Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports
by Dave Yates
true The Gazette is giving the referendum more coverage... But the
French press has been covering this question for 20 years."
THERE'S NO DENYING THE crucial role of the news
media in the Quebec referendum.
Certainly the politicians were planning to make
full use of the media.
As Daniel Latouche, a close advisor of Premier
René Lévesque, pointed out, the campaign would not be fought
The battleground was to be, rather, the media,
which would be the real
forum of arguments, said Latouche during the last of three workshops on
the referendum during the CIJ convention.
But the immediate danger, he warned, would be
journalists covering the coverage of the referendum for want of hard
The acumen of Latouche was a marvel. As he was
uttering his words, the
found itself becoming embroiled in a hot controversy.
Its coverage of the referendum campaign was being
severely criticized by the French-language press of Montreal.
What ignited the French papers into a fury of
stories on The Gazette
was a nine-page memo outlining how Montreal's only English daily
planned to cover the referendum campaign.
While extremely comprehensive, the memo had a
condescending tone and a
naive air, as if it had been written by someone just off the boat.
Which is not that far from the essential truth.
For the memo was
written by Gazette
city editor Bob Walker, who is from the United
States, to managing editor Geoff Stevenson, who is from New
The memo used such terminology as "native bankers"
and made references
to "horrible failures e.g. Biafra."
The terms are particularly distasteful to
Quebeckers who, over the past
20 years, have been trying to shake off the image of being colonized.
The memo was published in its entirety by a
left-wing newspaper in
Montreal under a headline which claimed it was "outlining a campaign of
The three Montreal French-language dailies quickly
latched onto the
story and by week's end The
Gazette had filed complaints with the
Quebec Press Council against the Journal
de Montreal and Broadcast
editor Mark Harrison said a story in the Journal states
reporters "have been ordered to write reports proving that an
independent Quebec would be intolerable to live in."
Broadcast News story was a joke. It quoted a J. R. Walker
as denying the existence of the memo. Broadcast
News had inadvertently phoned the wrong J. R. Walker, using a listing in the telephone
Both Le Devoir and La
Presse published stories on the affair, with the latter taking the trouble to get commentary from Harrison on the matter.
As for Le Devoir, often considered the most eminent and astute voice
of Quebec, it was guilty of shoddy journalism in failing to publish comment from Harrison in its news stories.
Lise Bissonnette, associate editor of Le Devoir and often
a defender of the English community against silly comments by members of the Parti
Quebecois, unzipped her thick skin and attacked The Gazette
Gazette editorial page editor Joan Eraser was eventually allowed to
reply to Bissonnette with a short editorial page commentary in Le
And a few days later, editor Michel Roy admitted
in an editorial that Le Devoir
was guilty of unfair play, after some readers complained about stories on other aspects of the referendum.
But at no time did Le Devoir address
itself to some very serious charges about the way in which the French-language media are covering
Gazette failed to report a very comforting pat on the back
for its referendum coverage.
The charges and the pat on the back came from Yves
Gagnon, a journalism
professor at Laval University. Gagnon was a key speaker during workshop
number two on the referendum at the CIJ convention.
According to Gagnon, The Gazette, at
least up to that point, had provided the most comprehensive coverage of
It was textbook journalism, with generous
portions of spot news stories, features and analyses.
Gazette is covering the referendum as an historical event
of major importance to the English of Quebec," said Gagnon.
Contrary to the French dailies of Montreal and
Quebec City, he said,
has much more information which is the result of the
initiative of the journalists (rather than a repetition of handouts).
It is the type of reporting which reflects the currents of feelings and emotions eddying through the public as it listens to a
debate on its future.
Gagnon found the style of writing in The Gazette lively,
emotional, energetic and full of humour.
All that must have been music to the ears of Gazette city editor
For his famous memo, which was nine pages long and
single-spaced, was a
detailed outline of how The
Gazette would cover the referendum.
It would therefore seem reasonable to conclude
that Walker had a key role in The
Gazette coverage lauded by Gagnon.
As Lysiane Gagnon, who covers politics for La Presse puts it:
"A memo is a memo. You have to judge a newspaper on the stories it publishes."
Sure, The Gazette
is biased in favour of the no side, but then a newspaper is a "mirror
of society," as Yves Gagnon says.
approach to its coverage is totally in tune with its
public, which favours the no side by 4-1. The Gazette is
talking to an
audience that knows where it stands. And The Gazette stands
Yves Gagnon's comments were based on a four-month
study of Le Solei (Quebec City), Le
Journal de Quebec, La Presse, Le Devoir and The Gazette.
He found the French papers to be taking a very
cold, academic approach to the referendum.
Devoir was providing piles of coverage on the referendum.
sections were comprised of tracts by just about every political
scientist in Quebec and beyond. Gagnon called it "dry and without soul."
There is a lot of depth in the analyses "and a
sovereignist orientation on the part of two editorial writers," said
That comment had all the editorial writers at Le Devoir asking
"who else besides me?"
Gagnon described Le Devoir as "cold
and official, with no stories generated by the journalists."
In other words, the people at Le Devoir were
reprinting the official lines of each side without asking questions.
In fact, there was quite a debate raging among
French-speaking journalists as to just how "engagé" they should be.
Some journalists feel the French-language papers
must observe the
debate from a respectable distance because francophone Quebeckers are
divided just about down the middle on the referendum.
But others think that's the problem with
journalists in Quebec today.
In the past decade they have become merely observers. They are no
longer the actors they were in the sixties.
Devoir failed to debate these points in its opinion
columns, while not hesitating to take on The Gazette.
By Lysiane Gagnon, of La Presse, had an
interesting comment on referendum coverage.
"It's true The
Gazette is giving the referendum more coverage and
indepth. But the French press has been covering this question for 20
years. We'll do more as the campaign gets going."
Published in Sources May/June 1980
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