This isn't Watergate
Watergate is getting tossed around a lot in the swirling controversy over robocalls in the last election. It may be fun to find the similarities -- tapes! dirty tricks! -- but the differences are far more interesting.
First of all, as one of the actual Watergate operatives points out in a story today, the level of dirty tricks being alleged here are on a totally different scale. In effect, this is worse. On CBC Radio's The Current this morning, former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley also makes the point that the magnitude of the charges here goes far beyond run-of-the-mill pranks and dirty tricks between political rivals.
** Update ** As I was writing this, the Commissioner of Elections Canada sent out a press release notifying us that: "More than 31,000 contacts have been iniitated with Elections Canada by Canadians. (And) Elections Canada is reviewing these..."
Second, Watergate was broken with the help of anonymous sources. It's been interesting to see the absence of them in this story. Oh, Conservatives are talking off the record (and by the way, the serious ones are very concerned, not huffing and puffing about conspiracies and victimhood) but no one is feeding any details to the media, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I think that may change when the people behind the fraud calls -- and we should stress, no one knows for sure whether they're actual Conservatives -- really do realize they could be facing jail time. My instincts tell me that whoever is behind this thought it was a fun prank, on the same all-in-good-fun spirit as defacing lawn signs, disrupting rallies or calling people outrageous names to get a rise out of them.
Third, the Watergate scandal took place in the 1970s, when tape recorders were still new to journalists and politicians. (Fun, I'm-old fact -- when I started in political journalism in the late 1980s, the use of tape recorders was frowned upon, believing it made us lazy note-takers, and if we wanted them, we had to pay for them ourselves.)
It's actually the technology, unheard-of in the 1970s, that makes this whole robo-call controversy possible. Just have a look at this search warrant to see the technical complexity of this investigation.
Moreover, the reporting of this tale is heavily reliant on tools of the Internet and social media, which means it's unfolding in real time.
This has made some Conservatives quite annoyed/vexed -- what kind of reporting relies on Twitter tips and Internet registries of suspicious calls? My answer is that this is just old-fashioned reporting -- tips are kind of important to journalists -- conducted in the open. Twitter has turned journalism into kind of an ant farm, where you can sit and stare for hours through the glass, watching reporters do their jobs (complete with all the smart remarks and irreverent jokes made during the sitting-around-waiting-and-watching bit that consumes a lot of our days.)
The Watergate reporters built their stories away from the glare of the public. They took tips, pursued them, proved them, and then published. Right now, in the robocalls controversy, you're simply seeing that process in the open. Transparency! One of the Conservative talking points in the last few days, for instance, is that all we have here are allegations, no evidence. Actually we have bits and pieces of both. I asked some lawyers on Twitter this morning about the distinction between allegations and evidence. Here's my favourite answer (sent in by a fellow I've known since he was legal counsel to my student newspaper at Western and the student council there.)
@Tony5083: Allegations are bald assertions: "The light was red." Evidence goes to proof of an assertion: "I saw a red light."
So these recordings that are now turning up? Or the Internet registries? Are they allegations? Or evidence? I lean toward the latter, actually. They're evidence being accumulated to back up the allegations.
At any rate, I'd venture to say that what we're seeing here isn't Watergate, but Canada's first digital political scandal, made possible -- and reported -- through technology that wasn't available to Nixon or Woodward and Bernstein. It would actually be fun to imagine how Watergate would have happened with these tools. First, I guess, Nixon wouldn't have needed a physical break-in; all he'd have to have is a good computer hacker, or a Pierre Poutine with a cellphone.