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Lusts of the media magnates

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Political power and control of the media often go together. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Newspapers, the “fourth estate” (after Lords, the Commons, and the Clergy in medieval British society), were supposed to be advocates for the people, defenders of common rights. It was the job of the press, wrote American humorist F.P. Dunne, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

In Canadian history, the combination of George Brown and the Toronto Globe ranks high on the list of media power brokers. Brown used the Globe to advance the interests of his Reform party before and after Confederation. Earlier, in Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe used his Novascotian to champion better terms for his province in the Canadian federation. After winning them, he served Prime Minister John A. Macdonald as a cabinet minister. He oversaw arrangements to bring Manitoba into Canada.

That’s a bit of background to help us look at Pierre-Karl Peladeau, whose nomination by the Party Quebecois in the current Quebec election (voting day April 7) has stirred a lot of interest.

Peladeau owns a controlling interest in the massive media conglomerate, Quebecor. The business was started by his father with a scruffy tabloid sheet, le Journal de Montreal, but has since grown to include the biggest newspaper chain in Canada – Sun Media.

booksPeladeau’s appearance beside PQ leader Pauline Marois electrified the campaign when he gave a clenched fist salute as he called for Quebec to become independent. He later said the outburst indicated his “passion” in life, both for Quebec and for his company which controls an estimated forty per cent of Quebec media outlets, including cable.

For a few days, Mme. Marois was talking up sovereignty, blithering on about “no borders, no tolls” but a Quebec passport and a seat for Quebec on the board of the Bank of Canada.

Suddenly, PQ fortunes took a nose dive, confirming that Quebeckers not only don ‘t want separation, they don’t even want a referendum on separation. Unless the PQ somehow manages to reverse the tide, the election is likely to produce a majority victory for the Quebec Liberal party. It now leads in the polls, raising the question of whether Peladeau can even win his own seat. The worst outcome for him might be to win personally, but then to have to serve in the Opposition. The potential upside for PKP in this scenario is that a PQ defeat would spell the political end for Pauline Marois.

This would open up a leadership contest, adding yet more irony to this strange melange. Peladeau, who is famous for having locked out workers at his companies, is well-known for his right-wing views. How will that fit with the social democratic, left-wing core of the party?

The Peladeau story illustrates once again how the combination of power and media can produce unintended consequences.

The all-time model for media megalomania as a root cause of power lust must lie in the life of William Randolph Hearst, the American media giant of the early and mid-twentieth century. It was always Hearst’s ambition to become President, a lust well documented in Kenneth Whyte’s biography, The Uncrowned King. Heart’s life was also brilliantly magnified in Orsen Welles’ classic film, Citizen Kane.

As noted above, Peladeau is not the first lord of the press to seek high political office. John Bassett, publisher of the old Toronto Telegram, ran for Parliament, unsuccessfully, in 1962. The only Canadian Prime Minister to have been a newspaper owner was Mackenzie Bowell (1894-1896), publisher of the small provincial daily in Ontario, the Belleville Intelligencer.

We mustn’t forget Conrad Black, the modern exemplar of the status-hungry media baron. He importuned British PM Maggie Thatcher to the point of winning a Lordship — Lord Black of Crossharbour — and a seat in the House of Lords which the disgraced former newspaper titan still holds. (He’s been stripped of his Order of Canada). Nor does Back any longer control the newspaper empire he built out of the old Southam family chain, nor the National Post, which he launched.

Pierre-Karl Peladeau has said that if elected, he’ll put his stake in Quebecor in a blind trust. Fair enough. But he’ll continue to profit from press properties across Canada — the country from which he so passionately wishes to separate himself. Then again, as Peladeau himself has said, “that’s just business.”