02/15/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 04/15/2012 05:12 EDT

CBC-Quebecor Spat: Internal Memo To Harper Defends Public Broadcaster

OTTAWA - The Harper government is defending the CBC in the public broadcaster's nasty spat with Quebecor over advertising dollars, an internal memo shows.

For more than two years, the president and CEO of Quebecor has claimed that CBC and its French-language arm, Radio-Canada, have boycotted the company's newspapers when choosing where to advertise its programs.

As recently as Jan. 23, Pierre Karl Peladeau suggested in a published letter that CBC may be trying to "punish" Quebecor for exercising its rights to free speech, an apparent reference to Sun Media's frequent criticisms of spending and secrecy at the public broadcaster.

Sun Media is the Quebecor unit that operates the Sun newspaper chain in major cities, as well as the Sun News channel.

"Such an attack on fundamental rights held dear by Canadians is all the more deplorable for having been conducted by a Crown corporation that is supposed to be accountable to Canadians," Peladeau wrote to Hubert Lacroix, president and CEO of CBC.

In May last year, Peladeau wrote directly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to alert him to a "discriminatory practice that serves no one but the vindictive interest of CBC/Radio-Canada's leadership."

But a Sept. 7 memo to Harper that analyzes the dispute concludes "there is no policy at CBC/RC that systematically excludes Quebecor publications or media from CBC/RC's purchases of promotional space."

The document, signed by Wayne Wouters, clerk of the Privy Council, goes on to praise CBC's advertising and marketing decisions.

"In absolute and relative terms, the CBC/RC is reaching more Canadians across more platforms than at any time in their history," says the memo, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

"One of the key factors contributing to this strong performance has been an effective approach to advertising and marketing."

The positive words from the Harper government are in contrast to the rough ride given Lacroix at a House of Commons committee last fall, with Tory MPs leading the charge. The issue was in part CBC's poor performance in releasing information about itself under the Access to Information Act.

Lacroix also recently said CBC is likely to be hit hard by the Tory government's current cost-cutting exercise, which asks departments and agencies to trim spending by between five and 10 per cent. Details will be provided in the federal budget expected next month.

A spokesman for Harper said the government is not picking sides in the CBC-Quebecor spat.

"The government has no comment on the dispute between these two organizations and has not sided with either," Andrew MacDougall said in an email.

"The government does, however, expect CBC/Radio-Canada to operate in an impartial and transparent manner when using taxpayer funds."

Quebecor's vice-president of corporate affairs, Serge Sasseville, said he was "very surprised by what is written in that document," noting the prime minister's officials never contacted the company for information.

"Maybe they didn't get all the pertinent information to come to that kind of position," he said in an interview.

Sasseville cited two recent Quebecor letters to CBC that he said provide further proof of CBC's discriminatory practices. "I think that they clearly demonstrate that there is a boycott."

But a spokesman for CBC insisted there is no corporate policy to avoid placing ads in Quebecor papers.

"We have placed ads with Quebecor over the past few years, but not recently," said Marco Dube. "Quebecor — it's worth noting — does not place ads with CBC/Radio-Canada."

Dube added: "Our advertising strategies are legitimate and have provided us with great returns, as they have been instrumental in helping us reach record audiences."

Last month, The Canadian Press reported that Quebecor was threatening legal action unless CBC changed its advertising policy.

Sasseville said the company has not "yet" initiated legal action.

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