Charges of Media Bias Run Two Ways As Quebec Votes Today on Separation

OF all the political battlegrounds leading up to today's referendum on Quebec's independence, the most influential have been the media.

The principal site for the battle of ideas over a separate Quebec has been greater Montreal. With almost half of Quebec's 7.2 million people, it has three French-language daily newspapers, one English-language daily, five television networks, and half-a-dozen news radio stations.

Ever since the concept of an independent Quebec began to take hold 25 years ago, French-language reporters have been accused of bias. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once referred to them as "a nest of separatists."

But Quebec journalists say this is a myth that dates back to 1976, when the separatist Parti Quebecois was first elected. Back then a survey showed 79 percent of Quebec reporters were supporters of the Parti Quebecois, and 86 percent wanted Quebec to be sovereign.

William Johnson, a bilingual reporter raised in French-speaking schools in Quebec, began to cover the Quebec National Assembly for the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1976 and was appalled by the lack of critical coverage.

Mr. Johnson found the reporters supported and promoted the separatist party line. He referred to Quebec City reporters as a bunch of "trained seals" in a column that outraged his French-language colleagues.

Is the same bias there in the close-run referendum campaign of October 1995?

"Yes. But there is bias on both sides, French and English," answers Paul Attallah, who teaches communications in the school of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Mr. Attallah co-authored a study of bias in the Quebec media in the early 1980s. Examples of that bias, Attallah says, are in the two main French-language nontabloid newspapers: La Presse supports the federalist side, and Le Devoir backs the separatist option.

"In spite of their strong ideological commitments, those newspapers are open to ... doing much more extensive reporting on what the other option believes," Attallah says. "Whereas the English-language media are overwhelmingly opposed and basically operate as the official organ of state propaganda."

Two incidents in the past week have shown that bias. On Friday afternoon, the streets of Montreal were filled with people demonstrating in favor of the federalist, or "no," option. Reports by English-language television and newspapers said as many as 180,000 people jammed the center of the city.

But many of the French press said there were only 35,000 to 40,000 at the "no" rally.

Last week, Prime Minister Jean Chretien came to Montreal to give a speech, a crucial one since the federalist forces who started in the lead had by then slipped in the polls. Mr. Chretien's speech was given different emphasis in different-language media.

"Chretien did his big 'no' speech on Tuesday and even though it was No. 1 on English-language television, it was No. 11 on the [French-language] Radio-Canada [television] newscast," says Lydia Miljan, the editor of "On Balance," the National Media Archive of the Fraser Institute in Vancouver.

The institute is the only organization in Canada that conducts a regular statistical analysis of bias in the nation's media.

Ms. Miljan says French-language reporters now present more balanced stories than they did in 1976 or during the referendum campaign of 1980. But she says overall their support for sovereignty still shows through clearly.

"Equal time at the end of the newscast is not balance," Miljan says. She agrees with Attallah that the English-language media have abandoned much of their critical objectivity and have become cheerleaders for federalist forces.

"The same cultural biases are at work, just in reverse," Miljan says. "English-language reporters want to save the country; French reporters want to boost sovereignty. They're not even apologetic."

The separatist side also complained of bias during the campaign by the French-language television network. Radio-Canada refused to take a paid political advertisement from the "yes" forces because it disagrees with its contents.

"Has ... Ottawa given orders to Radio-Canada to refuse the "yes" side access to the airwaves?" asked the leader of the separatist campaign, Lucien Bouchard.

'Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new Economic and Political Partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?'

- Referendum question

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