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Harper tightens his grip on media message control

Anyone who has worked with Stephen Harper will tell you his top priority is message control. Control the message and you control outcomes.

That's why, upon becoming prime minister in 2006, he put in place the most all-encompassing vetting system Ottawa had ever seen. Nothing could go out, not even the most minor of communications, without approval from head office.

But to control the message, you have to have influence in the media. So how's this for a coup? Harper now has one of his former directors of communications, Kory Teynecke, as de facto boss of Sun Media coverage. The same Teynecke is also leading the bid from the same organization to create a new conservative television network.

On the newspaper side, Teynecke has already overhauled Sun Media's Ottawa bureau. Several good reporters have been moved out. The replacements are good reporters as well. But anyone who doesn't think they will be under pressure to provide a lot of Conservative spin is deluding themselves. The changes were made for a purpose, and the purpose was hardly to have the new hires rushing out to hold the government's feet to the fire.

On the TV side, the new network needs regulatory approval to get up and running. The CRTC will be under tremendous pressure to provide it. As has been demonstrated, Harper does not take kindly to tribunals or commissions that go against his wishes. Those who sit on them can be replaced or have their decisions overturned. Chances of the PM standly idly by and watching this network proposal get shelved are next to nil.

The new network won't be as biased as Fox News in the United States, its promoters claim. But in attacking the work of the CBC's Don Newman, they showed their true colours. If they had one-half the experience, the depth and the erudition of Newman, they should consider themselves lucky.

Having one of his former promoters running Sun Media is just one of two great media turns for the prime minister. The other was the recent auction of the Canwest newspapers. Just when it looked like the conservative flagship, The National Post, and the chain's other big-city newspapers were about to be taken over by liberally inclined buyers, Canwest's Paul Godfrey came to the rescue with an 11th-hour bid that will keep the papers in the conservative stable.

The prime minister stood on the verge of losing the media balance of power in the country. Not only has he maintained it, he has now increased it.

Lawrence Martin is a journalist and author of 10 books who writes about national affairs from Ottawa.

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