Blog by John Miller

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Go the distance

There are many tools in a journalist's drawer, and the Rob Ford drug scandal certainly justifies pulling out the sharpest ones.

Here you have the mayor of a large North American city, who was seen on a video apparently smoking crack cocaine, refusing to answer any questions from the media for more than a week and effectively calling the country's biggest newspaper a liar. "The video," he said on radio, "does not exist."

If that's his line in the sand, it's good enough for me. Let's get it on.

This is a story that has legs because it is no longer about whether he did or didn't once smoke crack. It's about his judgment, and his character, and his honesty. The video exists, or at least it did two weeks ago when two Toronto Star reporters saw it. But this is now a much bigger story, about how the mayor is handling himself and his job and whether there's a cover-up.

I'll go further than to call this just a "bigger story". It's an unprecedented one in Canadian politics.

It's going to take a lot more reporting before we know the answers. So it's important to remind ourselves about the standards the Toronto Star and other news media use to perform their most important job -- verifying information.

The so-called denizens of Ford Nation, the largely suburban voters who put Rob Ford in office, seem to accept Ford's contention that this is all a plot by the liberal Toronto Star to hound a conservative mayor out of office by any means possible, including making up stories. They have let the mayor define this as a class issue -- the friends of working people (the Fords, even though they drive Cadillac Escalades) challenging the "elites," which seem to include the media.

Let's tell the truth instead.

Rest assured, the Star did not make this up. It published news of the videotape in full knowledge of the legal risks because its reporters verified that it existed. They watched it three times. They then convinced their editors to publish it because they had every reason to believe the video was genuine.

It's not clear what commitment to the truth the Ford brothers and their followers share, but the Star's standards are published on its website. Its commitment to truth-telling in the public interest is articulated here:

"Good faith with the reader is the foundation of ethical and excellent journalism. That good faith rests primarily on the reader's confidence that what we print is true. Every effort must be made to ensure that everything published in the Star is accurate, presented in context, and that all sides are presented fairly."

Part of its commitment to truth is fulfilled by being aggressive in pressing sources to put information on the record. "The public interest is best served," the paper's principles say, "when news sources are identified by their full names." All you have to do is read the paper to know that, in 99 percent of cases, Star reporters attribute facts to named sources.

This case is an exception because the paper's sources do not wish to identify themselves for reasons we can probably all understand -- either because they might associate themselves with crime (such as trafficking in drugs) or else they have legitimate fears about losing access or their employment for talking about a powerful mayor.

The Star and other newspapers grant sources anonymity only as a last resort, and under tight restrictions. Doing so must be justified by news that is clearly in the public interest -- which this story most certainly is.

Newspapers generally do not allow anonymous sources to engage in ad hominem,attacks on other individuals. Information they provide must be corroborated independently, which the Star reporters did by insisting on seeing the video themselves. They also must divulge the identity of such sources to their editors, who must be satisfied that the sources are in a position to know, they are credible, and they have valid reasons for requesting anonymity. If they editors are not satisfied, they will not publish the information. They did.

The Star also has one of Canada's most experienced defamation lawyers, Bert Bruser, working in the newsroom. His hand was evident to me in the story that Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle wrote last week. It made clear exactly what the reporters did to verify information, and what the Star knew and did not know when it published.

This is important because the report was highly defamatory. If Rob Ford ever decided to sue the Star for libel, the paper would have to convince a court that it pursued the story according to the principles of responsible reporting. The Supreme Court of Canada has outlined what that consists of.

In all likelihood, anonymous sources will form an important part of stories to come, as reporters for all media outlets pursue the various threads of this unfolding civic drama. It is useful to be aware of how journalists are supposed to handle that information.

The Star's Newsroom Policies stipulate the following:

"Once a promise of anonymity is made, the Star protects its source, only revealing a source with that person’s permission.

"Published articles must explain why sources have been granted anonymity and why the Star considers them authoritative and credible. Sources should have first-hand knowledge of the information and this must be conveyed to the reader. 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."

So those are the ground rules. What are the prospects the video will surface for all to see?

The Star's policies say that the paper "will not pay for information," and that has been its position so far. But these are extraordinary times. The mayor has drawn a line in the sand, accusing the paper of making up a story. The only way to disprove that is to make the video public. If the only way to do that is to pay drug dealers a lot of money, then so be it. Doing so would be justified by the public interest. My only caveat is that, if there is evidence that crimes were committed in an attempt to cover up the videotape, the Star should wait and let police investigate.

Star publisher John Cruickshank told CBC the other day that the Star could reconsider its position on buying the video, saying there are "increasingly compelling legal reasons" to do so, and that it "may be the only way to get at a truth that the mayor will accept."

So do it if you need to. But expect us to hold you to your standards.