The Role of Press Councils in a System of Media Accountability: The Case of Quebec

David Pritchard (School of Journalism, Indiana University)

Abstract: This paper analyzes the Quebec Press Council as a mechanism for media accountability and traces its effectiveness as a forum for complaints about media ethics. Data come from the QPC's 800 case files and from a series of interviews.

Résumé: Cet article analyse le fonctionnement du Conseil de presse du Québec et son efficacité comme tribunal d'honneur où sont adressées et traitées les plaintes concernant l'éthique journalistique. Les données de base proviennent des 800 dossiers du CPQ et de plusieurs entrevues.

Peter Desbarats has written that "the whole question of accountability remains one of the great unresolved issues of contemporary journalism" (Desbarats, 1990, p. 172). One difficulty in resolving the issue is the fact that scholars and journalists lack an adequate understanding of accountability (Christians, 1989). "The discussion of media accountability," the editors of a recent book on accountability wrote, "remains in a conceptual muddle" (Dennis & Gillmor, 1989, p. viii).

This article rests on the assumption that the conceptual muddle cannot be clarified without careful exploration of how mechanisms of media accountability actually function. The article approaches media accountability from the perspective of consumers of media content; accountability is conceptualized as a process set in motion by people who complain, who seek to hold the media accountable.

Among the important mechanisms of media accountability are press councils. The article offers a brief overview of the North American experience with press councils, and then explores how one of them--the Quebec Press Council--functions as a mechanism of media accountability.

This article is not intended to be the definitive work on the Quebec Press Council. Rather, my hope is that it can situate the QPC (and perhaps other mechanisms of media accountability) in an analytical context that can help provide the foundation for future studies.

My understanding of how the QPC handles disputes comes from direct observation, interviews, and an examination of the documents in each of the almost 800 case files that had been completed by July 1989. I spent June and July of that year going through the files in the QPC's Quebec City office. I read letters of complaint, news stories that sparked complaints, private memos between members of the press council staff, draft rulings, final rulings, news stories about the rulings, and any other documents that were in the files. In addition, I was permitted to observe a day-long meeting of the QPC's Comité des cas, which meets in private several times a year to make rulings on complaints.

Other information came from interviews or correspondence with about 20 people who have been involved with the QPC in various ways over the years. The list of informants includes journalists, lawyers, academics, and current and former QPC staff members. I also read many articles about press councils in Canadian journalism reviews (e.g., Content, Le 30).


If thought about media accountability is hindered by a lack of conceptual clarity, as was suggested at the start of this article, then it is important to define the accountability process and to introduce a fairly precise vocabulary to describe its components.

Media accountability can be defined as the process by which news organizations or journalists are obliged to render an account of their activities to recognized constituencies such as audience members, news sources, advertisers, professional colleagues, or government regulatory bodies. An account is an explanation, or justification, of one's conduct. The process of media accountability is strongly influenced by the social, cultural, and political environment in which the news organization exists and in which an account is demanded. Underlying the notion of media accountability is the assumption that journalists and news organizations are more likely to behave in a manner that society would define as responsible if they know that they may be required to explain their behaviour.

A system of media accountability is centered around a set of principles that define (or at least delimit) responsible media behaviour. However, those principles, by themselves, do not fully describe a system of accountability, much less enable reform. As Thomas Emerson wrote about a normative system of a slightly different kind:

It is not enough merely to formulate the broad principles or simply to incorporate them in general rules of law. It is necessary to develop a framework of doctrines, practices, and institutions which will take into account the actual forces at work and make possible the realistic achievement of the objectives sought. (Emerson, 1970, p. 4)

In empirical terms, the media accountability process--the "actual forces at work," to use Emerson's phrase--is set in motion when a member of one of a news organization's recognized constituencies demands an account from the news organization. For example, a reader might be unhappy with the scant coverage a newspaper gives to famine in Africa, and might want to know why the newspaper doesn't do more. In a similar fashion, requests for explanations might come from a listener unhappy with the small amount of local news broadcast by a radio station, from a news source unhappy that a television station aired only 10 seconds of a 30-minute interview, from the owner of a tanning salon unhappy that a magazine published a story about skin cancer next to an advertisement for the tanning salon.

In each of the above cases, the constituent (e.g., a reader, listener, news source, advertiser) has named a problem with the news organization's performance and has blamed, at least implicitly, the news organization for failing to live up to the constituent's standards of responsibility (Pritchard, 1987).

The news organization's explanation for its behaviour may satisfy the constituent who called it to account. If not, however, the constituent may make a claim; e.g., may demand that the newspaper pay more attention to Africa, that the radio station broadcast more local news, that the television station apologize for taking the news source's remarks out of context, that the magazine give the owner of the tanning salon a free advertisement in the next issue. These early stages of dispute formation have been studied in some depth, though rarely in a media context (Coates & Penrod, 1981; Felstiner, Abel, & Sarat, 1981; Fitzgerald & Dickins, 1981).

Naming problems, blaming a news organization for the problems, and claiming redress represent the initial stages of the process of media accountability (Pritchard, 1986). These initial stages tend to be private and procedurally informal, and often lead to the satisfaction of claims (Sanders, 1990).

Frequently, however, news organizations fail to satisfy constituents' claims (Bezanson, Cranberg, & Soloski, 1987). When that happens, the constituent who wants to pursue the matter must choose a forum (or variety of forums) in which to present the dispute to a third party of some kind (Mather & Yngvesson, 1981). A forum is a public setting in which the validity of a constituent's claim may be discussed. Third parties are people, groups, or organizations who have no direct stake in the dispute, and whose views about the validity of a constituent's claim will have legitimacy in the eyes of at least one of the disputants (i.e., either the claimant or the news organization that did not satisfy the claim).

Although forums tend to be linked with specified third parties (e.g., a trial court is a forum that is associated with a judge or jury as third party), it is important to note that unsatisfied claimants may use a particular forum as a vehicle to reach a third party not generally associated with that forum. It is fairly common, for example, for a libel plaintiff to use the act of suing a news organization as a means of persuading the public (or at least a certain portion of the public) of the validity of the plaintiff's claim against the news organization (Bezanson, Cranberg, & Soloski, 1987). In such a case, the forum would be the court; the third party of interest to the plaintiff would be a segment of the public. Forums come in different forms; a soapbox in a public square is a forum, as is a court of law. Third parties can range from the public to professional groups to judges.

In this scheme, the people who bring a complaint to a press council have already named a problem and blamed someone (usually a news organization) for causing the problem. Most press councils will not adjudicate a case unless the complainant has also made a claim to the offending news organization. If the claim is not satisfied, press councils are forums that unsatisfied claimants can use. The press council members who make rulings on cases are third parties, though in cases linked to larger controversies they may not be the third party of ultimate interest to the complainant.

Press Councils in North America

Nine Canadian provinces (all but Saskatchewan) and one American state (Minnesota) have press councils. The councils generally are funded by news organizations and foundations, and their members come both from the news media and the general public. Though they have no legal power to enforce their decisions, press councils receive and adjudicate complaints about press performance. The sole power of press councils is the power of publicity; news organizations are encouraged to publish press council rulings.

The North American experience with press councils is mixed. In the United States, the National News Council was created in 1973, but never really caught hold and ceased operations in 1984 (the story is told in Brogan, 1985). The news media in Minnesota helped create a state news council in the 1970s, but similar proposals in several other states failed. At the end of 1990, Minnesota's was the only large-scale press council in the United States.

In Canada, on the other hand, press councils abound. The first press councils were created in the early 1970s, largely in response to proposals for greater government regulation of the press. In Ontario, for example, a provincial commission investigating human rights in the late 1960s concluded that sensational coverage of crimes tended to prejudice defendants' rights to a fair trial. The commission proposed the establishment of a press council "to control and discipline the press and other news media" (cited in Clift, 1981). In Quebec, also during the late 1960s, the provincial government created a special legislative committee to investigate the impact of concentration of ownership on freedom of the press. Although the committee never made any formal recommendations, premier Jean-Jacques Bertrand made it known that he thought a provincial press council would be an excellent idea (Clift, 1981; Keable, 1985).

In 1970, the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media increased the pressure on the news media by urging creation of a national press council. Although the proposed press council was to be non-governmental, publishers perceived an implicit threat of direct government regulation of the news media. In 1971, Canada's first press council--a community council serving Windsor--was created. In 1972 the Ontario and Alberta press councils were formed. The Quebec Press Council, which had been in the planning stages for several years, began operations in 1973.

The second wave of press council creation in Canada came after the report of the Royal Commission on Newspapers in 1981. The Commission said that "newspapers which do not become enthusiastically involved in the establishment and operation of press councils are exceedingly short-sighted" (Royal Commission on Newspapers, 1981, p. 226). The Commission proposed a Canada Newspaper Act, which would have required creation of local press councils in communities with chain-owned monopoly newspapers (ibid., p. 249). In addition, the statute would have created a federal Press Rights Panel. Part of the Press Rights Panel's job would have been to "observe the performance of newspapers in Canada . . . and to publish annually a review of that performance with any comment and advice to newspapers or government that it deems appropriate" (ibid., p. 252).

Although few of the Royal Commission on Newspapers' recommendations were incorporated into legislation, a bill that would have enabled the federal government to create a federal council to hear complaints from provinces without press councils was introduced in Parliament by the Trudeau government. The message to newspaper publishers was clear: create voluntary press councils or face the possibility of government regulation.

