Shaking up the news world

WELLS: With the PM's former press czar at the top, will "Canada's Fox News" be conservative? or Conservative?

Photograph by Blair Gable

The evidence of your eyes deceives you, Kory Teneycke was saying the other day.

It’s true that only a year ago the boyish, flint-eyed 35-year-old spent his days trying to push news out of the Prime Minister’s Office—where until July he was Stephen Harper’s communications director—into the nation’s newspapers and broadcasts. And it’s true that now, suddenly, he is in charge of finding news to fill the political pages of Sun Media’s newspapers and that he plans within months to have the same role at a new news-and-talk cable TV channel. What does his old job have to do with his new one? “I think it’s neither here nor there.”

It’s true he was with Harper when the Prime Minister met Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, respectively the owner and the programming brain behind U.S. cable juggernaut Fox News, for lunch in early 2009. But “that was, like, months before I left the PMO,” Teneycke says. So does the lunch have anything to do with his frequent statements around Ottawa since last autumn that he’d like to launch a Canadian equivalent of Fox News? “No. No.”

Will the new channel be conservative? Or Conservative? “Well, I’m not even sure I know what that means,” Teneycke told Maclean’s.

“Do I think that the market space for political commentary is more oriented toward conservatism for the most part? Yeah, I think it probably is. But I think that’s for the same reason that talk radio in Canada tends to orient itself more toward conservative opinion than not: because it’s a jumping-off vote for a brasher, less politically correct discussion of issues.
“Do I think that there will only be conservative views represented? Absolutely not. It’d be bad television, it would be uninteresting for anyone to watch.”

And if there’s anything Teneycke is actually eager to admit, it’s that he wants to make interesting television. That’s the dream that has made him the new “vice-president of development” at Quebecor, the Montreal-based media conglomerate that Pierre Karl Péladeau has built from a sleepy, family-owned tabloid newspaper chain. And that’s what took the two men to Toronto on Tuesday to announce they will rebrand Sun TV, an underperforming Toronto cable station, as “The Sun TV News Channel,” a Canada-wide network offering “hard news and straight talk” in a package that, if the CRTC consents, will be offered to every cable subscriber beginning Jan. 1, 2011.

“We’re taking on the mainstream media,” Teneycke said at the launch event. “We’re taking on smug, condescending, often irrelevant journalism. We’re taking on political correctness. We will not be a state broadcaster offering boring news by bureaucrats, for elites, and paid for by taxpayers. We’ll be unapologetically patriotic.”

What he’ll be doing is injecting about $20 million per year from Péladeau, cable subscribers and, he hopes, advertisers—plus a sizable dose of his own pugnacious personality—into a troubled Canadian media landscape that has seen more retreat and decline than new ventures in recent years.

His first moves have not been particularly revolutionary. He swiped David Akin, a veteran of Canwest News Service and CTV, to run the day-to-day operations at the Sun Media Ottawa bureau. Akin is fearsomely well-organized, effortlessly multimedia—he has done print and broadcast and seems to live on Twitter—and politically hard to pin down. Teneycke’s second new hire, radio reporter Brian Lilley, is more identifiably conservative. Neither is the kind of firebrand Teneycke will almost certainly turn to before long. (Calgary polemicist Ezra Levant is generally assumed to have a bright future at Sun TV News, perhaps in a dinner-hour show that would compete against the more staid offerings of CTV’s Tom Clark and CBC’s Evan Solomon. Teneycke wouldn’t comment on new hires, which he plans to announce one by one in the months ahead.)

This will be Teneycke’s first job in the news industry. He has been a political operator for half his life. Fresh out of university he worked for Reform party leader Preston Manning in the late 1990s, then for the Saskatchewan Party and the Ontario Conservatives. At Harper’s PMO in 2008 and 2009 he put an end to the culture of defensiveness that had prevailed under his predecessor, Sandra Buckler. Teneycke was quicker with a quote, more likely to push bashful cabinet ministers in front of a scrum microphone, eager to organize off-the-record briefings for reporters to spin something big the government was about to do. He was accessible, but what he offered access to was a highly distilled version of the Conservative party line.

Through it all, Teneycke maintained a bashful, aw-shucks tone that did nothing to mask a combative personality. His office featured laminated old Preston Manning and Ronald Reagan campaign posters, but it was a Second World War morale poster on the same walls that best summed up his political philosophy: “Attack on Every Front!”

At Quebecor he will be assisted by Luc Lavoie, a company executive vice-president who used to be Brian Mulroney’s communications director and who continued to act as Mulroney’s unofficial spokesman until three years ago. Lavoie knows Quebecor like the back of his hand and will cheerfully saw off the head of anyone at the company who tries to cross the new kid. (“I’ve mellowed a bit as I age,” he told Teneycke, “but I’m still the toughest son of a bitch in the whole goddamn company.”)

In a sense, Quebecor already has a 24-hour right-of-centre conglomerate of print, broadcast and Internet media. Until now, it has resided mostly in Quebec, defying the clichéd perception that Quebec is the most leftist province in the country. Quebecor’s many holdings include TVA, the most popular television station in the province, as well as LCN, a 24-hour news network, and, a French and English Internet portal. Anchoring its media properties is Le Journal de Montréal, a hardscrabble tabloid and blue-collar bible that has veered considerably to the right as of late.

Pierre Karl Péladeau’s legendary father, a diminutive and scrappy man named Pierre Péladeau, launched the paper in the wake of a typographers’ strike at La Presse in 1964. Its cops-and-crime formula, blaring headlines and soft spot for Quebec sovereignty—René Lévesque was once a columnist—distinguished it from its staid, relentlessly federalist crosstown rival. Its journalists also benefited from the best collective agreement in the business; the most recent included a 32-hour workweek and an average salary of $88,000 including overtime.

But for the last 18 months, those 253 unionized workers have been locked out of the newspaper in an acrimonious labour dispute with Quebecor brass. The paper has continued to publish, thanks to roughly 25 managers and a news wire service that aggregates content from Quebecor and Sun Media papers across the country, which boast a daily readership of 2.6 million.

The Journal, observers say, has largely abandoned its left-leaning roots and adopted the populist conservative voice typical of the Sun papers—a voice echoed on Quebecor’s television assets. With a few notable exceptions, its stable of columnists is on the right side of the spectrum, and its exposés tend to focus on what one of its blogs deems “harebrained spending, waste and bad budgetary choices,” as well as the perceived spendthrifts at Radio-Canada, its publicly funded rival. Quebecor’s television and Internet properties then promote, broadcast and opine on the Journal’s content throughout the day—using, in many cases, the very journalists and columnists who produced the Journal copy.

“It’s become a recipe to prove that the social democratic system doesn’t work, that it must be overhauled, and that the private sector has to be involved in everything,” says Valérie Dufour, a locked-out Journal political reporter.

Whatever it is, it seems to be working. The Journal’s circulation hasn’t dipped despite the lockout. For Quebecor, the lockout has an upside: an estimated $83 million saved in labour costs over the past 18 months. Several observers say Pierre Karl Péladeau is prolonging the lockout in order to deplete the union’s strike fund and score an ideological win against the province’s powerful labour movement. (Quebecor officials declined to comment for this story.)

Quebecor’s television assets dominate the province. TVA’s supper hour news program has three times the viewership of the comparable Radio-Canada broadcast, while the 24-hour LCN network, launched in 1997, is decidedly more opinionated and more successful than its Rad-Can rival. LCN’s two main talking heads, Richard Martineau and Jean-Luc Mongrain, are the network’s popular sources of canned outrage, often decrying government excess and so-called “reasonable accommodations” for immigrants in Quebec.

On Tuesday, Teneycke said the new cable channel is requesting a “must offer,” not a “must carry” licence from the CRTC, suggesting there is a difference. In fact there isn’t, according to CRTC spokesperson Peggy Nebout. “Must carry and must offer are the same,” Nebout told Maclean’s. If Teneycke gets his licence amendment and you have cable TV, you’ll see Sun TV News when you channel surf.

And what will you be seeing? A mix of political viewpoints, Teneycke swears, and often what you see won’t be political at all. “My guess is that the opening of the first Victoria’s Secret stores in Canada is more important to a lot of Canadians than the latest happenings at an Ottawa committee.”

When Sun TV News does turn to politics, Teneycke hopes to slay herds of sacred cows. That includes his new colleagues at other news organizations. “There’s a very clubby mentality within the media where they don’t report on mistakes one another make. Somebody will get a story wrong and it just sort of disappears from the scene. I think when that happens we’ll talk about it.”

He insists he won’t carry water for Harper or crusade for any cause. But if conservatives like what they see on Sun TV News, so be it. “My objective is to have the debate be more real, more raw, and more reflective of the issues that people are actually talking about. Whether it’s the lack of debate around certain environmental issues—where by and large, one perspective is taken as the holy gospel—I think there’s other points of view. And I think they should be given equal voice.

“I don’t think that’s crusading or campaigning. It’s simply bringing debate to the fore that’s largely happening anyway.”