[ UPDATE 5/16/08: After the mini-controversy about this, including Nelles’ threat to sue the McGill Tribune, the Daily decided to reform the Constitution to allow for referenda in situations other than fee increases — but this was after the last issue for 2007-2008. The Daily evidently thought that their argument in the Hyde Park I discuss in this post was not so persuasive. ]
The DPS Board does a Hyde Park in today’s issue, which seems related to The McGill Tribune’s pointing out, while endorsing a YES vote for The Daily’s funding, that the Daily’s Coordinating Editor, Drew Nelles, made incorrect remarks to The Montreal Gazette and The Mirror. Nelles stated wrongly that The McGill Daily — without the University’s 5-year requirement — gives students referenda rights to question The Daily’s funding and anything else.
Nelles has not yet corrected these remarks for McGill students, which he made just before the voting period started. Evidently, he weighed his fear (if not his vanity) against the traditional role of the journalist in a democratic society as someone who is supposed to increase the flow of information (and prevent obscurantism) so people can make the most informed decisions when they go to vote. The Board writes collectively:
Running a referendum campaign takes a lot of time, energy, and money, but it has its perks: students have actually sat down to read through the constitution and bylaws of the Daily Publications Society (DPS) to figure out what is going on. We’ve even received some questions about the possibility of a student-initiated referendum as well as the legality of the referendum currently underway.
This introduction seems like a way for the writer to address The Tribune’s criticisms without directly referring people who haven’t read it already to the Tribune’s critical endorsement. (How many questions about student-initiated referenda did they actually get from non-contributors to The Daily? Did they get any emails about it or just a few remarks from friends that read the Tribune endorsement?) Anyway…
If the writer isn’t assuming people won’t check up when he or she alludes to a section number in The Daily’s Constitution, he/she is confident that most of the students who do look up the section number will acquiesce to any rationalization that the Board attempts. The Board writes:
Who could bring a referendum forward? At present, only members of the DPS Board of Directors can do so directly, but student-initiated referenda with the same consequences as the current one are also made possible in article 16 (4).
In the online version of the Hyde Park, I put a link to the Constitution in the comment space. If we go to Article 16 we can see:
PROCEDURE AND PROCESS FOR QUESTIONS TO BE VOTED ON BY MEMBERS OF THE DPS
16. (1) Voting on questions requiring the decision of the membership of the DPS may be held at an AGM [Annual General Meeting] or SGM [Special General Meeting], except when the question pertains to fees.
This implies that “voting on questions requiring the decision of the DPS” is held at only these two kinds of meetings — in other words, not through a referendum — except when we’re talking about fees (i.e., potential fee increases). Now heading to 16(4) :
(4) Questions Initiated by Members:
(a) No question may be proposed by a DPS member at large directly to the CRO for balloting at a SGM, an AGM, or a referendum.
So the Constitution specifically differentiates these voting meetings from a referendum and is saying No to a question of a potential referendum in this particular line. The Board understands the difference between a “general meeting” and a “referendum” without the Constitution telling them. There are Board members who were in student government. And The Daily has done tons of articles dealing with how a General Assembly is different from a referendum and whether, in various circumstances, a GA or a referendum best represents the principles of direct democracy. Here’s the remaining section of 16(4):
(b) The DPS member is required to have one (1) of the six (6) elected Directors from the Board act on her/his question. The member will submit a written report of his concern to a Director. The Director will ask to have the matter inscribed on an agenda of a duly constituted meeting. Any motion must be moved and seconded and voted on at that meeting [i.e., Board meeting — DW: Someone calling themselves “Board member” on The Daily website pointed that out to me]. If the question is adopted it will be given to the CRO by the Chairperson.
That’s all of 16(4), and it indicates no referendum right at all. If you open the Constitution as a .pdf file, and search for “referendum” or “referendums” or “referenda,” we see that there is no such right for the student, and referenda are only indicated for questions of fees …
in fact only for questions of fee increases. This referendum process alluded to in 16(4a), with reference to the CRO, is shown to apply to fee increases in 10(1) :
CHIEF RETURNING OFFICER (CRO)
10. (1) The DPS shall have a CRO. He/she shall be chosen by the Board of Directors. The CRO is responsible for overseeing any election or vote at an AGM, and any poll or vote at a SGM. The CRO will also be responsible for running any fee increase referendum.
Did all the Board members get to approve this Hyde Park before one or a few of them wrote it?
This Hyde Park could have easily said something like, “Although students can’t bring referenda to vote yet and there is no provision for them to bring referenda through DPS Board members, they can address problems they have with The Daily by getting the Board to present a question for voting at an Annual General Meeting or Specific General Meeting. They can then attend and vote at that meeting, where they will have the same voting rights as anyone in attendance.”
What a simple thing to say to get across some truth, after the misunderstandings Nelles fostered in his interviews with The Gazette and The Mirror, which The Tribune responsibly noted in their endorsement of the YES vote. Someone(s) on The Board decided that the simple route — Nelles reevaluating his published comments — wasn’t as desirable as a much more complicated route around a problem: retroactively trying to clean up what they saw as a potential mark on the reputation of the Coordinating Editor of the newspaper and the conduct of the YES Committee.
Wanting to absolve Nelles from The Trib’s criticism, they radically misread line 16(4a), which is only a rule that a student can’t try to force a referendum through the head electoral officer. This is an important rule to keep cadres of students from interfering with the Daily, since going to the head electoral officer with your proposed referendum is the only way student-initiated referenda happen at McGill.
And Nelles waxes on, in the belief he’s a victim ….
There wouldn’t have been anything on this count to damage Nelles’ reputation if he had just admitted a mistake to the students before the voting period started. (He could have added, as the Board says today, that the Constitution could be altered at the General Meeting in April.) To err is human; we understand.
If Nelles had acted quickly to clear up misconceptions prompted by his remarks, the students would have seen that The Daily had a Coordinating Editor who subordinated other concerns — including his own pride or the loss of a few votes in the referendum — to the journalistic responsibility to provide students full information for the imminent vote.
Nelles could have simply admitted the mistake, and gone on editing his newspaper, doing his best to be a good journalist. But like he did in this Op-Ed — where he claimed to be victim of bluster who did nothing but follow the advice of a lawyer — our Coordinating Editor is again not accepting responsibility for what he says or does at the paper. Feeling righteous in victimhood was the attitude that produced Nelles’ remarkable quote which I [had once] put at the top of the blog, if you read its context:
Occasionally, during my darkest hours, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing at The Daily. I wonder if we should maybe give this journalistic-objectivity, fair-and-balanced thing a shot. But [the conduct of Gazette reporter Peggy] Curran and The Gaz have eased my worries.
With Nelles and the Board presenting an undivided front that his mistakes were really not mistakes, how are students going to trust Board members to faithfully represent their wishes at one of the DPS meetings they describe in the Hyde Park?