by Adam Allouba*
the Fox and the Regulator: A Made-for-TV Fable (Print Version)
Le Québécois Libre, September
15, 2010, No 281.
Last Minute Update :: Immediately before
publication of this edition of the Québécois Libre, Kory Teneycke
announced that he was stepping down as vice-president of business
development at Quebecor Media. He explained his decision
by stating, "It is my hope that my departure will hit the reset
button, lower the temperature and allow a more rational debate over the
television license for Sun TV news to occur, one not tainted by politics
and controversies of the past month." It is unclear whether Teneycke's
departure will have its intended effect, as he has been replaced by
Lavoie, a former spokesman for ex-Progressive-Conservative prime
minister Brian Mulroney. A.A.
Ever since Quebecor
announced on June 15 that it was planning on launching a new, “Hard
News/Straight Talk” TV station dubbed “Sun TV News,” the proposal has
been under attack from various quarters. With Kory Teneycke – the former
communications director to Stephen Harper – as the public face of the
new station, it is widely assumed that the channel will be overtly
conservative in nature. Even before the official announcement, the
rumoured proposal was described as “Fox
News North” (probably not meant as a term of endearment).
So why are some people worked up about Sun TV News? Well, it’s clear
that they don’t like Stephen Harper, they don’t like hate speech and
they really don’t like Fox News. The Prime Minister is said to be
conspiring to bring a soapbox for bigots – one modelled on Fox’s news
channel – to the Great White North.
I Just Don’t Like It!
If that sounds overly simplistic, consider the wording in avaaz.org’s “Stop
Fox News North” petition:
“Prime Minister Harper is trying to push American-style hate
media onto our airwaves, and make us all pay for it.
His plan is to create a ‘Fox News North’ to mimic the kind of hate-filled
propaganda with which Fox News has poisoned U.S. politics. The
channel will be run by Harper’s former top aide and will be funded
with money from our cable TV fees!”
The claim about funding appears to refer to the type of license Sun
TV News applied for, which I’ll discuss later. But the point is that the
petition labelled the new channel a “nightmare” and apparently 80,000
people or so agree, although Teneycke claims
that number is inflated.
It’s unclear how you substantiate an accusation of hate speech against a
channel that has yet to air a minute of programming. But what about the
assertion that Sun TV News will really just be Fox News with Canadian
content? Do the critics have a smoking gun?
Not exactly. The evidence offered by the avaaz.org petition is – in
full – as follows: “Harper hatched his scheme in a secret lunch last
year with media-mogul Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News. Harper's
top aide Kory Teneycke also came to the lunch, and then left the
government to head up Sun Media Newspapers and the new ‘Fox News North’.”
So, in 2009 Rupert Murdoch had lunch with Stephen Harper and an aide who
later ended up working at Quebecor (after
a brief stint at the CBC). Sure, no one knows what was discussed
over lunch, but if the men broke bread together, that’s enough proof
for, among others,
Margaret Atwood. The petition then cites statements made on Fox News
as evidence that Sun TV News will be filled with hate speech. The term
“guilt by association” springs to mind.
Another example of this kind of argument came in the form of a
Toronto Star column, authored by Heather Mallick, headlined “Fox
News North is a rancid idea.” Mallick explains that Fox News is a
“privately owned propaganda channel” that “celebrates ignorance and
fosters hate… It’s a poison tree.” She tells of receiving physical
threats from Fox’s viewers after her appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show.
Strong stuff, but what does this have to do with Sun TV News? Halfway
through the piece, she mentions that “there is no corporate connection
between Fox and Sun.” Instead, the link is “visceral”: that same 2009
lunch. Mallick holds an M.A. from the University of Toronto. If she
served as a teaching assistant, what grade would she have assigned a
student whose entire argument rested on such a shaky foundation?
Get it away from me!
The petition alludes to a second argument against Sun TV News: it would
be funded by “money from our cable TV fees.” That certainly sounds
ominous and illegitimate – why should we all be forced to pay for
something we may not even want? How can they even do that?
