From the email inbox: a closer look at a Guelph veterinary student and what the blogosphere is saying about him.
Posted by Joanna Smith, Ottawa Bureau
On Thursday Wednesday night I received an email from a reader named Catherine McMillan, who let me know that a blogger had found some stuff on the Internet about Izzy Hirji, the 22-year-old veterinary student at the University of Guelph I featured in my story on youth engagement in politics on Wednesday.
“I figure you should know that a blogger in Winnipeg has done the background work you didn’t bother with on a source you featured today in your Star piece,” McMillan wrote in the email copied to our public editor, Kathy English, who received a few more emails on the topic around the same time.
McMillan linked this post by a blog called The Black Rod, apparently run by a group of anonymous citizen journalists (more on that later).
The post details some things Hirji has posted on Facebook over the years, including one from 2006 (apparently since deleted) that McMillan included in her email to me:
"...stephen harpers plan is ridiculous, 40 years without results, and death to Kyoto!?!?!?! OMGWTF im ready to like go to Ottawa myself an take him down..."
UPDATE: Sean Ledwich, a freelance journalist in Winnipeg, notes the original Facebook post included an "lol" at the end, presumably to indicate Hirji was joking (which is an important bit of context). The Black Rod left that out, but referred to it later on in the post and McMillan included a screen shot in her post on the subject. It appeared Thursday night the original Facebook comment had been deleted, but Ledwich found it in a Google cache result on Friday.
“Perhaps less time on Twitter, and more on Google, yes?” wrote McMillan, the woman behind a popular conservative blog called small dead animals, where she is known as Kate.
Now, here’s the thing: according to both the story that ran in the Guelph Mercury and my own interview with Hirji on Tuesday (where he confirmed all those details in his answers to questions I asked over and over again), Conservative party organizers asked him to leave the rally for Stephen Harper at the Delta Guelph Hotel on Monday because he had participated in the peaceful get-out-the-youth-vote flash mob outside, which they viewed as a protest. Hirji said RCMP Cpl. Tony Fowler of the “O” Division/VIP Security Section told him the same thing as he was reinforcing the Conservative party request that he leave the venue. Hirji said he had pre-registered online (as the rally was advertised as a public event in the Guelph Mercury), but his name was on the list at the hotel and he was let in without a problem – until the party official recognized his face from the flash mob.
“The people who did take me out, it wasn’t because I was a security threat,” Hirji said when I spoke to him again Thursday. “It’s because they saw our student rally as a protest.”
In other words, according to his version of events (and neither the RCMP, the Conservative party or Harper has contradicted it), something he wrote on Facebook in 2006 or anything else The Black Rod found on Google was not the reason he was kicked out.
And, let’s remember, the RCMP said Wednesday it overstepped its bounds and Harper has also apologized to everyone who was kicked out of his rallies.
Still, I had some extra time today and since I honestly do enjoy interacting with and learning from readers (one of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about Twitter), I decided to take a closer look. Instead of turning to Google (because the bloggers had that covered), I picked up the telephone.
My first call was to McMillan, as she was the one who had reached out to me first. I wanted to get a better idea of where she was coming from, given everything I and my colleagues had learned while reporting the different aspects of this rally story.
“I call it journalistic malpractice,” McMillan told me on the phone from Saskatchewan Thursday.
“I think you have to go back and look at the facts,” said McMillan, who throughout our conversation referred to Hirji and other flash-mob organizers as Green Party activists based on what The Black Rod had included in the post. “It isn’t a debate about this perception versus that perception. It was a report on an event and I think that when you quote someone who just happened to be there and just happened to get thrown out as thought he’s a non-partisan student who just wanted to go see the prime minister, it’s a little bit disingenuous when that’s obviously not who he was, not who he is…
“We see this all the time as bloggers, you know,” said McMillan. “For example, there will be a Liberal party meeting in Manitoba and they’ll quote an independent farmer and we Google the guy up and he’s the riding president. You know, this is a repeated pattern, which is why it gets jumped on so much by bloggers, because we see this over and over and over and over again, where people are quoted. Their story is taken without any investigation as to who they really are and it’s all so easy to do now. We’re picking this stuff up in five minutes.”
