TORONTO—The reasons why the Sun News Network failed are, by now, more or less well known.
What’s less known is why it was allowed to fail.
Full disclosure, as I join The Hill Times on a weekly basis: I was the House Bolshevik at the network. Alone among the conservatives, at the start, I endeavoured to provide a progressive point of view. It was never dull.
I’d been ask to contribute to the fledgling venture in the summer of 2010 by Kory Tenecyke. Kory, with whom I’d worked on an environmental project a few years before, promised I would be allowed to say whatever I wanted to say, on-air and in the column I’d be writing for the Sun papers.
He kept his word. From the start—and, later, when other progressives became regular contributors—Sun News Network was, indeed, a proponent of unfettered free speech.
But therein lay one of its problems. Some of the network’s regulars seemed to prefer shouting to debating, and their speech—while free—was not always smart. The network got into trouble, too often. And broadcast regulators—in particular the CRTC—started to see Sun News as more of an irritant than anything else.
That was one of its big problems. Others: its ultimate owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, jumped into politics after solemnly promising that he wouldn’t. Another problem: an unfair requirement that 80 per cent of its programming be original—something that neither CBC nor CTV had to do. Also, lousy terms dictated by cable providers. And—most of all—a distant perch on the TV dial, so that too many would say what my mother too often said: “Dear, I can’t watch you when I can’t find you.”
But all of that is ancient history. Sun News Network is gone, and it won’t be back. The reasons for its demise have been canvassed ad nauseum in the past 10 days. It died because it never had a chance. It died because not enough people could watch it, even if they wanted to.
That’s what is known. What is less known is this: why would a Conservative Prime Minister let it die?
That, more than anything else, is what made me laugh the loudest, when conspiracy theorists would hiss that Sun News Network was an adjunct of the Prime Minister’s Office. “Oh, really? If Sun is so important to PMO, why would PMO let it die?”
And let it die it did. Canada’s Conservative (and conservative) government did nothing—zero, zippo, zilch—to help Sun News Network survive.
That, to me, was puzzling. As a former special assistant to Jean Chrétien, I cannot tell you that my boss would have ever written a personal cheque to keep afloat The Toronto Star, were that Liberal-friendly newspaper ever to get into big financial trouble. But he (and Messrs. Pearson, Trudeau and Turner) would have done more—a lot more—than Stephen Harper and his colleagues ever did for Sun News Network. Which is, in sum, nothing.
I would raise this with the conservative folks in the Sun News green room (which was really just a hallway). “Hey,” I’d say. “No Liberal politician would ever be dumb enough to let a pro-Liberal TV network fail just before an election campaign. Ever. What’s up with your Prime Minister?”
They’d shake their heads and gnash their teeth and rend their argyle garments. “You don’t understand Harper,” they’d say.
“You got that right,” I’d say.
It’s to the mutual credit of Sun News Network and Stephen Harper, I suppose: the former didn’t go, cap in hand, begging for help. And the latter didn’t ever provide any help.
But, as I say, it was weird. In political life, you don’t often get the chance to own your own printing press. But Stephen Harper did, and he didn’t care. Gave a Trudeau-esque shrug, and let Sun News die.
If Harper was ahead in successive polls by many percentage points, it might—might—be understandable. But he’s not. The polls show Harper and Justin Trudeau neck-and neck. In many circumstances, Ezra Levant may not be useful. But in a close election campaign, he probably could have been.
Like I say: weird.
It could be that Stephen Harper has some top-secret polls, showing him way, way ahead. Or his security/terror narrative is working really well (and it likely is), and he thinks he’s going to win big with it.
But, when you are heading into the ring with an experienced boxer like Justin Trudeau, wouldn’t you want some extra help in your corner? I sure would.
Stephen Harper didn’t. And, so, he let Sun News Network die.
And the most-conservative Prime Minister—ironically enough—bears most of the blame for the failure of the most-conservative TV network.