The Rest

May 4, 2011

‘Cheeky Australian’ in shock Canada election scandal-gate

Canadians were prevented from learning the results of their own elections yesterday, until social media lent some assistance.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

There's pressure in Canada for an overhaul of the country's bizarre restrictions on reporting election results after social and mainstream media breached rules preventing the broadcast of results before polls had closed in the west of the country. In the lead-up to the national election held Monday, there was considerable speculation that Twitter would be used to break the ban, with a hashtag #tweettheresults, and a website dedicated to it. As the polls in Atlantic Canada closed yesterday morning our time, however, the Tweet the Results site begged off its plan to reveal results after a threat from Elections Canada to impose the $25,000 fine that accompanies breaching the ban. At that point I decided to use the #tweettheresults tag to invite Canadians to email me the results, which I then tweeted, and spent the next two hours dripping out national and local results to a suddenly surging number of Canadian followers. A couple of other people outside Canada did so as well. Based on feedback on Twitter, most seemed happy I was doing it, although one rather solemnly told me I'd been reported to Elections Canada -- I await the knock on the door from the Mounties, or at least a chat with a nice person from the Canadian High Commission down the road. Interviews with various Canadian media outlets have followed, although the description"cheeky Australian journalist" on a major Canadian network was rather painful to learn of. My only real regret is I failed to coin an appropriate"-gate" suffix to use about the whole thing. Resultsgate? Canadagate? Hmmm. The rationale for doing it was, really, a no-brainer. I'm beyond the reach of Canadian law, and it wasn't a major effort for me to send out a few tweets. And why? It's a stupid law, one that infantilises voters in western Canada, and doesn't even make any sense even if you accept its internal logic: upon learning results from Atlantic Canada, why aren't voters in western Canada going to be evenly split in their reaction to, say, a strong Conservative vote in the east? Some may be more likely to vote Conservative to get in on a winner, others might switch their vote to balance an expected landslide. It's not some monstrous curbing of free speech, but it's one of thousands of niggling, bureaucratic restrictions from governments on basic liberties that defy rational analysis. Australia used to have its own pre-emptive version of such a law -- a worse one, in which no electronic media could cover federal elections between the Thursday before an election and when the polls closed, on the basis that broadcast media were "too influential". Derryn Hinch used to routinely get in trouble trying to breach it (you can hear him getting thrown off air in 1980 for it here). Eventually Hinch shamed politicians into changing it -- the Hawke government dumped it in 1983. Now Canadians are calling for their own law to be ditched, particularly as one of Canada's major television broadcasters also breached the ban, albeit apparently inadvertently, for several minutes. As Canadian media academic Jeff Sallott pointed out, some of the alleged results I was tweeting were hoaxes fed to me by Canadian, or non-Canadian, japesters, and indeed I made clear several times yesterday I was not filtering or interpreting results, merely tweeting what I'd been fed, on the basis that Canadians themselves would have a good idea of what was rubbish and what wasn't (which they did, at least according to the feedback). And, indeed, Twitter can be taken over by non-journalists (!) or simply people intent on bringing the lulz, or those with more malicious intentions. That's Twitter, but those serious about what they're looking for can always find what they want. With any luck, Canadian politicians will see sense and ensure the ban is lifted for next time. Otherwise, next time will just have to be a more professional effort, with some Canadian political tragics lined up ahead of time to feed high-quality results, and we'll do it all again. Sometimes it's not hard to stand up for free speech. You don't need any courage, all it takes is a few emails and some tweets.

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8 thoughts on “‘Cheeky Australian’ in shock Canada election scandal-gate

  1. Murray Hall

    Nice work, Bernard.

  2. Grinder

    Wait, don’t we still have this kind of thing in Australia for federal elections? Or is it a kind of self-censorship that the official count results don’t start to come out until after the polls close in WA? Although the exit polls are widely reported I guess.

  3. Craig Snyder

    If the laws don’t change sign me up as a fellow tweeter for the next election in 4 or 5 years time.

    Actually, I like Shallot’s recommendation and it should be applied here as well. That is, don’t release any results until all the polls have closed across the country. I would go even farther and allow the counting but ban the release of the results until all the polls close.

    In Australia, once the polls close in WA we can then get meaningful results published from the start rather than the trickle that come in over the first hour or so.

    An added aspect of this is that come the close of the WA polls and all of the east coast results are released at once, it will be entertaining to watch the media hacks and pundits quickly try to make sense out of it all!

  4. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Canadian by birth, Australian by naturalisation. And I for one say: good on ya, Bernard.

  5. Tomboy

    Ah, but Monsieur Keane, what about the French in Quebec? Nothing for them. Tabernac! Vive la Quebec libré!

  6. Aphra

    Actually, my granddad told me that the 48 hour prohibition on print media was because of some scurrilous lies published in the press, deliberately, which caused the besmirched candidate to lose the election as he had no chance of rebuttal. Seemed a reasonable reaction to me. Today, obviously, we have a much more honorable press, and press ownership, which wouldn’t dream of doing anything underhand to win an election.

    After President Bush won his second term, my friends in California told me of some extraordinary (and illegal?) happenings in that state which were a direct result of their knowing how the other states had voted. It sounded very nasty to me.

    I believe that all polls should be closed before any progress counts are announced. I can’t see how this is an attack on anyone’s freedom of speech.

  7. Andrew Bartlett

    While they’re getting rid of that dumb law, they should also get rid of the one that prohibits people outside of Canada from seeking to influence who Canadians vote for or encourage them to vote a certain way.

    Prohibiting donations or funding from overseas is fair enough, but stopping people from other countries being able to post a message saying they reckon people should vote for the NDP or whoever is just silly.

  8. Peter Fuller

    A close reading of Bernard’s post confirms my memory that it was the electronic (explicitly not print) media that was subject to the prohibition. A vestige of it remains with the advertising blackout from Midnight Wednesday prior to the polls.

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