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.



  • http://rightfromalberta.blogspot.com Reid

    (Stephane Dion has agreed to debate her)

    On the National last night they were discussing this issue and spoke to a representative of the MSM “consortium” who decided if May should be included or not. He said that 3 out of 4 leaders said to keep May out or they would not participate. Dion was not the one who agreed. It was Duceppe. Eventhough Dion has publically said May should be in the debate, when it came down to crunch time, Dion said to keep her out.

  • Marie

    Excuse me Reid, this is what Mr. Dion actually said. Dion said he would have welcomed the presence of May, but he would not participate if Harper were to boycott the debates.

    “I will say that I would like her to be there,” Dion said.

    Do you read anywhere here in this quote where he said to keep her out? Please try & stick with the facts alright?

  • http://grumpyvoter.blogspot.com Grumpy Voter

    I think this is a fascinating blog posting Stephen, well done. I think the piece of the puzzle that will put new media over the top is when mainstream society opts for new media over traditional media in the way it looks at the world. We've seen everything from entertainment to literature emerge with exciting new media applications, but there has yet to be a universal application that is just as good as “lying on the couch and watching Peter Mansbridge”. Does that make sense? I also believe that a political party can reach a new audience by embracing these new technologies and using them to get their message out. At present we have blogs, Youtube and its clones, email, file sharing and streaming video of copyrighted content. There needs to be a universal application that can replace the TV – in other words, “replace TV and you will replace TV”… make sense? Okay, I am babbling…

  • http://rightfromalberta.blogspot.com Reid


    I just said what the National on CBC reported last night.

    Go watch the clip. The report is in the first few minutes http://www.cbc.ca/national/latestbroadcast.html and Keith Boag clearly says Dion wouldn't go to the debate because if May was there Harper wouldn't go. So he wouldn't go either.

  • Marie

    Reid, I too listened to the report by Keith Boag. He very clearly said; Dion said he would have welcomed the presence of May, but he would not participate if Harper were to boycott the debates.

    This is what he actually said & I quote; “I will say that I would like her to be there,” Dion said.

    Your interpuation of Dion was & I quote, “Dion said to keep her out” See the difference Reid?

    You see Reid, he expects to debate Harper whether Elizabeth May is there or not.

  • Dave

    “..considering his infraction of section 83 of the Canada Elections Act” You mean paying some bills after his financial agent resigned but before the new one officially took over?

    While this is not appropriate protocol it was not considered serious enough for Elections Canada to take any action. Sounds like trying to make a molehill out of a pimple if you ask me.

  • http://www.stephentaylor.ca stephentaylor

    Any thoughts about the original topic at hand?

  • southernontarioan

    I believe the Green party only received 4.6% last election.. not 9.6%.

  • http://www.stephentaylor.ca stephentaylor

    You're right. I've made the correction

  • Simon

    On Blairs recent assignment to the Green cause, I am reminded of a question I posed to him while he was the Liberal MP for West Vancouver Sunshine Coast: As a resident of Eagle Harbour and in close proximity to the controversial Eagle Ridge development of the Sea to Sky highway, I asked Blair of his opinion on this development. It was a non committed response one would expect from a federal Liberal i.e. pinning it on being a “Provincial” issue and not one he would have any opinion on, despite it being a contentious issue in the riding. So now, he is an environmentalist….and here are we with Liberal candidate standing as yet in this Riding. Some Green Shift……..credibility issue here for all concerned; The Green Party, Blair and The Liberals – I wonder what his position on this issue is now? Also, where are the Liberals in this riding, or are the Greens now de facto Liberals – sure looks like it at the moment?

  • Marie

    yes as a matter of fact I have. The topic is okay but I am a little fed up with anyone who keeps putting words in once mouth by misquoting what was actually said in order to ridicule someone. Sorry if I am a pain in the butt but what is wrong with printing exact quotes instead of innuendo's that skirt the truth? Is that to much to ask for?

