How Montreal newspapers cover sexual assault

There’s a price to be paid for going public

by Cecilia Keating & Aislinn May

In an open letter published in Le Devoir in late October, alleged sexual assault victim Alice Paquet wrote how she had “lost control of her story and its interpretation” since going public with her claims a few days before. “First I was presented as a confused girl, then as a former prostitute,” she wrote. “Everything was done to erode the strength and credibility of my word.”

Alice Paquet
21-year-old Alice Paquet accused then Liberal MNA Gerry Sklavounos of sexually assaulting her in 2014 on Oct. 24, 2016 Courtesy of Facebook

Although Le Journal de Quebec was the only paper that she directly mentioned in her letter, the piece was undoubtedly a thinly-veiled rebuttal to the coverage of her allegations in its sister publication, Le Journal de Montreal.

Just three days after she made her sexual assault allegations against then-liberal MNA Gerry Sklavounos, Le Journal de Quebec published an article that exposed her past as a former prostitute. Headlined “Révélations sur Alice Paquet,” it called into question whether Paquet was actually working as a restaurant hostess at the time when she was allegedly raped or if she was a solicited escort. The alleged incident happened in Quebec City when Paquet was 19 years old.

That same week, a column written by Le Journal de Montreal’s Sophie Durocher debated both Paquet’s allegations and her intentions. The article, headlined “Alice: Quel version croire?” fired off a list of accusatory questions at the young woman, arguing that Paquet’s story lacked credibility because it had changed many times. Durocher also asked readers to refrain from using the viral hashtag #onvouscroit, claiming it was unfounded and misleading before any allegations were proven.

At about the same time that Le Journal de Montreal writer Lise Ravary wrote an article claiming that rape culture does not exist in Quebec, Sklavounos withdrew from the Liberal caucus.

This brash approach is both misguided and ultimately damaging to alleged victims of sexual assault, argued Rachel Chagnon, director of Université de Quebec à Montreal’s Institute of Feminist Research and Studies. The young woman was “literally harassed by the media,” she said in a phone interview. “Everybody wanted a piece of her.”

In the week after Paquet went public with her allegations, 14 articles mentioned her story in La Presse, 15 in Le Journal de Montreal, 14 in Le Devoir, and seven in the Montreal Gazette. While more than half of La Presse’s articles focused on the political reverberations of the allegations on the Liberal party, Le Devoir championed Paquet and the case for supporting and protecting women who came forward. The majority of the Montreal Gazette’s coverage was straight reporting of the events.

For Sue Montgomery, former Montreal Gazette justice reporter and co-founder of the viral hashtag #beenrapedneverreported, a journalist’s role when reporting on sexual assault is to “present the story, not be a court or decide who is guilty or not.”

When large media networks—such as Le Journal de Montreal—question a victim’s allegations, it can damage their cause, reputation and court case, she said. Character-shaming by dredging up personal details, as in Paquet’s case, could be construed as “victim blaming,” widely understood to be one of the darker tenets of rape culture.

In a report about victim blaming published in August 2009, crime survivor advocacy group The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime asserted that “the most obvious manifestations of victim blaming appear in sexual assault cases.”

Montgomery believes that Le Journal’s treatment of Paquet demonstrates that “there are journalists who don’t understand what sexual assault is. Even if you are an escort … they still don’t have the right to sexually assault you.”

However, Montgomery does concede that women who go to the press must be aware that, if you go to the media, you can “lose control of the story as soon as you tell it” — echoing the concerns in Paquet’s letter.

Those who come forward must also realize that any statements released to the media can be used against women in court. “This was the biggest problem of the Jian Ghomeshi trial,” Chagnon said. Ghomeshi was acquitted of all sexual harassment charges in March despite several highly publicized sexual assault allegations brought to the media. These women’s stories, which often changed, worked against them in court.

Montgomery believes that it is natural for a sexual assault victim’s memories—and therefore, their stories—to change as time passes. “You’re not necessarily going to tell the story in the same way, not because it’s not true, but just that’s the way our memories work,” she said.

But regardless of its limitations and harsh nature, Montgomery and Chagnon are united in their belief that the media provides a crucial outlet for sexual assault victims to tell their stories, giving them a platform to share and expose the behavior of predators.

“The other tools that are supposed to be at [sexual assault victims’] disposal to deal with their complaints are not working,” said Montgomery. According to a graphic released by the YWCA in 2014, out of 1000 assaults committed in Canada, only 33 are reported to the police and only three lead to conviction. Other figures compiled by Statistics Canada in 2014 reveal that less than 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police.

Out of 1000 assaults committed in Canada, only 33 are reported to the police and only three end in conviction Courtesy of YWCA
Out of 1000 assaults committed in Canada, only 33 are reported to the police and only three end in conviction. Courtesy of YWCA

As it stands, women who feel let down by the police and the justice system turn to the media as a platform to share their experience and speak out against sexual assault, using it as a last resort to identify and shame the perpetrator. “I’m not even sure if a lot of people who go to the media even care if their case goes to court,” Montgomery said.

Chagnon believes Paquet was probably seeking solidarity, not justice, at the vigil as she stood in front of hundreds of people and exposed her own troubling story, “I think that her intention was to get a sense of relief at this rally.” What she didn’t expect was a series of articles that would denigrate and demean her.

Whatever its slant, press coverage about an alleged sex offender encourages other victims to come forward. Following Paquet’s allegations, Coalition Avenir Quebec MNA Nathalie Roy said that several of Sklavounos’ young female colleagues, interns and pages at the National Assembly have come forward with stories of unsolicited comments, gestures and texts.

Finally, women choosing to approach the media generate an important and lively national discussion around sexual assault and rape culture—issues that many believe are under-discussed and stigmatised.

As a result of Paquet’s revelations, journalists across the spectrum as well as senior public officials engaged in the conversation. Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard was quoted in La Presse saying that sexual assault should not be trivialized, and that it needs to be treated with the priority, respect and seriousness it deserves.

Even inflammatory coverage, like that from Le Journal de Montreal, can spark debate.