03/11/2014 03:47 EDT | Updated 05/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Peleadeau Upsets Mayors Worried Over Separatist Ownership Of Newspapers

OTTAWA - The mayor of Portage la Prairie, Man., is not happy that his local community newspaper is owned by a media magnate who wants to break up the country.

"It's a damn shame that the guy's chosen to go separatist," Earl Porter barked down the telephone line Tuesday.

Much has been made already of Pierre Karl Peladeau's sudden jump into Quebec provincial politics on behalf of the separatist Parti Quebecois — and the unsettling dominance there of his Quebecor media empire.

But less widely recognized is that if you live in Fort McMurray or Grande Prairie, Alta., Kenora, Sault Saint Marie, London or Niagara Falls, Ont., your local community daily is under the ownership of Quebecor — of which Peladeau controls almost three quarters of the voting shares.

In fact, Quebecor bills itself as "Canada's largest newspaper publisher," with more than 30 paid-circulation dailies — mostly in Ontario — and almost 200 community newspapers, shopping guides and specialty publications.

"News influences a lot of things and a lot of decisions in every walk of life," said Porter, the Portage mayor, who complains that Portage's Daily Graphic newspaper was reduced to publishing just twice weekly after the Quebecor-owned Sun Media chain took over.

"To have a separatist at the top, directing that news flow to the rest of Canada, doesn't make sense to me. It's just not right. It should be a Canadian that's gung-ho Canada."

Deborah Haswell, the mayor of Owen Sound, Ont., where the daily Sun Times is a community institution that's been stripped to the bone by a series of cost-cutting owners — currently Sun Media — says she was surprised to learn the extent of Quebecor's media properties.

"It is a bit of a concern when you have anyone in a political position, a position of authority, that also has such investments in the media of the day," Haswell said in an interview.

She said people going into elected public office have to make decisions about organizing their personal and business affairs "and with a mandate as a separatist, it's frightening for the country in terms of (Peladeau's) position and his ability to reach people."

Peladeau, known as a micro-managing businessman, resigned his day-to-day role in Quebecor a year ago and as of this week says he has relinquished all roles in the company, although he insists he will never sell his family's ownership stake.

Kory Teneycke, the head of Quebecor's Sun News Network, declined an interview request for this story and Quebecor's Luc Lavoie did not respond.

Media concentration has long been an issue in Canada, with public concern waning and waxing over the decades. Focusing on media moguls really shouldn't be the main issue, says Dwayne Winseck, a Carleton University journalism professor, because the problem is structural.

Nonetheless, says Winseck, "Nothing better to sharpen the public eye than a case like this: We have a media mogul — a one-man ownership crew here — with a stake (as) the fourth or fifth largest media outlet in the country."

Winseck, who is director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, says news consumers "have to take it on blind faith that Pierre Karl Peladeau is a good man who is going to put Chinese walls between his politics and his media."

"Well, nobody believes that."

There are those who take at face value the assurances of Peladeau and the Sun Media chain that the owner's politics won't colour the newspapers' editorial stance.

"We just don't see a connection here between his own personal politics and the impact on the local Sun Media product in this city," said David Goyette, executive assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett.

But Debbie Amaroso, the mayor of Sault Saint Marie said Peladeau's political ambitions raise concerns about "how information can get tainted."

Amaroso says the local Sault Star is barely able to cover local news, citing Monday's edition which was filled with Peladeau's move to the Parti Quebecois, including an editorial asserting Sun Media's independence.

Joan Fraser, a Liberal-appointed Senator and former editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette, has studied media concentration and says even if ownership isn't dictating editorial policy, it exerts influence because owners hire key managers whose judgment they trust and who generally agree with them.

"But when you cross the line and become both a legislator and the proprietor of very powerful media voices, I think the situation becomes significantly more troublesome," Fraser said in an interview.

Peladeau's splashy entry in Quebec politics and, by extension, national unity politics will cause many Canadians to re-examine media concentration, "and I think that's probably healthy," said Fraser.

"It is something that we should be aware of all the time. The economic pressures for concentration and for down-sizing and cost-cutting are enormous."

"But somebody has to think about the big picture in terms of the public interest and not just the economic interest of people who are struggling to keep the newspaper going."

Winseck says Canada is "a bit backwards" when it comes to old-style media ownership.

"We have a problem in Canada where we have this highly personalized form of media ownership coupled to highly concentrated levels of media."

Under this scenario, he said a Peladeau-like situation is almost inevitable.

He'd like Canadians to take a more sophisticated view of the problems of media concentration "that doesn't always look for the direct, meddlesome fingerprints of owners on content."

"But it's these kinds of issues that actually put the stuff on the front burner."

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