The result was a resurgence of interest in press councils in the provinces that did not have them. Although the federal legislation never passed, by 1983 publishers had created press councils for British Columbia, Manitoba, and the Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island). Saskatchewan publishers were considering proposals to affiliate with the Alberta Press Council when Brian Mulroney's Conservatives defeated the Liberals in the 1984 election. Press legislation was not on the Conservative agenda, and Saskatchewan's publishers decided not to take part in a press council (Fahey, 1985).

The Context of Media Accountability in Quebec

The Quebec and Canadian governments provide a variety of forums that can be used for disputing with the media. Among them are courts, especially for those who believe their reputations have been harmed or their privacy invaded (Trudel, 1984; Vallières, 1985; Martin & Adam, 1989); and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which handles complaints about the content of broadcast news (see, e.g., Comité d'enquête sur le service national de radiodiffusion, 1977). Various agencies of the Quebec government, including le Conseil du statut de la femme (complaints about media sex-role stereotyping) and l'Office de la protection du consommateur (complaints about misleading advertising) also accept complaints against the media. Leblanc (1984) has discussed Quebec agencies that act as mechanisms of media accountability; Salter and Anderson (1985) have provided a brief overview with respect to Canada as a whole.

News organizations themselves may also provide forums that claimants can use. Letters to the editor, a time-honoured tradition in North American newspapers, offer unhappy readers a forum for pleading their case against a newspaper. However, individuals and groups who anticipate future dealings with a news organization tend to be reluctant to criticize the organization in a public letter (Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1989). The effectiveness of letters to the editor as a mechanism of media accountability is also hindered by doubts about the willingness of newspapers to publish letters critical of press performance.

Another means of accountability is provided by the 35 or so newspapers in North America, including six in Canada, that have ombudsmen. News ombudsmen take complaints from readers and sources, and can be viewed as internal third parties to whom unsatisfied claimants can appeal.

The only Quebec newspaper with an ombudsman is the Montreal Gazette, which created such a position in 1981. The Gazette ombudsman can order corrections, and writes a regular column that sometimes is critical of the newspaper. Although reporters and editors may value an ombudsman's work (Langlois & Sauvageau, 1989), and although readers generally react favourably to an ombudsman (Bernstein, 1986; Hartung, Jacoby, & Dozier, 1988), many ombudsmen see themselves more as fulfilling a public relations role for the newspaper than as being strong reader advocates (Ettema & Glasser, 1987).

The system of media accountability also includes various mechanisms that are not directly connected to resolving complaints from audience members or sources. Ethics codes to guide journalistic behaviour are one such mechanism, and many Quebec news organizations have ethics codes. Among the reasons one journalist gave for favouring ethics codes is that they are "peut-être nécessaires aussi pour éviter de se faire taper trop souvent sur les doigts par le Conseil de presse" (Gagnon, 1986, p. 62). Despite the enthusiasm of many for ethics codes, however, it is far from clear that they systematically influence journalistic behaviour (Pritchard & Morgan, 1989).

Another mechanism of media accountability is public media criticism, a form of professional self-regulation that is alive and well in Quebec. Le 30, a monthly with links to la Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, and La Dépêche, a bimonthly published by la Fédération nationale des communications, regularly offer penetrating critiques of media performance. In addition, since 1979 each issue of Le 30 has contained a critique of selected QPC decisions by Jacques Guay, a former journalist now on the faculty of le Département d'information et de communication at Université Laval. Guay's role is an interesting one; he is the institutional critic of the QPC, which is an institutional critic of the press, which is an institutional critic of government.

At the periphery of the system of media accountability are provisions in union contracts. The collective bargaining agreements in effect at many Quebec news organizations guarantee certain professional prerogatives to journalists covered by the agreements (Gagnon, 1980). However, their contribution to media accountability can be questioned. Some portions of the contracts may actually work against accountability by guaranteeing journalists space in the newspaper to respond to critical letters, a practice that Laplante (1986) believes may inhibit readers from writing critical letters. On the other hand, the contract at Quebec's largest-circulation newspaper--Le Journal de Montréal--requires that the employer publish "toute décision que pourrait rendre le Conseil de Presse du Québec quant à une plainte dans laquelle lui-même, son journal ou toute personne à son emploi serait impliqué. Telle publication doit survenir dans un délai de quinze (15) jours de sa divulgation par le Conseil de Presse."

As the wording of the contract suggests, the most important mechanism of media accountability in the province is the Quebec Press Council.

