Copy editors are the anonymous, but essential workers at the centre of print journalism. Unlike columnists, beat journalists and desk editors, virtually no one who reads a daily newspaper or magazine knows their names. They have no by-lines, and they rarely appear in mastheads. Yet, print journalism can’t operate without them. They smooth the edges of the text we read, make the often rushed, often incomprehensible scribblings of star reporters intelligible, and turn raw copy into news stories. Every word in every column in every newspaper comes under their scrutiny.
I mention this for two reasons: The first is that copy editors, by virtue of their position as the readers and polishers of every word you see in the paper, tend to be ridiculously well-informed. You can’t read all that news without knowing what’s going on, and you can’t do a decent copy-editing job unless you are already up on the news. As professional information consumers go, they are the elite of the elite. And that means they’re bound to form their own opinions on things.
The second reason is that, if you ran into Wheeland walking along a street in Montreal, you would probably have no idea that he is an essential part of the news gathering and publishing business. He just looks like an average guy – maybe with an unfortunate fashion sense (this is common among copy editors) – but you would have no idea that he is on the team that put the news on the table next to your coffee and scrambled eggs this morning.
This last bit is important, really important, because last week Wheeland was censured by the Press Council for comments that he made on Facebook about a local election campaign. He had apparently made disparaging remarks about a candidate (according to the candidate), who then complained to the Press Council. The candidate said that “as a professional journalist, Mr. Wheeland has a responsibility to meet the same professional standards, either at the Gazette where he is employed or on his Facebook page.” The Press Council agreed.
Make no mistake, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the candidate. I know him personally (as I also know Wheeland) and I can understand that criticism stings, particularly when you are trying to build a career in local politics. Whether or not Wheeland’s criticisms were justified – and, having read some coverage of the candidate’s tenure and role in a huge brouhaha at a local schoolboard, I think he had reasons to believe so – isn’t the point. I’ve been out of the loop on local politics in my hometown, so I don’t feel I can express an opinion either way.
But here’s the thing: Wheeland’s comments were made on a Facebook page, and not in the pages of The Gazette. He expressed his thoughts as a private individual, and not as a representative of The Gazette. In fact, as a copy editor, Wheeland is a nameless, faceless, behind-the-scenes guy. It’s not like he’s a star columnist. There would be no way to connect him to The Gazette without some personal knowledge of him, which the candidate had. To say that Wheeland, outside of The Gazette’s offices, can be taken to represent the newspaper in any way is a bit like saying that the guy who cleans the Bill Gates’s photocopier speaks for Microsoft.
Yet the Press Council disagrees.
Normally, I would shrug this off as a regrettably wrongheaded decision by a group of senior journalists and executives who probably still have their secretaries print out their email to read it. The Quebec Press Council is not a branch of government; it is a professional organization whose authority is moral rather than legal. It’s a stupid decision, and it sucks to be Wheeland, but it’s not like he’s going to be serving any jail time.
However, we don’t live in normal times, and I learned about Wheeland’s plight the same day that the National Assembly of Quebec passed Law-78, draconian legislation intended to stamp out the student uprising that has gripped the province since February. Given the context, it seems to be part of a very troubling trend in Quebec: the emergence of a blatantly corporatist ideology within the province’s interconnected centres of power and authority.
The Press Council’s decision both echoes and reinforces the central assumption with which the provincial government of Premier Jean Charest has addressed the students’ grievances since the very beginning: in Quebec, one’s social occupation is one’s political identity and agency. Rather than consult with the students on a government levy – a tuition increase – that they alone will have to pay, Charest has repeatedly denied that they have any legitimacy or authority to speak for themselves.
They are, in the opinion of his government and its reactionary supporters, students rather than citizens. By rhetorically producing “the student” in opposition to “the citizen” – the students, we are told, are disrupting citizens by their protests – they are saying that the students do not have the right to be heard. Citizens are enfranchised in the political process while students obediently go to class and do their homework.
This is convenient because students can thus be represented as disruptive elements alien to the body politic. Their political rights are irrelevant because only citizens may claim political rights; their grievances have no place on the political agenda because provincial policy must only address the citizens. Even expressing support or encouragement for the student uprising is now a criminal offense. Even honking your horn in support as you drive by student demonstrators will draw the attention of police.
The students have their place in Quebec society, and by failing to stay in their place and having the audacity to demand to be heard by power that refuses to hear them, they must be put back in it or expelled. At very least, they will be silenced, and their presence will be erased from the conversations of their elders.
It’s all a bit too patronizing for words, but in the corporatist state, you are your occupation, and if you have the audacity to claim a social or political existence beyond it, you have no social or political existence. Power is reserved for those whose occupation is power and in Quebec one’s access to and influence over it is evidently proportional to one’s proximity to those who wield it. If this doesn’t sound democratic, that’s because it’s not.
The same logic underlies Wheeland’s censure by the Quebec Press Council. He is a journalist, the decision says, and only a journalist. He is journalist 24 hours out of every day. Even if he is not publicly a journalist, his entire political and social identity is that of journalist. That means that whatever he does, he does as a journalist. He does not have the power to act outside of this totalitarian trap because, as the employee of The Gazette, he is very, very distant from power.
Imagine if he were the publisher of The Gazette, or even the president of the Quebec Press Council. Would the situation be different?
Well, we don’t have to imagine. On the day the National Assembly passed Law-78 John Gomery, a retired Quebec Superior Court judge with close ties to Jean Charest’s ruling Liberal Party, made some very public comments about the wisdom of the new legislation. This might have been problematic because Gomery also happens to be the president of the Quebec Press Council, and thus its public face and official representative.
However, Gomery disingenuously dismissed the idea that this might be a problem because, according to the CBC, “The retired justice made it clear he was expressing ‘a personal opinion’ and not an opinion in his role as President of the Quebec Press Council.”
In Quebec, if you are close to power, you are a citizen and not an occupation. If you are not close to power – say, a student or a journalist – you are an occupation and not a citizen. This is the logic of corporatism. This is the logic of the new Quebec.