The candidacy of one of Canada's biggest media magnates for the sovereigntist Parti Québécois poses serious questions about press independence and the quality of information Quebeckers receive, according to PQ opponents and the province's association of journalists.
The abrupt arrival of Pierre Karl Péladeau into PQ ranks rippled the province's airwaves, particularly in the political and media classes, which have occasionally expressed concern about Quebecor Media Inc.'s monumental hold on the province's readers and viewers, but have often been shy to poke the giant too firmly. Mr. Péladeau was Canada's most fervent and successful adopter of convergence, meaning Quebecor entertainers and journalists became stars aggressively cross-promoted across properties such as the highest-circulation daily, Le Journal de Montréal, and the TVA network – often at the exclusion of those outside the convergence loop.
Political actors such as the Quebec Liberal Party and Coalition Avenir Québec usually walk on eggshells around the media colossus. That caution has started to loosen with Mr. Péladeau's jump into partisan politics. He's running in Saint-Jérôme, a swing just north of Montreal.
"Mr. Péladeau has to tell us what influence he has had, and will have, and how he will guarantee to Quebeckers that during the campaign they will still be exposed to an independent, impartial media," Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said while campaigning in the Quebec capital. Later, Mr. Couillard went further, demanding Mr. Péladeau sell his shares.
"[Pauline] Marois has shown a lack of judgment by not dealing with these questions first. It's irresponsible."
Mr. Péladeau said he will put his shares in a blind trust and that it was "out of the question" he would sell them, even if the ethics commissioner demanded it. Mr. Péladeau explained that he worked too hard to promote Quebec ownership of homegrown companies to divest himself of a company his father built.
Mr. Péladeau later reversed course, saying in a statement he would follow the counsel of the ethics commissioner. He did not say he would now sell his shares. The province's federation of journalists issued a statement saying it was worried about the "explosive mix" of high political office and media ownership. It, too, called on Mr. Péladeau to sell his shares.
The journalists association says about 40 per cent of the province's information is controlled by the company, which has long been at war with Radio-Canada, the French service of the CBC, and the newspaper group owned by the Desmarais family that includes La Presse.
Mr. Péladeau maintained he has never exercised editorial control over his properties. "Mr. Couillard has a right to his opinion but let me repeat: Regardless if it is TVA, Journal de Montréal, Journal de Québec, Sun News, Toronto Sun, I never intervened, nor did management in the news contents of their newsrooms," Mr. Péladeau told reporters on Monday. "Each newsroom adopts its own editorial policy."
Quebecor airwaves abounded with awkward exchanges on Monday, illustrating the difficult position Mr. Péladeau is trying to maintain. In one, CAQ Leader François Legault swapped barbs with veteran TVA anchor Pierre Bruneau, who tried to reassure the party leader of journalistic independence.
Mr. Legault said he knows of cases where journalists have been pressed by the Quebecor executives who take marching orders from Mr. Péladeau. The CAQ Leader then asked the anchor whether he ever speaks to Mr. Péladeau. The question went unanswered.