Blog by John Miller

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Ford vs. Star

Somebody -- either the Toronto Star or Mayor Rob Ford, it's not clear who -- declared war on the other some time ago, and now things are getting very, very silly.

The latest shot in a campaign that has escalated into farce came when the mayor detected a "trespasser" behind his house after 7 p.m., and ran out to find it was Daniel Dale, one of the Star's city hall reporters. Tempers ran high, police were called to investigate, and Ford followed it up by demanding that the paper reassign Dale -- or else he will cut all media off from all news about city hall. "I will not be talking to any reporters if he's part of that scrum. They have to take him out of City Hall," Ford told a radio program.

That's not likely to happen but, really,  this has already gone way too far.

It's hard at this point to know who's telling the truth -- the accounts of the protagonists differ widely. Ford says Dale was trespassing, but the Star denies it and says Ford came running at Dale on public parkland with his fists clenched. Dale went online with his own explanation of the confrontation and said: "Usually, it is the media chasing Mayor Rob Ford. I never expected Mayor Ford to chase me. Nor to fear for my safety in his presence."

It does raise the serious question of where today's news media should draw the "line" between the public interest and the right of an elected politician to have a private life. But, really, picking the winner in this contest is like deciding who's the second most obnoxious bully in the schoolyard.

The Star claims Dale (who has won a number of awards for his reporting) had a legitimate news reason for being there, although I think that is debatable.  Earlier that day, he learned that Ford and his wife, as private citizens, had asked the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to sell them a parcel of TRCA land adjacent to their house. Ford said he wanted the land so that he could erect a better fence to prevent young people from trespassing on his property and to protect his children.

Ford claimed the land was vacant, although a conservation official told Dale it was actually a sliver of city-operated parkland that had mature trees. Dale then did something that's all too rare in this age of downsized newsrooms -- he went to the site to verify what he was told. "I decided that I needed to visit the property to see what it actually looked like. I also wanted to see if Ford’s home already had a fence. And I wanted to see where the land was actually located; the TRCA’s map was confusing."

Is that newsworthy? It's unusual for any private citizen to try to buy conservation area land, and Ford's position as mayor raised possible issues of improper influence. But it's not clear anyone other than the Star was concerned about that. 

Dale's problems started when he went to the wrong part of the park -- directly behind Ford's backyard. He said he arrived sometime after 7:30 p.m. "I walked around the parkland toward the mayor’s property. I took note of the trees, then, standing perhaps 10 metres from his wooden backyard fence, emailed an additional two sentences to my editor at 7:47. My phone died as I tried to snap photos of the trees and the fencing....I can say this with certainty: I never came close to entering his backyard."

That's when Ford, who appeared to Dale "extremely agitated," accosted him. The fence at the back of his property is 6 feet high, and Ford admits that he didn't see Dale himself but was alerted by his next door neighbour and ran around to investigate.

According to Dale, Ford yelled: “Hey buddy. What are you doing? Are you spying on me? Are you spying on me? Are you spying on me?”

Here is what Dale says happened next:

"I shouted, astonished, that I was not – that I was writing about his attempt to buy TRCA land. He began to approach me at a brisk walk, asking again, at an escalating volume, if I was spying. I continued to plead that I was writing about the land. At some point, perhaps 10 or 15 seconds into the encounter, he cocked his fist near his head and began charging at me at a full run. I began pleading with him, as loud as I could, with my hands up, for him to stop. I yelled, at the top of my lungs, something like, 'Mayor Ford, I’m writing about the land! I’m just looking at the land! You’re trying to buy the TRCA land!' Instinctually, I also reached into my pocket to grab my dead phone. I then fiddled with my voice recorder, trying fruitlessly to turn it on so that I would have a recording of any physical violence.

"At some point, perhaps two metres away from me, the mayor did stop moving toward me, but his face remained menacing, and he continued to cock his fist and shake it. 'Drop your phone!' he demanded, shouting louder than I have ever heard him. 'Drop your phone! Drop your phone now!' ... I became more frightened than I can remember; after two or three attempts to dart away, I threw my phone and my recorder down on the grass, yelled that he could take them, and ran."

Here is Ford's version:

"I ran around and I caught him. He just went nuts, he dropped his cellphone, he dropped his tape recorder. I said, 'What are you doing here?' He started screaming, 'Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!' I think he thought he was going to die but I didn't touch him. (But) I'm not going to tolerate people taking pictures of my kids and my family in my backyard."

(Ford later took reporters behind his property and said the Star journalist was standing on cinder blocks outside his rear fence. He said the reporter was leaning over the fence taking pictures towards his house.)

I think I believe Dale's account of what happened, and that no trespassing was involved. Ford would be more convincing if he made public any video or audio evidence, especially any from the equipment Dale left behind, but the mayor's brother, Councillor Doug Ford, says that's not going to happen. “As far as we are concerned, the police have seen it, we don’t need to prove that he was there, Daniel Dale admitted he was there, Rob caught him there, the neighbours saw him there."

Pressed on that point, Doug Ford said a curious thing, apparently describing either what some of Dale's footage showed, or what the mayor's own household security camera (apparently he has at least one) filmed: “You can see his head bobbing up and down behind the fence, it’s a distance from the cameras to the fence, but you can see distinctly his head bobbing.”

How, I wonder, is it possible to see Dale's head bobbing up and down behind a fence on a video that he shot himself from the park? On a cellphone he says was out of juice?

Or, if it was from the mayor's own security camera, why would he not make it public to prove exactly where Dale was standing?

Based on the available evidence, it is very unlikely that the Star did anything illegal. I doubt police will find any reason to lay charges. But the Star, in my opinion, was deliberately provocative in choosing to snoop around the mayor's home after dinner when he was likely at home. Given the bad blood between the paper and Ford, it probably knew the thin-skinned mayor's reaction would be violent, but went ahead with it anyway. That's bad judgment. That's picking a fight. And for what? A minor story that probably could have been held until the paper sought answers to its questions from someone during office hours.

There was no reason for the paper to provoke a confrontation or to invade the mayor's privacy.

The Star-Ford affair is now distracting us from far more newsworthy civic issues and, more importantly -- especially if Rob Ford is serious about his irresponsible threat to cut off the media -- it threatens to deny the public needed information about what's going on at city hall.

Ford has battled with the Star since the 2010 election campaign. The paper has filed a complaint against Ford with the city's integrity commissioner, alleging the mayor's office has refused to share press releases and other basic media information with its reporters. Ford has refused to speak to the Star since it printed a possibly erroneous story about a physical altercation between him and a football player he coached.

I have blogged about this before, saying this trivial feud has turned into the worst kind of tabloid journalism. The paper and the mayor need to stand back and take deep breaths.

Instead, the Star devoted most of its front page this morning to a minute-by-minute analysis of the incident involving Dale. It also spread the news across two pages inside and added a lead editorial and an over-the-top editorial cartoon. That, my friends, is tabloid overkill. Move on.

I'm afraid the only worthwhile lesson from this is a simple journalistic one: If you want to snoop out the mayor's house, send a bigger reporter, try to do it in broad daylight, make sure his BlackBerrry is fully charged, and order him to hang on to the sucker at all costs.

The other side: If you disagree with me and want to read someone who strongly argues the other side, please read this column by the great Royson James.