Jagdeesh Mann: In Surrey’s muddy election, local media should guard against spreading the dirt
The ongoing story of phony absentee ballots, and vote-buying swirling around Surrey’s current municipal election is cast with a perfect mix of characters—vulnerable immigrants, greedy developers, partisan journalists, and amoral politicians—to seem like a plot suited for an Indian soap opera, the nightly programming favoured by many of the city’s 160,000 South Asian residents.
This drama is just too tantalizing to pass up. Across Surrey-based South Asian social media threads, Whatsapp chat groups, and Punjabi-language radio talk shows, gossiping over this latest scandal—or appearance of a scandal—has become the latest guilty pleasure.
This issue, which for the past two weeks has overshadowed actual policy matters relevant to the Surrey election, has tarnished the image of the city’s politics-mad South Asian community. But in an election when the leading candidate is someone vying to become the city’s first mayor of South Asian descent, perhaps that was the point. Smearing an opponent is a common tactic in wild anything-goes democracies like India, but its a sort of "dirty politics" most South Asians living in Canada would prefer remain overseas.
But as of the latest police investigation update, it seems this entire affair may turn out to be much ado about nothing. Surrey RCMP reported it had examined 73 applications to vote by mail, and that 67 were fraudulent because they were not completed or signed by the voter listed on the application.
The Mounties added that no ballots were sent out to individuals based on these fraudulent applications.
And lastly—and most importantly here—the RCMP said it had not found any evidence to link any mayoral candidate to these phony applications.
As the RCMP investigation continues, and given all the commentary on social media are unsubstantiated allegations, most mainstream media outlets in the Lower Mainland have wisely remained circumspect in their coverage of the issue.
CBC, StarMetro, the Vancouver Sun, and the Globe and Mail have all avoided implicating any particular mayoral candidate in this alleged scandal. There is plenty of rumour-mongering online, but it won’t be found in the coverage provided by these outlets.
But there has been one notable exception: Global News. The media outlet has aggressively pursued this story and it recently stepped assertively into a no-man’s land of difficult-to-corroborate allegations via its story, “Two men say they were pressured to participate in alleged Surrey voter fraud scheme”, and published comments from two anonymous South Asian sources—Mr. X and Mr. Y—the type of material other outlets have ostensibly balked at using.
What made the Global News story stand out against all the coverage on this issue, was that it seemed to implicate one of three leading mayoral candidates. The video version of the story can be viewed here.
The piece seemed like uncharacteristically thin reporting by the staid broadcaster that still reigns as the most popular evening newscast in the Lower Mainland and that (arguably) still possesses the reporting credibility to bring down governments in the province—it was Global’s (BCTV) cameras that were first on the spot when the police came knocking on then-premier Glen Clark’s door back in 1999.
By airing its story, Global News seemed to signal that its reporters had corroborating information others outlets lacked. I did make contact with Global’s news director but I did not receive answers in how the outlet verified the statements of these anonymous sources.
But if the statements were accepted with minimal direct corroboration, then it would seem Global—at least when it comes to coverage featuring issues from diverse communities—is willing to relax its standards of reporting and use difficult-to-verify information that otherwise wouldn’t make the grade.
But before diving into that, first some background.
Let’s start with the alleged victims—these are an unknown number of Surrey residents of South Asian descent who by most accounts seem to be recent immigrants with little to no English skills, senior citizens, foreign students with "permanent residency" (though this seems like an oxymoron), and others from this community who typically do not vote. They have either been solicited (made a Godfather-like offer they can’t refuse) by various "poll captains" or their volunteer staff to cast an absentee ballot for their candidate (or made to sign over these ballots which are filled out and submitted on their behalf later).
Pulling the strings behind the scenes are apparently deep-pocketed developers who are watching over the proceedings like fat cats perched on stacks of $100 bills—apparently the going rate per vote.
A grassroots anticrime activist organization, Wake Up Surrey, formed earlier this year to combat gang violence and what it views as the city’s institutional complacency in halting gun crime, blew the whistle on this alleged scandal in September. It has taken on the capes of heroes.
And lastly, a three-term Surrey councillor of South Asian descent, Tom Gill, who is a front runner and has all the coveted endorsements, including one from former Surrey mayor Diane Watts, is seeing his campaign put on the backfoot and his aspiration to become the city’s first nonwhite mayor pulled down into the mud.
That is because it was Gill who was fingered in the Global piece that featured the two anonymous South Asian men, Mr. X and Mr. Y, both of whom work in the Lower Mainland construction trades. According to Global’s story, both men said they were approached by people from Gill’s Surrey First campaign, the difference being Mr. Y got the carrot, while Mr. X, the stick.
In Mr. X’s case, he was asked to fill out a phony mail-in ballot in support of Gill and informed if he didn’t provide assistance that money owed to him from a trades job would be in jeopardy.
Mr. Y said he was asked for the names of South Asian residents in Surrey who typically did not vote. He was promised preferential treatment in a future Gill administration from city planners in terms of his development submissions.
Neither man said they went to the Surrey RCMP with their troubles.
Global kept the identities of both men anonymous out of their fear of reprisal.
Where vote-buying with either money or liquor is a common, almost comically traditional practice in Punjabi villages (where many of Surrey’s South Asian population hails from), voter fraud in Canada is nonexistent. In 2017, the Economist’s Democracy Index ranked Canada sixth in terms of the health of its democracy. (The U.S. came 21st.)
The serious nature of these unprecedented allegations merits an aggressive approach by journalists in digging up the facts. And based on the latest RCMP update, it seems remote that the Surrey First campaign has been guilty (or the most guilty) of this illegal activity.
