Controversy at “Fox News North”

An “unfortunate episode” at Canada’s Sun News Network

Imagine for a moment that we’re in the middle of a presidential election. Now imagine that late in the campaign Rupert Murdoch publishes an editorial in the New York Post condemning a high level Republican campaign strategist for passing along incorrect information about the Democratic nominee to Fox News.

Kind of hard to picture, I know.

But what if it turned out that this same campaign strategist had, before the election, been paid to help with the creation of Fox News?

Getting a bit preposterous, right?

Well, that’s basically what recently happened in Canada, plus a multitude of related disconcerting events. Allow me to lay out one of the stranger media narratives to emerge from up north since Alan Thicke’s son became a Grammy-winning heartthrob.

Fox News North

The media mogul in the Canadian example is Pierre Karl Péladeau, whose company owns the national Sun newspaper chain and the newly launched Sun News Network cable channel, among many other properties. Both the papers and the nascent channel are known for their small-c conservative point of view. They talk about abhorring political correctness, about having a sense of humor, about standing up for real Canadians, and about focusing on the real issues that mater. They talk about these things endlessly, as evidenced in a Sun News Network promo video that’s abusively masturbatory even for an acknowledged piece of promotion.

The Sun properties also love to pick on the publicly funded national broadcaster, CBC. What else? In true tabloid tradition, each day the papers provide readers with a titillating photo of a comely young SUNshine girl. Sample accompanying text: “SUNshine Girl Amanda, 21, shows off her hard-earned gym bod in a pair of tighty whities.” (Whatever you think of that kind of content, the papers have nurtured many quality journalists over the years, and their emergence beginning in the early 1970s brought a different perspective to Canadian news.)

When Sun News Network launched earlier this month, that day’s SUNshine girl was Krista Erickson, one of the channel’s news anchors. She dressed in what qualified as dignified SUNshine Girl attire, including a well-tailored hockey jersey. Sample accompanying text: “As host of Sun News Network’s Canada Live, Krista is unapologetically patriotic and not afraid to call it like it is.” (Erickson used to work for the CBC, but things kind of went sour for her there.)

Sun News became a lightning rod for criticism long before its launch, thanks largely to the fact that the channel’s license application said it intended to emulate some of the characteristics of Fox News. Once that news broke, the channel became known by some as Fox News North. The channel also initially sought a license that would have required all Canadian cable and satellite providers to carry the network. That led to online campaigns against Sun News.

Some objected to being forced to pay for this kind of programming. Others objected to the network’s existence, period. To the folks at Sun News, that smacked of censorship. The fight was on.

The protests against Sun News went international when Avaaz, an organization with operations in different countries, got into the fight and set up a petition against the channel. Soon people like author Margaret Atwood were signing up and speaking out about the channel and the alleged backing of it by the country’s Conservative government.

That resulted in a reply in the Sun papers from Kory Teneycke, the newly recruited vice president in charge of setting up the network. If Péladeau is the equivalent of Murdoch in this tale, then Teneycke is Roger Ailes. After all, his notable previous gig was as head of communications for Canadian Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

“All of these lies, half-truths and slander underline the need for Sun TV News. Canadians deserve better from their media, and we are committed to providing it,” Teneycke wrote.

Also jumping into the fray was Canadian journalist, author, and self-proclaimed champion of free speech Ezra Levant. He went after George Soros in his Sun column because Levant believed that Avaaz was funded by the billionaire, which Avaaz later said isn’t really true. Also notable is that in 2002 Levant had won the nomination to be the conservative Canadian Alliance party’s candidate in a Calgary riding. He eventually stepped aside in order to let the party’s new leader run in his place. Who was that leader? None other than Teneycke’s future boss, Stephen Harper. (The Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party of Canada merged to form the current Conservative Party of Canada, which Harper has led since day one.)

Levant’s column included several outrageous and incorrect accusations against Soros that resulted in a retraction. Sample accompanying text: “Sun Media, this newspaper and Ezra Levant retract the statements made in the column and unreservedly apologize to Mr. Soros for the distress and harm this column may have caused to him.”

