Family ties -

Family ties

As the Tories consider a bailout of private TV broadcasters, including Canwest, the government’s relationship with the Aspers causes concern


A potential federal bailout for private television broadcasters is about to come under scrutiny before a parliamentary committee. Starting March 25, the House of Commons standing committee on Canadian heritage will launch a series of hearings into the television industry’s current economic crisis. But the opposition is serving notice that it intends to find out why the Harper government seems intent on helping private companies like CTV and Canwest Global, while leaving the publicly-owned CBC to fend for itself.

“We want to make sure that (Heritage Minister) James Moore isn’t making a sweetheart deal with a bunch of lobbyists who are close to the Prime Minister,” says Charlie Angus, the NDP’s heritage critic. Earlier this week, the Canadian Press reported that Stephen Harper has recently met with both Canwest CEO Leonard Asper, and Pierre-Karl Peladeau, head of Quebecor, owners of the French language TVA network, to discuss the broadcasters’ concerns. Moore has indicated that the government is looking at regulatory changes and tax breaks to aid the networks—most specifically Canwest which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy—but says no specific commitments have been made.

Witness lists for the hearings are still being drawn up, but the first to be heard from will be Konrad von Finckenstein, chair of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC.) Private broadcasters have long been after the CRTC to treat their conventional channels more like specialty networks, which receive a share of cable subscribers’ monthly bills known as carriage fees. Cable providers like Rogers, which owns Maclean’s, are opposed to the idea, claiming the system could inflate customers’ bills by as much as $10 a month.

One opposition concern is the close relationship between Canwest’s owners, the Asper family, and the ruling Conservative Party. The media company’s newspapers have endorsed Harper in the past two federal elections, reflecting a shift in the family’s political allegiances. Izzy Asper, the company’s late founder was a former leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party and a lifelong Grit partisan. In 2003, the year he died, the company donated almost $54,000 to the Liberals, more than double the $25,000 it gave the then Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance. But Asper’s children—Len, David, and Gail—have broken with the faith. Especially since dithering by former Liberal Finance minister Ralph Goodale on tax changes for income trusts shaved an estimated $150 million off the value of a 2005 Canwest newspaper trust offering. In 2007, for example, Len, David, and Ruth, their mother, all donated $1,000 each to the Tories, close to the new maximum. So did Gail, although she also gave $500 to the Green Party and $1,100 to the Liberals.

And since Stephen Harper took power in Jan 2006, his government has been supportive of some of the Aspers other endeavours. The Tories not only carried through with Liberal pledges to fund Izzy’s dream of a Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, but substantially upped the ante. In addition to $100 million towards construction costs, Ottawa has designated the project a “national museum”—the first-ever outside the National Capital Region—and pledged a further $21.7 million a year in operating funds, in perpetuity. (The Asper Family Foundation have pledged $20 million to the project—the third $4 million installment is due later this month—and Gail has been instrumental in raising a further $85 million for public and corporate donors.)

This past December, Treasury Board Minister Vic Toews, indicated that Ottawa is ready to give a further $15 million to another family obsession—a new stadium for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Under the proposed plan, the private sector will pony up $100 million of the $150 million estimated cost of the new 30,000 seat facility at the University of Manitoba. And David will take control of the now civically-owned franchise.

Another hot topic at the hearings will be the lack of government interest in bailing out the CBC. The sudden drop off in advertising has left the public broadcaster with a $100 million hole in its budget. But its pleas for an advance on next year’s funding, or other financial assistance, have been greeted with a collective Tory shrug. The NDP’s Angus questions why James Moore seems so willing to help one part of the industry, and so disinterested in the plight of another. “He’s basically hanging the CBC out to dry, going as far as to ridicule its request for bridge financing,” he charges.

But the bottom line for opposition parties will be getting the government and networks to live up to existing commitments regarding local broadcasting and Canadian content. And there they might find at least some common ground. Indeed the sudden Conservative interest in a bailout has followed on the heels of CTV’s announcement that it will close three underperforming stations—two in Ontario and one in Manitoba. And similar noises from Canwest that the same fate awaits its 5 E! channels unless a buyer can quickly be found. Coupled with the networks cuts to local newscasts, the trend bodes ill for the Tories’ favoured strategy of going “over the head” of the press gallery in Ottawa, and flogging its policies through interviews with local media.

