Canada Shuts Down Media Polls, But Not Internet

By: Steve Outing

The Canadian federal election is today, but Canadian voters have not been allowed to see any poll results since midnight on Friday. That's because a controversial Canadian law prohibits the media from publishing pre-election polls within 72 hours of the actual election.

The Southam newspaper chain ceased writing stories about poll results over the weekend, and a pre-election poll of Internet users running on Southam's Canada Votes central election Web site was shut off at midnight Friday.

Southam, Thomson Newspapers and other Canadian media are challenging the law, but the Supreme Court did not rule on the case in time for today's election.

As Southam New Media Centre managing editor Paul deGroot points out, the law does not bar the act of polling, and polling organizations continued to survey voters over the weekend. The weekend polls were paid for by the political parties themselves, but those results cannot be made public. Media-paid polls ceased on Friday. The politicians still get their polling data up to the last minute, deGroot complains, but the public is denied the same information.

The poll ban is particularly annoying to Southam's Internet managers, who were forced to shut off their own interactive poll, and also are prevented from posting to the Web site election-day results until all of the polls close across the country (10:30 p.m. Eastern time). The New Media Centre, based in Edmonton, Alberta, produces national Web sites in concert with Southam's newspapers, and supports the Web activities of the chain's 34 papers.

Internet dilutes law

While Canadian media are prohibited from publishing late polls, there is of course nothing that the government can do about media in other countries publishing last-minute Canadian election poll results. deGroot is well aware of that fact, and late last week he was wondering out loud on Internet mailing lists frequented by interactive news professionals whether any U.S. news Web sites would like to conduct their own weekend polls of the Canadian election.

He found one in, the McClatchy Newspapers national news Web site, which is running its own poll on the Canadian federal election. Late Friday, the Canada Votes Internet survey page referred readers to the Nando poll. A note on the survey Web page read, as of late Friday night: "We're sorry! Canadian federal law prevents us from publishing the results of any poll, 72 hours before an election. However, you might be interested in polls being done elsewhere on the Internet, at non-Canadian sites, by non-Canadian companies. One such site is at Nando.Net, in the United States."

deGroot said he felt comfortable providing a Web link to a U.S. site that was running its own independent Canadian election poll. More troublesome would be funneling results of weekend polls conducted by Southam's Web site (since late polling by a media outlet is not prohibited, just publishing the results) to a U.S. Web publisher, though that would make an interesting legal question.

Southam New Media put up its informal Web poll about the election last Tuesday, asking would-be voters how they were likely to vote in the election. By Friday, the poll had attracted between 700 and 800 participants, and the results showed the Liberal party in the lead, followed by the Reform party, Bloc Quebecois, the Progressive Conservatives, then the New Democratic party. (In Canada, the party with the most seats in parliament controls the federal government.)

In contrast, a scientific poll conducted by Angus Reid and commissioned by Southam and television network CTV showed the Liberals leading, but followed by the Progressive Conservatives, the Reform party, then Bloc Quebecois. That poll, which covered about the same time period as the Internet poll, showed less strength by the regional political parties than did the Web poll.

deGroot says he will be quite interested in seeing how his Internet poll stood up against the traditional pre-election poll and the final voting outcome. The number of people taking the Internet poll approached the number used by more scientific surveys.

A nettlesome law?

The publishing ban on late election polls has a noble intent; it was designed to prevent "the distorting effect of public opinion surveys which are released late in an election when there is no longer a sufficient opportunity to respond," according to the Canadian appeals court that upheld the law. Likewise, the ban on publishing ballot results until after every polling booth in Canada is closed is designed to prevent results from the eastern part of the country from influencing citizens in the west (three time zones behind), who might not bother voting if the media have already declared a winning party based on eastern results. Yet both prohibitions obviously raise serious free speech issues, for which they are being challenged by Canadian media.

I have to wonder whether the existence and popularity of the Internet will ultimately doom Canada's pre-election polling prohibition law. With a populace wired into the Internet, it's a simple matter for Canadians to tune in to U.S. (or other countries') news Web sites that choose to run their own Canadian pre-election polls. Canadian news sites need merely link to the cross-border polls in order to skirt the law, as Southam has done by linking to Nando. Likewise, it's unclear if the government would challenge a Canadian media outlet that simply gave its last-minute polling results to a cross-border news Web site for publication, then told its online readers to check out the non-Canadian Web site for the results.

The latter scenario probably is not going to happen during this election, which deGroot describes as "not one of the most thrilling" in Canadian history. But in a more contentious future election with strong interest outside of Canada, watch for the Internet to play a role in defining how effective a government can be in controlling what the media is allowed to publish prior to the vote. While the Canadian mostly government won this round, the country's media could easily strike back next time with help from the Internet (if the courts continue to rule against media challenges to the pre-election restrictions).

When citizens have easy access to news sites around the world via the Internet, censorship by a government placed on its own media can't prevail.

Contact: Paul deGroot,


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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