For the record, I had asked Hirji if he was a member of a political party when I first spoke to him on Tuesday. He told me he had joined the Green Party but couldn’t remember if he had renewed his membership. It was clear from the Facebook page advertising the event and the videos that the flash mob was billed – and executed – as a positive, non-partisan event, where political signs were forbidden and the crowd was ordered to sit down and boo anyone shouting political slogans. The Facebook page advertising the event also featured a comment from at least one member of the Guelph Campus Conservatives, who was told he was welcome to show up, although I could not confirm whether any of its roughly150 members did. So, I figured his possibly lapsed Green party membership was irrelevant in a piece that was more about youth engagement in democracy than the details of what happened to Hirji, which had already been widely reported. I’m pretty sure it’s not something the RCMP would have viewed as a security threat. Asking another student to leave a Conservative rally in London, Ont. because she had posed for a photo with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff certainly didn’t go over so well. In hindsight, should I have mentioned this? I don’t think it would have satisfied McMillan, who argued the flash mob itself – quite apart from the five-year-old Facebook comment – was inherently dangerous.
“One of these may end up with a group of so-called anarchists in their midst and the whole premise of what they’re doing has inherent dangers,” McMillan said, although she added that of course she could not speak for what the Conservative party and the RCMP did or did not view as a security threat.
Security was the main issue for The Black Rod too, said a “designated spokesman” for the blog I was asked to call in Winnipeg on Thursday afternoon who refused to give his name.
(“Is this speed dating? You want a name? You’re not getting one,” the deep, male-sounding voice said on the phone when I pressed for some identity, stressing that speaking to people without any name was not particularly sound journalistic practice, especially since this whole exercise was a response to my being admonished for not entering a name into Google. I warned that readers would therefore have to take his words with a grain of salt and he said “Please! They can take it with a mound of salt.” So, readers, there you go.)
“There is a thread that runs through this,” the anonymous designated spokesman said, which begins with the Facebook post in 2006. “Do you call it a threat? In hindsight you can look at it and say was that a threat? Well, maybe not, but had he pulled out a gun and shot somebody, then it would have been a threat.”
The anonymous designated spokesman went through the other items listed on The Black Rod, including a November 2009 environment-related “strip mob” in Guelph associated with one of the organizers of the Monday “vote mob”, an event that Hirji noted on Facebook he could not partake in because he had class.
“So if you’re a security official, you look at this and go ‘Okay, what’s the plan? A publicity stunt inside? Are they going to take off their clothes?” the anonymous designated spokesman said, later linking the flash mob to the environmental movement at large, with the risk of anarchists breaking off and smashing windows like they did during the G20 Summit in Toronto last summer. “You just simply say: ‘Let’s err on the side of caution.’”
“Well, no, it didn’t happen in this case. But it could have,” the anonymous designated spokesman said.
Now, what I found interesting about my conversation with the anonymous designated spokesman for The Black Rod was that he fully believed the RCMP removed Hirji because of the stuff he had been able to find on Google, fully expected the RCMP to run the list of attendees through Google and remove people based on what they find and, even more interesting, was fully okay with that happening in Canadian democracy.
I’m going to give last word to Hirji.
“I do acknowledge the validity in what they’re posting, but I mean, to dig up something from six years ago when I was a teenager and spewing angry comments at my government, that has nothing to do with my professional conduct as a voter right now,” Hirji said Thursday. “Yeah, sure, I’ve attended a Harper protest before, but that doesn’t make me a protester every time that I want to engage in a political event.”
Actually, I’m going to give the last word to Ray Novak, a long-time aide to Harper, who posted a photo on Twitter Thursday evening, with this as the caption: “PM meets with student pro-vote activists after Hamilton rally.”
Ready, set, Google.