The Quebec Press Council

Inspired by the creation of the British Press Council in 1953, l'Union canadienne des journalistes de langue française in the late 1950s proposed a press council for Quebec. At the time, newspaper owners were uninterested, but throughout the 1960s discussions between journalists' groups and owners about the structure of an eventual press council continued. An agreement in principle was reached in 1971, and the Quebec Press Council began operations in 1973 (Clift, 1981; Gariépy, 1982). Today, the QPC is considered to be the most dynamic press council in North America, and perhaps anywhere.

The press council has 19 members--six designated by management organizations, six designated by journalists' organizations, and seven members of the public. Unlike the other major Canadian press councils, which accept complaints only against newspapers (and only against those who are members of the press council), the Quebec council accepts complaints against any news organization, even those that are not members of the QPC's constituent organizations. In addition, the QPC welcomes complaints from journalists who believe they have been hindered in the exercise of their work. Finally, the QPC has a greater degree of financial independence from the media than any other North American press council.

The Royal Commission on Newspapers said that only Quebec's council had the "vigor and authority" envisaged by Canada's earliest advocates of press councils (Royal Commission on Newspapers, 1981, p. 226). Claude-Jean Bertrand, a French scholar who has studied press councils worldwide, said that the structure of the QPC comes closer to the ideal press council structure than that of any other press council (Bertrand, 1985).

The fundamental objective of the QPC is "de protéger le droit du public à l'information libre, honnête et complète et de sauvegarder la liberté de presse" (Règlement général 3.1.1). The principal activity of the press council is adjudicating complaints about infringements of the public's right to complete and honest information, or of press freedom. Although the QPC makes rulings on many cases each year, it has no legal power to enforce its decisions, nor does it impose any sanctions. It disseminates information about its decisions widely in hopes that publicity about violations of ethical principles will educate and influence journalists and the public.

It has been suggested that there may be fewer lawsuits against news organizations in areas served by press councils than elsewhere (Farrar, 1986; Henry, 1989). The assumption is that press councils have characteristics that make them more attractive forums than courts for the resolution of disputes (O'Malley, 1987). To understand why people unhappy with media performance might complain to a press council instead of filing a lawsuit, it is helpful to compare courts and press councils on several dimensions, with specific examples provided by the experience of the Quebec Press Council.

Table 1 outlines some important differences between courts and the QPC.

Table 1 A Selective Comparison of Attributes of Courts and of the Quebec Press Council
Courts Press Council
Rules of standing to complain Restrictive Broad
Jurisdiction in media cases Narrow Broad
Rules of procedure Strict Fairly relaxed
Involvement of lawyers Almost always Rarely
Cost of complaining Fairly high Low
Disinterested decision-makers Yes Not entirely
Nature of possible sanctions Fines, prison Publicity
Decisions legally enforceable Yes No
State of jurisprudence Indexed Not indexed

Some of the differences have to do with access to the forum. In general, press councils accept a wider range of complaints than do courts. Courts receive complaints only from individuals or organizations who have been directly involved in a dispute. For example, article 1053 of Quebec's civil code allows the use of the courts by anyone who believes that the actions of another have harmed him or her. The harm, however, must be relatively direct (Vallières, 1985). People unhappy with how the news media have covered a particular event or issue have no standing to bring a lawsuit in the courts unless they have been identified, directly or indirectly, in the offending coverage.

The QPC, on the other hand, gives virtually everyone standing to complain. The council accepts complaints from "any individual, group, or organization that believes its right to information has been infringed." The underlying assumption is that low-quality information harms all consumers of information, and thus any consumer of information has the right to complain. He or she need not be identified in the offending media content.

Related to issues of standing is a second area of difference between courts and press councils--jurisdiction. Even if a person has standing to bring a lawsuit, his or her complaint would have to be structured according to relevant tort law, which typically would mean framing the complaint in terms of libel or invasion of privacy. Not all breaches of ethics or good taste can be framed as torts.

However, all breaches of ethics or good taste can be framed as complaints to press councils. In fact, the vast majority of complaints to the QPC deal with matters that fall outside the boundaries of tort law. Complaints are frequently made about matters such as advertising masquerading as news, news organizations' refusing to publish letters to the editor, errors of fact in news stories, journalists' conflicts of interest, and propagation of ethnic stereotypes.

Even though the QPC can deal with a much broader range of media-related disputes than can courts, the precise boundaries of the council's jurisdiction have been a matter of dispute over the years. In 1984, for example, the QPC accepted a complaint against the contents of a bulletin published by a municipal government (Le parti civique de Val-Bélair c. L'impact de Val-Bélair, 1984). In Le 30, Jacques Guay severely criticized the decision, which he said mistook public relations for journalism. The bulletin was government public relations, and thus should have been outside the jurisdiction of the QPC, Guay wrote (Guay, 1984). A year later, a complaint was made about a story published by a student newspaper at Concordia University in Montreal. Despite the fact that The Concordian was much more of a journalistic product than was the bulletin published by the municipal government in the prior case, QPC staff member André Beaudet questioned whether the QPC had jurisdiction. "Il n'est pas évident que cette plainte relève du mandat et de la compétence du Conseil vu le statut du Concordian qui semble être un journal d'association plutôt qu'une entreprise de presse au sens où le Conseil l'entend habituellement," Beaudet wrote in a letter to the complainant (Julian Samuel c. Derek Conlon, The Concordian, 1985).

