Sun News Network is distancing itself from Senator Mike Duffy following reports that he tried to influence its bid to be included on basic cable packages across the country by calling in favours from Conservative allies.
A report on CTV Thursday night said the PEI senator, who removed himself from the Conservative caucus over ongoing controversy about his expenses, approached a Conservative insider connected to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and suggested the regulator should "play with the team and support Sun Media's request."
"I'm happy to confirm Senator Duffy is not a lobbyist for Sun Media and was not reaching out to anyone on behalf or at the behest of Sun Media," Sun News vice-president Kory Teneycke said late Thursday. "I don't have much comment beyond that – it's an arm's length process and politicians, political figures and friends of people don't get to vote. There are five commissioners, and it's in their hands."
The television station, which is losing about $17-million a year since making its debut two years ago, appeared at a hearing at the end of May to ask for so-called "mandatory carriage," which would ensure its signal is sent into every Canadian home that subscribes to basic television packages.
The designation is coveted because it guarantees about 12 million potential viewers, which allows channels to charge advertisers more to place ads and also ensures a steady stream of revenue from subscriber fees. It was one of about two dozen channels to make the request, and the CRTC is currently considering the applications.
A refusal would be a "death sentence" for the right-leaning channel, its executives told the CRTC during the hearings. Mr. Teneycke – who previously served as director of communications for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and was a long-time conservative adviser before joining the network – said the news report came as a surprise to everyone at the network.
"We've been very clear about our position and what the stakes are," he said.
If the CRTC does say no, the channel could apply to cabinet to have the decision overturned. Mr. Teneycke conceded this adds a political element to the bid, but emphasized that Sun News has no intention of pursuing that option if it's rejected.
"There is no Hail Mary here," he said, adding that CTV didn't contact Sun News prior to its report.
Senator Duffy has a long history in Canada's broadcast industry, having worked at both CTV and CBC prior to his Senate appointment. He stepped aside Thursday over $90,000 in housing costs, which he repaid with money given to him by Nigel Wright, the chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"It is clear the public controversy surrounding me and the repayment of my Senate expenses has become a significant distraction to my caucus colleagues, and to the government," he said in a statement.
"Throughout this entire situation I have sought only to do the right thing. I look forward to all relevant facts being made clear in due course, at which point I am hopeful I will be able to rejoin the Conservative caucus. This has been a difficult time for me and my family, and we are going to take some time away from the public."
The CRTC pointed out that Senator Duffy didn't file an official intervention on behalf of the television station, and was "not aware of any other contact" between the Senator and anyone at the commission.
"Our decisions are based on the public file before us and on nothing else," a spokesman said.