How much for a friendly headline?
OTTAWA -- Reader beware: the headline on your favourite Internet news site may have been bought and prescribed by a political party, candidate, lobbyist, corporation or TV show.
In fact, just about anyone with deep enough pockets can pay some private Internet web proprietors to highlight legitimate news stories of their choice -- along with deeply provocative, or flattering, headlines.
It seems not many people were willing to comment for the story, including Mr. Bourque. Interestingly though, the reporter did however speak to Conservative lobbyist/strategist Tim Powers, whom Cheadle identifies as a Bourque client:
"It's on the screen that you can buy the service," said Tim Powers, a Conservative party strategist and Ottawa lobbyist. "There's nothing hidden, there's no small print."
It’s not clear if Powers was purchasing Bourque’s services for his lobbying firm or the Conservative Party of Canada. Both are listed on the Bourque site as clients. The article raises why the question of the CPC buying Bourque headlines is important:
…it does raise troubling ethical questions and opens a quagmire in Canada's election advertising laws, especially during campaign periods when parties' ad expenditures are supposed to be closely monitored.
If a political party pays a news site to highlight as a top story something that is deeply negative about an opponent, complete with a deliberately torqued headline, should that be considered advertising?
As I blogged before, while I believe in disclosure ethically I don’t care how Mr. Bourque wants to run his business, that’s his prerogative and the market will decide its value. But if the CPC is buying sponsorship on Bourque’s site that is running during an election there are strict election rules to be followed, and I'd like to know if they were or not.
If Mr. Cheadle or another reporter were to persue a follow-up to this story, I’d encourage them to find Stephen Harper, campaign co-chairs John Reynolds and Michael Fortier, or a CPC spokesperson and ask them these questions I posed a week ago:
1. Has the Conservative Party purchased headlines, or other advertising and/or sponsorship, on Bourque Newswatch?
2. If so, did any of this spending occur during the writ period?
3. If it did, was the advertising expense properly declared and accounted for by the Conservative Party in its filings with Elections Canada?, and
4. If it did, did the advertising purchased on Bourque Newswatch by the Conservative Party during the writ period duly include the "Authorized by the Official Agent for…" disclosure as required by Elections Canada?
UPDATE: Devin and Eugene also have thoughts on the story.
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