In the 1970s, a time of great tension between labour and management in Quebec newsrooms, many complaints to the QPC were related to labour disputes at news organizations. Often, the QPC accepted jurisdiction over such matters, to the chagrin of media managers. The media enterprises provide the lion's share of the QPC's funding, and at times the QPC received thinly veiled threats about what would happen to that funding if the QPC continued to take an expansive view of its jurisdiction.

In 1985, for example, a women's group asked a Radio-Canada television journalist to moderate a debate. Radio-Canada refused to allow the journalist to participate, asserting that her participation would be a conflict of interest. The journalist complained to the QPC, which ruled that the journalist had the same right as anyone else to participate in a public event as long as it was clear that she was not invited to participate as a representative of Radio-Canada (Gisèle Lalande c. La Société Radio-Canada, 1986). Pierre O'Neil, director of information for Radio-Canada, was not pleased with the decision. He wrote a letter appealing the decision. His May 28, 1986, letter was ominous in tone: "Par certaines de ses pratiques d'une part, par certaines de ses décisions d'autre part, le Conseil a révélé récemment une tendance à se prendre tantôt pour un tribunal de travail, tantôt pour un tribunal des droits de la personne. Je m'étonnerais que les entreprises de presse continuent de tolérer encore longtemps cette évolution du Conseil. Je puis vous assurer que ce ne sera pas notre cas."

Radio-Canada was (and remained) one of the major funders of the chronically underfunded QPC. Nonetheless, the QPC's Commission d'appel unanimously rejected Radio-Canada's appeal.

By the late 1980s, the QPC tended to take a narrower view of its jurisdiction. A journalist who was fired because of a dispute with his boss over how to deal with a source complained to the QPC. Although the QPC acknowledged that "la plainte soulevait d'importantes questions d'éthique," it decided that the complaint dealt more with labour relations than with ethics, and declined to consider its merits (Eddy Verbeeck c. Michel Matteau, L'Hebdo du Saint-Maurice, 1988).

A third important difference between courts and press councils is rigidity of procedure. Lawsuits are governed by the complex rules of civil procedure. Press councils, on the other hand, have more relaxed procedures. The QPC, in fact, takes pain to note: "Tout juridisme ou formalisme doit être évité dans les procédures, l'analyse, l'étude ou l'audition des cas soumis à l'attention du Conseil" (Règlement général 3.1.2).

Because the rules are more complex and the stakes often higher in courts than before press councils, the parties to a lawsuit are almost always represented by lawyers. Parties to press council cases generally represent themselves, without the aid of a lawyer. An important exception to that general rule, however, is Quebecor, the conglomerate that owns three daily newspapers (Le Journal de Montréal, Le Journal de Québec, and the Sherbrooke Record) and many weekly newspapers throughout Quebec. All of Quebecor's cases in recent years have been handled by a lawyer who works out of the corporation's headquarters in downtown Montreal.

Despite the QPC's requirement that "tout juridisme ou formalisme doit être évité," its rules also say that it will respect the rules of equity and the fundamental principles of justice. J. Serge Sasseville, who by 1990 had been Quebecor's lawyer in QPC cases for several years, believes that procedure is a large part of the "fundamental principles of justice" (Sasseville interview, 1990). He often made detailed procedural arguments and demands that protracted cases for months.

In June 1988, for example, the QPC received a complaint about an allegedly discriminatory headline in Le Journal de Montréal. The headline "Après avoir pris le contrôle du comité de parents, les Arabes imposent l'enseignement de la langue de Mahomet" attempted to summarize a story about differences of opinion between French-speaking and Arabic-speaking parents over the language of instruction in a primary school.

Although the complaint dealt only with the manifest content of the headline and the accompanying story, Sasseville several times asked QPC staff to seek additional information from the complainant. Each time the staff complied, with the result that an essentially simple case took 26 months to resolve (La Commission des droits de la personne c. Le Journal de Montréal, 1990). As Richard P. Cunningham, who was Minneapolis Tribune ombudsman and later associate director of the ill-fated National News Council in the United States, wrote, "When journalistic disputes get into lawyers' hands, tactics become the first concern and the revelation of truth is grudging" (Cunningham, 1989, p. 59). Despite Quebecor's decision to use its lawyer in all QPC cases, it is important to note that very few other parties to QPC cases use lawyers.

