Opinion: The Ontario Press Council hearings left many questions unanswered

By John Gordon Miller

By John Gordon Miller

I attended the long-awaited Toronto Star-Rob Ford "show trial." The Ontario Press Council held it in a room at Ryerson University that honours the university's major benefactors. "Toronto Star" is engraved in the second row from the top. Not exactly neutral ground.

The trial itself? Not exactly what anyone would call a fair fight.

Rob Ford was a no-show, of course, as we knew he would be, and so the Star's editors happily went about defending themselves with all the vigor that the paper's founder, Holy Joe Atkinson, once said they should use to cover the news: “Get it first. Sew it up. Pursue every detail. And play it big.”

It was a hearing, not a trial, but not a good one. The press council's guidelines say "at a hearing, both sides are asked to restate their positions and present any additional submissions considered relevant by the hearing chair." That didn't happen. Only the Star spoke, and editor-in-chief Michael Cooke went on for 20 minutes, citing sources like Police Chief Bill Blair, the Supreme Court of Canada and the British House of Lords, arguing that the paper's May 17 report on the Rob Ford crack cocaine video was accurate, responsible and fair.

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The paper seemed to empty its executive suite to pack the audience with supporters. Publisher John Cruickshank was front and centre, nodding sagely at the right moments. He sat with executive editor Murdoch Davis, newsroom lawyer Bert Bruser, public editor Kathy English, columnist Heather Mallick, foreign affairs writer Bill Schiller and several reporters from the Star's investigative unit. Cooke displayed giant blown-up copies of the May 17 front page and had minions hand out stapled copies of his presentation to anyone who asked.

The other side was strangely silent. The official complainant, Darylle Donley, spoke not a word, nor was she asked any questions by the press council panel. Her complaint, outlined in a brief 12-line email message, was that the Star's story contained "innuendos and allegations" masquerading as truth. "I am curious to know what your criteria is regarding mistruths and allegations in newspapers." 

The press council said it wanted to examine several specific questions, including whether the story was in the public interest, whether the paper made a fair attempt to verify the information and get comment from Mayor Ford, and how anonymous sources were used.

(My position on the Star article is that it was reported responsibly, involved a matter that was definitely in the public interest, and the existence of the video was verified to my satisfaction by the fact that two investigative reporters of the callibre of Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle saw it three times. Cooke and Donovan also clearly documented the attempts — 14 of them —  to get comment from Mayor Ford and his associates the night before the story was printed.)

It's likely that the press council will conclude, from the evidence it chose to gather, that the Star did its work impeccably well.

My concern is that the hearing did little to explore the standards of good journalism (as the complainant requested), or whether the Star actually met them. Some of that failure was due to the complainant. I approached her after the hearing to ask whether she thought her issues had been dealt with fairly and she said, rather vacantly: "I didn't come here to talk to anyone." That's for sure. The only time she spoke at all was to ask a late question of the Star, and it was unrelated to her complaint. One wonders then why the press council chose her as the representative complainant for this hearing, instead of one of the other readers it said had similar objections to the Star article. In an email to the press council last month, Donley appeared overly cautious, worried that she might need a lawyer and that the Star might sue her.

Although the press council's panel — chaired by a former judge — asked many questions, it was the ones they neglected to ask that stood out for me. 

Cooke, the paper's editor-in-chief, told them that "we did not rush the story into publication while sacrificing any of the Star's standards," but the press council didn't bother to to press him further about whether that was true.

They should have. The story was based entirely on anonymous sources. It did not identify the person who shot the video, other than to say he claimed (through a third party who also remained anonymous) to have supplied crack cocaine to the mayor (no details of that).  Nor is the Star's main contact identified, other than to say he described himself as "a community organizer in the Somali community."

The chair of the panel, George Thomson, made only passing reference to the fact that the Star has a  Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide, which is published on its website. Had he read it? It happens to say this,  in reference to the use of anonymous sources:

"The public interest is best served when news sources are identified by their full names. The Star should be aggressive in pressing sources to put information on the record and should seek independently to corroborate off-the-record information.

"The Star does not provide anonymity to those who attack individuals or organizations or engage in speculation — the unattributed cheap shot. People under attack in the Star have the right to know their accusers. "

Kevin Donovan told the hearing that he agreed to grant the main contact anonymity before he saw the video, which is hardly aggressive but perhaps understandable because he had to get to first base with him and "the man was scared." He was not asked why the other man was not identified. The point here is that the paper did let anonymous sources attack Mayor Ford, and it did not have any independent corroboration, other than a look at the video, before it published the story.

The Star's policies also say:

"Published articles must explain why sources have been granted anonymity and why the Star considers them authoritative and credible….  As much information as possible about the source — without revealing identity — should appear in the story. When possible, the Star will disclose the source’s motive for disclosing the information."

This was clearly not done. The Star did not explain to readers why it granted anonymity, it gave virtually no information about the two sources, and was silent on what their motive was for making and disclosing the video. All it said was that the owners of the video "wanted to make a change in their lives and use the money to move out west to Calgary."

In regards to standards of verification, the Star's policies say this:

"The Star will seek independent or documentary proof of information that shows an individual in a bad light."

Well, it tried to do that but failed. The Star was trying to obtain the video but says its hand was forced on May 16 when Gawker, a U.S.-based celebrity website, published its own story after watching the video. Asked by the panel chair "is it fair to conclude you thought you had more you had to do" before publishing, Donovan had to admit there was. 

Which raises an interesting point. Gawker broke its story at 8.28 p.m. on May 16. The Star made all its attempts to reach Mayor Ford and his associates for comment between that time and 11.07 p.m. when it put the story on its website. Was that a reasonable length of time to meet the Star's policy to "give anyone who will be portrayed in an uncomplimentary way, or against whom allegations are being made, a reasonable chance to respond?" 

The Star editors agreed with Thomson that extra care should be taken when the allegations are serious. The allegations against Ford certainly were. But the Star was hemmed in by a promise it made to its main source not to approach Ford about the video until the source said it was okay. So it did nothing to get Ford's side of the story in the two weeks it had the story all to itself. In light of what happened (the video was shopped to other news organizations) it's unlikely the paper would make the same promise again. Cooke and Donovan said they were only able to seek comment from Ford after they'd been released from their promise by the source after 8.30 p.m. on May 16. 

The Star is probably correct in thinking that Ford wouldn't have commented anyway. But it needed to give him a chance to. I say phone calls and letters delivered in the wee hours with a tight deadline looming do not afford the mayor of North America's fourth largest city a reasonable opportunity to comment on anything, let alone whether he was really stupid enough to be caught on videotape smoking crack cocaine and making racist and homophobic comments under the influence.

But that's just me. It doesn't seem to be any of the Ontario Press Council's concern.

One more thing: The press council never publicizes its hearings, but it did so in this case. The Star ran two stories, one on page one the day of the hearing, and a long commentary in advance by the press council's executive director. The Star is the largest of the 10 daily newspapers that belong to the council and it provides a substantial portion of its yearly budget. It looks bad that the council panel did such a poor job of identifying and exploring some of the flaws in the Star's rush to publication.

John Gordon Miller was the chair of Ryerson's School of Journalism for 10 years. He also held several prominent positions at the Toronto Star including foreign editor, founding editor of the Sunday Star, weekend editor, deputy managing editor, and acting managing editor. This column was originally published on his blog, The Journalism Doctor.