What, you may well ask, is left to say about Robert Bruce Ford, sixty-fourth and current mayor of the city of Toronto?
I start Ford columns in the past. But after I get past “oafish” and “brutish” and “human and political train wreck” and “he’s the moral equivalent of a pubescent boy caught stealing his sister’s underwear and denying it” I can’t find anything particularly new, different and insulting to say that hasn’t already been better put by some other journalist.
So I write about other things instead.
Then I go to the Newsana debate in Toronto. (According to its website, “Newsana is an online community of experts and thought leaders who share, discuss and work together to choose the five most essential news stories and ideas of the day on the topics of their expertise.”)
Headline for the gathering:
“Toronto’s Watergate? The inside scoop on how the media exposed Rob Ford.”
Two of the key players in the Ford saga — Toronto Star Editor Michael Cooke and Star City Hall reporter Robyn Doolittle — are up there on the platform. With them are Greg McArthur, Globe and Mail reporter, and Andrew Coyne, National Post columnist. A fine balance of newspapers leftish, centreish and rightish.
Newsana co-founder Ben Peterson moderates. Here are some highlights, condensed and edited:
Peterson: Do you think the fact that the left-leaning, Rob Ford-attacking Toronto Star broke this story has diminished the impact of the underlying allegations?
Coyne: I think for any fair-minded observer, whatever suggestion there might have been that you give credence to that, melted pretty quickly under the facts. Clearly The Star had the goods on the story, clearly this was a major story. You’re now left with the hard-core delusionals frankly.
Cooke: The spittle and the phlegm directed at us like a fire hose kept going for months and only slowed down appreciably when (Toronto Police) Chief Blair said ‘I have seen the (crack-smoking) video and it matches what Robyn and Kevin Donovan (who wrote the stories with Doolittle) saw’.
Up until then, we endured about half a million dollars worth in lost business and subscriptions from Ford Nation when the two brothers with their cotton candy, disgraceful radio show on CFRB urged everyone who would listen to them to cancel their business with The Star. We endured that for months and months and Robyn herself and everyone connected with it were called maggots and liars.
Doolittle: (On the crack-smoking video) It’s crystal clear. It’s daylight. He’s right in front of a camera. When you actually see the video it makes your heart stop.
Coyne: Politicians in general, successful ones, are pretty good at manipulating people’s emotions. Pretty good at appealing to your best or your worst instincts. If they are people who are up to no good and they have those skills, they’re very good at addling people’s ability to think things through and they appeal to all these decent instincts we have.
Who are we to judge? The presumption of innocence? Well, the presumption of innocence is a legal concept about not convicting somebody and throwing them in jail. It doesn’t require us all to be deaf, dumb and stupid.
As if The Star is going to commit its entire good name and the names of the people involved in this to a fiction, to a fraud? And yet people wanted to withhold judgment. That’s what Ford has been able to play upon. This is a real difficulty we have as a democracy. It all kinda relies upon decent chaps running things. And if decent chaps don’t turn out to be decent chaps then we’re kinda flummoxed, particularly if they never actually do the decent thing and say ‘you got me, it’s a fair cop!’
Doolittle: One of the things I’m really interested in is where the public is sitting right now in terms of their trust in the media. I was surprised, even slightly devastated when polls showed that forty-five percent of the city didn’t just have questions about the accuracy of the story. Forty-five per cent believed that this was a hoax! The idea that people might think that a newspaper, with all its editors and lawyers, would sit around and (lie) … was just astonishing to me.
Cooke: (On buying the crack-smoking video) Here’s the problem. First of all, their opening bid was a million dollars (Shrugs helplessly). Then it came down to a couple of hundred or a hundred (thousand). We felt we had to be in the purchasing game so we could see the video. And we knew that we wouldn’t see the video unless they thought we might buy it. The reason we didn’t get into the game of buying the first video is that we could not give money to drug dealers who might buy drugs or guns with it. We could not do that.
The second video is easy. The mayor tried really hard to suppress the first video. We know that. The mayor’s thugs went out and tried to suppress it. We know that. Once we saw the second video we thought, OK. That’s only five thousand and we were pretty sure it wasn’t going to bad people and we thought if we don’t get it maybe that video will disappear too.
Coyne: To simply say as some people might, oh, no never, we will never sully our hands with paying for use … I think we can all think of Canadian examples of stories that were so important to public interest. People hand us information that they probably shouldn’t have handed us. They’ve broken some kind of rule, and we’ve gotta look at that and say OK, is it in the public interest that this come out? And if you can make that case and live with your conscience afterwards, then I think you should. Publish and be damned…
Doolittle: (On involving the Ford family in the scandal) No-one uses Rob Ford’s family more than Rob Ford. Every single time he’s ever had an issue, he brings his children out. He always invokes that idea — I’m a father, I’m a good father, here are my children. He brought his wife out. He always uses his family.
Coyne: (On whether his columns have been too harsh on Ford) If the issue were just his difficulties with alcohol or even drugs, if it was just one of those conventional things … maybe. When it’s coupled with just massive lying on a grand scale, one time after another…
Anybody can mess up, anybody can in some cases even lie. It’s when you’re finally caught that you’re really tested because the really devious person then spends the next six months to a year twisting our ability to figure out whether they were caught or not. The most fundamental thing is you’re dealing with a guy who’s hanging out with a lot of really nasty, violent criminals. And if we don’t think that’s grounds for removing somebody from public office, I don’t know where we’re at as a society.
Peterson: It’s been ordered that all the police documents will be released, December 6 maybe. What are you expecting to find in them?
Cooke: I know what’s in them and they’re stunning. (Long pause as everyone considers this). There’s more of the same, plus it all ratchets up one big level. (Another long pause).
Peterson: Seems like since the crack video allegation first came to light, Rob Ford’s behavior has been getting more and more erratic. Do you think it’s safe to say that he’s lost his shit?
Doolittle: I don’t think anything Rob Ford does is entirely by accident. I mean, he’s a human barometer if you will, of what can go over well with the public.
Coyne: I am not one of those who thinks it’s impossible he could get re-elected. He’s got 11 months now when he doesn’t have much in the way of duties. (Laughter) He can go out and campaign pretty much full time. He’s got a narrative now… doesn’t have to be true … that the moment I leave office they start trying to raise your taxes.
And people love to give people second chances. People love the guy who takes a licking, keeps on ticking, won’t give up. He taps into a lot of this in our psyche. So in a crowded field where you only have to get 30 per cent or whatever to win … we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think he can do it.
Doolittle: He might run from jail. I’m not joking.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on Dec. 2, 2013: Was Rob Ford Really Toronto’s Watergate?