Somebody out there knows something.
Somewhere in Canada there is a scandal waiting to be told.
There is a parliamentary staffer who has seen a cabinet minister in drag. There is a junior advertising executive who knows exactly how the sponsorship money got passed around. There is a man who shared a consensual moment with an anti-same-sex-marriage MP during his college years.
So why isn't this stuff finding its way onto the nation's political blogs?
In the States, the publishing of such information, gossip and provocation online is fuelling a new kind of scandal: Death by blog. It has impugned the credibility of Dan Rather, outed Trent Lott as a racist and the daughter of Alan Keyes as a lesbian, and uncovered the late-night professional activities of fake White House correspondent Jeff Gannon.
US political bloggers have appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine and were accredited to cover the 2004 Republican and Democratic conventions. But in Canada, blogs remain the domain of pundits and policy wonks, an outlet for little more than chest-thumping, crystal-ball gazing, slander and self-promotion.
Only one major Canadian political story broken by bloggers has made its way through to the mainstream media and into our consciousness: the leaking of Jean Brault's testimony to the Gomery Inquiry. The leak revealed a new dimension of the sponsorship scandal and showed us just how powerful an independent online voice could be. Unfortunately, in this case, the voice was American—that of Edward Morrissey, aka Captain Ed, who influenced the course of Canadian politics from his Minnesota-based Captain's Quarters blog.
"It's not that we're pussies or afraid," says Catherine McMillan, the Saskatchewan-based author of the Canadian political blog Small Dead Animals. "The key difference, I think, is that our traffic levels need to build and the network itself has to build. But it's growing, it's coming."
Captain Ed received more than 1.5 million visitors the week Brault's testimony appeared on his site. Small Dead Animals is one of Canada's more successful political blogs, and receives about 5,000 visitors a day. McMillan claims she was offered the Brault testimony before it was given to Captain Ed and says she was looking for a way to post it under a pseudonym when he went public.
But the fact remains that, in a year when American bloggers led major stories on both sides of the border and Canadian politics reached new levels of intrigue and animosity, political blogs in this country made little—if any—impact. McMillan places part of the blame on a disinterested public and a media that largely ignores the sites as a source of information or ideas. There is no equivalent audience in Canada, she says, for US sites like Instapundit—a blog run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds which acts as an informal liaison between blogs and working journalists, and receives more than 200,000 hits a day.
“If he posts a link to your blog every major newspaper in the country is going to read what you wrote,” says McMillan. “That just doesn’t happen here.”
Because the US has a more established Web readership, 50,000 people might read a blog-post questioning the legitimacy of documents used by CBS to impugn President George Bush's military service. “Right away you know that within that readership there’s going to be someone who’s got expertise in typesetting, someone who’s a lawyer, someone with military background,” she says. “Everyone who reads that post is going to contribute to the story.”
While Canadians of various stripes are beginning to rely on Internet incarnations of media outlets and independent sites like the popular Bourque Newswatch, to get their daily doses of information, political blogs still attract a more specialized crowd of political junkies, journalists and staffers — people who are not necessarily inclined to take part in a communal online investigation.
“We don’t quite have the traffic levels yet where we’re going to be guaranteed to have the kind of people who can bring fresh eyes and fresh information,” said McMillan. “That’s part of the development stage that we’re still in.”
Andrew Coyne, a National Post columnist who also runs a popular blog, agrees that Canadian blogs simply need time to develop. “As in everything else, we’re about eighteen months behind the States, but I think it's coming,” Coyne said at a recent Canadian Journalism Foundation discussion on the medium. “But have blogs broken stories in Canada? Yes, most definitely.”
Stephen Janke, a computer engineer who lives in Ajax, Ontario, and blogs on the site Angry in the Great White North, believes he is one of those bloggers. Last spring, testimony in the Gomery inquiry suggested the Liberals had been rewarding lawyers friendly to the party with judicial nominations. Janke spent a lunch-hour poring over government press releases dating back to 1995 and inputting the names of Quebec judicial appointments into a spreadsheet. He then fed their names through a (now defunct) feature of the Elections Canada home page, which allowed him to see what political contributions that individual had made and to whom.
