The 2012 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 18, 2013.
Reporter Stephen Maher provides the background to the award winning investigation of the use of ‘robocalls’ to mislead and harass voters during the 2011 federal election campaign.
Your Excellencies, Chief Justice, Parliamentarians, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I’d like to thank the judges for nominating the Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia News for this award. It’s an honour to be nominated alongside such accomplished journalists.
During the last federal election, there were scattered media reports about fraudulent telephone calls in ridings across Canada. Glen McGregor and I thought that someone might have been making calls designed to prevent opposition supporters from voting.
We pitched a project to our editors. I want to thank Lou Clancy and Christina Spencer at Postmedia and Andrew Potter and Gerry Nott at the Citizen, both for giving us the time to work on it, and allowing reporters from two different news organizations to work together.
We started by working the phones, calling candidates, campaign workers and officials, trying to figure out where there were incidents of fraudulent political calls. We put together a database and tried to cross reference it with lists of voter contact firms.
Eventually, we learned that Elections Canada was investigating an election day robocall in Guelph that sent hundreds of voters to the wrong polling station. We learned that investigators had seized records from RackNine, a Conservative call centre firm in Edmonton, but our sources were not able to go on the record.
From Elections Canada’s files, Glen got cell phone bills from the Guelph Conservative campaign. When he discovered that someone from the campaign had called RackNine on election day, minutes after the deceptive calls were sent, we had our story.
It had an enormous impact, as did our follow up story, based on our database, which revealed there were similar calls in ridings across the country. This led to a public outcry, with complaints from more than 1,000 people across Canada, which led to a national investigation that is, insofar as we can tell, continuing.
A few weeks later, with the help of Edmonton Journal reporter Ryan Cormier, we got our hands on the court documents with the name that continues to haunt us: Pierre Poutine, nom de plume of whoever booked the call in Guelph.
It has been a fascinating detective story, with burner phones, surveillance videos, digital call records, contradictory witnesses, red herrings and non-denial denials, but we still don’t know who done it.
This started as a story about the right to vote, but we realized early on that it could turn into a story about a governing party under investigation. Can wrongdoing by political actors be properly investigated and exposed?
We don’t yet know the answer. Recently, the CRTC fined seven entities for robocalls that violate the law.
A federal court judge recently found that election fraud took place in ridings across the country, likely making use of the Conservatives’ database. He chided the party for hampering Elections Canada’s investigation, and for employing “trench warfare” tactics in court.
15 months ago, the federal government promised that within six months it would introduce new legislation to give Elections Canada more investigative power. So far, no bill has been tabled.
A junior campaign worker has been charged in connection with the Guelph robocall, although he argues that he has been set up by the party.
There’s a lot we don’t know, but we know a lot more now than we when we started, and we will know more later.
We’ve been able to do this work with the support of the best editors in the business. Tina and Andrew have pushed us to get the facts, and restrained us from making errors. Copy editors, photographers and graphic artists made us look good. Gerry and Lou watched out backs and stuck up for us when we were attacked.
In a difficult period in the newspaper business, the Citizen and Postmedia haven’t shrunk from supporting time-consuming, difficult political reporting. Nobody ever worried about pushback, or if they did they didn’t tell us. They only ever asked us for more.
I want to take this opportunity, on behalf of Glen and myself, to thank them for that.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 18, 2013.