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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.

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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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