“It wasn’t local broadcasting or Canadian content that brought us into this mess,” says Angus. “And things shouldn’t be balanced on its back.”

—with Philippe Gohier


Family ties

  1. it intends to find out why the Harper government seems intent on helping private companies like CTV and Canwest Global, while leaving the publicly-owned CBC to fend for itself.
    Was that last bit typed with a straight face?

  2. Good thing the CBC is being hung out to dry. it’s about time. The Communist Broadcasting Collective (CBC) gets over a billion dollars of our tax money and makes sweetheart deals with its unions. It is unappologettically leftist and in fact, extremely hostile to those on the right. If it really is what it claims to be (a national broadcaster) then it should at least attempt to look objective. Why should my taxes be used to support political views and leftist propaganda that I find extremely offensive? There are more than enough vehicles for Canadian content thanks to the internet and multi-channel universe so if cbc can’t survive on its own then let it die. The time of massive government boondoggles has to end.

    • Isnt there enough nutjob channels already to keep you happy?

    • you clearly do not know anything about the cbc or canwest. I watch both stations each day and I am not sure what leftist propaganda you are talking about. CBC reports news, news means reporting on things that are happening in Canada, in our communities and the world. I guess you prefer canwest because they are more concerned about reporting american news and talking about celebrities. The CBC tells the story how it is, but maybe you should actually watch it before calling it’s content extrememly offensive. (i’ll be waiting for a link to an offensive clip)

      • actually i don’t like canwest either. i generally prefer ctv newsnet or quite frankly Fox News. you leftist nutbars are why this country is going to hell in a handbasket. canada is a haven for terrorists and criminals due to the ridiculous controls on guns like the long gun registry that demonizes farmers and hunters and because our so called justice system is a FARCE. keep voting liberal and ndp but don’t complain (like your type always does when you are personally affected by crime) when one of your loved ones is decapitated on a bus and the perp can claim “mental illness”. Sickening. Leftists need to grow up and let the 60’s die. It’s over! move on.
        regarding an offensive clip? ROFL! How about “Happy Homecoming” which was the title of the story about the illegal iranian immigrants who TWICE entered Canada under FALSE passports!!!!! Homecoming? it would only be a freakin’ homecoming if they were deported back to iran! Happy homecoming indeed!! That’s offensive; not just to me but to every bona fide immigrant who followed the rules. oh wait. your type hates rule…tune in, turn on and drop out or acid or whatever you freaks are into these days. God Bless G.W.!!

        • First, cvt is owned by canwest, so you do watch it. well and if you get your information from fox news, i’m sorry for your loss. But fox news has no respect for anyone and spurs false information. it doesn’t even respect or apparently need any allies, as some commentators can’t even respect our brave men and women who are fighting a war your ‘lameduck’ ex president started. The country was going to hell in a handbasket because the neo-conservative ideologies and agendas were being carried out by the bush administration in attempts to gain power over a country that did the u.s. no harm. There is so much war and violence accepted by american’s it’s sick.
          Secondly, there is nothing wrong with gun control. I am not going to argue the fact, i just personally don’t need a gun or a weapon in my home and there are so many other sports out there to enjoy, i don’t know, i guess i just don’t need it.
          It was a very sad story to hear about a young man being decapitated yes(never claimed to be a lib, but anyways), lots of people i’m sure do not agree with the mental illness sentencing, but our system is our system, and it can’t please everybody. I personally wish our current ‘conservative’ prime minister would have intervened, but then again, he is a con.
          I didn’t see your ‘happy homecoming claim in the cbc archives, so unless you can provide a date some proof i’d say your just making it up.
          And lastly, my biggest problem with right wingers like yourself is, your judge everybody, you make assumptions, you don’t learn the facts. The world is not black and white. Your so quick to call out others, and claim your leftest crap, it’s just simply not true. I love rules, and i don’t take acid. ty. There are more than two types of people in the world. come out of your bubble and see.

          • CTV is not owned by Canwest, it is owned by CTVglobemedia (and formerly BellGlobeMedia). Canwest owns Global television stations.

  3. No bailouts, handouts, paybacks, sweetheart deals, etc. thank you. Just let us pay for what we want and let the rest die.

    • Publicly funded broadcasting is a sign a advanced societies. England, France, USA (NPR), Germany, Australia, South Africa, Japan, and Russia all have public broadcasters. They serve an important function. The reason some of these state communication vehicles tend to be criticised by the right, is that most journalists are educated in an liberal arts setting. Being hostile to public funding for culture is against the grain for many of them. I tend to listen to right wing demagogues as often as I listen to the CBC. I consider the CBC one of the most useful ways to teach new Canadians about Canada. It certainly helped me. I was born in England over 40 years ago, but moved to Canada in the mod 80s. I appreciate learning as much about this wonderful country as I have listening to CBC’s coverage of national and regional stories.
      I think this minority government is trying hard to keep its western base (I lived in Alberta for a few years) where do it yourself is engrained in the people, as much in the cities as with the farmers and oilmen) and branch into Quebec (which is almost completely opposite in its social network views). Its a tough act which I am not sure can be won.
      I favour reasonable government spending. Medical care, education and providing roads, bridges, etc. are top of my list. Govt. funding of specific industries in necessary at times, and while the current govet. is in favour of lower taxes, it is as viable as tax credits, but tends to benefit high earners more.
      I am a centre leftist, unapologetically, and think that the govt. of Canada should not bail out specific companies. Industries are a different matter, and the form of support or stimulus needs to pass the house of commons.
      Oilmen, farmers, manufacturing sector and forestry, always have their hands out, and we the tax paying public keep paying. From where I stand, they are all subsidised, and none is much better than any other.
      Bah humbug to all of their business models that require continued govt. support.

  4. There used to be a fantastic magazine called “Life”. It was a window on popular culture, politics, art and science. Eventually it failed. Thousands of magazines have filled the gap left by “Life”. All streamlined to specific topics.

    Broadcast channels used to be community based feeds that would show us what happened in our neighborhood, our province, our country and our world.

    Now, specialization of channels is the most successful model in broadcasting. Unfortunately, with specialty tv matching viewers to advertisers more efficiently, maybe its time for the ‘over the air’ stations to admit they are done. They are already dismantling their programming and are ‘hat in hand’ for the government to bail them out.

    Local news and programming has succumbed to the fiscal axe – trying to maintain the 3 Canadian networks that make the majority of their money from American Programming. They are taking the money (and jobs) from local news, public affairs and entertainment programming and putting it towards purchasing American programming at rates highest in the history of Canadian broadcasting.

    If there is to be a radical shift in broadcast delivery that will affect all Canadian tv watchers, please make it a well thought out option, not a response to media conglomerates trying to squeeze the last drops out of an outdated broadcast model.

    If ‘pay for carriage’ is the immediate solution, give the consumers choice. If we are going to have to pay for ‘basic cable stations’, give us a choice. Eliminate the basic cable tier and let consumers pick and choose what channels we want to be our new ‘basic local specialty’ channels. That way we can control the financial impact and ‘vote with our wallets’.

    Doug Slack

    • uh, Doug, *real choice*? that might be a real problem for the power hungry teenie tiny minority group of privilige who need to keep riding us to feel “better than”.

  5. Good piece. My gut reaction was suspicious as well, given the links between the Conservatives and Canwest.

    • Maybe we should start calling them “CONwest” . . .

  6. Since Harper had a private jaw-trimming with Rupert Murdoch during his recent New York escapade, which also found time for a special ‘Fox-only’ confession by our so-called leader, is it any wonder just how and who he’s planning on matching the Aspers’ sinking ship with? The only blot that may soil this despicable dalliance is the recent trash from Fox. That may get the general public up in arms.
    But remember how Canadians responded that they didn’t want money going to helping hockey teams? Seems to me Harper and his right-wingers were vibrating loudly on that front. How can they get away with this double standard?

  7. CBC provides a “national conversation” no matter how poorly it might be doing so. i don’t wonder why some want that stopped; since a majority of ppl in this country did not vote for this current incarnation of the min-con govt i doubt they’d stand for the further abuse of this institution which again was emulated by the US in the form of its own version called NPR.

    the conservs are getting desperate; more and more myopic and insular. and their big biz supporters should beware that we are awake and watching. ppl should simply put their dollars into private companies who respect the national interest regardless of political allegiance–that would be something, a *real* Conservative that can respect independent thought, or other ppl’s political allegiances.

    • geez; pressed return too fast

      shoulda meant to say (sic): “this institution [CBC], like *other* great Canadian ideas (Avrow Arrow), which again…” and so on.

  8. Another great article Jonathon. You really did explain it well.