The Hamilton Spectator
Tuesday, May 20, 1997
(Free Press Edition)
page 2

So what if polls influence vote

Court decision infringes on our right to be informed

by Andrew Dreschel

Curiously, one of the most significant issues to surface in the election concerns the media's coverage of the event not the political parties in it.

The Supreme Court of Canada has turned down a media request to lift a blackout on opinion polls, which is timed to descend 72 hours before election night. That decision provides a fascinating entry point for complex discussions about freedom of speech and the public's right to know.

The high court recently refused a request by Southam In. and Thomson Newspapers Co. Ltd. to suspend the Canada Elections Act provision that imposes the ban until their constitutional challenge of the law can be heard later this year.

That means from midnight Friday, May 30 until the last poll closes Monday, June 2, it is illegal for the media to publish new opinion polls or even refer to previously published polls.

Charts tracking the ups and downs of support for political parties during the campaign, recaps of trends and vicissitudes, even informal, unscientific phone and street surveys are verboten under penalty of law.

Should we be mourning this interference into the free flow of information or celebrating the fact that the brakes have been slammed on the media's runaway sense of self-importance during an election?

Ultimately, as much as we might enjoy seeing the media slapped down a bit, we should be lamenting the restrictions. The ban has no place in a free society.

Southam, which publishes 32 daily papers, including The Hamilton Spectator, and Thomson, which publishes The Globe and Mail and other papers, contend that the lights-out provision violates democratic rights and freedom of speech guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The provision came into force in 1993, as part of a revamping of election laws. The ban is intended to give voters a chance to quietly reflect on their choices during the final days of the campaign and provide politicians time to react to swings in public opinion.

Granted, there's always an appealing Zen-like quality to the notion of advocating quiet reflection in this age of information overload, particularly during a national election.

The media's exhaustive daily coverage presents a checkerboard of such rapidly shifting events, opinions, and prejudices, that both news gatherers and voters tend to forget there is more to knowledge than just absorbing the novelty of new information.

The old adage that the quieter you become the more you can hear, has a special resonance during the excitement and hype of an election campaign which, to a large extent, is driven by the frenetic media coverage.

But, for better or worse, opinion polls have become a fixture of that coverage. They may only be snapshots of the public's mood at a given moment in time, but the best of them have proven to be uncannily accurate in predicting outcomes.

Influence voters One of the arguments for banning them as the election looms is that they may influence the choices voters make.

So what?

Earlier election reporting and polling, whether accurate or misleading, may have exactly the same effect, but nobody would dream of curtailing the publication of that information.

The fact is, the more up-to-date information people have, the better equipped they are to decide how to cast their ballots. If a poll suggests one party is hemorrhaging, a voter may wish to change his or her choice strictly for strategic reasons. Why should voters be denied that 11th-hour insight?

If people really don't want to know the results of the latest polls on the eve of the election, they certainly don't need a judicially-imposed shield to protect themselves. They can take the momentous step to turn off the TV, throw away the newspaper, and ignore the radio all by themselves.

As satiated and tired as we may be by the relentless rush of new information, any attempt by the government or courts to curtail it smacks of a patronizing we-know-what's-best-for-you arrogance.

Most people prefer to decide for themselves what is in their best interests, particularly during a democratic election.

In this day and age, suspending the flow of information should always be a matter of personal choice, not government decree.

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.