How Fox North became Harper's priority

Remember the attack ad the Paul Martin Liberals used in the 2006 federal election campaign that backfired so badly it helped galvanize Canadians to turf them out instead?

Aimed at terrifying Canadians about the militaristic and undemocratic impulses of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, the Liberal ad intoned over a war drumbeat: "Soldiers with guns... In our cities... In Canada... We did not make this up."

Today the tables could be abruptly turned on the Conservatives with this far more sinister message: "The prime minister's office. In a first-world democracy. Controlling a major media network. We did not make this up."

Unlike the ephemeral "soldiers with guns in our streets," we have the very real and menacing prospect of a major national media chain being bulldozed into a blatant propaganda tool by and for the party in power.

The same national media chain intends to launch a Category One television news channel in addition to its string of newspapers to blare forth its political message 24/7. More ominously, the PMO is prepared, according to credible reports, to walk over any cavilling by the nation's broadcast watchdog, the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Corporation, to grant Sun Media's masters that coveted first-class licence.

What's the evidence?

Canadian Press reported last June that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had lunch with Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes in New York on March 30, 2009. Australian billionaire Murdoch owns Fox News; Ailes, a brass-knuckle Republican stragetist, is its president.

Kory Teneckye, Harper's recently-retired communications director, was also present.

As columnist Lawrence Martin reported in The Globe and Mail last week, Teneycke has become the point man propelling Quebecor's Pierre-Karl Peledeau's plan to create a right-wing television network modelled on Fox News.

"The new network is a high priority for Harper, for whom controlling the message has always been... of paramount importance," Martin wrote Aug. 19.

Teneycke's takeover of Sun Media's political coverage was quick and brutal. Most of its best columnists were fired, including Greg Weston, who broke the story of the G20 "fake lake" embarrassment, and Eric Margolis, who alone among Canadian journalists, never ceased pointing out the folly of the Iraq war and the tragedy of the Afghan conflict. His sin was to continually point out that neither were ever about "democracy" or liberating hapless women and girls being hacked to death daily for going to work or school, but solely about oil and oil pipelines.

The new crowd of journalists, all supposedly certified by Teneycke to be politically correct stenographers to Harper power, are proving their obedience daily in blended news/opinion coverage permanently slanted in favour of his government and against all who oppose him.

The tone of political discourse, already shifted sharply right with the advent of Conrad Black's National Post in 1998, is about to take a quantum leap further down that road. The signs are numerous and ominous: The internet is already doused daily with the vitriol of thousands of anonymous far-right bloggers who slander and libel politicians, the media and all opponents with vile, often illiterate postings. Parliament and the country's entire political culture is being dug ever deeper into a mire of character assassination, personal insult and attack, smear campaigns, relentless and ruthless partisanship and denigration and demonization of any and all opponents.

It's already so bad, it's difficult to believe it can get worse - even with a "Fox News North" political channel. The scrapping of the long-form census despite the pleadings from virtually all Canadian civil society and well beyond Canada's borders led Maclean's Ottawa editor Andrew Coyne to characterize the Harper brand of politics as "a uniquely nasty, know-nothing strain of conservatism" that whips up popular hostility, "not just to experts and intellectuals, but to knowledge itself."

The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson doubts Fox News North is going to "make or break or even influence the shape of Canadian politics, whatever the ideological fervour of Kory Teneycke" but author and Toronto Star columnist Linda McQuaig disagrees.

"There's been a tendency in the Canadian media to dismiss the threat of a Fox News transplant on the grounds Canadians wouldn't fall for that sort of nasty, right-wing extremism," she writes. "But that comforting notion may be naïve." Most people don't have time to follow politics in detail, she continues. "If they hear constant sound bites suggesting global warming is a hoax or public health care just doesn't work, after a while the message starts to seem believable."

She points out the media already blasts 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."

It all makes soldiers with guns on Canada's streets more plausible with every passing day.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg-based political journalist and author. She is a regular contributor to the Winnipeg Free Press and is the author of two books, Mistehay Sakahegan -- The Great Lake, a historical "biography" of Lake Winnipeg, and The Canadian Crucible -- Manitoba's Role in Canada's Great Divide, an examination of how French-English relations in the "Keystone" province affected the course of Canadian history. Both books won the Manitoba Historical Society's Margaret McWilliams Award for popular history, in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

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