Last July, Ezra Levant taunted critics when he donned a niqab on his prime time TV show The Source. His stunts may be tongue-in-cheek, but he's dead serious about his right to poke fun at liberal pet causes
“I’m not a fat ninja,” declared Ezra Levant. “It’s just me, Ezra, wearing a niqab.” That was the beginning of a segment of his Sun News Network television show, The Source, last July. He was indeed dressed in a style of burqa worn by women throughout the Arab Peninsula and wore it to make a statement against what he later referred to as “gender apartheid.” The niqab, according to Levant, is “a symbol of the inequality of women in radical Islam.” He dubbed it a “body bag” and Iran, “a hell hole.” Crew members giggled audibly from behind the scenes, suggesting that this was more of a gag than a feminist call to action. Heatedly, Levant detailed the reasoning behind his discomfort toward the niqab and wondered why Canadian feminists, “the bra burners from the 1960s,” hadn’t rallied together in protest over it. With his voice slightly muzzled by the cloth, Levant made his position on the garment painfully clear: “I’m in a one-person prison.”
The segment combined all the qualities that define Sun News Network: stubbornly contrarian, outrageously flippant and lacking in nuance, qualities many Canadians find distasteful. Quebecor Media is betting that the rest can’t wait to tune in for more, but the danger is the channel may exacerbate the growing political polarization in this country.
Quebecor’s announcement that it would launch Sun News generated widespread derision and plenty of angst. Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe and Mail labeled the channel “Fox News North” early on, a comparison that has either plagued or propelled the network since even before its April 2011 launch—depending on who’s talking. An activist organization called Avaaz garnered over 80,000 signatures protesting the channel months before it had even rolled the first clip. Among those signatories was Margaret Atwood, who emailed the Globe to say that the very idea of an unabashedly right-leaning television network was “part of the ‘I make the rules around here,’ Harper-is-a-king thing.” Sun Media’s Ottawa bureau chief, David Akin, host of Sun News’s Daily Briefs, said he was disappointed that Atwood would join what he called an “anti-free speech movement.” But even conservative Tasha Kheiriddin, a member of the National Post’s editorial board, wrote: “Sun TV really isn’t about Hard News and Straight Talk. It’s about Hot Chicks and Sexy Outfits.”
The tide of negative opinion has done nothing to temper the network’s tone and has perhaps even energized it. Sun News is calculated about doing the opposite of what other networks claim to take pride in, which is presenting the news as objectively as possible. Parent company Sun Media regards objectivity suspiciously, either simply as a force that turns every news story grey, bland and monotonous or as a cover for hidden (read: liberal) leanings. The company even withdrew its newspapers from the Ontario Press Council last July, citing incompatibility with the industry group’s “politically correct mentality.”
Antipathy to “political correctness” is the driving force at Sun News, the dark power against which the network heroically struggles—and its Death Star is undoubtedly Canada’s public broadcaster. “The CBC is exceedingly politically correct,” says Levant. “They have an official ‘line’ on everything from niqabs to the oil sands. That’s my chief criticism of the mainstream media in Canada: not that they’re liberal—though they generally are—but that they are so drearily uniform.” Beyond dull, CBC is a “billion-dollar Liberal campaign machine,” according to Levant. “Without a $1.1 billion a year subsidy like the CBC has, we just haven’t been able to afford hundreds and hundreds of middle managers to make our news as bland and politically correct as theirs.”
Quebecor wants to position Sun News as the polar opposite of what it sees as the CBC-Liberal Party establishment—right down to hiring Stephen Harper’s combative former communications director, Kory Teneycke, as vice-president in charge of the channel. That underdog posture—despite the backing of a multibillion dollar parent company, as well as political connections, informal or otherwise—is no coincidence. It’s how Fox News built its status as the number one cable news network in the United States. “Fox News North” is not an insult; it’s a mission statement.
I’m not in the business of deciding who my watchers and listeners should be,” says Luc Lavoie, head of development for Sun News and former deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. “I’m in the business of offering a well-put-together product.” Lavoie, who maintains that he has no lingering connections to the Conservative Party, also points out that one of Sun News Network’s biggest media buys came from the Liberal Party during the last federal election campaign.
“Everyone was sounding the same,” he says of Canada’s media outlets prior to the launch of Sun News. “Everyone was pretending to be objective and reporting along the same lines. Everyone was in ‘do not disturb mode.’ We’re disturbing. We’re blue collar. We are provocative. And that’s what people were waiting for.”
Levant agrees. “Our news and views are circumscribed by a battalion of government regulations, including those enforced by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council,” he says. Of course, the CBSC is an industry organization, not a government one, but Levant is not about to let facts get in the way of a good rant. “Our government doesn’t trust us to listen to or watch as wide a variety of news as Americans are allowed.” Not without hope for a more Americanized style of reportage, Levant perks up when it comes to what the future holds. “Canada is slowly growing up out of its political correctness,” he says. “I think we’re slowly realizing that we’re not part of the European politically correct censorship model; we’re more in sync with the United States first amendment model.”
Though Sun has no formal affiliation with Fox News (in fact, it has a foreign footage agreement with CNN), the American network’s attitude, style and strategy are obvious inspirations. South of the border, Fox has bullied its way to the top of the cable news heap with a potent combination of slick production values, shrill headline-grabbing personalities and reactionary populism. By cannily exploiting—and exacerbating—the country’s deepening political divides, Fox has appointed itself a political rainmaker.
Sun News may have arrived at an opportune time to do the same for Canadian politics, where the middle ground is also eroding. With the Liberals in disarray following the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives sitting on a solid majority and the rise of the NDP to official opposition, Canadians increasingly have to choose between left and right. Sun News is here to capitalize.
Early opposition to Sun News contained a paradox: some critics decried the existence of the network while othersasserted no one would watch it anyway. This is Canada, after all—we’re not supposed to go for this sort of thing. Early ratings were, indeed, laughably low. Last summer, Quebecor announced it would not apply to renew Sun’s over-the-air broadcast licence, apparently content to live in the triple-digit Siberia of the specialty cable channels instead.
A Category 2 status designates the network as a broadcaster of “analysis and interpretation,” as opposed to a Category 1, which broadcasts news. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t watching. In fact, Sun is celebrating ratings that should make its competitors sweat: one month after its launch, figures from independent ratings agency BBM showed that Sun News’s prime time slots were attracting an average nightly audience of 18,900 in their first month. According to Lavoie, ratings are climbing even though he says Sun News reaches half the viewers of its competition. “It looks like there was a window in the market that was waiting for something.”
Kim Lian Khoo was waiting. “All TV channels in Canada up to this point have been Liberal-minded or socialist-biased in their views,” says the retired teacher from Fournier, Ontario, who watches Sun regularly. “This could be the legacy left behind by years of the Liberal government. There are so many issues which most mainstream media will not touch….”
She is not alone. “Unlike the regular Canadian mainstream media news channels, Sun TV pushes aside political correctness and reports on issues as they really are,” insists Orlin Olsen, a retired railroad worker living in Winnipeg, in what might as well be a spontaneous ad for the network. “I believe they look at the issues of the day through the eyes of ordinary Canadians rather than those of the liberal-left academic elites who seem to call the shots in our country. Ordinary Canadians appreciate their honesty and candour.”
Arguing about the definition of bias is nothing new. “At the core of the debates about affirmation journalism and outlets like Sun TV is the question of whom journalism should serve, and how,” says Candis Callison, an assistant journalism professor at the University of British Columbia. “When opinion masquerades as fact, it can be very dangerous.”
For Sun News, concerns about objectivity or political correctness come second to “Grreeeat TV,” which is what Canada Live host Krista Erickson promised viewers before she began an infamous interview with Margie Gillis last summer. The dancer and choreographer sat alone in a Montreal studio last June to do a satellite interview. The show’s producers had told Gillis the discussion would be about the value of funding the arts. When the interview began, however, Erickson, who’d spent 11 years as a CBC reporter before joining Sun, interrogated Gillis with questions about how much government funding she’d received during her 39-year career and why she felt any arts community was deserving of government money at all. Swirling her arms around to mimic the style of modern dance Gillis performs, Erickson didn’t mince words: “Why does this cost $1.2 million over 13 years?”
The interview quickly melted down. Gillis responded, repeatedly, that she thought Sun News’s statistics were inaccurate and that Canadian dance deserves funding. At one point, as the two women spoke over each other, Gillis piped up as the voice of reason. “I’m your guest,” she reminded Erickson. “Perhaps you might let me speak.”
The segment resulted in more than 6,600 citizen complaints against Sun News filed with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. It typically receives 2,000 per year.
Such stunts have become Sun’s stock-in-trade. In June, Levant invited an animal rights activist from PETA onto his show to discuss the ethical treatment of zoo animals and then proceeded to eat chicken wings throughout the interview. Such gimmicks follow in the tradition of Glenn Beck, the former Fox host who once poured pretend-gasoline on the head of a guest because he felt “disenfranchised” by Barack Obama. “Most people do not consume news,” says Levant. “So anything that makes the news more entertaining is probably helpful. I do not regard myself as being in the ‘strictly news’ business. I am not a reporter. I’m in the opinion business, which is more suitable for humour and entertainment.”
Because the Sun personalities on prime time don’t consider themselves reporters, that allows them to do and say whatever they want. By not making claims about being fair and balanced, Sun News doesn’t have to make any promises it can’t keep. (When he was at Fox, Glenn Beck preferred the term “opinion guy.”) But doesn’t the blurry line between fact and opinion threaten to misinform viewers, who tune in for news but get commentary instead? “If that were the case,” says Levant, “We would all be drinking New Coke and driving Edsels and we would have voted for the Charlottetown Accord. People are skeptical and they’re smarter than most journalists give them credit for.”
Canada already has news networks and publications whose mandates champion objectivity. It wouldn’t have been in Quebecor’s financial interest to start another, nor would it help polarize Canadian politics and bury the Liberals. So where most networks proclaim fairness and balance, Sun News promises “Hard News and Straight Talk.”
And when its reporters—ahem, commentators and analysts—talk about what exactly this means, they repeat the following like a mantra: “Unbiased reporting is a myth.” Mike Strobel, former editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun who is now a columnist at the paper and a regular on Sun News, doesn’t hesitate to defend the channel’s overt biases and redirects any pointed fingers in the direction of CBC: “Their claims to objectivity mask the fact that a lot of CBC journalists tend to be kind of left-wing. Biases tend to be more subtle, whereas Sun News, to its credit, is in your face.”
The matter of discerning bias in reporting is a fertile topic, but let’s not forget the fact that Sun’s flagship news anchor is calling Iran “a hell hole” on prime time television. That’s something new in Canadian broadcasting, and while the academics ponder the ethics of “fairness” and “balance,” Sun News Network is barging ahead, ignoring its prudish critics and accumulating viewers in the process. And if anyone doesn’t like it, Lavoie has a simple suggestion: “Switch to another channel.”
Many people will, of course, just as many Americans despise Fox News. Sun doesn’t need to lead in the ratings to have an effect on other channels, on political parties and on the tenor of Canadian political culture. The culture of news reporting in America today is different because of competitive pressures from Fox. With Sun going after the CBC, and the Conservatives holding a majority government, the conversation will surely shift on every channel. Ripples emanating from that outpost in cable Siberia show the signs of things to come.