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Fox News Format Infiltrates Canada

CanWest's television talk show. Fair? Balanced? You decide.

Donald Gutstein 17 Mar

Donald Gutstein, a former professor in the School of Communication at SFU, is the author of The Big Stall, Harperism, and three other books on links between corporations, politics and media.

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CanWest's 'Global Sunday' bills itself as "Canada's number one current affairs talk show." But a lot of Canadians won't find their views reflected in the talk.

Take the show that aired on February 20, featuring a panel discussion on equalization. The purpose of equalization is to ensure provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide "reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation."

The left-wing perspective on equalization is that it helps fund programs that define who we are as Canadians, such as education, health care and social services. Canadians in every province should have roughly equal access to these programs, the left says.

This perspective was not raised by the panel. Instead, all three panellists offered right-wing perspectives.

Panellist Ken Boessenkool, a former advisor to Stephen Harper and a Fraser Institute contributor, argued that non-renewable resource revenues should not be included in equalization, meaning that some provinces, Alberta in particular, would have permanently lower taxes and richer services. Boessenkool, now a lobbyist for non-renewable resource companies, is an author of the Alberta Agenda, a proposal to build a firewall around the province.

Queen's University economist Thomas Courchene offered that in the post-NAFTA world provinces trade north-south and "too much equalization east, west will impair" regional economies. In recent works he takes a rightward tack with recommendations that private sector providers be encouraged in the health care system, that Canada should adopt a common currency (U.S. greenback) and that taxes must be cut, especially for higher income earners.

The third panellist, National Post columnist John Ivison didn't have any answers to the equalization question, but his right-leaning credentials are on display in recent columns in which he writes that public health care is a monopoly controlled by health care workers and hospitals, the CBC is the Corpse without any viewers and child care sucks up "vast gobs of money."

As seen in America

The program's rightward tilt is not accidental. Indeed, Global Sunday's wider purpose may be to shift political discourse to the right. The model for this mission can be found on the Fox News channel and, in particular, the falsely balanced Hannity and Colmes debate show.

This show pits the aggressive conservative Sean Hannity against the mildly liberal, often conciliatory Alan Colmes in a format "where conservatives outnumber, out-talk and out-interrupt their liberal opponents," as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting explains the strategy.

Global Sunday follows the same formula, tilting sharply to the right. Progressive and left-wing perspectives on public policy issues are blanked out – they don't seem to exist in Global Sunday's world.

Host Danielle Smith has a long history of advocating for the libertarian right. She started her career as an intern at the Fraser Institute, then launched the Canadian Property Rights Research Institute. This short-lived organization was sponsored largely by Alberta ranchers and its goal was to promote private property rights, opposing endangered species legislation and bans on smoking in indoor publicly accessible places.

Smith was a natural for this job, having written a turgid essay for the Fraser Institute titled "The Environment: More Markets, Less Government."

She left the property rights organization in October 1999 to join the Calgary Herald as an editorial writer – perhaps they liked her Fraser Institute screed.

She wrote her first column for the Herald two weeks after her newsroom colleagues went on strike for a first contract. In her piece she applauded the Fraser Institute's environment director for claiming there is no crisis regarding endangered species, therefore no government legislation is required.

Listing to one side

Smith oversees a parade of Global Sunday panels virtually all slanted to the right. In a recent discussion with the distorted title "The Nanny State: Should Government Be in the Business of Baby-Sitting?" public daycare advocate Martha Friendly of the University of Toronto had to fend off the other three panellists, two of whom were ideologically opposed to any form of daycare. The fourth panellist favoured daycare but, as spokesperson for the Quebec-based Coalition for Private Daycare, required the participation of for-profit providers.

When the topic was "State of the Union – Gay OK?" two constitutional lawyers faced off on the two sides of the issue. But that balance was distorted by the presence of Joan Crockatt, former managing editor of the Herald (and one-time Danielle Smith boss).

