The Globe and Mail's use of anonymous sources in a story about Toronto councillor Doug Ford's alleged ties to the drug trade was justifiable, the Ontario Press Council ruled in a decision that dismissed concerns about the reporting.
The newspaper relied on 10 unnamed sources in a story about Councillor Ford, 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 press council received several complaints about The Globe's story, published on May 25, and held a hearing in September to see if the paper had crossed any ethical lines. The ruling says the complainants were right to be concerned, but the paper carefully weighed its decision and the story was in the public interest.
"In this case, the lengthy, extensive efforts made by the Globe satisfied the council that the information was reasonably reliable and the reporters were sufficiently diligent in their efforts to verify their conclusions," the ruling said.
The Globe 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.
"The decision reaffirms several principles that are central to both free expression and the fundamental role that a free press plays in our democracy," said John Stackhouse, The Globe's editor-in-chief.
"It recognizes the role of news organizations in questioning the actions – past and present – of public officials, and probing difficult questions pertaining to them. We are also heartened that the council endorsed our policy around anonymous sources: although it should be rare and thoroughly scrutinized by senior editors, such sourcing is often necessary to investigative reporting and public-interest journalism," he said.
Connie Harrison, whose complaint initiated the process against the Globe, said she was satisfied with the ruling because it focused on educating readers about the methods used to report a story.
"I'm glad that someone like myself got to say what I wanted to say," she said. "Across the board newspapers need to do more educating of the public into how they work so people can understand how a story is done."
Councillor Ford addressed the findings on a Toronto radio station Wednesday morning, telling John Oakley at AM 640 that the press council lacked credibility because it is stacked with "cronies" from the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail.
"Who is the press council?" he asked. "They are a bunch of cronies, all of the insiders trying to make judgments on the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail and a lot of them probably worked for the Toronto Star at some point."
The hearing was actually run by retired Ontario judge George Thomson, the chief executive officer of the Investment Funds Institute of Canada Joanne De Laurentiis and Drew Gragg, deputy editor of the Ottawa Citizen.
When asked by host John Oakley why he didn't sue the papers if the information was inaccurate, he said "I could go after them, [but]I have a job to do."
"I dedicate my life to charity. I dedicate my life back to this city," he said. "It's frustrating – you give everything back you possibly can and the media trashes you non-stop."
He said the use of anonymous sources "totally discredits" the stories written by both The Globe and The Star, and anyone who wants to comment on his life should do publicly.
"Was I one of 10 gazillion kids that smoked marijuana when I was in school? Yes I did," he said. "For them to come and try to dig stuff up from 30 years ago is absolute BS."
Two other complaints – one that the news organization did not give Councillor Ford enough time to respond and another that members of Mr. Ford's family were unjustifiably included in the story – were also dismissed.
"The Council is concerned about the copious amount of detail on the two Ford siblings and believes the Globe came close to crossing the line into what are the problematic, but private affairs of family members," the decision read. "However, the council believes that the overall theme of the article – which is that a senior public official who has publicly vowed to fight drug-related crime was once himself associated with the world he now finds abhorrent and members of his family have also been associated with drugs, drug dealing and persons with drug related backgrounds – justifies reference to the actions of these other family members."
The press council said the public does not always understand how the media work, particularly in the case of investigative reporting, and implored news organizations to clarify journalistic standards and techniques.
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 it was founded in 1972. If a panel sides with a complaint, the news organization must publish the ruling unedited.