Is Toronto City Hall safe for journalists?

By Ellin Bessner

Officials with Global News are considering going to Toronto police after an incident on Nov. 14 involving one of their cameramen and security staff working in embattled Mayor Rob Ford’s city hall office.

By Ellin Bessner

Officials with Global News are considering going to Toronto police after an incident on Nov. 14 involving one of their cameramen and security staff working in embattled Mayor Rob Ford’s city hall office.

Discussions are also being had with other media organizations that share Global’s serious concerns for the safety of journalists and crews covering developments at city hall, according to Ron Waksman, senior director in charge of online news and current affairs and editorial standards at Global. The network is also looking for an apology from the mayor.

The incident in question happened as Ford’s security detail was escorting the mayor and his wife, Renata, out of his second-floor office and toward the elevator after a mid-day media conference Thursday. “Multiple videos of [the] incident clearly show an assault on our cameraman,” Waksman said in an email to J-Source. “As with all cases of assault, a police complaint and charges are a possibility.”

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For years, the landmark building that houses Toronto's seat of municipal government has traditionally been operated with the view that it should be an open, welcoming facility for visitors, tourists and citizens alike. That includes journalists. The media have a dedicated press gallery on the first floor with some private offices, and there is space reserved for them to work right inside the council chamber on meeting days.

But with the unprecedented media attention now focused on Ford in and around his office on the second floor and near the elevator doors outside his office, some media organizations and security experts say the space may no longer be safe for journalists.

The space is too small

With the mayhem at city hall these days, dozens of producers and reporters from local and international networks are showing up with their cameras and tripods. Some members of the public also simply walk in and join journalists in their scrums. 

An American tourist told CBC's Nick Purdon that after visiting the CN Tower, he turned up at city hall because he wanted to see the news story unfold. Here's what the space looked like when it was relatively empty on a Wednesday morning before the mayor arrived for work.

But by noon, after the censure moves by council, there were more journalists and cameras outside of Ford's office and in the council chambers. Around lunchtime Thursday, media outlets reported Ford staffers gave the media 40 seconds to clear the room after the news conference.

It appears the mayor didn’t take the advice of his handlers to wait and use the back exit. He instead moved toward the front door.  As security staffers scrambled to help the mayor and his wife reach the elevators, in the crunch of equipment and bodies, two camera operators from 680 News/City News and Global News were shoved.  

Video courtesy of Centennial College journalism student Alex Broad

Security expert appalled

According to one Ontario-based expert in crowd control and building security, there is simply no room to clear a space that small that quickly. Douglas Macy, one of Toronto's most experienced safety consultants, said it would take at least 30 minutes to clear a room that packed. The owner of Trust 1 Security helped create an emergency measures plan for the 2010 G20 Summit on behalf of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Toronto.

After viewing the videos of the incident, Macy called what the incident a "pathetic example of crowd control." In his opinion, the mayor's office is the wrong spot to hold media events.

"They [the media] should not be crowded into a room like sardines," he said, chalking up what happened partly to a "design flaw" and urged an immediate, overall security review by the building's officials.

Aside from better protecting the mayor, he urged the city to design a proper space for the media, so everyone can enjoy what is known in the corporate security world as "quiet enjoyment of the facility." "Somebody will get hurt if some measures aren't put in place," he said.

Macy also suggested reporters should pool cameras and resources within their networks to limit the number of bodies and cameras in a room from the same media outlet—the same way it is often done for trips with the prime minister.

“Fire hazard" outside the mayor's office

"Allowing the media to camp outside the mayor's office, and grow in abundance, in that small space, where that's the primary door in and out, is a fire hazard, and it's a health hazard," Macy said. "It's inevitable [with] the volume of people interested in capturing our mayor's story, it's going to get even more hostile just because of the nature of the story itself [and] the nature of the space just makes it even worse."

The Canadian Association of Journalists, which represents 600 members across the country, is also concerned about the environment for the media now working on the Ford story.

"What has been happening at city hall shows a tremendous lack of respect by civic officials towards ensuring journalists can do their jobs,” said CAJ president Hugo Rodrigues in an email. “It's a sad day when anyone in Canada gets to the point where they need to plan for their safety at a city hall.”

That planning may have already begun to happen, according to Global’s Waksman, who insisted his employee was not merely bumped or shoved.

“He was punched,” Waksman said.

The way Global tells it, after an urgent meeting with Toronto corporate services officials at city hall Thursday afternoon, the man who Ford recently hired as his driver/security guard and is seen on the videos in the melee has been “reassigned.”

“We were also told that [the] mayor’s office has been informed they will no longer be allowed to hold press conferences in the members’ lounge that was the scene of [the] incidents,” Waksman said. “Mayor Ford will have to use larger areas—such as the council chambers—that allow for more people and room for journalists and their equipment.”

It’s not clear if more changes at city hall could be made, such as restricting access to accredited members of the media only.

That would take away the teachable moments; many journalism schools are sending their students to participate in the city hall scrums and practise real-life reporting. CBC's Steve D'Souza nicely asked me to make sure my Centennial College journalism students, who were tweeting and blogging Wednesday’s council meeting for the Toronto Observer, didn't get in the way of working journalists.

Macy urged the city’s corporate security team or the Toronto police to take over the mayor's security, instead of relying on private contractors, much like the Secret Service does for the president in the United States.

For Global News, the issue is far from being resolved. It is looking for “a full explanation and apology to our journalist,” Waksman wrote, adding they don’t want this incident to remain an “inside baseball” story that is too easily dismissed by other news organizations working out of city hall.

“Protecting journalists, whether in a war zone or at city hall, is crucial in supporting free expression and reporting news in the public interest,” Waksman said.

Rodrigues said this is an opportunity for both sides—the media and the mayor—to reflect on the hostility that is colouring the daily coverage, from the mayor calling the media “maggots” to some in the media scrums yelling out questions in an aggressive tone.

Video courtesy of Centennial College journalism student Samira Mohyeddin

“The animosity between this particular mayor and the media hasn't helped the deterioration of the situation at Toronto City Hall,” Rodrigues said. “That people were injured perhaps provides an opportunity for all to examine their conduct. Journalists' role in a healthy democracy is a vital one and deserving of respect.”


Ellin Bessner is a broadcast journalism professor at Centennial College in Toronto. 



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