Instead of providing a public perspective on the issue, which would be the expected role of a journalist, Crockatt descended into a sort of raving where she claimed that "judges don't make laws" … "laws are made by Charter attorneys, not by judges" … "judicial activists would like Canadians to believe" that judges make laws. Her irrational interventions distorted an otherwise enlightening debate.

Aping Fox News, a recent political panel featured two right-wing pundits, Lorne Gunter and Barbara Yaffe, along with CanWest News Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fyfe, as if he is supposed to provide the left-wing balance.

Right jabs

In October, 2004, the program added a new segment called "The Final Round." This is supposedly a hard-hitting boxing match between two guys: in the right corner, Ezra 'Hammer' Levant, and in the left, Stephen 'Leftie' LeDrew.

You, the viewer, get to decide each week who delivers the knock-out punch.

To claim that LeDrew is on the left is to stretch that term beyond any meaning. The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought defines the Left as the "label applied to a range of radical political views and to those holding them." And it says that radicalism "has always been associated with dissatisfaction with the status quo and an appeal for basic political and social change."

Applying that description to a Toronto developer's lawyer and former president of the Liberal Party of Canada beggars belief.

LeDrew represented communications giant Rogers Cantel in its bid to have a heritage designation removed from its Toronto head office building so it could get on with development unfettered by concerns about protecting this important heritage building.

He was a lobbyist for a consortium of private interests working to obtain a 100-year lease on Toronto's Union station.

He represented several towing companies in their successful bids to win city contracts.

And he's a director of the elite National Club, which boasts of its 25,000-bottle wine cellar.

LeDrew was a Paul Martin supporter during the years Martin was slashing spending on social programs and cutting taxes for the wealthy. He called the proposal to ban corporate donations to political parties "dumb as a bag of hammers."

No matter how you spin it, LeDrew is no leftist. Centre-right may be closer to the mark.

A podium for Levant

His opponent, Ezra Levant, on the other hand, is a genuine radical right-winger, a rightist being someone who vigorously defends capitalism and attacks government intervention in economic affairs. (For social conservatives, government may intervene in social affairs to legislate morality, while for libertarians, the less government the better, period.)

Levant was an advisor to Reform/Canadian Alliance leaders Preston Manning and Stockwell Day and spent two years on the National Post's editorial board. He publishes the Western Standard, an Alberta-based conservative magazine, with an agenda that spans the usual topics, from anti-gun control, to anti-Kyoto, to anti-same sex marriage.

Some of their recent debates reveals the rightward torque to the program.

In one program Smith asked LeDrew and Levant this question: "George W. Bush has assured Paul Martin that the U.S. missile defence plan does not involve the weaponization of space… Should Canada sign on?"

Levant replied first: "Of course we should … Who do we trust more – the crazy Ayatollahs of Iran … or George Bush? …  We should sign on if we mean to be good allies."

Then it was LeDrew's turn: "Bush is a honourable fellow … but no one knows what the deal is … Let's get the facts and then we'll deal with it."

Hardly a counter to Levant's position.

The argument for why we should not join under any circumstances wasn't even raised. As far as Global Sunday is concerned, this viewpoint, possibly held by a majority of Canadians, is not on the map.

Network TV

It's a tight little right-wing world out there in CanWest's Calgary studio. When Smith introduces Levant each week she doesn't mention their close ties. It's not just that they were both conservative University of Calgary students and Fraser Institute interns during the '90s. Nor is it just that when Smith headed the Canadian Property Rights Research Institute, Levant was on the organization's board of advisors.

There's an even closer link. Smith is married to Levant's business partner in the Western Standard. Smith hubbie Sean McKinsley is a former executive assistant to Canadian Alliance MPs Art Hanger and Jason Kenney and former executive director of the Alberta Taxpayers Association.

McKinsley runs a polling and PR firm called JMCK Inc., which publishes Levant's books (including the discredited Fight Kyoto). JMCK has had some interesting clients, which include the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Alliance, Calgary Herald and CanWest Global Television.

So when you watch Global Sunday, remember that, like Fox News, its purpose is not to inform but to spin, spin, spin to the right.

SFU Communications professor Donald Gutstein writes a regular column on the media for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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