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The Payette Plan

A community protected,
a battle won,
a campaign continued


P.A. Sévigny/Beryl Wajsman

15 Nov. 2011


St-Pierre: Language provisions of Payette Plan would not affect non-franchophone media

Suburban publisher and editor obtain assurances from Minister during testimony


By P.A. Sévigny



During an official government consultation which took place in the Théatre Rouge located in Montreal's Conservatoire D'Art Dramatique, Quebec's Minister of Culture and Communications stated that there would be "no mandatory French language tests," for Quebec's ethnic and Anglophone media.


Ministre Christine St-Pierre is presently leading a province-wide consultation which is examining assorted issues related to Quebec's media following the release of what has come to be known as the Payette Report.

Her assurance came in response to concerns voiced by Suburban publisher Michael Sochaczevski and Suburban Editor and Métropolitain Publisher Beryl Wajsman in their presentation. "We have no intention of imposing French language tests on the province's English or ethnic media, or affecting any of its rights and viability, and I would ask you to disseminate that message." she said. "We do, however, want to improve the French used in Quebec's French-speaking media," she added.


Some 10 minutes into the presentation by Sochaczevski and Wajsman, who were not only representing The Suburban and The Métropolitain but also the 31-member Quebec Community Newspaper Association (QCNA), and were carrying a letter of support from the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), the minister understood that there was substantial opposition to the Payette Report and its assorted proposals.


Following a brief yet inspired defense of every Canadian citizen's rights and freedoms among which Wajsman included "the citizen's inalienable right to a free battleground of ideas unfettered by the heavy hand of the state" as the backbone of a strong democracy, it took Wajsman only a few minutes to follow up with a convincing argument as to why the government had no business using its powerful bureaucracy to police what is already a free and vigilant press. Following Wajsman's address, Sochaczevski used his time to argue that the media needed less rules and more freedom if the sector was to survive and thrive during the shifting economic conditions of the 21st century.


"If you reliably and consistently deliver the truth, it doesn't matter if you have a degree or pay a fee to an association. No amount of school makes you a journalist," said the veteran publisher. "Only writing stories makes you a journalist." Apart from several points he made about giving Quebec's media the time they need to adjust to the new century's shifting market conditions, he also told St-Pierre that the demands proposed by the Payette Report would effectively kill many of Quebec's independent weeklies. "They cannot afford the burdens being imposed," said Sochaczevski, "and a French language requirement for an English, Italian or Chinese paper is absurd." During the commissioners' question period, the minister, who was visibly annoyed with the suggestion that the plan recommended language testing, told both men they were wrong about the report's draconian language proposals.


She also asked Wajsman why he never bothered to contact her office prior to its editorials on the subject which went viral and his own national op-eds.


Well, Wajsman had. Apart from telling St-Pierre that he discussed the issue "at length," with  Premier Charest's Chief of Staff, Wajsman told the minister he had spoken to officials in her office on five separate occasions before the writing of the editorials and opinion pieces which denounced the Payette Report's more draconian recommendations, including the infamous single sentence (located on page 117) which reads (in French) as follows:


"Que le maintien du titre de journaliste professional soit lié à l'obligation d'obtenir un credit annuel de formation en langue Française." Sochaczevski had pointed out to the minister that he was very satisfied to hear her assurances that the recommendation did not mean to include non-francophones, but the language was clear.


Roughly translated, that means that every one of Quebec's journalists would have to take an annual French exam if they wish to maintain their accreditation as a working "professional journalist." While St-Pierre conceded that the wording was open to misinterpretation, she also repeated to the audience that the measure was meant to improve the quality of written and spoken French amid Quebec's French-speaking media.

"As far as we're concerned,² said the minister, " this measure - if adopted - would only affect Quebec's French-speaking media. Everyone else has nothing to worry about.² The minister then made a point of thanking Wajsman for making his presentation and comments in French.


Payette: a battle won, a campaign continues

By Beryl Wajsman


We have to give credit where credit is due. When The Suburban’s publisher Michael Sochaczevski and I testified in front of Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre, and her commissioners, hearing testimony on the Payette Report that seeks to institute journalistic accreditation creating two classes of writers, we came with a long list of concerns. Not only those of The Suburban and The Métropolitain but also those of the 31 member Quebec Community Newspaper Association whom we represented.


One of the most important was the Payette recommendation that all accredited journalists do a “formation” in the French language every year. Payette drew no distinction between francophone and non-francophone journalists. This would have posed a threat to all non-francophone media.


After some heated exchanges, related in The Suburban’s front page story this week, the Minister finally clearly and candidly gave assurance that nothing in Payette relating to language would touch the non-francophone media and that she, and the government, were committed to its growth and viability. And she asked that we disseminate the message. She should be thanked for her forthrightness. This particular issue was also of grave concern to the Quebec Community Groups Network who had written a letter in support of our position which was presented to the Commission.  We obtained a vital commitment that protectsl Anglophone and ethnic media on this island which is more than fifty per cent non-francophone. But other issues were presented, noted, but remain unresolved.


First among them is the illegitimacy of the state taking any hand in determining who is a journalist. It would put Quebec in the company of Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea, India and China. The press, since the French revolution, has been the fourth estate of government. For politicians to allow bureaucrats to determine who is “accredited”, is the same as allowing them to determine who may stand for public office. A free society cannot have two levels of citizenship or two levels of expression.


Secondly, the Payette report is replete with violations of private property. Freedom in a society is grounded in a respect for private property. Payette seeks to dictate to private owners of media everything from how to produce to what to pay to how to hire. If these recommendations are adopted, there will be wholesale closures of media properties.


Thirdly, the report states that there is a “crisis” in media worldwide. It is wrong. There is no crisis. Free expression and the rise of the citizen-journalist as we saw in the Arab spring, is eloquent testament to that. Payette is trying to create a problem where none exists.


Fourthly, the report speaks to the problem of “concentration.” Yet we alone represented some 32 independent media businesses. By introducing state fiat Payette would really see concentration because the independents could not survive under the suffocating demands of the state. More forms. More reports. The Fraser Institute and the Center for Policy Alternatives have already determined that small businesses in Canada spend 19 full working days a year fulfilling government demands. If Payette is enacted, media businesses would easily spend double that. The independents would not be viable.


The bottom line is that radio did not kill newspapers. Television did not kill newspapers. The internet cannot kill papers. We are the content producers. But the Payette report, if substantially adopted, will certainly be the death knell for many. And possibly also for freedom of the press in Quebec. The Payette Report contains a harmful amount of open-ended spending, unnecesaary new programs with unmanageable new bureaucracies that will cost the taxpayer dearly and are totally divorced from the necessities and economic realities of today.


A battle was won but the campaign continues. This story is far from over.


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