|A demonstration in favor of Veneto independence in front of Santa Maria della Salute, September 17, 2013|
I must admit to being rather dismayed by last month's vote on the Veneto's secession from Italy. Not so much because of the results which, given the people who created the online poll and oversaw its operation, were exactly what one would have expected. No, it's the lazy (at best) and irresponsible (at worst) coverage of the vote by the international English language press that's been bothering me.
As an example of what I'm talking about, take a look at a recent article by the respected American magazine The Atlantic Monthly
whose provocative but relatively restrained title of "Europe's Latest
Seccessionist Movement: Venice?" immediately gives way to a sub-head
stating that "2.1 milion Venetians just voted to leave Italy and restore
their medieval republic." Just a bit further down the page, a bold-print pull
quote announces that "a whopping 89 percent of voters chose
The same figures were trumpeted by every other large news outlet, almost none of which bothered to exercise the least journalistic caution or concern about the reliability of the online
polling process nor the veracity of the final tally--though the only
source of the final tally was, after all, from the very same separatist
groups who'd organized the poll, without any verifiable outside oversight.
To be specific, the website hosting the online poll was the creation of one Gianluca Busato, a Treviso-based "IT entrepeneur" whose political past includes membership not only in various right-wing separatist groups, but the enthusiastic endorsement of the farcical 1997
armed takeover of the Campanile in Piazza San Marco.
|Some supporters of Veneto independence in front of Salute last September|
This seems like a significant bit of background information on the profoundly partisan origins of the poll, likely to suggest that a certain skepticism might be in order about its results. But far from regarding the vote with any critical distance, most English language reports went so far as to refer to it as a "referendum." This is indeed exactly what the organizers of the poll called it, but considering that (as the organizers themselves no doubt knew) to refer to a vote as a "referendum" in English suggests a degree of legitimacy and oversight that was entirely lacking in the Veneto Independenza online poll, one might expect that a responsible journalist would at the very least strongly contextualize the term's usage.
For example, in my home state of California a referendum can be put to a state-wide vote, but there are a number of preliminary steps to do so, opposing voices are given a chance to campaign against it, and the actual vote is subject to the same oversight as other elections.
No such things could be said about the Veneto Independenza vote, and yet with one notable exception the only acknowledgement of the online poll's dubious status made by news organizations was to term it an "unofficial
referendum" whose results would not be in any way binding or even recognized by anyone outside of the the separatists who sponsored it.
Which raises the obvious question: Is an "unofficial referendum"--devoid of all authority and oversight--really a referendum
The Orwellian motivation behind the sponsoring groups's use of such a term is obvious, and for that very reason it should never have been mindlessly repeated by the media. As it was by all except BBC.com, which referred to it only as an "online poll." (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26604044
But instead of responsible coverage of the online poll, evincing even the most elemental journalistic standards, pretty much every English-language account followed the same basic outline of presenting:
1. The dramatic overwhelming
2. A list of the standard talking points of the online poll's
separatist organizers (the discrepancy between the amount of money the
Veneto sends to Rome and the amount of services it receives in return,
the annihilation of Venetian language and culture, etc)
3. A brief history of
the old glorious Republic
4. The (dubious) suggestion that the Veneto
was unwillingly subsumed by Italy in 1866.
Not a single
news report even hinted at anything the Veneto may have received from
the state of Italy since 1866. Is it really possible that the
relationship between the region and the national state has always been
as one-sided as the separatists present it?
In an actual referendum the arguments of the opposing camp would have been readily available to even the laziest journalist, but as this was not
a referendum every news outlet was apparently content to work exclusively from the press releases of Gianluca Busato and the organizers of the vote. (Yet another example of the increasingly evident trend of news media acting merely as organs of press release dissemination rather than actual reporting.)
In any case, having cut and pasted from the vote organizers' press release and reported on the "referendum's" extraordinary results
, each news outlet then turned to the "next steps" that the separatist leaders--buoyed by this unprecedented tidal wave of public support
--would undertake to press their historically- and popularly-legitimated cause. Each separatist leader vowing, bravely, nobly, selflessly, not to let down the millions who'd thrown their support behind them.