It seems more likely, however, that the affair has been a smear-and-distraction campaign machinated to perfection to damage one candidate’s credibility.
So while getting this story right and being first on the spot may earn your outlet some extra click-thrus and attention, getting it wrong would not only risk damaging Global’s credibility and more critically, it could unduly influence the outcome of the Surrey mayoral race, in the same way that deliberately fake news bent the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
So in coming back to Global’s recent story, it may be the case that Global took added confidence in the credibility of Mr. X and Mr. Y based on similar muddy claims being made on Punjabi language radio and on social media threads. Wake Up Surrey’s spokesperson, Sukhi Sandhu, has also been quoted for directly fingering Gill’s supporters as being behind the voting fraud.
But as someone who edited a South Asian publication for many years, I hold little value in these parallel opinions of Wake Up Surrey and various Punjabi radio talk shows. And I particularly find zero value in this content when it comes to corroborating Mr. X and Mr. Y’s statements.
As much as Wake Up Surrey has done to bring critical issues of community safety and gun crime to the surface of Surrey politics, the South Asian grassroots organization has been somewhat of a wild card in this controversy. When the group first went public with this voter fraud allegation, it claimed as many as 15,000 of Surrey’s ballots were compromised.
As recently reported, the Surrey RCMP had received only 73 mail ballot registration applications from Surrey’s chief elections officer—a barely audible whimper compared to the howls of protest originally from the group.
Punjabi-language media outlets, meanwhile, which are rarely impartial and have a tendency to play loose with the facts as best meets their agendas, have been giving air time to everyone from victims shocked to learn their signatures were forged to angry talk-back callers spewing all sorts of conspiracy theories.
For months many of these outlets have dogged Gill with negative coverage, fanning these headwinds to slow down his mayoral campaign. This has included devoting undue coverage and talk-back time earlier this spring to an anonymous flyer slandering Gill that was distributed through the city’s Indian shopping areas and neighbourhoods.
Mainstream outlets like the Vancouver Sun chose not to publish the contents of that flyer given "the unsubstantiated, vague and anonymous allegations".
Meanwhile back to Global’s story—after airing the anonymous allegations of Mr. X and Mr. Y, the story concludes by stating that “Surrey's South Asian community is now a pivotal voting group” and that as Western Canada’s second largest city, Surrey politics matter more than ever.
There seems to be an assumption here that there is one bloc of South Asian voters. Perhaps this assumption also contributed to the outlet gaining confidence in the allegations of two anonymous South Asian men that were outing the city election’s main South Asian candidate.
The problem here is that there is not one South Asian voting group—this is a multicultural myth used by xenophobes to rally the troops against the immigrants who are "taking over". In the world of South Asian politics, there are many fragmented groups, and extended families who are often at loggerheads with each other, jockeying for influence in one form or another.
Contrary to the ignorant opinions one typically finds in comment threads on news websites, the South Asian candidate in Surrey is not going to get all the South Asian votes. It is very possible Gill may only get support from one-third of these voters. More likely is that the South Asian vote will be split, possibly equally, between all three leading mayoral candidates. Bruce Hayne, Doug McCallum, and Tom Gill all have a significant South Asian following.
McCallum, in particular, is practically an honourary member of the South Asian community—he is affectionately referred to as ‘Doug Bhaaji’ or ‘Brother Doug’ because of his development-friendly policies that transformed Surrey from a smaller bedroom community in the '90s into a more sprawling bedroom community of larger strip malls and industrial parks that it is today. During McCallum’s three terms as a business-friendly mayor of Surrey from 1996 to 2005, many of Surrey’s South Asian now wealthy developers first started their rise to affluence and influence.
McCallum has been out of power long enough such that the have-nots among the South Asian voters have forgotten, or don’t know, that many of TransLink’s current woes, and hence the lack of public transit in Surrey and the Lower Mainland, began when McCallum was the chairperson of that troubled body.
But these performance issues from McCallum’s past have been glossed over in Punjabi media, which tends to be very development friendly. Both McCallum and Hayne have also generally received softer "nuanced" coverage, at least when compared to Gill.
In the nexus of Surrey’s Punjabi media outlets, activist groups, property developers, temple committees, socialites, singers, and political aspirants, there are numerous layers of family, business, ancestral, and professional alliances that obscure the intentions of anyone coming forward with an allegation. Sussing out who is connected to whom in this cat’s cradle of relationships is truly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Add to that the challenge of covering Canada’s diverse communities when there is a language barrier—it makes covering large minority groups like the South Asian, Chinese, and Filipino communities difficult work.
To be fair, mainstream outlets like Global seem to be devoting more resources to covering diverse communities and the outlet is producing solid work when there are equally solid facts upon which to build out the story.
But there are still instances when Global has over-reached and produced ham-fisted ethnic coverage, such as a piece earlier this year that attributed Surrey gangsterism and violence to gun glamour in Punjabi bhangra videos.
In this voter fraud story, there seem to be too many unknowns—at least from my perspective as someone who has worked in South Asian media—to responsibly press ahead with a story that relies on the allegations of two individuals who didn’t first go to the police and were unwilling to disclose their identities, reprisal or not.
So a question: would Global publish a follow-up story if two other men, in parallel circumstances, came forward with similar allegations as Mr. X and Mr. Y—let’s call them Mr. B and Mr. C—but that implicated one of the other non-South Asian mayoral candidates?
It would seem the evidence on such a story would appear to be equally thin.