Family ties

As the Tories consider a bailout of private TV broadcasters, including Canwest, the government's relationship with the Aspers causes concern

A potential federal bailout for private television broadcasters is about to come under scrutiny before a parliamentary committee. Starting March 25, the House of Commons standing committee on Canadian heritage will launch a series of hearings into the television industry’s current economic crisis. But the opposition is serving notice that it intends to find out why the Harper government seems intent on helping private companies like CTV and Canwest Global, while leaving the publicly-owned CBC to fend for itself.

“We want to make sure that (Heritage Minister) James Moore isn’t making a sweetheart deal with a bunch of lobbyists who are close to the Prime Minister,” says Charlie Angus, the NDP’s heritage critic. Earlier this week, the Canadian Press reported that Stephen Harper has recently met with both Canwest CEO Leonard Asper, and Pierre-Karl Peladeau, head of Quebecor, owners of the French language TVA network, to discuss the broadcasters’ concerns. Moore has indicated that the government is looking at regulatory changes and tax breaks to aid the networks—most specifically Canwest which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy—but says no specific commitments have been made.

Witness lists for the hearings are still being drawn up, but the first to be heard from will be Konrad von Finckenstein, chair of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC.) Private broadcasters have long been after the CRTC to treat their conventional channels more like specialty networks, which receive a share of cable subscribers’ monthly bills known as carriage fees. Cable providers like Rogers, which owns Maclean’s, are opposed to the idea, claiming the system could inflate customers’ bills by as much as $10 a month.

One opposition concern is the close relationship between Canwest’s owners, the Asper family, and the ruling Conservative Party. The media company’s newspapers have endorsed Harper in the past two federal elections, reflecting a shift in the family’s political allegiances. Izzy Asper, the company’s late founder was a former leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party and a lifelong Grit partisan. In 2003, the year he died, the company donated almost $54,000 to the Liberals, more than double the $25,000 it gave the then Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance. But Asper’s children—Len, David, and Gail—have broken with the faith. Especially since dithering by former Liberal Finance minister Ralph Goodale on tax changes for income trusts shaved an estimated $150 million off the value of a 2005 Canwest newspaper trust offering. In 2007, for example, Len, David, and Ruth, their mother, all donated $1,000 each to the Tories, close to the new maximum. So did Gail, although she also gave $500 to the Green Party and $1,100 to the Liberals.

And since Stephen Harper took power in Jan 2006, his government has been supportive of some of the Aspers other endeavours. The Tories not only carried through with Liberal pledges to fund Izzy’s dream of a Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, but substantially upped the ante. In addition to $100 million towards construction costs, Ottawa has designated the project a “national museum”—the first-ever outside the National Capital Region—and pledged a further $21.7 million a year in operating funds, in perpetuity. (The Asper Family Foundation have pledged $20 million to the project—the third $4 million installment is due later this month—and Gail has been instrumental in raising a further $85 million for public and corporate donors.)

This past December, Treasury Board Minister Vic Toews, indicated that Ottawa is ready to give a further $15 million to another family obsession—a new stadium for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Under the proposed plan, the private sector will pony up $100 million of the $150 million estimated cost of the new 30,000 seat facility at the University of Manitoba. And David will take control of the now civically-owned franchise.

Another hot topic at the hearings will be the lack of government interest in bailing out the CBC. The sudden drop off in advertising has left the public broadcaster with a $100 million hole in its budget. But its pleas for an advance on next year’s funding, or other financial assistance, have been greeted with a collective Tory shrug. The NDP’s Angus questions why James Moore seems so willing to help one part of the industry, and so disinterested in the plight of another. “He’s basically hanging the CBC out to dry, going as far as to ridicule its request for bridge financing,” he charges.

But the bottom line for opposition parties will be getting the government and networks to live up to existing commitments regarding local broadcasting and Canadian content. And there they might find at least some common ground. Indeed the sudden Conservative interest in a bailout has followed on the heels of CTV’s announcement that it will close three underperforming stations—two in Ontario and one in Manitoba. And similar noises from Canwest that the same fate awaits its 5 E! channels unless a buyer can quickly be found. Coupled with the networks cuts to local newscasts, the trend bodes ill for the Tories’ favoured strategy of going “over the head” of the press gallery in Ottawa, and flogging its policies through interviews with local media.

“It wasn’t local broadcasting or Canadian content that brought us into this mess,” says Angus. “And things shouldn’t be balanced on its back.”

—with Philippe Gohier

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.