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.

In and Outright Hypocrisy?

The Liberals have been trying to make gains from the so-called “In and Out scandal” in which they allege impropriety in the transfers of money from local Conservative election campaigns to the federal campaign for the purposes of funding national advertising.

Transfers of money from local to federal campaigns is of course legal as all parties do this (there is even a category for it on Elections Canada returns that all candidates, EDAs and political parties must file). Indeed, the Conservatives and the Liberals have a different tradition here: The Conservatives send their EDAs 10% of all the money the national party raises, and the Liberals tax their EDAs 40 some percent of their candidate’s Elections Canada refund. However, it is the channeling of local cash to the federal party to pay for advertising where the Liberals see red in the Tories’ blue campaign.

One of the most vocal critics of this alleged scheme has been Liberal MP Marlene Jennings of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Lachine. Here is a quote of hers from the House of Commons:

Mr. Speaker, the in-and-out financing scandal implicates at least six Conservative ministers, like the public safety minister and the foreign affairs minister. Their response? Dead silence.

The member for West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country [Blair Wilson] did the right thing. At the very first hint of any questions about his campaign he stepped aside so he could clear his name.

The independent investigation into the Conservative scheme has not been completed. Will the government demonstrate true leadership and demand resignations from its six ministers?

Let’s take a closer look at Jennings’ 2004 and 2006 Elections Canada filing:

jennings2004.jpg
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and 2006:

jennings2006.jpg
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Jennings’ 2004 election return shows a $300 expense for advertising paid to the Liberal Party of Canada and a $1500 expense for the same paid to “The Federal Liberal Agency of Canada”. The 2006 return shows a $11,206.86 expense for advertising paid to the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal Party.

The Liberals have alleged impropriety in the Conservative practice of transferring money from local campaigns to federal campaign for use by the federal campaign for “advertising”. Here, we see Jennings transferring sums of money to both the federal party and Quebec wing of the federal party for “advertising”. What sort of advertising services did the LPOC and LPOC(Q) provide for Ms. Jennings? It should be noted that Jennings also declared expenses that her campaign paid to her riding association for advertising, so what of these similar expenses paid to national HQ? Did Jennings pay the party to produce Marlene Jennings specific advertising, Quebec regional advertising or national advertising? What is the difference between each of the three if they were paid for by the official agent for Marlene Jennings?

When you look at other Quebec campaigns it appears that more than a few Quebec Liberal candidates including Stephane Dion bought about $11,000 or $4,900 of advertising from the Liberal Party of Canada in Quebec.

Is the LPOC an ad-agency or did they purchase advertising for their candidates like the Conservatives bought for their Candidates?

Of course, in my opinion, no laws have been broken here and if this shows that the Liberals were also involved in a so-called (by them) “In and Out scheme” the only things they are guilty of is hypocrisy.

Furthermore, why was this practice given a green light in the past for the Liberals by Elections Canada when it now raises questions by the federal agency. Are not all parties equal under the law?

Questions for Garth Turner

Sunday night, I broke the story that Garth Turner, Liberal MP for Halton was collecting funds from donors into a trust. As specified by Elections Canada, trusts are generally forbidden as one cannot pay out of a trust the many donations that went into a trust. Check the full story here.

Garth’s response was both predictable and unpredictable. Predictably, he alluded to some well-organized conspiracy that was out to get him and immediately claimed victim status. Unpredictably though, he acknowledged his mistake and has taken steps to significantly reconfigure how he will be collecting money in the future. However, there are significant questions that remain.

  • Since this comes on the heels of Liberal questions in the House about election spending, they have much to do to get their own campaign finances in order. This week, we’ve seen apparent campaign finance discrepancies by Bonnie Crombie (more on that soon), Blair Wilson and now Garth Turner. How can they criticize the Conservatives before they sort out their own affairs?

  • Since many cheques to Garth Turner were made out to “Garth Turner Campaign, in trust”, does this mean that he’ll have to return all of that money? All cheques should have been made out to the “Halton Federal Liberal Association”.
  • In April of this year, Garth held a fundraising event with former Liberal leadership candidate Ken Dryden. Garth wrote:

    “Tonight was also an important milestone in my local election campaign. We exceeded our fundraising goal and, in the past three weeks, have raised five times more funds than the local Conservatives did in an entire year. All those bag signs, arterials, stakes, wire frames, ties and pounders in my garage are now paid for in full. We have cash in the bank � enough to get seriously and immediately ballistic the moment the writ is dropped.”

    Ballistic or busted? Were these fundraising efforts for naught? If that campaign materials was purchased by a private account and not the one held by the Federal Liberal Riding Association, Garth cannot use these campaign materials.

  • This represents a huge oversight by Dion’s new czar of fundraising. Does this represent poor judgment on behalf of the Stephane Dion? Will Garth resign this position? What can be said of the fundraising health of the Liberal party if Garth has been directing it?
  • Garth claims that he transferred money from a business account to the Liberal Electoral Association. Last time I checked, this is not allowed. Ironically, Garth criticizes the Conservatives for transferring money between EDAs and the federal party (which is allowed). “In and Out” is it called? Or is this “Out to In”? I’ve lost track.
  • If the Liberal Electoral Association accepted money from this business account (as Garth claims) they would also seem to be in violation. Could this association become de-registered by Elections Canada?
  • Garth is right in that being an independent can be tough. Independents do not have riding associations (EDAs). They can raise money, but they cannot issue tax receipts. Garth writes:

    “When Mr. Harper threw me out of caucus, I sat as an indie for a number of months, during which people sent me money because they took pity on my soul”

    I hope these people don’t expect to get tax receipts. But really, now that Garth is a Liberal, what is the status of this money? He can’t transfer money from this “business account” (in trust) to the Liberal EDA.

  • What are the consequences of this oversight? If this gets investigated, will Garth step aside? Will Dion ask him to step aside?
  • In a past life, wasn’t Garth a finance guru? Wasn’t he Minister of National Revenue? Is this mistake oversight or a sophisticated financial operator pushing the envelope?