  • http://www.stephentaylor.ca stephentaylor

    fair enough. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts!

  • artwilliams

    I would keep your blog entries to half the size. Say what you need to in 400-500 words.

  • Gabby In QC

    While I welcome the addition of “an evolving media ecosystem” as you call it, I think that some caution should be exercised.

    Yes, there is bias in the MSM, but it doesn't mean it should be replaced or discarded. The journalists who engage in unethical practices should be exposed, and their readership/viewership should then exercise their own judgement in accepting or rejecting their work.

    And yes, there should be enough room for a 'democratization' of media, but as many documented 'fauxto'shopping incidents and rumours spread by non-MSM has shown, there is a danger in one form supplanting the other.

    How do I know, as a consumer of news, that the anonymous person behind the 'new media' can be trusted to give me the facts and is not merely spreading his/her own agenda?

    It doesn't necessarily follow that the 'populist' approach to news gathering or news dissemination is any less biased than the MSM approach. As a matter of fact, populism can just as easily, if not more so, descend into bias or even demagoguery – present company excepted, of course ;-)

  • http://www.stephentaylor.ca stephentaylor

    It all comes down to track record and reputation no matter what media is used to broadcast a message.

  • Andrew

    Hi Stephen. I’ve been reading your blog for a while and enjoy the new look. May I make a suggestion? You’ve linked to a book on Amazon.com. Did you know that book is also available on Amazon.ca? Now, maybe there’s something that prohibits linking to that site but I think in general, you would be further demonstrating your love of country if you linked to Canadian versions of international sites

  • Gabby In QC

    Agreed, and a discerning readership/viewership.

    But … not being tech savvy … what would prevent someone from appropriating someone's logo or site, and impersonating that person? Or diverting traffic intended for someone's site onto his/her site.

    For example, Steve Janke has a post about how googling “Stephane Dion” somehow redirects to a Jack Layton site. I don't really understand the process – my head space is limited ;-) – but some are calling that kind of move on Layton's tech team as brilliant. Personally, I call it dishonest and manipulative. So, people need to be even more vigilant than with traditional media.

  • http://www.stephentaylor.ca stephentaylor

    Let me dust off the 2005 Paul Martin election rhetoric and unequivocally state that “I love Canada”. Now that that's taken care of, I can say that I was rushed and it was the first Google result that came up. Also, I should say that I'm a fan of open markets and free trade and against protectionism. This has little to do with my choice of linking the .com vs the .ca but I've received better service, selection and faster delivery times from the .com. An item I once ordered from the .ca was out of stock and took six months of “we've ordered it, thanks for your credit card info” before they told me that they couldn't get the item.

  • http://vollman.blogspot.com Robert V

    I think the Green Party should be included in the debate.
    But I agree that any comparison to the Green Party or even the Bloc Quebecois is faulty.
    Perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be to the National Party in 1993: same number of candidates, same level of voter support, also never having one a seat.
    Of course, the National Party was also excluded from the debates ……

  • http://www.earn-cash-make-money-online.com/forum/index.php?topic=1479.0 North American Union – Not

    I wonder why Harper is so scared of Elizabeth May.

    She’s just a little girl.

    She won’t beat Stephie up.

    At least not too bad. :-)

  • pete e

    The leaders' debate is becoming a tradition and, as such, is nearly impossible for any leader to miss. If it were replaced with ad-hoc online debates, front-runners would often ignore them. What's more having a single large-audience event allows reporters to ask questions that leaders might not answer in a less scrutinized setting. BTW the reporters have more accountability in the more formal setting as well.

  • http://nikonthenumbers.com/profile/648714 Taylor Cutforth

    The problem with having the green party participate in the debates is that it sets a scary precedent.

