This week, readers have been riveted by stories about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Some of the news has come from his statements: that he has smoked crack cocaine, that he has purchased illegal drugs while mayor, that he might have driven after drinking (not to mention more vulgar comments such as those on Thursday).
But other major news broke because Toronto media lawyers pressed for and obtained the release of search warrant documents related to drug charges against the mayor’s friend and occasional driver, Alessandro (Sandro) Lisi.
Why did the press go to court on this? The Globe and Mail and other media believed what the police had uncovered about the mayor and his friend were in the public interest.
Says Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse, “Journalism demands that we relentlessly pursue the unseen, and fight for reasonable access to any information that is in the public interest. Our role, often, is to publish what powerful interests don’t want the public to see. In the Ford case, we believed the court documents held information that needed to be aired, so that the citizens of Toronto could properly evaluate the moral conduct of their mayor. The ensuing outrage seems to show that our action was not only appreciated; it remains necessary to a vigorous and fair democracy.”
Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer agreed with the media – at least with regard to some of the warrant information.
He noted that the investigation that led to the drug charges “was an investigation into allegations surrounding the mayor.” And while Justice Nordheimer said the release of these allegations could embarrass some people, that embarrassment wouldn’t trump “the principle of openness,” including openness with the public.
Two important assumptions were highlighted in his decision to release further details: “One is that the media will be responsible in what they choose to report and the other is that … the public… will appreciate that it is untested and unconfirmed. In some instances, the information may amount to nothing more than backyard gossip.”
The Globe’s story was careful to say that the reports of the mayor’s troubling behaviour – driving while intoxicated and drug use – were allegations and unproven in court. It noted that Mr. Ford has not been charged with any crime.
Still, readers taking in the news had mixed reactions. They’ve said everything from “keep up the good work” and “you must keep the spotlight on [Ford]” to calling coverage “reminiscent of paparazzi” or “hyenas attacking from behind, jumping at [Ford] and biting his heels relentlessly.”
Some readers have complained that despite the “public interest,” the Ford story has become a “media circus” with reporters staking out the mayor’s home and office. A few have wondered about the off comments shouted during the Ford scrums and press conferences and, on one occasion, laughter after he said “god bless Toronto.” These were not journalists, but members of the public who were watching the goings-on.
As for why media send reporters to cover the mayor’s every public move, it’s important to note that they are assigned to watch Mr. Ford so closely because he makes news from impromptu scrums (which, just like rugby scrums, can be physically crushing) more often than at press conferences.
It’s crucial in delivering news to the public to push for access, push for openness, and, sometimes, push the courts.
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