The investigation into the robocall story that broke in late February is still in the early stages, but columnists have already sunk their teeth into the scandal. Elections Canada and the RCMP are continuing to trace the fraudulent automated calls that targeted voters in an alleged scheme to discourage Liberal supporters from casting ballots. As the protests begin to spill across Canada this week—starting in Vancouver this weekend and rumoured to hit Toronto next Sunday—some critics are warning the media to start taking the scandal more seriously.
Osgoode Law School professor Gus Van Harten took aim at the effort to suppress public outrage against the Conservative government, identifying columnists like Chantal Hébert and John Ibbitson as being part of the “fire-brigade” attempting to stifle people’s protests. Van Harten says their arguments have been skewed and misleading, and notes their “innocent until proven guilty” stance on the dearth of evidence about the Conservative party’s involvement points to “a lack of concern for the integrity of the democratic process.” It’s too soon in the investigation to judge just how much of an impact the robocalls had on the outcome of the 2011 federal election, says Van Harten, and to conclude at this point that the election’s results weren’t affected by the calls is irresponsible journalism.
As pointed as Van Harten’s argument is, it’s unlikely that the media will be censoring columnists’ opinions, especially when they’ve just been spoon-fed a scoop as appetizing as election fraud. The key is to tread lightly until we learn more, as the Toronto Star‘s Antonia Zerbisias argued in her article on the dangers of crowdsourcing a story that is rapidly snowballing on Twitter and in the blogosphere. We won’t know the full story until the ongoing internal probe uncovers the scale of the damage, so it’s too soon to point fingers at the Conservative party…or to sweep the scandal under the rug.