On responsible media

In the lead-up to the May 2010 United Kingdom general election, opinion polls showed that in all likelihood, the election would result in a hung, or minority parliament, that is, a parliament in which no single party would have a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. The last hung parliament in the UK had occurred in 1974, and so a hung parliament result in 2010 would be a new experience for many – voters, politicians and the media alike.

Consequently, several think tanks in the UK set out to publicly educate both voters and the media. As the Institute for Government noted in a written brief to the UK House of Commons Select Committe on Political and Constitutional Reform:

In the six months before the election there was wide agreement on the need for better understanding about the constitutional conventions for an unclear election result by politicians, civil servants, and the media and in the City—as well as the general public. Alongside this were questions about how prepared these groups were. The outcome of the election result itself has reinforced the importance of this understanding and the need for more coherent preparation.

The main gain was the public discussion ahead of, and after, the general election about the constitutional conventions surrounding an unclear result. The decision by the Cabinet Office to publish the chapter of a draft Cabinet Manual that dealt with the subject was timely and practically useful. (source – Ev66)

In response to the question “What impact did media pressure have on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators?”, the Institute for Government replied:

The impact of media pressure on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators was clearly considerable. However, this pressure was markedly less than many had feared in the period before the election—considering the expansion and immediacy of media and 24 hour news compared to 1974, let alone concerns about the potential reactions of financial markets. One reason for this may have been the efforts to educate media and markets, including by the Institute for Government, in the period before the election, as well as the behaviour and messages of politicians in the period after the results began to suggest an unclear result. Education and public discussion of the possibility of the process taking longer does appear to have mitigated its effects. Clearly, however, there are still lessons that can be learnt, particularly in terms of how other countries approach the period following an election result and whether the UK process is rushed in a way that is detrimental to the quality of governance.

Indeed, in its final report, Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election, the Committee noted:

7. We have heard that following the May 2010 general election, constitutional processes were broadly clear and worked well. On the whole, the media demonstrated a better level of understanding of constitutional processes than some had feared. There was no evidence of panic by the public or the financial markets. Dr Ruth Fox, Director of Parliament and Government at the Hansard Society, told us  that “the markets didn’t have much of a response to what was happening”, and the Institute for Government wrote that “[media] pressure was markedly less than many had feared”. This is to the credit of those organisations, including the Hansard Society, the Constitution Unit at University College London and the Institute for Government, which worked in the run up to the election to increase public and media understanding of what would happen if there was a hung Parliament.

Canada could use such an approach.

Many recent events in Canadian politics have demonstrated that far too many Canadians do not understand how the parliamentary system works, and this ignorance is too easily exploited by politicians. This was clearly evident during the so-called “coalition crisis” of 2008, when the opposition Liberal and NDP parties announced that they had reached an agreement to form a coalition, with confidence and supply support from the Bloc Québécois, and would seek to defeat the recently re-elected Conservative minority government. The governing Conservatives immediately launched an attack painting the idea of coalition government as something illegitimate, even calling it a “coup d’état”. Bringing down an “elected government” and replacing it with a form of government “no one had voted for” was unacceptable. Far too many Canadians didn’t know any better to disagree.

The media was of little help during these events, nor have they been of much help since. In the years since 2008, there has been on-again, off-again talk of certain parties joining forces, either in a coalition or merging – the media often fail to distinguish between the two options, or use the two terms interchangeably in the same article. Whenever polls show that a hung parliament is likely in a coming election, the media always write that minority government is what will emerge. There is never – or very, very rarely – a discussion of the process of how our system works, the process of government formation or what options are available. The fact that yes, a hung parliament will most likely result in a minority government (because the idea of anything is still somewhat toxic or at least very iffy) is beside the point. Unless the media – aided by political and constitutional experts – start discussing the process of government formation, how our system of government works and what types of government could emerge following a hung parliament election result, this will not change.

I see this desperate need for better political education and media reporting reflected in the keyword search activity statistics for this blog. These are the stats on what keywords people have used when searching for something online, and that has led to a blog post I’ve written here turning up in their search results. Search activity on this blog is significantly right now because there are several provincial and territorial elections taking place in October and November of this year: Prince Edward Island (3 October), Manitoba (4 October), Ontario (6 October),  Newfoundland and Labrador (11 October), Saskatchewan (7 November) as well as the Northwest Territories (3 October) and Yukon (11 October).  People are mostly searching for easy to read comparisons of party platforms, because let’s face it – no one really wants to slog through 3 or 4 party platforms and try to make sense of them.

