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Snuffleupagus, Icarus and the strange case of Kory Teneycke’s fall from grace by Stephen Maher

Sep 16, 2010

Source: Halifax Chronicle Herald

Last month, Lawrence Martin wrote in the Globe and Mail that Konrad von Finckenstein, the chairman of the CRTC, was under pressure from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hand a lucrative cable licence to Sun TV, a proposed right-wing news network.

In a letter to the editor, von Finckenstein denied there was any political pressure, but apparently the government really did try to nudge him out, offering to make him ambassador to Chile.

Avaaz, a global group of leftie activists based in New York, was inspired by the column to launch an online petition against Sun TV. More than 80,000 people signed it, including Margaret Atwood.

Who didn’t sign the petition? Kory Teneycke, Harper’s former director of communications, the mastermind behind Sun TV.

On Sept. 2, Teneycke complained on Twitter that he had been signed up: "So, apparently I have signed the Soros/Atwood petition against Sun TV News as well. What BS."

Early the next morning, the Sun papers published a column from Teneycke — titled Maggie Atwood: Buzz off! — in which he revealed that the petition contained many false names, including Snuffleupagus, the Sesame Street character who only ever appears to Big Bird.

The activists at Avaaz read the column and checked the list and found out that, sure enough, someone had added Snuffleupagus and Boba Fett and also a number of Ottawa journalists in an apparent attempt to discredit the petition.

The next day, I received an email from Avaaz informing me that I had been signed up. So had Martin and plucky CBC blogger Kady O’Malley, who decided to stick her adorable nose into the story and went hunting for the list of names.

"am i the only one who can’t actually find the list of names online? someone url me, will you?" she wrote on Twitter.

A few minutes later, she tweeted: "maybe he knows. hey, @KoryTeneycke, where’d you see the list of names on the Avaaz petition?"

See, Teneycke had revealed — likely without meaning to — that he knew who had added the names to the petition. Avaaz had not put the names online.

Teneycke, I think, realized the jig was up and replied on Twitter: "@kady Source emailed me to say they registered Boba Fett, D. Shroot, etc. Petition lacks basic controls. Not sure who signed me up."

Well, how did he know he’d been signed up?

Avaaz squealed about dirty tricks and hired big-shot Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby.

On Tuesday, Ruby sent letters to the RCMP and Ottawa police, giving them the IP address of the Ottawa-area computer used to add the names and asking them to prosecute the guilty party for fraud, identity fraud and theft of a telecommunications service.

It may be illegal to add names to a petition but it would be hard to get a conviction, and the fraud squad likely has enough Nigerian email scams to investigate without spending their time chasing down petition pranksters.

But the prospect of a police investigation may have led to Teneycke’s departure. He had an event scheduled in Winnipeg on Wednesday but instead held a news conference in Ottawa announcing that he was resigning from Sun TV. He didn’t mention Ruby’s letters to the cops.

"Over the summer, this controversy has gotten out of hand," Teneycke said.

"It has morphed from one of market differentiation to something more vicious and vitriolic. And yes, at times I have contributed to the debasing of the debate myself."

Teneycke is a gifted communicator who aggressively and effectively pushed the prime minister’s message when he worked in government. Last March, he and the prime minister had lunch in New York with Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, the men behind Fox News. The theory is that over lunch, they dreamed up Fox News North.

Teneycke left the Prime Minister’s Office in July and found a backer for Sun TV: Quebec billionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau, who owns the Sun tabloids and a bunch of other things, and who would like Harper to give him a cable licence and also a new hockey rink in Quebec City while he’s at it.

To pump up Sun TV, Teneycke sought to grab attention by personally attacking people like Atwood in the bombastic style of a Fox News host, which was jarring in traditionally deferential Canada. Like Icarus in the Greek myth, he flew too close to the sun, got burned and fell to the ground.

I feel bad for him, but not that bad. When he was running the Sun papers, he got rid of some good reporters, including Sun columnist Greg Weston. Weston has had more scoops than I’ve had hot dinners, causing headaches for six or seven prime ministers, and it was disturbing to see him pushed out by someone so close to the government of the day.

Now Sun TV will be run by Luc Lavoie, a former spokesman for Brian Mulroney.

And Teneycke? He is awfully talented, so I suspect his landing will be gentler than Icarus’s. If not, I think he would make an excellent ambassador to Chile.

© Chronicle Herald