The fourth major difference between courts and press councils is cost. Lawyers are a virtual necessity if one wants to file a lawsuit. One does not need a lawyer to complain to a press council, which keeps the cost of complaining to the press council much lower than the cost of filing a lawsuit. In other words, although cost barriers may prevent poor people from filing lawsuits against the media (Martin, 1983), there are few such barriers with press councils. Indeed, cost is often cited as a reason why complainants take a case to the QPC instead of to court.

One such complainant was Huguette Lachapelle, who felt that her local newspaper had mocked her and invaded her privacy. In her August 21, 1979, letter of complaint she wrote: "Je suis une femme ordinaire au foyer; je n'ai pas de diplôme ou argent pour me défendre par le Barreau, car après quelques démarches téléphoniques j'ai appris que défendre une cause de `libelle diffamatoire' c'est très dispendieux et compliqué" (Huguette Lachapelle c. Le Trait d'Union, 1980).

The fifth important difference between courts and press councils is the nature of the decision-makers. The decision-maker in a court--a judge or jury--typically is not associated with the interests at stake in a lawsuit. In cases where decision-makers have an interest in the outcome of a case, they generally disqualify themselves from hearing the case. A judge who owned stock in a company that published newspapers, for example, would be expected to withdraw from a case in which a newspaper was sued.

With press councils, on the other hand, a substantial proportion of the decision-makers come from the media, which raises questions about whether they can be truly impartial in judging complaints against the media. The body that makes initial rulings on complaints to the Quebec Press Council is the Comité des cas, which has three members appointed by journalists' organizations, three appointed by management organizations, and three representatives of the public. Two-thirds of the committee, in short, has a direct interest in the world of journalism.

Although QPC rules do not require that Comité des cas members disqualify themselves when their news organizations are directly implicated in a complaint, that is the common practice. The fact remains, however, that the QPC is a form of professional self-regulation--basically, people from the world of journalism making rulings that, in principle at least, will either expand or contract journalistic autonomy. That journalistic interests are dominant on the Comité des cas, coupled with the fact that the QPC is funded principally by journalistic interests, has led many to question the impartiality of the Comité des cas.

Among the critics was Louise Pagé, a lawyer who chaired the Comité des cas in 1986. She wrote that "les journalistes et les représentants d'entreprises de presse ont souvent les mêmes intérêts à défendre, soit la profession journalistique. Cet élément important amène, selon moi, un déséquilibre dans le rapport de force entre les différents groupes composant le comité. . ." (Pagé, 1987).

Louis Falardeau of La Presse, one of the founders of the QPC, takes essentially the same position. When someone complains to the press council, the council generally tells him or her that "c'est comme cela que ça marche dans la profession" (Falardeau, 1986, p. 90).

In addition, the QPC's files contain many letters from complainants who expressed doubts about the body's impartiality. When a citizens' group complained that a local newspaper refused to publish its press releases, the QPC sided with the newspaper. The president of the citizens' group wrote a letter saying that the decision didn't surprise her: "Cette décision, je l'avais prédite d'ailleurs, puisque les professionels tendent à se protéger entre confrères" (Regroupement des citoyens de Lachine c. Le Messager de Lachine, 1985). Similar skepticism was voiced in a letter from unsuccessful complainant Julian Samuel: "People are going to take you a lot less seriously because of your constant defense of the media/journalists in general" (Julian Samuel c. Derek Conlon, The Concordian, 1985).

A sixth major difference between courts and press councils has to do with the sanctions each has at its disposal. Courts can impose fines and, in criminal cases, prison sentences. Their orders are legally enforceable. Press councils can do little more than publicize their decisions, in hopes that publicity will make unethical behaviour less likely in the future. The QPC, for example, acknowledges that it has nothing but what it calls "moral authority."

Le Conseil de presse du Québec n'est pas un tribunal. Il ne jouit d'aucun pouvoir législatif, judiciaire ou réglementaire. Son rôle est essentiellement celui d'un ombudsman de l'information. Sa seule autorité en est une d'ordre moral dont la reconnaissance et le respect reposent sur l'appui éclairé des médias et des professionels de l'information ainsi que sur la confiance du public. (Règlement général 3.1.1)

The final difference between courts and press councils to be discussed in this article has to do with the clarity of their respective jurisprudences.

Press law in Quebec, as elsewhere in North America, is largely judge-made law. Relevant statutes and constitutional provisions are almost unavoidably vague; the law must be interpreted by judges in the familiar common-law fashion. Rules of law thus established can be used as precedent in subsequent cases. This process takes place even in Quebec, which is a civil-law province.

Because rules of law are established in large measure through court cases, it is important that cases be indexed and accessible to lawyers and others who are interested in knowing the law. A variety of publications serves this clientele. Lawyers are trained to use law libraries, which contain official law reports as well as specialized topical services. All of the official law reports are indexed, and services are available that enable lawyers to determine a case's value as precedent.

