Who needs the MSM to debate? New media brings populism to political coverage

Yesterday, Green Party leader Elizabeth May learned the news that she will not be featured in the leader’s debate broadcast on the Canadian television networks. The arrangement by May of former Liberal MP Blair Wilson to form a Green caucus of one was risky given his infraction of section 83 of the Canada Elections Act. The Green Party argued that they met the same standard set by Deborah Grey of the Reform Party which allowed Preston Manning to join the leader’s debate in 1993. Differences that I would underline is that Wilson was elected as a Liberal while Grey was elected as a Reform MP and that the Reform party opposed all other parties while the Green Party supports the Liberals.

I was on TVOntario last night on a tech-politics panel with Dr. Greg Elmer, Warren Kinsella, Kady O’Malley and Andrew Rasiej of TechPresident.com (formerly of the Howard Dean 2004 campaign). My friend Kady and I dusted it up a bit when the topic of the mainstream media came up. I argued that social and new media is creating accessible tools to reject the purpose of a gatekeeping middleman between stakeholders in a democracy and the politicians that speak to them. I have my own experiences with this as the unaccountable and unelected Parliametary Press Gallery – the media guild that reins supreme over Parliament – used the state to enforce its monopoly over news as it relates to politicians on Parliament Hill. I noted at the time that it is disturbing in a democracy when those that fought for press freedoms become the gatekeepers to access. These are the same folks that bellyached when Stephen Harper made them sign up for a list for his own press conference and the same group admit journalists that write questions for MPs with the rare occasion to compel a former Prime Minister to answer partisan questions under oath.

The tools of new media that we discussed on the panel create the possibility of reducing one of the burdens that necessitate the organization of news producers and reporters into a corporation. Digital video cameras are becoming ubiquitous these days as anyone with $150 and a YouTube account can capture news in video format. Sites like Ustream.tv even allow “citizen journalists” like myself to interview the likes of Preston Manning or John Tory live online while visitors submit their questions. However, the wiser minds of the Parliamentary Press Gallery would disagree and as its President Richard Brennan told the Hill Times,

“They will be ejected and if they continue, they’ll be prohibited from coming into the main block, particularly here, I should say, the Foyer of the House. You’re not to use anything collected in the Foyer of the House, be it video or voice that could be used in some kind of a nefarious way. That’s what these guys want to do. They want to collect tape, video, voice, people making mistakes or saying something that’s not exactly correct, they want to use it for some kind of an attack ad. That’s what we’re afraid of. They’re not supposed to be here anyway. They’re not members of the Press Gallery. This area is for the members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery or visiting media only.”

As Dr. Greg Elmer stated on the program last night, capturing these sorts of moments is good for democracy because it increases the accountability of politicians. But the unaccountable PPG has their territory and this group will protect their turf if it means eroding the principles of free press and institutional transparency.

What stands between Elizabeth May and a debate (Stephane Dion has agreed to debate her) is the mainstream media. This elite cadre of corporate (CTV, Canwest) and public (CBC) interests seems to have shut out May and the 4.6% of Canada that voted for her party during the last election. But, this is their right. They are not obligated to broadcast any political debate by law and they can set the ground rules. CBC could invite me to debate Jack Layton and there are no election laws or rules that govern this (of course, this would be a bad decision for CBC).

Why not use the tools that promise to bring populism to the media? We can make the broad scope of media available (blogs, television, radio etc.) “mainstream”. Though they were broadcast on television networks, Youtube and Facebook sponsored debates in the primary cycle of the 2008 Presidential race in the US and MySpace will sponsor one or more presidential debates between Obama and McCain. As Clay Shirky writes in his book, Here Comes Everybody, the advent of user-generated content has the potential of doing to journalism as a professional class that which movable type did to the few elites known as scribes that copied books by hand. Scribes used to have an honoured and privileged position in society, but when the printing press was invented, the cost of printing books plummeted and society’s literacy rates increased. New media has the potential of tearing down the barriers set up by elite gatekeepers in the mainstream media. The tools of web 2.0 restrict May’s ability to debate by only those that would agree to debate her (now the singular limitation but one that she would face on television as well).

Elizabeth May should challenge the federal party leaders to debate via ustream.tv. The live debate (and subsequent video produced) would be easily embedded on blogs, on the Green Party websites, on other party websites and even on Blogging Tories. Democracy is literally the power and strength of the people and by its very definition, does not integrate the concept of an elite class. The internet has bandwidth in abundance and is not a scarce resource like the bands owned by corporate and public media. Further, the internet has the advantage that it is accessible to whomever would access it, whether a voter in Yellowknife or an absentee voter on the Yellow river in China. As stakeholders in democracy, we could choose (or choose not to participate) by extending the discussion online via twitter, blogs and other forms of social media. As site owners, if we opt not to feature May’s debate, there are many others that would.

In an evolving media ecosystem, the MSM may not be entirely replaced but perhaps the word “mainstream” will be redefined. No longer will the coverage and restriction of coverage be decided by elites that were the only ones capable of organizing and controlling vast networks of satellites and cable to distribute information. The network of media distribution and production is available to the people and as a nascent party, Elizabeth May should take advantage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *