By Stephen Vance, Editor
Back in December I wrote a column in support of the Toronto Star who had essentially been black-balled by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and excluded from official notices and information coming from the mayor’s office. The spat began with Ford taking offence to an article the Star had published during the 2010 election campaign, and progressed through threatened legal action, and ultimately a stone wall erected by Ford.
After months of being shunned by Ford, John Honderich of the Toronto Star informed their readers that they would be filing a complaint with Toronto’s Integrity Commissioner.
“Good for the Star,” I said in that column, “Politicians and municipal staffers that cozy up to some media outlets while attempting to cut other media outlets out of the loop may think they are controlling the message, but in reality they are simply doing a disservice to their community,” I expressed further.
I still believe that it is highly inappropriate for any elected official or government staff member to specifically and intentionally exclude media outlets that they happen to dislike, or with whom they don’t agree.
In recent weeks though, the Star has shown an incredible lack of tact in their reporting on Ford.
A video posted on their website recently showing Ford exiting a fast food outlet while in the midst of a very public initiative to shed some pounds from his footballer frame was nothing but an immature cheap-shot at the mayor who the Star is constantly characterizing as immature himself. The only reason Star editors could possibly have thought it worthwhile to run such a “story” would be to bring embarrassment to their city hall nemesis.
Now this week we read that Star reporter Daniel Dale was found by Ford skulking around a piece of property behind Ford’s home while gathering information for a “story” about an application submitted by the mayor – not in his capacity as an elected official, but rather as a private citizen and taxpayer – to purchase a piece of property in hopes of beefing up a security fence, presumably to avoid precisely the kind of scenario that would find a reporter or any other citizen from gaining access to the Ford property, or otherwise infringing on his right to privacy.
The Star argues that their reporter was not on Ford’s property, that he was on public land. And while that is no doubt true, that is certainly no way to go about gathering information for a story.
Even with the ongoing rift between the Star and Ford, the reporter at the very least should have sent an email to the mayor’s office to let him know that he would be visiting the property, or better still he could have knocked on the door of Ford’s home to inform him that he would be exploring the land in question as part of the information gathering required for his story.
Worst case scenario might have seen Ford slam the door in Dale’s face, or threaten to phone the police which ultimately happened anyway.
At the very least Dale would have been ensuring that what he was doing didn’t appear to be anything clandestine. Optics are everything as we all know.
Newspapers have two very important responsibilities – to inform the public with relevant, truthful, unbiased news, and to offer commentary and opinion about current issues, and yes, the performance of elected officials as it relates to their public responsibilities.
Typically any information required to carry out those responsibilities can be gathered at the places where politicians perform their public duties. When that is not possible, and obviously the Star has additional hurdles to deal with when reporting on Ford, it is important to ensure that the actions of reporters are above-board and respect the right to privacy that we all are entitled to – even politicians.
Wandering around property behind the home of the mayor taking photos, while on public land or not, is not the best way to ensure integrity in the journalistic process. Posting a video which is clearly aimed at mocking Ford for his girth – which incidentally has nothing to do with his performance as mayor – also does nothing to support journalistic integrity.
Whether you agree with Ford’s politics or not – and I am certainly no fan – there are boundaries that should not be crossed, and those include infringing on privacy, or highlighting perceived flaws that have nothing to do with the performance of public duty.
And if faced with an elected official like Ford who has been steadfast in his mission to use the power of his office to impair the ability of the Star to properly cover city hall, that is still no excuse to sink to the same level, or it would seem in this case to tunnel even deeper in search of a lower level. It is shameful, and the Star should know better.
While the Star has been rightly justified in their frustration with Ford and his own tactics, the tactics employed by the Star in recent weeks and months do nothing but give all media outlets a bad name.