OTTAWA - A Conservative parliamentary secretary has intervened in the federal broadcast regulator's deliberations on carriage of all-news services — just months after three colleagues landed in trouble for sending letters to the same court-like body.
In his Sept. 4 letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Saskatchewan MP David Anderson urges the regulator to take a "much more market driven approach" to both news and entertainment channels.
Failing that, he says, the CRTC should make all national news broadcasters equally available on the television dial and in cable packages.
"Canadians deserve to be presented with a diversity of views when it comes to interpreting the news," writes Anderson, whose signature notes his position as a parliamentary secretary. "Sadly, only specific Canadian newscasters are now being guaranteed a convenient spot on basic cable."
The broadcast regulator is reviewing the rules and practices for distribution of television news specialty services, and solicited comment from interested parties by Sept. 9.
The CRTC review follows the commission's rejection of a bid by Sun News Network, which lost $17 million last year, for mandatory distribution by cable and satellite providers.
Anderson was parliamentary secretary to the natural resources minister when he wrote the letter, and has since been promoted to parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
Parliamentary secretaries are considered public office holders under the federal conflict-of-interest law due to the wide range of duties they perform in assisting ministers.
In January, ethics commissioner Mary Dawson admonished Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and two parliamentary secretaries — Eve Adams and Colin Carrie — for breaching the Conflict of Interest Act by writing letters to the CRTC in support of radio licence applications.
She noted that section nine of the act prohibits public office holders from using their positions to try to influence decision-making where doing so would improperly further the interests of another person.
In Flaherty's case, Dawson also pointed out that he violated government guidelines for ministers and secretaries of state that forbid them from intervening with administrative tribunals such as the CRTC on any matter that requires a decision in their quasi-judicial capacity.
In all three cases, Dawson ordered the Conservative MPs to "refrain from writing any similar letters" without seeking approval from her office.
Dawson's office would not say whether Anderson had sought permission to send his letter.
"We will follow up with Mr. Anderson," said office spokeswoman Jocelyne Brisebois. "Beyond that, I cannot comment on individual public office holders."
Anderson did not respond to a phone call or followup messages to his office. An aide said he was working in his constituency this week.
Anderson should not have written the letter, said Charlie Angus, the NDP ethics critic.
"This is a clear breach of the rules," Angus said in an interview.
"The letter itself would actually be fairly funny to read if it was just David Anderson, local crank, writing to the local editor. But he's not — he's a parliamentary secretary holding a very influential position in the Harper government, writing to a semi-judicial body."
In the letter, Anderson says he recently conducted a "media analysis" of several different television news providers.
"We found that although all stations provided approaches to reporting that were useful, it was very evident that for a full variety of opinion and information to be available, all national news providers must be given an equal opportunity to reach Canadians with their coverage."
Anderson says mandatory carriage should not be granted to some and not others.
"I would urge you to move to a much more market driven approach to both news and entertainment options, but as that seems a distant possibility, I anticipate a decision that will be based on fairness and will allow Canadians to access a block of stations where all national news broadcasters such as the CBC, CTV news channel, SUN news and Global are all equally accessible on the dial and in cable packages."
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A Brief History Of Sun News
Pictured: Sun News host Ezra Levant
Controversy surrounding the Sun News Network began even before the network went on the air in April, 2011. The Globe and Mail reported in the summer of 2010 that <a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/lawrence-martin/is-stephen-harper-set-to-move-against-the-crtc/article1677632/">CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein was under pressure from the Prime Minister's Office to resign</a>, in order to pave a smooth path for Sun News to be granted a licence by the regulator. Finckenstein denied the allegations.
'Stop Fox News North'
With concerns swirling about the possibility of a PMO-driven political agenda at Sun News, the activist site Avaaz launched "<a href="http://www.avaaz.org/en/no_fox_news_canada">Stop Fox News North</a>," a campaign to pressure the CRTC to deny a licence to the news network. The network responded by citing Avaaz's U.S. roots and noting that left-wing billionaire George Soros has contributed to the group, in an apparent effort to discredit the petition as a "U.S. import."
