In March of 2009, Stephen Harper and his top public-relations man sat down with Fox News honchos Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch for lunch in New York. The event wasn't on the Prime Minister's announced itinerary, but reporters later found out about it.
Not long after the club sandwiches, the PR guy, Kory Teneycke, left his job. Not long after that, he was named to lead the startup of Quebecor's new channel, which was to become Sun News.
What a coup, the PM must have thought. A neo-con network with my ex-flack running it. Now we'll show them.
The model was Fox News Channel, the hugely successful right-side shout machine south of the border. If Sun News could even get a fraction of Fox's ratings, it could change the Canadian media landscape. But for a variety of reasons, including this not being the United States, Sun News never caught on. It went kaput this month.
For all its success, it is generally agreed that Fox has debased political dialogue and inflamed divisions within the United States. Before Fox, the U.S. television networks operated within a centrist consensus – hard-core ideological prejudices got nothing near the airtime they have since the network's arrival, which spawned a left-side competitor in MSNBC.
In this context, Sun News's demise is important. It removes the chances of Canada becoming Foxified in an institutionalized broadcast format. That could have been one of Mr. Harper's more important legacies – he wants to entrench changes moving the country to the right, and an ideologically driven TV network would have been one of them.
But the Prime Minister, whose Conservatives were endorsed by the vast majority of Canadian newspapers in the 2011 election, is still taking on the news media. Usually, it's the English-language Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that his party derides, hoping to soften the spines of Peter Mansbridge and company by painting them in a liberal corner.
Last week, Mr. Harper, who has significantly defunded the national broadcaster, turned on the network's French-language arm. He lashed out at Radio-Canada employees, saying that many of them "hate" Conservative values, putting them out of touch with Quebeckers' general sentiments. He made some of us recall the pithy alliteration made by Richard Nixon's vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who belittled the scribes and talking heads of his day as "nattering nabobs of negativism."
While in Quebec, Mr. Harper brought on condemnation from conservative and liberal nabobs alike for his strident opposition to women having the right to wear veils when they take the oath of citizenship. He was pilloried for trying to play to xenophobic strains of some Quebeckers.
Mr. Harper's tactics, which are examined in Mark Bourrie's book, Kill The Messengers: Stephen Harper's Assault on Your Right to Know, are reaping him broad dividends in opinion polls. Small wonder he has little time for or respect for what many in the media think.
He joins a long line of prime ministers who have held the fourth estate in low regard and fractious relations. Mackenzie King said the worst function he had to attend all year was the Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner. John Diefenbaker got along well with the press initially, but all things turned to hell when the scribes stopped treating him like the messiah he thought he was.
Lester Pearson cut off reporters' access. Pierre Trudeau thought most in the press gallery suffered from a severe shortage of mental equipment.
Brian Mulroney's utter disdain for and rage at many in the media is richly recorded in Peter Newman's The Secret Mulroney Tapes. Jean Chrétien went to war with Conservative media baron Conrad Black and with scribes like myself on allegations of abuse of power.
Mr. Harper may well hold some sort of record for prime ministerial secrecy and attempts to stifle access. None tried to orchestrate the establishment of a TV network. But in his views of the media, at least the lonely guy at the top has had a lot of good company.