Commission study takes a run at media coverage

Report for Bouchard-Taylor recommends hair-raising restrictions on the press

Commission B-T: le rôle des médias

When the Globe and Mail ran an article two years ago foolishly blaming the Dawson shooting on Bill 101, it got demands for an apology from no less than the premier of Quebec, the prime minister of Canada and the House of Commons.
The Gazette has to settle for complaints to the Quebec press council, which can be submitted online for free, from a couple of attention seekers named Jean Dorion and Gilles Rhéaume.
The latter is still remembered for marching for Quebec independence in the dead of winter in 1985 from Montreal to Quebec City, where he vowed to urinate on the monument to British conqueror James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham. (He demurred when he finally arrived because of the cold, but advised his few admirers present to consider the deed done.)

As for Dorion, he is president of the venerable, nationalist Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal. The chairman of the society's youth council is also spokesman for the militant Jeunes Patriotes du Québec, which in March tried to disrupt a lawful meeting of an English-rights organization. This did not deter the SSJB-M or the Parti Québécois from promoting the group's Patriotes' Day march last week.
Both complaints are about The Gazette's scoop on excerpts from the Bouchard-Taylor report on accommodating cultural differences, which this newspaper handled as any French-language daily would have, only more accurately than some other reporting on the accommodation issue.
One suspects that what really bothers Rhéaume and Dorion, and some others who subjected this newspaper to trial by insinuation before it was vindicated by the publication of the report, is not what The Gazette reported, but that it was reported in English. Outsiders were poking through the family laundry.
But, as even some commentators in competing, French-language dailies have acknowledged since the publication of the report, The Gazette and its reporter, Jeff Heinrich, essentially got it right. And that's more than can be said for a lot of the reporting that helped create what the Bouchard-Taylor commission called a "crisis of perception" rather than reality on the accommodation issue.
Researchers for the commission spent more than four months interviewing people and examining documentary evidence in order to "reconstruct" the facts of 21 of the reported cases of so-called accommodations that most fed the controversy in 2006 and 2007.
In 15 of those 21 cases, they found what the commission called "striking distortions" between the facts and the public's perception. "Thus, the negative perception of reasonable accommodation that spread in the public often centred on an erroneous or partial perception of practices in the field."
And a study report for the commission is harsher. It blames the media for attaching more importance to commercial competition with each other than to professional ethics.
The report (available in French on the commission's web site), by sociologist Maryse Potvin of the Université du Québec à Montréal, is titled The Print Media and Reasonable Accommodation: The Invention of a Debate."
It says the press ignored the "overwhelming majority" of accommodation cases that were settled through negotiation in favour of "imaginary constructions of problems or conflicts" by the press itself.
The media clearly had "a will to present conflict" and sought out "the most extremist viewpoints." Their reporting on incidents often reflected only the viewpoint of the "plaintiffs" or "victims."
And they made accommodation an issue in last year's provincial election campaign and kept incidents in the news by seeking comment on them from politicians.

One of these politicians comes in for particular attention in the report. "By claiming to speak for the majority, Mario Dumont constantly, but implicitly, legitimized a certain populist, even racializing discourse in public opinion." (To racialize is to give a racial character to something.) This made "expression of intolerance" more acceptable.
Among the media, Le Journal de Montréal was singled out for repeatedly creating a "dramatic staging" of real or imagined situations of reasonable accommodation, based on a very clear opposition of 'les Québécois' et 'les Autres.'"
As a solution, the author offers a hair-raising suggestion: The press council and the CRTC, the federal broadcast regulator, should be given the power to suspend the right of media or individual journalists to publish or broadcast for "negative coverage" that harms social cohesion.
Journalists and civil libertarians would certainly object, but I can think of a couple of people who might like that idea.

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