Can Sun TV provide a ‘third way’ in Canadian TV journalism?

As was widely expected, Quebecor Inc. CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau has announced plans to launch Sun TV News Channel across Canada beginning Jan. 1, 2011. Speculation that Quebecor would bid to become a national news broadcaster has soared in recent weeks with the appointment of Kory Teneycke, a former spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as vice-president development of Quebecor Media and seasoned multimedia journalist David Akin as Sun Media national bureau chief. Veteran Astral Media radio broadcaster Brian Lilley was named a senior correspondent.

The first few moments of the June 15 press conference, featuring Péladeau and Teneycke, follow below.

Media watchers have already dubbed the Quebecor venture “Fox News North,” given its declared intention to be decidedly colourful and provocative in its news coverage, along with a political orientation that will sit to the right of centre. As if to fire a shot across the bows of news channels operated by the CBC and CTV, Teneycke said he’s leave the “boring” and “condescending” approaches to news to his competitors.

Quebecor faces some difficult challenges in getting its proposed venture off the ground. The first is regulatory: The Category 1 licence required from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to compel cable operators across the country to carry the Sun TV signal on at least one of its tiers is by no means a lock. The second lies in the way of infrastructure: Although Quebecor runs newspapers and cable systems across the country through divisions such as Osprey and Sun Media, it has no video newsgathering apparatus with which to feed a beast as voracious for moving visuals as a specialty news channel. Finally, the experience of the National Post — at its inception, a national newspaper dedicated to serving readers with a conservative, right-of-centre orientation — has been less than a runaway success. Some media experts have speculated about the wisdom of building a TV news channel on the same down-market sensibilities on which much of Canadian talk radio depends.

And what of the Fox-News-North moniker? Here I find the Canadian media establishment just a little condescending. Yes, Quebecor publishes newspapers in which Sunshine Girls make daily appearances and in which reporters, columnists and editorial writers sometimes seem slavishly committed to the political right, no matter what the issues or the nuances within them. And yes, U.S.-based Fox News often seems to revel as much in its ability to provoke anger and controversy as in its ability to unearth and cover a great story with balance and integrity.

But let’s concede two things. First, another national news organization determined to aggressively compete with existing TV news franchises can be a very good thing, both for citizens and journalism. Second, let’s not pretend existing news channels don’t have their own political biases. The test of good journalism and public service should be on the quality of the stories they deliver: in their accurancy, balance and impact. Let’s not deny that the CBC sits slightly left of the political centre, and that CTVglobemedia tries to cover the great yawning middle ground, so long dominated in the political sphere by the federal Liberals. And that’s to say nothing of the Toronto Star, where the Atkinson principles and a left-of-centre sensibility still guide the newsroom — and produce some truly great journalism.

We should not allow political orientation to prejudge the issue of whether or not a new enterprise could make a significant contribution to Canadian journalism. Let the test be its performance.

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