While the keyword search activity is certainly useful to me because it allows me to target posts to identified needs, it is also very depressing at times. It reveals to me just how ill-informed many people are about our system of government and politics in general.

For example, while I’m averaging about 900 hits a day at the moment mostly from people looking for the aforementioned party platform comparisons, far too many of them seem to not understand that these are provincial – not federal – elections, and/or they don’t realize that more than one province is having an election. They aren’t searching for specific provincial party platform comparisons, but using search terms such as “Canada political party platforms october 2011”, “october 2011 vote platforms”, “2011 political party platform”, “October election 2011 platforms” etc. Such searches usually take them to the platform comparison post I had done for the May 2011 Canadian federal election, and so I edited that post to add a note at the beginning with the links to the various provincial posts. I also added a note to the beginning of each provincial post with the links to the posts for the other two provinces. That seems to be working as most people are then moving from the Canada post to whichever provincial post they were actually hoping to find.

Other search terms used by people are so vague or poorly worded that they frustrate me. I can’t understand what the person was looking for, and because they obviously don’t really know what they’re looking for either, or at least, don’t know how to properly phrase it, they get taken to completely unrelated posts. At least, I assume the post is probably not what they were looking for, but given the search terms used, it’s difficult to know. Or I think I can guess at what they were looking for, but because they couldn’t phrase it properly, they got taken to a post other than the one to which they should have been referred. For example, someone today was looking for “what happens if the majority is under 54 in election in Canada” – which must be someone asking about what happens if the Ontario vote results in a hung parliament  because 54 seats are needed for a majority in Ontario. Because they referred to Canada rather than Ontario, however, they got taken to a completely unrelated post instead of the post I do have about government formation scenarios following a hung parliament result in Ontario’s provincial election.

I’m not trying to say that only Canadians are ill-informed – trust me, there are a significant number of confused search queries coming from people in other countries, in particular, the United Kingdom. But, as I stated at the outset of this post, at least in 2010, the UK media behaved responsibly. They didn’t declare any form of government the night of the election, they simply stated that it was a hung parliament, and then waited, along with everyone else, for a government to be formed. They explained the process. They interviewed experts. It took five days for a government to emerge. If it had been in Canada, the media would have immediately declared a Conservative minority government the night of the vote and then been utterly confused when Gordon Brown didn’t resign as Prime Minister immediately after that.

To date, in the various articles discussing the Ontario election I’ve read, only one which didn’t make coalition government out to be something evil or foreign. I’m not implying there haven’t been others – maybe there have been – I certainly can’t read every single thing written about the election. It wasn’t a great article, but it was a refreshing change from all the others reporting on the latest polls and concluding that these polls show Ontario is heading for a minority government, when all the polls show is that the parties are very close and that the election will likely result in a hung or minority parliament. For example, today’s Toronto Star has this article, which is headlined: “Get ready for a minority provincial government, poll says”. Both the headline and first sentence are, simply put, wrong. The first sentence reads:

Ontarians are poised to elect a minority Liberal or Progressive Conservative government in Thursday’s vote, with New Democrats holding the balance of power, a Toronto Star-Angus Reid poll suggests.

First of all, Ontarians do not elect governments, they elect parliaments. Second, the poll suggests only that the parliament elected next week will be a hung, or minority parliament. The poll does not, nor can it, say what form of government will emerge. It is not the media’s role to dictate that minority government is the only option.

In the next paragraph, the reporter does refer to a “minority parliament”, which is more accurate, but open to confusion. A minority (hung) parliament is NOT the same thing as a minority government – and that is why I prefer the term hung parliament to minority parliament – less chance of confusion. The pollster quoted in the article then again muddies the water with this quote:

“We’re definitely looking at a minority government at this rate,” Jaideep Mukerji, managing director at Angus Reid, said Friday.

Again, this is wrong. We don’t know what sort of government might be formed. The poll shows only that a hung parliament is likely. Nothing more. For pollsters and media to repeatedly reinforce the idea that minority government is the only obvious outcome only further undermines political literacy in this country. The Canadian media need to learn from their British counterparts and start reporting more responsibly, otherwise our democracy will continue to suffer.

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