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lawrence martin

Last year, as revealed by The Canadian Press, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lunched in New York with Roger Ailes, president of Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch, who owns it. Kory Teneycke, Mr. Harper's former spokesman, was also present at the unannounced event.

Mr. Teneycke later became the point man for Quebecor's Pierre Karl Péladeau in his effort to create a right-wing television network modelled along the lines of Fox News. The new network is a high priority for Mr. Harper, for whom controlling the message has always been - witness his government vetting program - of paramount importance.

In this regard, he scored a fantastic coup when Mr. Teneycke became head, courtesy of Mr. Péladeau, of Sun Media's political coverage. It's not every day that a prime minister sees his one-time spokesperson taking control of a giant media chain's coverage of his government. What, one wonders, will our journalism schools be telling their students about that?

As remarkable as it was, it received scant attention because the focus was on the TV bid. That bid hit a roadblock last month when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission declared that the top-category type of broadcasting licence being sought by Quebecor would not be available - if at all - until Oct. 1, 2011, at the earliest.

Observers of Mr. Harper have long noted that he doesn't take kindly to commissions or agencies or anyone else who tends to get in the way of his wishes. It's only necessary to look at what happened at, among others, Rights and Democracy, Elections Canada, the Nuclear Safety Commission and Parliament.

So the question naturally arises: Do the CRTC board members actually think they can get away with delaying or denying Mr. Harper's wishes on Fox News North? Do they really believe they have some kind of independent power?

The CRTC chair is Konrad von Finckenstein, and his term doesn't end until 2012. But insiders report that Mr. Harper now wants him out well before that date and replaced by a rubber stamper. The independently minded Mr. von Finckenstein, who did not respond to queries on the matter, is reportedly being offered judgeships and ambassadorships, one post being Chile. So far, he's not biting. But the bait might get bigger.

In addition, CRTC vice-chair Michel Arpin is being ushered out the door. His term expires at the end of the month; he'd like to stay on, but his request is not being granted.

Names being floated as a replacement for either the chair or vice-chair include none other than Mr. Péladeau's long-time right-hand man, Luc Lavoie. Mr. Lavoie is a competent fellow but, given his Péladeau ties, the idea sounds far-fetched, positively galling. But, then again, when has galling ever stopped Stephen Harper?

Replacing the CRTC's chair and vice-chair would pretty well seal the deal for Mr. Harper and Mr. Péladeau. Mr. Teneycke has said all along that the new station would be up and running by the start of 2011 with a Category 1 licence, meaning cable companies would be required to offer it as part of a package.

Mr. Harper is benefiting very nicely from the Péladeau connection. When Mr. Teneycke took over Sun Media's political coverage, one of his first moves was to unload columnist Greg Weston. Mr. Weston, one of the most straight-shooting and incisive columnists around, broke the fake-lake story before the G20 summit. His reward? The noose.

Mr. Harper must have been pleasantly surprised that the developments at the Sun chain caused barely a ripple of opposition from other Canadian media. It may embolden him to crush any CRTC opposition to the granting of Sun TV's licence.

The CRTC is supposed to have some independence. It is supposed be at arm's length. But, in this government, arm's length has a different meaning, as in knuckles' length.

Among those hearing about the pending CRTC shakeup is Ian Morrison of the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. As he correctly points out, the integrity of the CRTC has to be defended. "You can't have the Prime Minister handing out radio and TV licences."