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Raffi vs. Maclean's: Election Coverage Will Never Be the Same

Baby Beluga star made himself a social media politico (who drives Paul Wells nuts).

By David P. Ball 2 Sep 2015 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is a staff reporter for The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous reporting published on The Tyee here.

Iconic children's entertainer Raffi isn't waiting by his Bananaphone for an apology call from the political editor of Maclean's.

Paul Wells raised a few eyebrows Tuesday morning by calling the "Baby Beluga" singer a "flatulent crank" on Twitter, after the B.C. troubadour criticized Canadian media for its election coverage.

Just another sign of how much social media has changed how Canadians learn about and dissect an election -- and who may now spar with whom. In the battle for voters' attention, this was at least a middleweight match. Paul Wells has 42,300 Twitter followers, and Raffi is not far behind with 31,900.

Raffi Cavoukian had inserted himself into a Twitter conversation between Wells and another user accusing Canadian journalists of avoiding hard enough questions about the Senate scandal and Mike Duffy's ongoing fraud and bribery trial. Wells went on to suggest that some reporters "might just want to ask other questions."

The children's singer replied, "It's the Harper #elxn42 [2015 election] run that ought to be in question -- a lawless, rogue [prime minister], running again -- that's the issue," and adding that Harper's government was "convicted of wrongdoing in each of last [three] elections. That's a huge [2015 election] issue."

That tweet references several prominent cases of federal Conservatives being penalized for breaches of Canada's election laws, most recently Harper's former ethics spokesperson Dean Del Mastro who was sentenced to one month in prison for improper campaign spending. Perhaps, as well, Stephen Harper making history by being found in contempt of Parliament, twice.

Within minutes of the 67-year old musician's tweet, the Maclean's editor fired back at Cavoukian, tweeting that "The Governor General, Elections Canada and the Constitution disagree with you, you flatulent crank."

The short-lived spat isn't unusual for Twitter -- but what stands out is the moderate celebrity of its adversaries. It raises questions about who gets to be a gatekeeper for discussions online, and has some worrying it might dissuade average citizens from expressing opinions, knowing they might be the target of insults from respected reporters. On the other hand, Cavoukian is no stranger to political controversy online, and some could argue he's made himself a public figure able to be criticized for his views.

In an emailed response, Wells said he made the comment because he's "tired" of people looking for "structural solutions" when "people they don't like" win elections.

"How appropriate was it to say it? Terribly inappropriate," Wells admitted to The Tyee. Said the veteran journalist who recently moderated the leaders' debate for Maclean's, "My manners fail me, regularly."

'Pretty nasty talk'

Wells' apparent attempt at the humorous snark all too common on Twitter -- followed with an added jab at the children's entertainer that "kids should listen to the Beatles" -- nonetheless sparked debate amongst other users, some criticizing Cavoukian as living "in a bubble of unreality" while another urged the respected reporter to back off, citing another song made famous by Raffi: "Dude this is one you got to walk away from. The wheels on the bus man!"

Writer and media critic Mark Bourrie, author of Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper's Assault on Your Right to Know, replied on Twitter: "Flatulent. Pretty nasty talk."

Reached by phone, Cavoukian said he was "surprised" and somewhat taken aback by the tone of Wells' tweet, but said he isn't at all worried that it might discourage other Canadians from speaking their minds online.

"Democracy is not a spectator sport," the singer said, laughing as he read through his Twitter feed and responses to his argument with Wells. "I was surprised by what I saw, but I think people see this as someone having a bad moment."

Raffi's digital politics

Cavoukian, who insists he is not a member of any political party and considers himself "pan-partisan," added that he's been inspired to use his fame to speak out on Twitter by one of his "heroes," Margaret Atwood, who, with 861,000 Twitter followers, has also been a vocal Harper opponent.

The more important task at hand, he said, is to encourage voters to not only turn out at the polls in October, but to uphold their "duty as citizens to speak out, especially after the systematic downgrading of democracy in Canada."

It's not the first time Raffi has raised the ire of other Twitter users. Not only was he a vocal supporter of the BC Teachers' Federation during a protracted labour dispute last summer, but he inspired an article in the U.S.-based gossip blog Gawker entitled, "Beloved Children's Troubadour Raffi Is Losing It At Journalists on Twitter."

It's not just reporters dishing it out to citizens this election. Last month, a Conservative supporter called a reporter a "lying piece of shit" at a party event after she asked him questions about the Mike Duffy case.

'Not your typical beauty queen'

The back-and-forth brings to mind another celebrity whose online commentary of politics have polarized opinions in the country. On Monday, newly crowned Mrs. Universe Ashley Burnham tweeted, "I urge all First Nations people in Canada to vote in this upcoming election. We are in desperate need of a new [prime minister]. Fight for your rights."

Meanwhile on her Facebook page, Burnham explained her decision to make an anti-Harper statement after her win, citing her newfound media attention and a "title, a platform and a voice," which she vowed to use to the best of her ability.

"People think I'm too political for my first day as Mrs. Universe," she stated. "Did you really think I was going to just sit there and look pretty? ...I'm not your typical beauty queen. Look out."  [Tyee]

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