The editor of a weekly newspaper that published a controversial article about former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong says the people who allege Mr. Furlong was physically abusive when he was a gym teacher had a right to be heard.
The Georgia Straight published a lengthy article about Mr. Furlong, written by freelance journalist Laura Robinson, in September, 2012. Eight people swore affidavits that alleged Mr. Furlong abused his students when he was a physical-education instructor at Immaculata Roman Catholic Elementary School in Burns Lake, B.C., from 1969-70.
Ms. Robinson is suing Mr. Furlong over comments he made at a news conference the day the story was published. Mr. Furlong vehemently denied any wrongdoing and criticized Ms. Robinson's reporting, saying she had a vendetta against him. Mr. Furlong filed lawsuits against Ms. Robinson and the Georgia Straight, but ultimately abandoned both.
On Friday, Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith defended the paper's decision to run the story. "Do people have the right to be heard who swear affidavits about what happened? That's what it was all about," Mr. Smith. said.
He said the paper did not put the story on its cover, partly because it did not want to "sensationalize" it.
Mr. Smith said that although he told Ms. Robinson the story needed sworn affidavits, he initially did not believe she would be able to secure them. He said he was setting the standard very high. "Now you've got statements from people," he said. "Do they have the right to have their statements published, or not? Do you throw them in the filing cabinet, or do you publish them?"
He described Ms. Robinson as an honest reporter who gives people the opportunity to respond. He said she does not conduct "gotcha journalism."
Mr. Smith also had harsh words for Mr. Furlong for first filing a lawsuit against the paper, and then abruptly abandoning it. He said he only learned the suit was being abandoned through a TV interview featuring Mr. Furlong. Mr. Smith said he was "flabbergasted."
"I always thought this was just a [public relations] narrative that we were dealing with. The First Nations people and their voices were just marginalized through this sustained PR initiative," he said.
Mr. Furlong's counsel has attempted to portray Ms. Robinson as having issues with male authority figures. Mr. Smith said the Straight didn't fit that narrative "so we were dispensed with."
Mr. Smith said it's difficult to measure the financial implications Mr. Furlong's response to the story had on the paper. He said you never know why someone didn't buy an ad.
The defamation trial began in B.C. Supreme Court this week. The defence will open its case Monday. Mr. Furlong is expected to testify that same day.
Mr. Furlong's counsel has suggested Ms. Robinson was intent on bringing him down and conducted a sloppy investigation. The lawyers have pointed to Ms. Robinson's decision to post a notice in Burns Lake that mentioned she was investigating Mr. Furlong for abuse, suggesting that may have tainted her findings. Mr. Furlong's counsel has also criticized Ms. Robinson's decision to publish a piece in the Anishinabek News that mentioned a sex-abuse allegation.
Mr. Furlong's counsel has said he will use a defence of qualified privilege and argue he was entitled to respond to the attacks against him.
Claire Hunter, one of Mr. Furlong's lawyers, asked Mr. Smith if Ms. Robinson consulted with him before posting the Burns Lake notice. He said no.
Ms. Hunter, at another point, asked Mr. Smith about the Straight's decision not to publish the sex-abuse allegation. Mr. Smith said there was a fact pattern in the affidavits and the sex-abuse allegation fell outside that pattern, so he was not comfortable publishing it.
When asked if anyone at the paper contacted Mr. Furlong about the story directly, Mr. Smith again said no. However, he added that Ms. Robinson repeatedly reached out to one of Mr. Furlong's other lawyers and that lawyer made it clear questions for the story would not be answered.
Ms. Robinson has defended her reporting, saying the story was deeply researched. She has denied she was driven by a vendetta.
The RCMP's investigations into the claims of physical and sexual abuse concluded without charges.