Did the Globe buy the news or just the Rob Ford pictures?

Image courtesy of Newseum

By Ross Howard

Image courtesy of Newseum

By Ross Howard

The Globe and Mail got an unexpectedly quick pay-off last week from recruiting the Toronto Star reporter who revealed the original video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford allegedly smoking crack cocaine. But a Toronto drug dealer got a quick pay-off too when the Globe’s chequebook journalism spent $10,000 in acquiring  screen grabs of a new video showing the mayor again allegedly loading up on drugs.

Newly appointed Globe editor-in-chief David Walmsley penned a short rationalization for the Globe’s pay-out, saying the pictures were for readers who “needed to see what our reporters watched and reported on.” He added that with real pictures published, the mayor wouldn’t be able to stonewall the truth for months as when the Star revealed the first video.

But was the pay-out really for pictures in the public interest and necessary, or a pay-off for news?

The Globe story made it clear reporter Robyn Doolittle, who recently moved from the Star to the Globe, and investigative reporter Greg McArthur had extensively viewed and confirmed the drug dealer’s video of Mr. Ford’s antics. It was almost identical to the way the Star first published on May 16, 2013—in that it also had two reporters who had viewed a drug dealer’s alleged video of Ford smoking crack. That dealer had been peddling the video to media outlets for a high fee but the Star disavowed paying and settled for boldly reporting what its journalists had seen on the videotape. The mayor consistently denied the video’s existence but the Toronto Police eventually confirmed it was real and Ford confessed.

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Walmsley said the Globe was “offered the opportunity” to pay the drug dealer-filmmaker $10,000 for the pictures, a price worth paying to fully serve the public interest concerning  the behaviour of the city’s mayor and the financial ruin it posed for the financial capital of Canada in the middle of a civic election campaign.

The $10,000 pay-out certainly served the interest of the drug-dealer filmmaker. He candidly admitted in the Globe story that he shot the video just to sell it to the highest bidder. And it served the Globe’s interest to have its purchased and copyrighted pictures circulated around the world overnight. That one-upped the Star’s original video story that relied only on its own reporters’ observations.

The professional journalism ethic against chequebook journalism is that it encourages people to manufacture news to sell to gullible media, and it encourages people to withhold public interest news until some media outlet pays them. It creates media bidding wars for exclusive access to news, which inflates the real importance of that news. It makes for a society where price determines revelations and facts rather than public interest and accountability.

Editors try to defend buying news by claiming it is similar to purchasing freelanced photographs from anyone on scene at a dramatic event. And the public interest defence is regularly trotted out whenever media outlets outright resort to paying for news. There may be justifiable occasions, although the Globe defended this pay-out as picture purchases, not news-buying.

In the Globe’s case there was little  need to pay $10,000 for pictures to support yet another news story about Ford, who has been captured in numerous citizen and media  “drunken stupor” reports, videos and tape recordings around Toronto for months. The Globe could have easily followed the Star’s earlier lead and said it was satisfied with the work of its two professionals and printed their report of the video. (The Star fell off its virtuous perch later in paying $5,000 for a different Ford bizarre-behaviour video last fall.)   

As veteran writer Christie Blatchford noted in her Postmedia column on May 2, the Globe may have confused the public interest with what the public may be interested in seeing. The Globe would have been better off devoting that money to reporters further pursuing the real public interest, such as Ford’s administration at City Hall and the ruin it poses for the financial capital of Canada.


Ross Howard teaches journalism at Langara College in Vancouver and was a reporter for The Globe and Mail from 1984 to 1999.



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