Pay for it, I say
Of all the troublesome ethical dilemmas we have before us in the Rob Ford drug scandal, the least offensive one is for the Toronto Star to bite the bullet and purchase the videotape.
The alternatives are not good enough: (a) the video never surfaces and we don`t get a chance to judge for ourselves whether the mayor is a druggie; (b) it is purchased by a wealthy supporter of Ford and destroyed as a cover-up; (c) an online crowdsourcing campaign succeeds in raising $200,000 to buy the video and it is made public by Gawker, the celebrity gossip website that originally broke the story.
An argument for the Star to pony up the cash was made in its pages today by its most prominent local columnist. I happen to agree with Rosie DiManno on this point.
Getting in the way is a rather ironclad ethical standard the paper articulates in its Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide: "The Star does not pay for information."
That seems to say never. But, in fact, the paper has often paid what it calls "honoraria" to people who bring in video or photographs of events the paper has not been on the scene to record. So does practically every other newspaper that is serious about covering local news. The difference here is one of scale, not principle. There is even convincing evidence out there that the Star, at least to keep its sources engaged, has already talked money with the drug dealers who have the video.
My reason for condoning chequebook journalism in this case is that the public interest demands it. Smoking crack cocaine is illegal and this is the mayor of North America's fifth largest city. It may explain why the mayor has misbehaved in public lately. It certainly raises questions, if that is him in the video and he's doing drugs, about his judgment -- not only for consorting with drug dealers but for allowing them to play him for a fool. These are important things to know of a mayor who is actively seeking re-election next year.
Since news of the video became public, there's another reason too: The reaction of so-called Ford Nation, the suburban voters who elected him and so far are believing his ridiculous explanation that this is just a Toronto Star plot to discredit him. (This Sue-Ann Levy column in the Sun is a great example).
There are valid reasons for paying for information if the information is in the public interest. News media in North America have done it before. I have personal knowledge that the Star in the past has paid for access to news stories. Would we have moral or ethical problems if it had taken a little cash for news media to root out details of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, or Mike Duffy's bail-out by the Prime Minister's chief of staff? Of course not. It's the "greater good" argument: Society is better off for knowing, instead of not knowing. And Rob Ford would be better off getting help if he needs it.
If the video is going to be bought, I'd rather have its verification entrusted to the Star, a newspaper with a long and enviable record of careful investigative journalism and respect for the law. The reporters involved, Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle, are two of its finest. We have good reason to trust the Star to handle this right.
While it is too soon to know if Gawker`s crowdsourcing campaign will succeed in raising $200,000 by this time next week -- it is now at $89,362 and counting -- it lacks the journalistic resources to check it out. Certainly its initial story appeared to get several things wrong, including which Trudeau was allegedly the "fag."
So, Toronto Star, please serve your readers by going the distance on this one.