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Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports

The Referendum

by Dave Yates

 

"It's true The Gazette is giving the referendum more coverage... But the French press has been covering this question for 20 years."

Daniel Latouche

 

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 door-to-door.

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 news.

The acumen of Latouche was a marvel. As he was uttering his words, the Montreal Gazette 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 Zealand. 

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 fear."

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 News.

Gazette editor Mark Harrison said a story in the Journal states that Gazette reporters "have been ordered to write reports proving that an independent Quebec would be intolerable to live in."

The 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 directory.

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 editorially.

Gazette editorial page editor Joan Eraser was eventually allowed to reply to Bissonnette with a short editorial page commentary in Le Devoir.

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 the referendum.

And The 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 the referendum.

It was textbook journalism, with generous portions of spot news stories, features and analyses.

"The 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, The Gazette 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 Bob Walker.

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.

The Gazette 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 with its readers.

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.

Le Devoir was providing piles of coverage on the referendum. Huge 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 Gagnon.

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.

Le 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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