What a stirring story it made!
Except that it seems there may not have been anywhere near 2.1 million Veneto residents who voted in favor of Veneto independence.
There may not have been 2.1 million Veneto residents who voted at all.
Two articles in the Corriere del Veneto
on March 26 and 27 reported that an analysis of traffic flow performed by three different independent website counting companies (Alexa, Calcustat, and Trafficestimate) on Gianluca Busato's Plebiscito.eu
online polling website during the six days of voting on the "referendum" revealed a small fraction of the 2.36 million visitors whom Busato reported--and the international press blindly repeated
--as having cast votes.
Indeed, during each of the six days of voting the three counting companies (which monitor traffic in and out of websites in order to arrive at a website's value for advertising agencies) estimated that no more than 22,500 people visited the Plebiscito.eu
In other words, there's reason to believe that the "staggering" figure of 2.36 million Veneto voters--of whom "a whopping 89%" voted to secede from Italy--may, in reality, have been closer to something like 135,000.
Moreover, online analysis showed that a full 10% of voters originated from a web address located in Santiago, Chile. Other votes came in from Serbia, Germany, and Spain.
When confronted with these much lower figures by a radio reporter, the estimable Mr Busato reasserted that his poll results were accurate and encouraged listeners to boycott the Corriere del Veneto
that had called them into question. Elsewhere he asserted that he would provide definitive proof of the accuracy of his figures to a "specialized American magazine" (by which, I assume, he meant one specializing in internet polling rather than the fraudulent inflating of figures for political purposes).
|Another view of last September's Veneto independence demonstration|
Judging by the fawning piece published by PC World
on Busato and his online poll just after the vote--entitled "E-voting Comes of Age in Italy with Venice Independence Referendum"--I have a feeling I may know where this "definitive proof'" is likely to be offered. But so far it's not been forthcoming. (http://www.pcworld.com/article/2112380/evoting-comes-of-age-in-italy-with-venice-independence-referendum.html)
Incidentally, those skeptical sorts who may not have been surprised by Mr Busato's claim that 89% of voters on the polling site he created and oversaw agreed with his own position, may also not be especially surprised to find that the honorable Mr Busato, according to his own reports, received by a huge margin the most votes of any candidate elected to be one of the "Ten Delegates for Independence." (Yes, it seems the "new" republic, like the old, will have a Council of Ten.) According to Mr Busato himself, he received 135,306 votes, while the next most popular council member ended up with nearly 90,000 less. Do such results leave any doubt as to whom should play the guiding role in the delegation?
And so we wait on this definitive proof of the legitimacy of this online poll.... And I have a feeling we'll be waiting for quite some time.
After all, in the name of their 2.1 million supporters (or was it closer to 100,000?), on behalf of all those Venetians (or were they Chileans?) behind them, a variety of selfless public servants from the cluster of right-wing parties crammed into the political clown car of Lega Nord are fervently pressing forward with what they'd always planned to do anyway.
And, furthermore, why split hairs and obsess over the difference between 2.36 million and 135,000? Any questions about the actual voting are now moot--tired old news--as the worldwide press has legitimated whatever the separatists do from here on out with their bold headlines of a "referendum" and a "massive turnout" and an "overwhelming majority".
Indeed, I've yet to find a single English language news organization that has covered the questions raised in the Corriere del Veneto
about the online vote. And though a piece in The Guardian
three days ago briefly referred to questions about the online poll's legitimacy, it still linked to The Atlantic Monthly
article at the top of this page and ultimately seemed far more caught up in the romance of separatist movements in general and of one particular Veneto expat in England than anything else. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/19/venice-independence-movement-hq-kent)
In an age when the measure of journalism is page views, perhaps I'm silly to hope for much beyond romance and rousing headlines and media-ready spectacle. But I happen to live in a neighborhood here in Venice built in the 1920s, amid viali
named after military leaders and apartment buildings adorned with helmeted soldier heads (all looking very much like a certain Italian leader), which one might say sprang out of romance and rousing headlines and media-ready spectacles.
We all know how that turned out.