A former Conservative candidate who won a record $650,000 defamation award against the National Post says election monitoring of Twitter falsehoods should include scrutiny of mainstream media. Federal Election Commissioner Yves Côté is monitoring social media to enforce a federal law prohibiting false statements against candidates.
“It is not unknown for the mainstream media to get it wrong,” said Arthur Kent, a Calgary journalist and former NBC foreign correspondent. “Every day they publish material that first appeared on Twitter and Facebook. Monitors should be looking at mainstream media, too. It’s an echo chamber now.”
“We are going into a federal election and an Alberta campaign in 2019, and Canadians as citizens depend on news media to be our first line of defence against election campaign disinformation,” said Kent. “The public should know.”
The Alberta Court of Appeal on May 25 awarded Kent $200,000 in damages and $450,000 in costs over a 2008 Post column that ridiculed his candidacy for the Alberta legislature. The article Alberta’s Scud Stud A ‘Dud’ On The Campaign Trail by then-columnist Don Martin called Kent “self-absorbed”, a “problem candidate”, “television eye-candy” and “campaign bad boy”. The item was published 17 days before the election. Kent lost by 1,012 votes.
Court records showed the Post refused to publish Kent’s rebuttal, and kept the defamatory article in its website archives more than four years after Kent sued for damages. The Court ruled the column exaggerated negative references, did “not meet the test for truth or reportage”, and was based in part on an apparently fabricated quote from an unnamed source.
The Court also faulted Post lawyers for failing to promptly disclose evidence in the case, including a confidential 2008 email from Columnist Martin to a Progressive Conservative campaign organizer that asked, “Any more dirt?” Concealment of emails “represented a fundamental breach of the respondents’ obligations,” wrote the Court of Appeal.
Martin quit the newspaper in 2010 to host the CTV News Channel program Power Play. Kent in an interview said neither Martin nor the National Post ever apologized. The newspaper did not appeal the Court order.
Can’t Publish False Statements
“I have to tell you these people are not accountable,” said Kent. “This was a grueling legal marathon. As someone who lived it for 10 years, I feel an obligation to say, here is what we experienced.”
Kent in a letter to Alberta Elections and Commissioner Côté wrote, “The Postmedia-Martin rulings represent a compelling argument that your offices have a new role to play in administering open, fair and impartial elections. Our team’s experience in 2008 foreshadowed a reality now stalking every election: Standing for office in the internet age means a reputational free-fire zone of a nature unforeseen by 20th century regulatory bodies.”
Côté in an October 19 notice Social Media Analysis Services said his office will hire monitors in the 2019 federal campaign to watch “social media content including, but not limited to, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, chatrooms, message boards, social networks and video and image sharing websites.” The Commissioner’s office yesterday said it did not plan general monitoring of mainstream media.
Under the Canada Elections Act section 91, “No person shall with the intention of affecting the results of an election, knowingly make or publish false statements of fact in relation to the personal conduct of a candidate or prospective candidate.”
The law followed a 1997 Canadian Police Association billboard campaign described by one Liberal senator as “vicious”. The campaign ads depicted serial murderers Clifford Olson and Paul Bernardo alongside photos of eight Liberal candidates who “voted to give these killers a chance at early parole”, said the billboards: “On June 2, it’s your turn to vote.”
Then-Transport Minister David Anderson, one of the eight named candidates, called it “a new low in public debate”. The billboards referred to a Commons vote on the so-called faint hope clause, a provision of the Criminal Code allowing convicted murderers to apply for parole after 15 years.