How to factcheck politicians’ education credentials (it’s not easy)

In April 2010, Toronto Star reporter Linda Diebel wrote an article about then-Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford. Diebel reported that Ford had studied political science at Carleton University but dropped out two credits shy of graduation and that he had played varsity football for Carleton’s now defunct team, the Ravens. However, neither fact is true, Rob Thomas, an Ottawa-based journalist, later reported in a story for OpenFile. Ford attended Carleton for only a year  and he mostly kept the bench warm for the Ravens.  Nevertheless, those “facts” have been repeated by the Globe and Mail and the CBC. Ironically, Diebel’s story addressed the haziness surrounding the details of Ford’s past.

Thomas is not surprised these facts crept into Diebel’s story. As he learned, getting even a “yes/no” answer regarding a former student is not easy by any means.

It seems that it used to be much easier to digs around in peoples’ pasts.  In 1988, then-Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong found out that the president of the Toronto Stock Exchange had lied on his resume. One phone call to the London School of Economics revealed that Terry Popowich flunked his final exam not once, but twice. Popowich was immediately fired.

For many years in Canada, most of the provinces have operated with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), which includes prohibiting university staff from sharing student records with third parties without consent from the individual in question.  (Laws in Quebec and the territories are slightly different.)

These policies effectively stonewall journalists.  If a public figure makes a claim about his or her education, how do we test it? Our duty as an intermediary body for the public is to properly vet candidates running for public office.  While private citizens have an incentive to give potential employer consent to view their record, public officials do not have the same incentive.

So that means, without Ford’s written consent, Thomas couldn’t confirm what was often reported (that Ford was a Carleton grad); a spokesperson for Carleton refused to even say if Ford had attended.   Ford never gave Thomas permission. When they spoke in an interview, Ford explained that after he left Carleton he attended Atkinson College at York University.     

After that story ran on OpenFile, The Star was able to clarify with York University that Ford took six continuing education courses and implied that he did not graduate. So, even without consent, York  was more forthcoming than Carleton, even though their privacy policies are virtually identical.  However, when J-Source called the university to confirm the same information, we were refused, and also learned that York now outsources requests for information about alumni.  A company called AuraData handles online requests for educational and professional verification for all Canadian post-secondary institutions. You still need permission from the subject and it will cost you $18 for a onetime search.

There are options for journalists who cannot obtain consent. They could appeal the decision (for $25) to the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) under article 23 of FIPPA, Public Interest Override. Article 23 provides a legislated standard for determining when records – even personal information – should be disclosed in the public interest.  However, the information must be in the public interest, the public interest must be compelling, and the public interest must clearly outweigh the reason for the information being kept private.

News organizations regularly use Article 23 to appeal denied requests for information.  For instance, the Globe and Mail used it to gain access to internal peer evaluation reports regarding the operation of Ontario hydro’s nuclear plants. It seems to work, but you’ve got to be dogged and you need time: a journalist such as Diebel, who works on a tight schedule, wouldn’t get past the administration’s phone call.  And a freelancer like Thomas can’t afford to pay out-of-pocket to file an appeal.