Soros Threatens To Sue
Future Sun News personality Ezra Levant went further than most in his criticism of Avaaz and its links to George Soros (pictured above). Levant suggested in a column that Soros, who is Jewish, aided the Germans in the Holocaust as a teenager. After receiving a letter from Soros' lawyers threatening to sue, <a href="http://www.torontosun.com/comment/2010/09/17/15388356.html">the Sun newspapers ran a retraction</a>.
Sun News was on the air for only about six weeks when its first major controversy erupted. The CRTC received a record 6,676 complaints from viewers after host Krista Erickson aggressively challenged dancer Margie Gillis over the issue of whether artists should receive taxpayers' money in the form of grants. The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council eventually ruled <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/03/krista-erickson-margie-hills-sun-news_n_1253421.html">Erickson was within her rights to express her opinions during the interview</a>.
Sun News vs. CBC
Sun News has made the CBC's public funding a signature issue, repeatedly attacking the network for taking $1 billion per year in taxpayers' money while competing against private-sector broadcasters. But the CBC is fighting back. It put out a press release noting that Quebecor, Sun's parent company, enjoyed $500 million in subsidies over five years, and argued that -- unlike the CBC -- it is not publicly accountable to taxpayers.
'Chinga tu madre'
Ezra Levant got himself in trouble again in December, 2011, when he responded to Chiquita Bananas' declaration it wanted to avoid oil from the oil sands. "Chinga tu madre," Levant said to Chiquita -- a phrase that translates as "f--k your mother." The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/13/ezra-levants-chiquita-chinga-tu-madre_n_1594452.html">declared Levant's outburst a violation of ethics standards</a>.
Fake Citizenship Ceremony
Canadian journalism reached an embarrassing nadir in the spring of 2012 when it emerged that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/tag/sun-news-fake-citizenship-ceremony">a citizenship reaffirmation ceremony broadcast on Sun News had been partially staged</a>. Six federal bureaucrats had posed as newly-sworn Canadians during the event that had been reportedly requested by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. Kenney's office apologized to Sun News. Government officials later alleged Sun News was aware of the bureaucrats posing as new Canadians.
In your home, like it or not?
Sun News <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/11/13/sun-news-mandatory-carriage-crtc_n_2122391.html">applied for a "mandatory carriage" licence in the fall of 2012</a> that would require cable and satellite operators to carry the network as part of their basic cable package. Though neither CBC News Network nor CTV News Channel currently enjoy mandatory carriage, they did when they first started out, as Sun News has pointed out.
Millions in losses
Sun News reported in January, 2013, that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/01/21/sun-news-loss-crtc-basic-cable_n_2522396.html?utm_hp_ref=canada">it lost $17 million in 2012</a>, due to weak revenue because the channel is only carried in 40 per cent of Canadian homes. Parent company Quebecor is saying the network will continue to lose money unless its request to the CRTC for mandatory carriage on basic cable is granted. Pictured: Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Peladeau
'The Jew vs. the Gypsy'
Sun News personality and well-known right-wing pundit Ezra Levant issued a formal, on-air apology after a September, 2012, segment in which he declared that the Roma were not a race, and were rather "a shiftless group of hobos" who "rob people blind" and whose "chief economy is theft and begging." The Toronto police reportedly even launched a hate-crimes investigation into the segment, at the request of a local Roma group.
Denied Mandatory Carriage
In August 2013, the CRTC, Canada's telecom regulator, rejected Sun News' application for mandatory carriage. The network had asked the CRTC to make them a mandatory part of all basic cable services, arguing it would not survive financially without it. Though the CRTC rejected the Sun News application, it also launched a review of the rules surrounding cable news networks. Among the possible outcomes are a realignment of channels so all news channels are grouped together on the dial, and the possibility of a "must-carry" order for Sun News, which would mean that all TV service providers would have to at least offer the network. Pictured: CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais