Rob Ford and the case against paying sources for information

Special to The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

In a downtown Toronto park last weekend, a couple of young entrepreneurs were selling T-shirts saying, “Rob Ford Smokes Crack,” for $15 a pop. They claimed all proceeds would go to Gawker’s Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign to buy the infamous video. I am suspicious of their altruism – how does one actually follow the money, after they pack up their blanket? – but still fascinated to see a whole new cottage industry piggybacking on another entirely new kind of industry, all sprouting from one drug dealer’s own entrepreneurial endeavour.

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Crowd-sourcing to buy a news story is new; buying news stories isn’t. We’ve known about – and condemned – chequebook journalism since the American yellow presses of the 1890s. Its apotheosis has been the recent crisis in Britain over tabloid presses and their practice of paying all possible sources, including police ones, for salacious or sensational information, no matter how it was obtained. That led to a national expression of revulsion against the press, and several criminal charges.

The Toronto Star has been denying that it would ever pay for such a document, in old-fashioned journalistic reasoning, whereas the gossip-oriented Gawker has gleefully rejected all such qualms. So does every hipster I know. It seems like a totally obsolete debate now. The tape will get out somehow; someone will make money on it (at least for a few hours, before it is copied and everywhere); even the pious Toronto Star will end up linking to it. If the technology is there to raise the money, it will be used. What can one do? Lamenting that people will do whatever they can to obtain shocking information is like lamenting progress itself.

But what makes a crowd-sourced blackmail tape different from a corporate-paid one? Does the existence of the technology eliminate ethical questions? Here is another example of the strange contemporary belief that because technology enables us to do something, we must do it – indeed, that we are utterly powerless against doing it. Anyone in literate circles these days who raises skepticism of any technology-driven cultural tendency is branded a Luddite and a reactionary.

This is particularly true when the cause is embraced by those who see themselves as ideologically progressive. In my left-wing Toronto park, where Mayor Ford is widely despised, supporting an ethically dubious journalistic practice is seen as simple community activism, a form of political action.

Indeed, on Tuesday even a Toronto Star columnist issued a public plea to her editors to get over their prudish scruples and just buy the thing. “There are times, rare instances, where the end justifies the means,” Rosie diManno wrote. “… Ethics shmethics, boss.”

So anyone against paying sources for information now sounds like a hopeless fuddy-duddy. But just for the record, here are the conventional arguments against paying tipsters: It taints the credibility of the information provided, because it calls into question the motivation of the seller; and it taints the credibility of the news organization that pays, because its relationship with the source is no longer objective and critical. A good summary of the argument is provided by the U.S.-based Society For Professional Journalists, whose position on buying stories remains unchanged. The SPJ says, “[Readers] can’t be blamed for wondering whether the source is telling the outlet the truth, telling the outlet what it wants to hear or embellishing the truth to increase the value of the information.” It adds, “Once a media outlet has paid for information, it is less likely to continue to search for the details of the story for fear it might uncover conflicting information.”

This may not be true in the specific instance of the Ford video. But what will be the long-term effect of abandoning these principles – not just for this case but for news-gathering in general? Well, we’ve seen exactly where widespread source-buying leads: It leads to ruthless competition among privacy-invading freelance paparazzi; it leads to even more unscrupulous competition among private investigators to acquire personal information from the phones and computers of public figures; it leads, in short, directly to the Leveson Inquiry, the judicial inquiry into British media ethics and practices after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

What it encourages is a culture of bounty-hunters. And in the new world of stealable digital information and easy broadcasting, it may well reveal, to the next generation, the possible commercial value of cyberbullying.

We need to remove our emotional distaste for an incompetent mayor from this larger ethical decision.