Things became so heated that Teneycke resigned from his role at the company in order to help Sun News have a smoother path to a broadcast license.

Why is all that relevant? Well, not long ago Teneycke returned to his post at the company. He is once again a vice president and running things at Sun News Network. As for Levant? He hosts his own show on the channel. I caught about ten minutes of it on Wednesday night and watched a karate gi-clad Levant explain why young Canadians don’t—and in fact shouldn’t—vote. (It was kind of tongue-in-cheek, but not totally. I can’t explain the robe.) I look forward to next week when Levant dons a kimono and explains why women’s suffrage was a colossal mistake.

In fairness to Sun News, I’ll note that two of its other evening hosts are David Akin and Charles Adler. Akin is a respected journalist who covers parliament for Sun and has worked for many of Canada’s top news organizations. Adler is a talented broadcaster and the country’s top talk radio host.

In the end, after all the controversy and politicking, the channel went live on April 18. Really good timing, as it turned out. By then, the country was in the midst of a national election where Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were hoping to turn their minority government into a majority one. Over at Sun News, a former high-level Conservative staffer was back in charge after a well-orchestrated and very brief resignation, and attack dogs like Levant were on the air giving Canadians the truth about… well, you get the point.

Boots on the Ground?

Sun News’s slogan is “Hard News and Straight Talk.” It promises to deliver news during the day. Then, starting at 5 p.m., it brings forth a violent torpedo of Straight Talk. (Levant, Akin, and Adler fall into the talk category.)

That slogan was reportedly developed thanks to the work of Patrick Muttart, who, like Teneycke, used to work for Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. Muttart was retained to help advise Teneycke and Co. on the creation of Sun News. After his initial contract was over, he also provided pro bono advice to the network.

Then, when the election was called in Canada, Muttart was brought in as a consultant/advisor to help get—who else?—Stephen Harper re-elected.

Muttart’s ties to both Sun News and the Conservative Party are what made it so surprising on Wednesday when he was publicly called out by Péladeau, the media mogul, in an editorial published in the Sun papers.

By Péladeau’s telling, a few weeks ago Muttart approached Teneycke and presented him with information purporting to prove that Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff had played a role in the invasion of Iraq. At the time of the invasion, Ignatieff was teaching at Harvard and had come out in favor of the action. (He later called his support a mistake.)

Here’s how Péladeau described the approach by Muttart and its context in terms of what goes on during elections:

In the cut and thrust of any election campaign, information about opposing camps is forwarded to news organizations on a daily basis where it is verified and either dismissed or published. Inside sources — an important means of information for our business — are especially critical during election periods when the future governance of country is on the line. Three weeks ago, our vice-president for Sun News, Kory Teneycke, was contacted by the former deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Harper, Patrick Muttart. He claimed to be in possession of a report prepared by a “U.S. source”, outlining the activities and whereabouts of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the weeks and months leading to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The report suggested that rather than being an observer from the sidelines, as he wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece after he entered Canadian politics, Ignatieff was in fact on the front lines and on the ground at a forward operating base in Kuwait, assisting U.S. State Department and American military officials in their strategy sessions. Muttart also provided a compelling electronic image of a man very closely resembling Michael Ignatieff in American military fatigues, brandishing a rifle in a picture purported to have been taken in Kuwait in December 2002.

If true, this information would prove highly damaging to the Ignatieff campaign and the Liberal Party’s chances of gaining power. But let’s be clear right now that the information was completely false. Outrageous, to boot.

That said, few in Canada would be surprised that a Conservative strategist passed along potentially devastating information about Ignatieff to the folks at Sun News. Aside from the obvious ideological alignment, remember that the VP of Sun News is a former head of communications for the Conservative prime minister, and the Conservative strategist passing along the supposedly damning information also recently advised Sun News TV.

Cozy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Simply put, Muttart was giving his recent Sun News colleague and once-fellow Conservative staffer Teneycke an exclusive.

Exhibit A

According to Péladeau’s version of events, the Sun News team then worked to verify the information.

“As excited as Teneycke and our team were on receipt of this information, which contradicted Ignatieff’s story about his role in the region, he was properly skeptical and due diligence was conducted,” Péladeau wrote. “… Bad information is an occupational hazard in this business, and fortunately our in-house protocols prevented the unthinkable.”