The answer, as far as I can tell, is that they can’t. Quebecor applied
for Sun TV News to receive a “Category 1” license, and the CRTC rejected
the application (having announced in March that it would not even
consider such applications until October 2011). (See
the CRTC’s letter to Quebecor.) Instead, it suggested that Quebecor
reapply for a “Category 2” license or wait until the moratorium had
passed. Claims about what a Category 1 license entails are all over the
Some say it would force broadcasters to include it in the basic
package, while according to
others it would simply force them to offer it to subscribers who
The regulatory landscape is complex and it would take an expert in
telecommunications law to explain what exactly are the conditions of
each license category. But a quick glance at
the CRTC’s list of Category 1 and 2 channels confirms that Category
1 is not a ticket to the basic package. (Hands up everyone who
gets MTV2 and “ONE: the Body, Mind & Spirit Channel” in their basic
line-up.) Anyhow, Quebecor did subsequently reapply for a Category 2
license, requesting “mandatory access” (but not “mandatory
up to three years (the actual license application can be found
here). So if the license is granted, broadcasters would have to
offer Sun TV News to their subscribers for up to three years. Admittedly,
the state shouldn’t be forcing them to offer anything, but this is not
exactly the stuff of nightmares.
They’re out to get him
So if their interpretation of license categories appears to be off and
the initial application was rejected anyway, how do critics maintain the
objection? The petition warns that CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein is
in the Prime Minister’s crosshairs. The allegation is based on a
Globe and Mail column by Lawrence Martin, which cited
“insiders” in asserting that von Finckenstein was being offered
“judgeships and ambassadorships” in an effort to replace him with “a
rubber stamper” (who would presumably grant the Category 1 license).
In response, von Finckenstein wrote
a letter to the editor affirming, “I would like to categorically
state that no one at any level of government has approached me about the
Sun TV application, the appointment of the CRTC's vice-chair of
broadcasting, or my own mandate.” (Your author also suggests reading the
contribution that appears directly below von Finckenstein’s.) In
response, Heather Mallick called von Finckenstein “naïve” for thinking
that he would not be “targeted.”
Of course, the way to avoid this problem in the first place is for the
airwaves to be privately owned and for the state to have no role in
apportioning them. But given von Finckenstein’s statement, which has
reduced the critics to calling him a naïf, it’s hard to see what more
there is to this story than pure speculation.
Markets for thee, not for me
The interesting thing about the “don’t-force-it-on-us” argument is the
blatant double standard it displays. For example, take Globe and Mail
television critic John Doyle.
In a recent column, he wrote that the new “Fox News North” would
“obviously” be viable only “if it is shoved down our throats.” Mandatory
carriage, he warned, would mean that “you couldn’t avoid the darn thing
even if you wanted to.” His conclusion? “Bring it on … But let it be
tested by the marketplace, not shoved down our throats.”
Not four months prior, the same John Doyle wondered if “the current
battering is the minority Conservative government’s manner of preparing
the public for a major cut to CBC funding and the eventual beleaguerment
of the CBC as a fringe broadcaster.” He speculated that perhaps “the
side-effect here is to elevate the role of private broadcasters.” Doyle
wondered if the time were coming when a private TV network would
complain about “unfair competition from a subsidized public
broadcaster.” But as he dismissed the “whining and heckling about CBC’s
$1-billion budget,” one thing was clear: “Canada would depreciate
as a country if the CBC dwindled into a fringe broadcaster.” After all,
“public broadcasting has a perfect, logical right to exist.” His
penultimate paragraph is worth quoting in full:
Public broadcasting should show us the best of our own
storytelling, news and entertainment, and do those tasks that
private broadcasters balk at. To many Canadians, CBC-TV and radio
have traditionally represented an oasis of good taste and common
sense in a media world gone mad with celebrity coverage and other
forms of mindless frivolity.
The mind boggles at the brazen absence of logical consistency. How
can the same person fume with rage over the possibility that the state
might require carriers to offer a TV channel to their subscribers
while simultaneously believing passionately in the need for Canadian
taxpayers to be forced to subsidize another broadcaster to the tune (in
of almost $1.1 billion!
Just Censor It?
Free speech is deeply ingrained in Canadian political culture and even
the most fervent critics are no doubt highly uncomfortable with the idea
of censorship. But then one reads columns such as Linda McQuaig’s in the
Toronto Star in which she closes with the words, “The media
already blast Canadians with a steady chorus of right-wing ideas. A
Fox-style network here – if Harper gets his way – would turn that into a
deafening cacophony.” If she isn’t advocating that Sun TV News be kept
off the airwaves, what is she advocating? Given the rather feeble nature
of the objections to Sun TV News, to what extent is the criticism really
being driven by an unspoken desire for censorship? They may not want to
admit it to themselves, but it sounds like they would rather that the
CRTC simply tell Quebecor to take a hike.
At the risk of stating the obvious, as long as the state controls radio
and TV frequencies, we can look forward to more hysterical debates over
political interference in the licensing process, subsidies for the CBC,
alleged censorship, and media being shoved down our throats. What if we
were all free to decide what to broadcast and what to watch? What if
state coercion played no role in broadcasting?
Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate
of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A.
and an M.A. in political science from McGill.