The use of anonymous sources is essential if news outlets are to cover sensitive stories of public interest, The Globe and Mail argued at the Ontario Press Council as it defended a story about Toronto Councillor Doug Ford’s personal history.
The newspaper cited 10 anonymous sources in a story about the councillor’s former involvement with hashish, each of whom said they had direct knowledge of having “purchased hashish from Doug Ford, supplied him with hashish or witnessed him possessing large amounts of the drug.”
The story sparked several complaints to the industry watchdog, but The Globe’s editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse, said the Supreme Court of Canada has made it clear the use of anonymous sources is permissible when the greater public interest is served, adding that their use can be justified when “society at large needs to know much more than what elected officials want published.”
“After repeated, unsuccessful efforts over many months to convince sources to agree to the use of their names, we faced a dilemma: We could publish the story citing only anonymous sources, knowing the facts of the story are both true and in the public interest, or we could not publish at all,” Mr. Stackhouse said at the afternoon hearing. “The latter option would have been journalistically and socially irresponsible. Accepting this, we set extraordinary standards for the extent, documentation and validation of each interview.”
The council convened to examine a May 25 Globe and Mail story titled “The Ford family’s history with drug dealing.” The article – citing interviews with 10 people, including dealers and users of hash – reported that Councillor Ford sold the drug as a young man. The article reported that Rob Ford, now Toronto mayor, was not “involved in a significant way” in the Toronto drug trade at the time, but that two of the Ford brothers’ siblings have had ties to drug traffickers.
The council is reviewing whether the article dealt with a matter in the public interest, as well as the use of anonymous sources. The hearing followed a morning session in which the council addressed a complaint about a story that appeared on May 16 in The Toronto Star and alleged that Mayor Ford had been videotaped smoking crack cocaine. That hearing focused on whether adequate efforts were made to verify allegations, whether Mr. Ford was given adequate time to respond and whether his response was included.
The Ontario Press Council is an independent agency that considers complaints against 150 member news organizations. It has considered more than 4,000 complaints since its founding in 1972, and says it has ruled approximately 50 per cent of the time in favour of complainants. If a panel sides with a complaint, the news organization must publish the ruling unedited.
“This investigation began as much great journalism does – with simple questions about a public official,” Mr. Stackhouse said. “We wanted to better understand the mayor, his powerful brother and the events that shaped them. We didn’t start researching this with any expectation that it would be about Doug Ford or the drug trade … society at large needs to know much more than what elected officials want published.”
Connie Harrison, who made the complaint against The Globe that the council chose to investigate, said the paper has a responsibility to name anonymous sources for the greater public good and that newspapers should leave such investigations to the police. “In a liberal democracy, journalists sometimes have to burn their sources for the betterment of society,” she told the council in an opening statement.
Neither Rob nor Doug Ford were in attendance on Monday as the council began its hearing, nor did they file any submissions.
Earlier in the day, The Star’s editor-in-chief answered questions about his paper’s ethical boundaries, saying that while the press council’s mission is not to prove the story true or false, it is important for the paper to underscore its faith in its reporting. The story alleged that Mayor Ford is featured in a cellphone video, and appears to be smoking crack cocaine.
“I’m telling you with great emphasis that story is true,” said Michael Cooke, flanked by reporter Kevin Donovan. “Every word of it … a connection between drug dealers, gun dealers, a crack house and the mayor of Canada’s largest city are the definitions of something that can and should be explored in the public interest.”
Mr. Cooke said the paper did not bring its story to the mayor’s attention until the night it was published online due to a promise to a confidential source, who feared for his safety and was guaranteed anonymity. He said the paper tried to reach the mayor 14 times before printing the story.
Darylle Donely, whose complaint triggered the hearing on the Star article, opted not to speak. In her complaint, she said she was curious to know what a reporter has to do before “they are sanctioned and curtailed.”