His findings were revelatory: 60 percent of recently appointed Quebec justices had contributed to a political party and almost all of them had favoured the Liberal Party. He posted his findings on his site and two weeks later the numbers were repeated in the mainstream media.
Janke can’t be sure that he was the source for their story, but says he doubts “anyone else would spend hours feeding the names into the computer.”
He regards lack of citation as the major impediment to the blogger cause in Canada. When a story does filter up from blogs to newspapers and television news, the blog is rarely named as a source. Janke believes that if they were credited, more people would start reading blogs and the medium would grow both in popularity and in promise. For that to happen, he thinks the media and opposition political parties need to run with blog-induced stories.
“We haven’t had that Dan Rather moment, we just haven’t had that earthshaking Monica Lewinsky-type thing,” says Janke. “And Monica Lewinsky is important because that’s what gave [the Drudge Report] and the Internet-based media its credibility. They were carrying that story a week or two before the mainstream media picked it up.”
Janke hopes Canada's “Dan Rather moment” will come soon and, as a blogger who aspires to be an investigative journalist, he hopes it comes from him. “I’m working on a couple of things right now that I know no one is working on,” he says. “Will they pan out? Heck, I don’t know.”
Coyne says many bloggers like Janke are already doing a better job at digging up news than some working journalists, but said the majority of Canadian political blogs still operate as "echo chambers," where people's opinions are shouted back at them.
Among the country's most popular political blogs are those of Coyne, Maclean's columnist Paul Wells (Inkless Wells), and former Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella, all of whom offer less news and more commentary, cutting analysis, predictions and personal prose.
McMillan worries that blogs like these—where established journalists and politicians may stretch their legs and their influence, but rarely push the envelope—are seen as the most the medium has to offer. “The thing I find about these guys is that they’re very thin-skinned. They get in to pissing contests with each other—and about all they have is insider gossip. I couldn’t care less about gossip out of Ottawa,” she says. “I turn to blogs because I’m a dissatisfied media consumer ... why the hell would I read Norm Spector or Paul Wells or Antonia Zerbisias? I’m already reading blogs because [the media are] not doing their jobs.”
But the real hindrance to Canadian blogger influence may be the Canadian public. Even when the media does jump on board a brewing scandal or circle at the scent of blood, real political outrage or consequence rarely materializes. Janke points out that bloggers followed the Gomery Inquiry religiously, following up and investigating leads dropped in testimony, and encouraging the dissemination of Brault's leaked testimony despite threats of prosecution. The result, he says: a stronger-than-ever Liberal government and a speaking tour for Paul Coffin.
“In the US, there would have been resignations, inquiries, impeachments,” says Janke. “Now Belinda’s HDRC minister and everything’s forgotten. If they’re still standing after that, what are we going to do?" Just as the expansion of the US blog empire has been infused by that country's bred-in-the-bone love of frontier justice and overnight celebrity, the Canadian blogging community seems to have adopted their nation's polite, self-deprecating modus operandi.
The reluctance to get dirty or to circumvent the “proper” channels of political recourse is as endemic of Canadian political blogs as it is ingrained in Canadian libel laws. Toronto lawyer Julien Porter says blogs that dare to hit below the belt can defend themselves against accusations of libel on the same grounds as the mainstream media—on the basis of truth—but that the cards are stacked against them in more ways than one.
"In Canada there's an assumption that if you say something nasty, it's false," he said.
So even when individual politicians do open themselves up for critique—visiting their long-time lovers in Paris when they should be responding to an international crisis for example, or using daddy's money to pay their campaign workers—Canadian blogs might not dare to say anything and Canadian readers might not care if they do.
"The reason the transformation may not be visible is that we're seeing a withdrawal in general from political interest," Jesse Hirsh, an expert in open source intelligence, said of the blog lag in Canada. "People are just saying 'Fuck it.' It's the nature of the Canadian public. We don't care."
Siri Agrell is a Toronto-based reporter for the National Post who reads blogs but doesn't have the nerve to write one.