart: He was deeply attached to Canada and loathed the idea of separation.
Yet if all his chief editorialists were federalists – not exactly a rare breed in Quebec, where, after all, a majority of the population is not sovereigntist – they were also professional journalists, who made a point of publishing a diversity of opinions on the op-ed pages.
I’ve been a political columnist for years, and naturally, I write on controversial topics. I often criticized operations where Power Corp. had vested interests or people who were close to Mr. Desmarais, including prime minister Jean Chrétien, whose daughter was married to one of Mr. Desmarais’s sons. Yet I never received a hint, reproach or request from Mr. Desmarais, direct or indirect – let alone a command.
Like all the other La Presse columnists, some of whom are outspoken sovereigntists, I had the wonderful privilege of writing in a climate of absolute freedom. This confirms my long-held view that generally speaking, press freedom is better guaranteed in large corporations than in media owned by small business people with weak egos, who use their newspaper for self-aggrandizement.
I met Mr. Desmarais several times at large social events. Our conversations were very brief – cocktail “small talk.” He was cordial and thoroughly unpretentious. We never talked about the newspaper. Actually, I had always been under the impression that he didn’t even read La Presse (wouldn’t men like him have only time for The Wall Street Journal and The Economist?), until someone who knew him well told me that he did, in fact, read it every day.
It didn’t weigh more than a feather in his financial empire, but he was obviously attached to La Presse – certainly attached enough to invest $40-million in a bold digital makeover for the paper just this spring.