For the non-specialist such as a journalist or journalism student, several books that summarize law as it relates to the news media have been published in Quebec (Vallières & Sauvageau, 1981; Trudel, 1984; Vallières, 1985) and elsewhere (Martin & Adam, 1989). Whatever the shortcomings of press law, it at least is indexed and accessible.

The legal system's organization of its jurisprudence stands in sharp contrast with the disorganization of the Quebec Press Council's corpus of decisions, which the QPC calls its jurisprudence. Although the QPC has more than 800 cases from which to derive ethical principles to guide journalistic work, the principles have never been systematically derived from the body of decisions. QPC decisions almost never cite previous cases, which makes it impossible for lawyers or journalists (or anyone else) to determine any given case's value as precedent. J. Serge Sasseville, the Quebecor lawyer who has had extensive dealings with the QPC, was candid about his frustration with the QPC. "They don't know what they're doing," he said (Sasseville interview, 1990).

The QPC decided in the late 1970s not to write an ethics code for Quebec journalists, but instead to let its doctrine evolve in common-law fashion, with the idea that the principles that emerged from the study of hundreds of cases would be compiled into a set of ethical principles that would guide journalistic work (Sauvageau & de Bonville, 1978). However sound that decision may have been in theory, in practice it has failed. No systematic compilation of QPC doctrine exists.

The QPC keeps statistics about its complaints according to a scheme adopted in the mid-1970s. Cases are classified into one of 12 "motifs de plaintes." The classification decisions are made without reference to any written criteria, however, and QPC staff consider the categories to be essentially meaningless.

Internally, the staff and the members of the Comité des cas rely on a binder that contains summaries of principles derived by the staff from previous decisions. The binder, titled Index de la jurisprudence, groups topics into 27 categories. It is not entirely clear how the 27 categories relate, if at all, to the 12 "motifs de plaintes" used for classifying cases publicly. The origins of the Index are also a bit unclear. In mid-1989, no one affiliated with the QPC was certain who created the Index, although it is regularly updated by the administrative staff.

Externally, the QPC has published a pamphlet titled Les Droits et responsabilités de la presse, which outlines what might be considered QPC doctrine relating to five categories and 23 subcategories of journalistic endeavour. The pamphlet, published in English as well as in French, has circulated fairly widely among Quebec journalists. Like the Index, however, it cites no cases.

The lack of coherent jurisprudence frustrates members of the Comité des cas who would like to base their rulings on principles derived from precedent. In their reports for 1986 and 1987, for example, the presidents of the Comité des cas expressed wishes that better information about QPC doctrine be available to the committee in the future (Hébert, 1986; Pagé, 1987).

The QPC's failure to compile and index its jurisprudence in a coherent fashion has several effects. Because QPC staff have no efficient way to review previous decisions in a given topic area, QPC decisions rarely cite precedent. As a result, it is impossible for news organizations (and others) to know what the landmark QPC cases are. And it is impossible for courts to follow Nicole Vallière's suggestion that they use QPC decisions to determine whether defendants in libel cases have acted with sufficient rigor and prudence (Vallières, 1985).

The QPC is painfully aware of the shortcomings of the organization of its jurisprudence. However, it does not have the means to undertake the crucial indexing. In 1989 it asked the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to fund a project that would have created a computerized index of the QPC's decisions. The QPC sought $118,822, but the grant application was not successful. The result was that the problem remains as the QPC described it in the grant application: "La jurisprudence du Conseil ne contient pas, dans son état actuel, de paramètres qui permettraient d'en faire l'analyse et l'évaluation, d'une part. L'absence de toute indexation prive, d'autre part, les chercheurs et les utilisateurs ponctuels d'une intelligence complète du corpus des décisions."

Discussion and Conclusions

This article's overview of press councils has attempted to illustrate aspects of a system of media accountability. In principle, press councils offer unsatisfied claimants a forum they can use to hold the media accountable.

The value of such a forum is all the greater in light of evidence that most people who sue the press for libel do so more to set the record straight and to restore their reputations than to win money damages. If a more efficient, less legalistic means of setting the record straight were available, many libel plaintiffs say they would use it instead of going to court (Bezanson, Cranberg, & Soloski, 1987).

As this article has demonstrated, press councils can provide the kind of justice most libel plaintiffs say they would like. Press councils are quicker and cheaper than courts, and they accept complaints from a broader range of "plaintiffs" about a broader range of problems. Although press councils cannot impose fines or send people to prison, the American survey suggests that what most complainers want is not a pound of media flesh, but rather an impartial review of press performance.

