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The struggle for press self-regulation in contemporary South Africa: charting a - page 41 / 51





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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.

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