Friday, October 03, 2003
It's ironic that throughout September, just as Radio-Canada's radio and TV shows were obsessing over Jean-Claude Labrecque's film on Bernard Landry and his attacks on the media, the network's own flagship newscasts were sinking faster than the Empress of Ireland.
So much so that Claude Saint-Laurent, Rad-Can's almighty news director for over a decade, resigned this week. He was held mostly responsible for a series of changes intended to increase ratings compared to TVA and TQS but ended up undermining the network's prime-time newscasts.
New anchors were hired for the fall season while new formats were created and marketed as more viewer-friendly - that's coded language for dumbed down. At suppertime, Simon Durivage hosted a news broadcast that opened with four people chattering and laughing it up around a table.
The late night Téléjournal was handed to Gilles Gougeon, a respected reporter who ended up sounding more like a school teacher than a news anchor. One evening, viewers were treated to a surprisingly disgraceful moment when ultra-conservative media diva Denise Bombardier lashed out at a gay-rights activist in a so-called debate. She displayed the kind of contempt and prejudice that made the Téléjournal look like the Jerry Springer show.
The changes were one big accident waiting to happen. Viewers complained profusely, and ratings plummeted fast. The new hosts were unjustly ridiculed for simply trying to survive the Sesame Street-like formats their bosses had concocted. So the head of Saint-Laurent, one of the true culprits, finally rolled. Yesterday, other heads rolled.
One of the reasons for this dumbing down was to try to offset TQS's Grand Journal, hosted by maverick Jean-Luc Mongrain, who started out years ago with a populist, in-your-face, style of anchoring. But Saint-Laurent failed to notice that Mongrain has upgraded the quality of his broadcast over the past two years, which explains why his ratings have kept going up. This fall, he even brought in Pierre Nadeau, a highly respected journalist who happens to be one of Rad-Can's former news stars.
So goes the Rad-Can saga: many solid reporters headed by an incompetent leadership. But the problems didn't start yesterday. First, there were the devastating budget cuts Ottawa imposed on Rad-Can over the last few years. Last week, another $7 million was cut.
Second, seeing some of the very best reporters sidelined, moved to specialties that aren't their own, fired or retired is nothing new at Rad-Can. It had already happened to Louise Arcand, Jean Bédard, Bernard Derome, Michèle Viroly and others.
Third, since the last referendum, Rad-Can's television news department has been slowly neutered politically, avoiding in-depth debates and analysis on Quebec politics. It has resulted in often bland reports on what the station now constantly refers to as the "province" of Quebec.
One example: Last week, Zone Libre, a public affairs show, reported on Parc-Extension. It showed new Quebecers of many origins, most of whom spoke English and not a word of French. The reporter interviewed them in English and focused on "Canadian values" as if the issue of integration into Quebec society and Bill 101 were yesterday's news.
One problem has been that Saint-Laurent, along with now former news boss Jean Pelletier, worked hard to portray Quebec as a province like the others. You could say that the Batman and Robin of national unity made it their personal mission.
That mission started in 1996 when many thought Lucien Bouchard would hold another referendum. Saint-Laurent was working hard to recruit senior journalists to help promote his national-unity agenda. Saint-Laurent and Pelletier became so busy trying to save Canada that they forgot to save the quality of their own information.
At the same time, they developed close ties with the pro-unity Power Corporation-owned dailies such as La Presse. While analysts from other media might get invited, Power Corp. reporters and editorialists have been increasingly visible on Rad-Can. Since the events of 9/11, international affairs have also often overtaken newscasts, further reducing the coverage of Quebec politics.
This is no conspiracy theory. It has simply been a rather effective job done by Saint-Laurent and Pelletier since they, after the referendum's close call, have opted to work hard for what they believe in: Canadian unity.
One problem is that they do it with taxpayers' money, including the taxes of those who believe otherwise. Another problem is that this has created what ends too often as unexciting television news and analysis on Quebec that tries hard not to make any waves.
Although no one, except perhaps Landry, wants Rad-Can or any media to be a mouthpiece for the Parti Québécois or any other party, would it be too much to ask that it presents exciting, opposing and thought-provoking analysis of Quebec politics, as it did so wonderfully well before 1996?
Rad-Can showing its federalist bias
Friday, October 03, 2003