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July 14, 2011

Will Harper open door to foreign-owned media?

Geoffrey Stevens

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Rupert Murdoch is in a mess of trouble in Britain and the aftershocks are being felt by his extensive holdings as far away as his native Australia and his adopted United States.

One of the most powerful men on earth, Murdoch has been the most influential player in the world of communications — and, some would say, one of its greediest and most ruthless players.

Such is his power that his favour is courted by presidents and prime ministers. They may fear and even loath him, but they crave his goodwill. It is said, for example, that former Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to commit British troops to the U.S. war in Iraq only after secret meetings with Murdoch in which the mogul, nominally a Conservative, promised the support of his mighty media empire to Blair and his Labour party.

Murdoch granted an audience to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in New York on March 30, 2009. That lunch meeting did not appear on the PM’s itinerary. It was never disclosed by the PMO. It became known, 15 months after the fact, when a Canadian Press reporter uncovered the information among some mandatory filings at the U.S. Justice Department.

When the news finally got out, it was assumed the purpose was to discuss plans by Montreal-based Quebecor Media to create a cable news network, Sun News, modelled on Murdoch’s right-wing Fox News in the United States. That assumption flowed from the participation in the New York meeting of Fox News president Roger Ailes and Kory Teneycke, then Harper’s communications director. Four months after the meeting, Teneycke left the PMO to become head of Sun TV (he has since left that position).

Teneycke denied that “Fox News North” (as it has been dubbed) was even mentioned at the meeting. If it wasn’t, what was?

I think Donald Gutstein, an author and communications professor at Simon Fraser University, is on the right track when he suggests that Murdoch is playing for much higher stakes than a puny Canadian knock-off of Fox News. He contends Murdoch’s objective is to break down the laws that prevent foreign takeovers of Canadian media operators.

Canada is an anomaly in Murdoch’s world. He doesn’t own anything here — yet. But he’s just about everywhere else — Germany, Italy, Brazil, New Zealand, India, China and Papua New Guinea, to mention a few, as well as Britain, Australia and the United States (where he is huge in television, newspapers, movies and book publishing).

He operates on a scale that dwarfs Canadian media companies. If he were allowed in, he could take over a television network, a national newspaper (as he did in Britain with The Times of London and in the United States with the Wall Street Journal) or a cable or satellite TV broadcaster (like Britain’s hugely profitable BSkyB, where he is trying to buy the 61 per cent he does not already own).

Three obstacles stand between Canada and a Murdoch invasion. First, the Income Tax Act requires that newspapers and magazines be 75 per cent Canadian-owned. Second, the Broadcasting Act limits foreigners to a 33.3 per cent stake in broadcasting. The third obstacle is the political resolve of the federal government to continue to protect Canadian cultural industries from foreign control.

There have been several signs that the Harper government’s resolve is weak. It has done nothing to dampen speculation that, when the time is right, it will lower the foreign-ownership barrier. As Gutstein puts it: “Rupert Murdoch waits patiently as Stephen Harper sets out to create Murdoch-friendly ownership regulations and a more compliant regulator.”

Murdoch’s immediate problem is to weather the News of the World scandal in Britain — illegal phone-hacking, bribery of police officers and obstruction of justice (in the search for a kidnapped girl). It is Fleet Street tabloid “journalism” at its sleaziest.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is trying frantically to distance his Conservatives from Murdoch and his ilk. Will Harper have the good sense to do the same?

KW Record, July 11, 2011.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

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