One thing Péladeau doesn’t mention in his piece is even though Sun News’s “in-house protocols” disproved the accusation against Ignatieff, the Sun papers still published a story that included the same basic accusation against the Liberal leader.

“While the Sun chain never actually published the contentious photograph, it did publish a news story that alleged Ignatieff served the United States on the ‘front lines’ as an Iraq war planner,” reported the Canadian Press this week.

The author of that story is Brian Lilley. Aside from being a star columnist with the Sunpapers, he also now hosts one of the “Straight Talk” shows on Sun News Network.

So while Péladeau took a strong, public stance against these false allegations and against the dastardly former Sun News advisor who passed them along, his papers still published a piece that touted the incorrect information.

But Péladeau wasn’t done.

“It is my belief that this planted information was intended to first and foremost seriously damage Michael Ignatieff’s campaign but in the process to damage the integrity and credibility of Sun Media and, more pointedly, that of our new television operation, Sun News,” Péladeau wrote.

Péladeau’s accusation is that Muttart, a former paid consultant to Sun News, was trying to sabotage the network. And that he did it in association with the Conservative Party of Canada, which just happens to be the alma mater of the vice president of Sun News and the party that stands to benefit most from the success of the new network.

No, it doesn’t make sense, especially when you remember that Péladeau’s papers published an accusation similar to the one the mogul is saying could ruin his new channel if broadcast. (If he’s genuinely worried about this, Péladeau should get Lilley’s show off the air post haste, lest it taint his television operation.)

In the end, Péladeau got his publicity, and he got his scalp. The day the editorial ran, Muttart’s services were suddenly no longer needed by the Conservatives. Muttart didn’t speak to the press, but his employer in Chicago, the PR firm Mercury, where he is managing director, issued a statement calling Péladeau’s accusation of Sun News sabotage “false and downright bizarre,” given the fact that Muttart had worked for the network.

So why would Péladeau make that accusation? Here’s the next sentence from his piece: “If any proof is needed to dispel the false yet still prevalent notion that Sun Media and the Sun News Network are the official organs of the Conservative Party of Canada, I offer this unfortunate episode as Exhibit A.”

The penny drops.

This “unfortunate episode” is in fact the perfect vehicle for Péladeau to trumpet his organization’s editorial independence, and to generate some much needed publicity for his new channel. It’s a sales pitch, or, perhaps more appropriately, a stump speech. (The first ratings for Sun News are out and they are not great, though the folks at Sun see things differently.)

Péladeau concluded his pitch with the kind of strident self-aggrandizing that the Sun papers have traditionally excelled at exposing and mocking:

We are in the news business and what we care about more than anything else is the truth. As the largest newspaper organization and one of the leading Canadian media companies, we will never compromise on this fundamental pillar which is of paramount importance for democracy, values Canadians have cherished since our country’s inception.

A Different Playbook

Aside from being a good yarn, this is a perfect case study for how Sun News intends to operate. The editorial from Péladeau is sheer political brinksmanship. It’s unlike anything you’re likely to see from other media moguls and major news organizations in Canada. Sun News is about bringing campaign war room tactics and strategy into the Canadian news game. In that respect, it really is Fox News North.

Sun News is using a different playbook than other Canadian media. If for example you are the CBC and are already in their crosshairs, you’d better get ready to deal with pressure and attacks unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. (Jay Rosen said as much recently.)

If Péladeau, Teneycke and Co. will publicly attack a friendly Conservative strategist and former company consultant in order to advance their goals, imagine what they’ll do to their perceived enemies?

“All’s not fair in war,” read the headline on Péladeau’s editorial.

Make no mistake: for the folks at Sun News, this is war.

Correction of the Week

“A series of pictures last Sunday of covers of the magazine Tiger Beat, with an article about how the original teen-girl tabloid has remained virtually unchanged since its inception in 1965, erroneously included a parody cover, produced by the satiric newspaper The Onion, that featured a picture of President Obama.” - The New York Times

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , , ,