Sun News: A very lovely defeat

Paul Wells on the CRTC's ruling: 'A commendably liberal (small L!) decision from the epicentre of Canadian state bureaucracy'

Skip the top of the CRTC’s decision on mandatory carriage for Sun News and a bunch of other candidates (“denies”) and hop down to Paragraph 129 and its neighbours. Edited to keep your eyes from glazing over, and bold-faced here and there to show you what stuck out when I read it, here they are:

129. Nevertheless, the Commission is of the view that Sun News Network and other Canadian news services play a valuable role in meeting certain objectives of the Act… relating to encouraging the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity and by offering information and analysis concerning Canada and other countries from a Canadian point of view. Further, news programming encourages and informs the means by which Canadians are able to participate fully in the democratic, economic, social and cultural life of their country, their region, their province and their neighbourhood. To do so, such programming needs to come from a variety of independent sources and from a range of viewpoints.

130. As to the specific issue of the distribution of Sun News Network, the Commission considers that there is merit to the arguments raised by Sun News regarding the barriers to entry when launching a national news service and that these barriers constitute a significant obstacle to the exchange of ideas. … [Sun News’s] distribution is generally less favourable than that enjoyed by other Category C news services and often by non-Canadian news services.

131. … In the Commission’s view, Canadian news services should be given a pride of place within the multitude of news and information services available to Canadians.

132. …The difficulties faced by Sun News and other parties that appeared at the public hearing are however indicative of a larger, more systemic issue with respect to ensuring that Canadian national news services have the opportunity to obtain fair and equitable distribution. …

133. … Accordingly, the Commission has also issued today Broadcasting Notice of Consultation 2013-394 initiating a process to review the framework for all Category C news services.

Do click on the link for Notice 2013-394. It’s another corker. “The Commission intends to act swiftly,” it says, and lays out a plan for clumping all Canadian news channels — the CBC’s, CTV’s, Sun, potential new entries — in neighbouring channels to form a “news neighbourhood” on your cable dial, or I suppose it’s probably your clicker. Swiftly indeed: Interventions are due on Sept. 9 and replies by Sept. 24. At that speed, Stephen Harper might start to wish the CRTC was in the business of reviewing pipeline projects.

I don’t have the link to hand, but I’m told this business of an equal-footing cable “news neighbourhood” is precisely one of the solutions mooted by Sun News executives when they testified at the CRTC earlier this year.

So the CRTC won’t give Sun News the mandatory carriage that the network has called essential to its survival, but the regulator is clearly sensitive to Sun News’s threats to close up shop if its situation doesn’t change. And the regulator thinks that would be a bad thing — both on its own terms, because Sun News plays “a valuable role,” and because of the signal it might send potential future entrants into the Canadian news field.

I know a lot of my colleagues will disagree, but to me this reads as a commendably liberal (small L!) decision from the epicentre of Canadian state bureaucracy, the CRTC. It matches the argument I’ve sometimes made on Twitter: Sun News isn’t my cup of tea, and the only times I’ve watched it for any length of time as a consumer were the night of the Alberta provincial election and, er, boxing night. But as long as the Canadian federal state is in the business of handing out permissions to broadcasters, it should be in the business of encouraging, rather than discouraging, new sources of news and opinion. At the risk of importing American-style values: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,” Learned Hand once said. Surely there is room in the spirit of liberty for the possibility that Ezra Levant isn’t always wrong. Surely it should not be so urgent to hush him that we wind up durably shooting our national conversation in the foot.

UPDATE, 2:40 p.m.: I just had a phone chat with Kory Teneycke, the Vice President of Sun News Network. He said “it’s a little premature to speculate” on the meaning of all this, but one thing’s for sure: Sun News will not be closing shop as a result of being denied mandatory carriage, as he had previously suggested it might.

The CRTC decision “is quite supportive, and reflects the arguments of Sun News,” Teneycke said. “The view that something has to change, and that Canadian news channels are being treated in a way that’s inconsistent with the Broadcast Standards Act, are important points” of the CRTC’s ruling.

“I have difficulty foreseeing a future where we’re not in better shape than we are today,” he said.

Also: since I’m writing about Sun News, I should disclose to readers that my partner, Lisa Samson, is a registered lobbyist for Quebecor, the station’s corporate parent.