In practice, however, there are two major problems with press councils, at least as currently constituted in North America. Questions about press councils' impartiality have everything to do with who sits on the councils and who funds the councils. Twelve of the 19 members of the QPC, for example, come from the media, having been appointed either by journalists' organizations or by management organizations. More than 80% of the press council's funding comes from news organizations. These facts have been linked to the QPC's reluctance to question the rules of the journalistic game. Those who violate those rules may feel the sting of a QPC reproach, as happened in 63% of the complaints received in 1988. However, the QPC rarely questions whether routine journalistic practices are in the best interests of society as a whole.

Some, including Louis Falardeau and Jacques Guay, favour government financing of the QPC and increased public representation as means of giving the council greater independence from the media (Falardeau interview, 1990; Guay, 1990b). Such measures might meet with tremendous resistance from media interests, however.

The second unresolved issue is the extent to which press councils succeed in establishing the boundaries of responsible media behaviour. Whatever the problems of the Quebec Press Council in indexing and compiling its jurisprudence, it is the only North American press council that has published a summary of ethical principles (Les Droits et responsabilités de la presse).

The importance of deriving ethical principles and making them available to the public should not be minimized. Without such guidelines, media consumers and journalists are condemned to ad hoc--and, too often, post hoc--reasoning about responsible media behaviour. Press councils in general have an educational role to which they should pay more attention.

The Quebec Press Council's future was murky in autumn 1990. Its constituent groups were at odds over the demand of la Fédération nationale des communications, the journalists' union, to be formally represented on the council. Management organizations said they would stop funding the QPC if the union were given formal representation; the result would be the demise of the council (Grandjean, 1990; Guay, 1990b; Martin, 1990). In addition, management organizations were considering setting up their own mechanisms of accountability, which might render the QPC superfluous (Comité sur le statut du Conseil, 1990). The press council was going through "la période la plus critique et la plus décisive de son histoire" (Conseil de presse du Québec, 1990), with an outcome that was impossible to predict.

Despite its imperfections, if the Quebec Press Council were to disappear, media consumers in Quebec would be the losers. Although it is difficult to identify with certainty a broad influence of the QPC on the quality of journalism in Quebec, the council has provided a forum for hundreds of unsatisfied media consumers since 1973. If the QPC dies, that valuable forum will be lost.


David Pritchard is an associate professor at Indiana University. The research reported in this article was supported by the Canadian Department of External Affairs, by the Indiana University Office of Research, and by the Indiana University Bureau of Media Research. The author wishes to thank Marie-Claude Grangier for valuable assistance, and the Quebec Press Council staff for their kindness (and for their willingness to put up with an intruder in the office for two months).
Since shortly after World War II, there has been a succession of community press councils in small and medium-sized cities in the United States. Because they act more as advisory boards to local editors than as forums for disputing, they are not considered in this article. The influence of such councils has been assessed by Atwood and Starck (1972). For an in-depth discussion, see Rivers et al. (1972).
To add to the confusion over what the categories are, a recent compilation of QPC doctrine by Jacques Guay in Le 30 had 26 categories, 83 sub-categories, and 56 sub-themes based on the 127 cases he had written about since he started writing his column on the QPC in April 1979 (Guay, 1990a).


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Press Council Cases Cited

Huguette Lachapelle c. Le Trait d'Union. (1980). No. 79-08-52.

Le parti civique de Val-Bélair c. L'impact de Val-Bélair. (1984). No. 83-10-45.

Regroupement des citoyens de Lachine c. Le Messager de Lachine. (1985). No. 84-09-36.

Julian Samuel c. Derek Conlon, The Concordian. (1985). No. 85-04-15.

Gisèle Lalande c. La Société Radio-Canada. (1986). No. 85-11-37.

Eddy Verbeeck c. Michel Matteau, L'Hebdo du Saint-Maurice. (1988). No. 88-01-02.

La Commission des droits de la personne c. Le Journal de Montréal. (1990). No. 88-06-22.


Baillargeon, Jean. (1989, July). QPC general secretary (1973-1986).

Balfour, Clair. (1989, July). Montreal Gazette ombudsman (1981-1988).

Beaudet, André. (1990, March). QPC general secretary (1986-1988).

Falardeau, Louis. (1990, March). La Presse journalist involved in the creation of the QPC.

Guay, Jacques. (1990, March). Journalism professor and Le 30 columnist.

Huot, Hélène. (1990, March). QPC general secretary (1989-1990).

McNicoll, Micheline. (1989, July). QPC general secretary (1988-1989).

Pouliot, Denis. (1990, March). Former QPC staff member.

Sasseville, J. Serge. (1990, March). Quebecor lawyer.

Trottier, Sylvie. (1989, July). QPC staff.

Vaillancourt, Céline. (1989, June). QPC staff.

Vallières, Nicole. (1989, July). Former QPC staff member.

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