    The reason the Reform party was able to be in the debates was that they had an elected member under THEIR banner through a by-election. Imagine the outrage if that didn't happen but instead they had a PC elected member join them and demand that their Reform leader joins the debates. This is subverting democracy in a way.
    Cuz now Bob Rae can decide he's gonna join up with the Marxist party or some such so that THEY too may now be in the debates. (hypothetically.) Imagine how many parties we'll start having to include then.
    Undemocratically. Imagine how this can potentially bog down the debates themselves. Though I'd be fore extending the length if that were to ever happen.

    Just putting this out there.

    Future headlines:

    Jason Kenny joins the Marijuana party after accepting a deal to become their new leader and spokes person for the 2012 debates!
    I kid you, Obviously… but the possibility for similar nuttiness remain endless.

  • http://nikonthenumbers.com/profile/648714 Taylor Cutforth

    I thought I heard of a PETA party. Guess that must of been provincial. I don't know I could be wrong.

    “Other parties recognized by Elections Canada

    Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party of Canada (founded in 2005) – environmentalist, animal liberationist
    Canadian Action Party (founded in 1997) – Populist, Canadian Nationalist
    Christian Heritage Party of Canada (founded in 1987) – Social conservative
    Communist Party of Canada (founded in 1921) – Communist
    Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) (founded in 1970) – Communist/Marxist-Leninist influenced by Maoism and the ideas of Enver Hoxha
    First Peoples National Party of Canada (founded in 2005) – Aboriginal rights advocacy
    Libertarian Party of Canada (founded in 1975) – Libertarian
    Marijuana Party of Canada (founded in 2000) – pro-marijuana legalization
    Neorhino.ca (founded in 2007) – Joke party.
    Newfoundland and Labrador First Party (founded in 2007) – Newfoundland and Labrador advocation
    People's Political Power of Canada (founded in 2006)- Social Conservative, Populist
    Progressive Canadian Party (founded in 2004) – progressive conservative, Red Tory
    Western Block Party (founded 2005) – western separatist and ultraconservative
    Work Less Party (founded in 2007) – Labour rights”

    So yeah. Bet these guys are now gonna start hammering the MPs for deals to “represent” their party in a debate. Or perhaps next time now that the doors to political extremism has been open. Or Pandora's box I should say? I'm hoping now that voters will set matters straight by voting for the moderates. pah-hegh.
    Well will shall see. The Conservatives were ahead last I checked so it seems so.

    But anyway…

    The Bloc and Reform had ELECTED candidates FIRST. Blair Wilson is not and elected green party member but was elected as a Liberal.

    What this means now is that anyone could get elected as a Conservative or some other major party and then leave it to join a fringe party so that they can get an uneven kick start ahead of the others.
    Its undemocratic for a reason. Miss May and Dion are subverting Democracy.

    I shouldn't have to come and spell this out. But thanks to the CBC and other major networks not even bring this point up even though the other leaders did May is now gonna be in the debate.
    Supposedly due to “public pressure”. Pathetic… I bet there is more pressure against her being there but that the CBC and other MSM networks wouldn't want to cast to much attention on those details…. They do often like to be selective with such things. They keep cutting up Harpers important speeches up into 30 second spiels. Particularly on this issue of May's supposedly elected Green member.

    The same goes for what the other leaders had to say on it.

    So I've now been watching cpac online(pffft! cable TV? for what? other that then CPAC).
    And getting the REAL news on the political scenes.

    MSM is such garbage for the head…. I only watch to draw up comparisons of that exact point.

  • http://www.nadeco.org Margaret Arnolds

    I am a spokesperson for a South African Political Party and I am intersted in how to get my party out there to the voters is something like this available to south africans I am from the National Democratic Convention (NADECO) in South Africa

  • http://www.squidoo.com/ride-on-lawn-mower Jane

    Great discussion. I also think that such tricks are dishonest and manipulative

  • http://www.squidoo.com/ride-on-lawn-mower Jane

    Great discussion. I also think that such tricks are dishonest and manipulative