Ethics czar looking into parliamentary secretary's letter to CRTC

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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