Foreign Relations, Media and Communications, Post-War

Bob Rae, The Sunday Times and Wikipedia

In what may be a first for a Sunday newspaper in Sri Lanka, a reference from Wikipedia is used to buttress a case for the alleged pro-LTTE bias of Canadian Liberal MP Bob Rae, recently deported from Sri Lanka after first being issued a visa to enter.

The Sunday Times has a full page devoted to a rather long-winded story titled Lanka’s dual track foreign relations. My interest here is not to debate Bob Rae’s real or perceived partiality to the LTTE, but to briefly look at the manner in which a lengthy excerpt from Rae’s wikipedia entry is used to frame a flimsy argument.

The Sunday Times notes that,

…it was public knowledge that Rae had periodically made strong statements backing the Tiger guerrillas. So much so, there was some evidence in the cyberspace. The Wikipedia, the free, multilingual online encyclopaedia operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, among other things, has these few lines to say about Bob Rae:

“………Rae was a New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament from 1978 to 1982. Then he moved to provincial politics, becoming leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party from February 7, 1982 to June 22, 1996. He served as the 21st Premier of Ontario from October 1, 1990 to June 26, 1995, and was the first person to have led a provincial NDP government east of Manitoba.

“While in office, he brought forward a number of initiatives such as the Social Contract that were unpopular with many traditional NDP supporters. Rae’s subsequent disagreement with the leftward direction of the NDP led him to resign his membership and join the Liberals. He is known as a supporter of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), and has supported openly for a separate State for the Tamils in Sri Lanka by dividing the island in to two…….

The Wikipedia account was naturally based on Rae’s involvement with Tiger guerrilla activity in Canada. Rae’s protagonists admit Some Liberal MPs in the past attended functions at which the LTTE was prominent, and Liberal governments resisted efforts to designate the Tiger guerrillas a terrorist organization.

Emphasis mine.

Bob Rae’s wikipedia entry as it now stands does feature any reference for or against the LTTE (at the time of writing, his entry was last modified on 13 June 2009 at 19:05hrs). The sentence quoted in the Sunday Times, that “he is known as a supporter of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), and has supported openly for a separate State for the Tamils in Sri Lanka by dividing the island in to two” does not appear at all.

Bob Rae’s profile was first entered to Wikipedia on 23 June 2003. Upon further investigation, it’s clear that this sentence only appeared on Rae’s profile on Wikipedia on 11th June and was up there for less than 24 hours. The edit with this controversial sentence was made at 6.31hrs on 11 June and by 17.12hrs, it had been taken out.

In the seven years Bob Rae’s profile has been on Wikipedia, I find it particularly revealing that The Sunday Times chose to quote an edit freshly made to his profile and up for less than 24 hours.

The sentence suggesting Rae was a supporter of the LTTE was added by an anonymous contributor at IP address and edited by a user called Slaphappy, who also corrected other aspects of the edits made by

The jury’s out on the use of Wikipedia as an authoritative source for professional journalism. I use it myself on a daily basis, but given how it can be manipulated and how the quality of entries varies wildly, it’s a source I use with caution and not as an dependable source. In an authoritative take on the uses and abuses of Wikipedia in the newsroom, Wikipedia in the Newsroom by American Journalism Review ends on the following note,

But whatever the verdict on Wikipedia, one thing should not change, says the New York Times’ Johnston: “No matter who your sources are, when you sign your name, you are responsible for every word, every thought, every concept.”

This is where the carelessness, at best, of the Sunday Times comes into play. Noting that “the Wikipedia account was naturally based on Rae’s involvement with Tiger guerrilla activity in Canada” the Sunday Times bases its judgement on data that is hugely suspect and lacks integrity. Further, the strange coincidence of the very short-lived edit to Rae’s profile in Wikipedia precisely matching the lengthy excerpt in the Sunday Times suggest that there may be more than mere journalistic carelessness or ignorance at play here.

In using Wikipedia as it does, the Sunday Times showcases the danger of unprofessional journalism today, parading contested fact as verified information. Ignoring the nature of the web based source and framing the contentious excerpt from Wikipedia in the manner it does, the Sunday Times comes to a damning conclusion over Rae that is not based on any verifiable information. However, the point is that the average reader without the technical skills to investigate the Wikipedia entry would believe what the paper suggests.

And when on Bob Rae’s official website (that finds no mention at all in the story) one finds no evidence of the alleged partiality to the LTTE, one recalls this estimation of the Sunday Times published on Groundviews recently.