When I began writing this column almost two years ago, one of my first subjects (the second, in fact) was the seismic shift in the media landscape taking place across Canada.
Canwest Global, then the nation’s biggest owner of daily newspapers, as well as the Global-TV network, other TV stations and newspapers around the world, was beginning to crack under a mountain of debt as it tried to squeeze its already-profitable papers for every single cent. Meanwhile, Quebecor, the Montreal-based giant in printing, magazines, the TVA network, Videotron cable, and the Sun newspaper chain, had just locked out employees at its flagship and founding newspaper, the Journal de Montréal, as it was losing billions through its worldwide printing operations.
The similarities between the two conglomerates were striking. Both were run by the sons of charismatic founders: the legendary Izzy Asper gave way to his son Leonard shortly before passing away in 2003; the equally iconic Pierre Péladeau passed on the reins of his operation to son Pierre-Karl before dying in 1997.
The similarities don’t end there. Both silver-spoon babies possess a sharp sense of entitlement and a contemptuous view of the lower classes that both their fathers clawed their way out of with hard work and ingenuity. And both were determined to use their media empires to push an ultra-conservative ideology on Canadians, shedding their media of progressive or even middle-of-the-road voices that had been allowed to exist, albeit marginally, under the administration of their respective fathers.
Almost two years later, where do things stand? Well, just last week, Canwest Global pretty much ceased to exist in Canada: the last of Canwest’s television assets here emerged from bankruptcy under the control of the Shaw Broadcasting group. Earlier in the year, a publishing group led by former Toronto Sun publisher Paul Godfrey took over the Canwest newspaper chain, including the Montreal Gazette and National Post.
In a classic case of imperial overreach, Leonard Asper had borrowed billions to buy media properties at the top of the market, and hung on to them too long as the market tanked. Saddled with unsustainable debt and properties worth a fraction of the price he paid, the quick dissolution of the empire his daddy built was inevitable without a white knight riding to the rescue.
As for Pierre-Karl Péladeau, now simply known as PKP, the contrast couldn’t be any starker. From the brink of bankruptcy, PKP is now one of the most powerful media players in Quebec, where he owns almost half of all media properties in the entire province, or Canada for that matter. The 253 employees of the Journal de Montréal, meanwhile, have been on the street for 21 months during an employer lockout that does not appear to be ending anytime soon.
In mid-October the “lock-outés” voted 89.3% to reject PKP’s offer to end the lock out. And no wonder. The proposed deal would have seen 200 of the 253 employees fired, while allowing none of the laid-off former workers to find employment with media competitors in Montreal if they accepted a severance package. Oh, and for good measure, the union’s members would have to close its online daily publication, rue Frontenac, which has proven to be a far superior media product to the current JdeM while it publishes scoop after scoop.
The offer was designed to be rejected, and why not? The Quebec government allows PKP to openly flout Quebec labour law by employing so-called “managers” to write, edit and publish the Journal de Montréal, which hasn’t missed a day of publication and pulls in millions in easy profits with minimal overhead. You’d never know that we supposedly have an anti-scab law in this province to help level the playing field between employer and employee while ensuring a certain level of labour peace.
But that’s not the only favour our government is doing for a person who is probably the worst employer in the province.
As Quebecers, we all collectively own 45% of Quebecor through the government’s investment arm, the Caisse de dépôt et placement, which manages our retirement funds. A corporate structure can be a curious and strange thing to behold, and the governance structure of Quebecor will leave most of the owners – i.e., you and I – scratching our heads.
Early in the last decade, the Quebec cable giant Vidéotron was in play, and the Quebec Inc. financial wizards at the Caisse de dépôt wanted to prevent it at all costs from falling into the hands of Toronto-based Rogers. So the Caisse offered Pierre-Karl $3.2 billion of our retirement savings to help him buy Vidéotron, a true money machine if there ever was one.
The truly funny thing is that, while we, through the Caisse, now own 45% of Quebecor, PKP only owns 14.9%. But he retains absolute control through a complicated system of voting shares that gives him the right to appoint a majority to its board.
So, while PKP pushes a harsh anti-government agenda on Quebec and Canadian politics through his media mouthpieces, his wealth and power are completely due to a sweetheart deal conducted on the backs of taxpayers, who unwittingly are profiting from a terribly unjust labour dispute at the company’s flagship enterprise.
Capitalism at its best.