Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Roar of a (News)paper Lion: Veneto Independence in the Anglo-American Press

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 (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/europes-latest-secession-movement-venice/284562/), 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 independence."

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 at all?
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 results.

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 voting site.

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.


  1. I have to admit that I have little time for politics, one because I am so busy running a household and working, two because I just can't stand reading about things like this. I was so surprised few weeks ago when few people asked me about this vote. I felt so stupid since I hadn't heard about it, and I was in disbelief because I knew that it was not possible, also because neither of my parents mentioned it. I kept reassuring people that it was probably a vote to separate the Veneto region, which happened before, and that it was probably not going to pass. Thanks for explaining what actually happened, even if it means that big news organization made fools of themselves by reporting something they didn't verify as true.

    1. If you have a hard time taking in Italian politics, Laura, you can only imagine how perplexing it all is for me! I have a hard time making any sense of it (though, as in the US, everything seems to become a little bit clearer if one disregards the various parties and simply follows the money, as they say.)

      The independence issue deserves international attention; it's a shame that when Anglo-American media briefly turned their attention toward it they did so in such a superficial, uninformative and perhaps even misleading way. In fact the coverage was such that it made me wonder about the agendas of the newspapers or magazines themselves. And not least strange of all is that some large news outlets, such as the BBC and NBC news (in the US) published pieces stating that a poll/vote was forthcoming but did not seem to publish anything on the results. Perhaps they realized the online poll was possibly a sham? But then didn't they at least owe their readers a follow-up story stating the results were of dubious veracity? I don't get it.

  2. Replies
    1. I agree with your wish, Tietie007; I just have serious doubts that Gianluca Busato and Lega Nord are the people to secure Venice's future.

      After all, I come from the US where small time crooks wear masks to commit their crimes, but the really big criminals carry out theirs while completely wrapped up in the flag. I suspect it may be the same elsewhere.

  3. In an age when the measure of journalism is page views - I think that's the key phrase here.

    1. Wait, Sasha, are you suggesting there may be aspects of electronic media that won't actually lead us to a utopian future? You'll never be invited to give a TED talk with an attitude like that. (

  4. I had read about this vote on a couple of online news outlets and I was completely bemused by it. When I went looking for more information, I couldn't find anything that didn't just regurgitate what I had already read. Thank you for this blog entry, it certainly sheds more light on the issue!

    1. I was also surprised, L, that so much of the coverage by different news outlets seemed to be almost exactly the same. I have a little personal experience knowing how much news outlets will regurgitate press releases (and how it can be used to one's advantage), but it never fails to surprise me.

  5. As I pointed out in a comment on one of the British newspaper sites, maybe Italy will get fed up and give Venice back to France or Austria. ("Signor Busato, meet your new ruler, President Hollande.")

    More seriously: You've written an analysis that should make American and British newspaper editors ashamed of themselves. It does seem that reporters in the USA and the UK are writing their stories from press releases these days. (Another example: a statement in THE INDEPENDENT that cruise ships "block views and even block out the sun" as they go down the Giudecca Canal. In defense of the ships, at least they don't discharge raw sewage into the canals as so many Venetian buildings do.)

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Durant. I suspect that the low quality of what is passed off as reporting is due to the cuts in newspaper staffs that have been going on for quite some time: those who still have a job are being asked to do more with less time and resources for less money, which perhaps makes it hard to do much more than summarize a press release--huge disservice though it is to readers. Also it's the title of the article that gets the page clicks, and the body seems too often to be an afterthought, if that.

      I seem to recall that most cruise lines have been accused of being huge polluters of oceans and seas, incidentally, whereas the ancient sewage system of Venice made it one of the cleanest cities of the middle ages and Renaissance and--in spite of modern alterations of the lagoon that have interfered with the natural tidal patterns on which the system depends and modern pollutants that impede the break-down of organic matter--it still works pretty well. But, yes, the pieces on the cruise ships in Venice also tend to lack depth.