When the Media Crosses the Line

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Lloyd Fournier Lloyd Fournier's picture
When the Media Crosses the Line




Section 2(b) of the Charter states that “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: … freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

Over decades of accumulated case law  Canada has crafted a narrow path pertaining to freedom of expression and freedom from malicious harm.   There is a line which media dare not cross and still be able to rely on journalistic privilege. In case law, there is an  exception that those in  media must share a reciprocal responsibility to the journalistic privilege that they enjoy.  Any writer must protect his/her own integrity. (Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Jean de Grandpré Beetz, ).

More learned experts that this humble writer have not only taken the time to understand and weigh the basic understanding that what one writes and subsequently makes events public must meet certain widely accepted tests in order for the writer to claim the Charter rights highly valued by writers.

The media or any writer cannot rely on the Charter of Rights and insist that his/her  freedom of expression extends to vindictive personal attacks on any individual (even a public figure). Journalistic freedoms live within context of society itself and various competing values.

When a writer descends into the realm of sensationalism or selective storytelling, the writer does a disservice to all writers.  There comes a point when the entire institution of news gathering and news reporting becomes unreliable and suspect.

I have watched (carefully) the intense focus of one particular writer from the Toronto Star (San Grewal) who has mounted an onslaught of stories over a period of seven months targeting the Mayor of Brampton. I visited the Toronto Star web site and reviewed all Mr. Grewal’s “articles” (September 25, 2013 through March 08, 2014).  In that period, Mr. Grewal created and had published (in the Star) a total of 25 different articles pertaining to a “scandal” that I am honestly am left to believe is his own creation.

Mr. Grewal is not cautious in his use of what he claims to be “factual information”.  As an example, when Brampton’s Chief Administrative Office, John Corbett presented a preliminary (five pages only) report for Brampton City Council on Wednesday, March 06, 2014, the news of the report appeared the following day under the pen of San Grewal (Urban Affairs Reporter). Had Grewal been able to understand the report itself, he would have learned that Mr. Corbett was informing Brampton City Council that, at present there were various large capital projects at various stages of completion. The total of those 670  projects amounted to $766 million dollars.  Such things as roads etc. that the public relies on are not built without cost.  Mr. Corbett’s report went on the say that all of the projects had been approved by Brampton City Council at various earlier dates and provided an additional bit of information that would seem to be good news.  Apparently (in the total of $766 million in open projects) was a sum of $62 million that would never be used. It was surplus from previous projects that had been either completed or cancelled.

Mr. San Grewal quickly spun the story with a twist of sensationalism and it appeared in the Toronto Star on Thursday, March 06, 2014 under the (very misleading and sensational) headline “ Brampton reveals $704 million in unfunded projects”.  Needless to say, most people do not bother to read entire pieces such as those prepared by Grewal and panic set in.

I am left to wonder really how reliable Mr. Grewal is in his reporting.  In his zeal to fan the flame of rumor, has Mr. Grewal forgotten his journalistic duty to set aside personal bias?  Moreover, have the Editors at the Toronto Star forgotten the their own editorial guidelines?  Do the principles of fair reporting as set out by Joseph E. Atkinson no longer have a place at today’s Toronto Star?  Surely, as Atkinson said, “Good faith with the reader is the foundation of ethical and excellent journalism”. These policies also apply to freelancers.

In the quest to sell more copy has the Star forgotten the standards espoused by  . As the Star ’s former publisher Beland Honderich  who stated, “ If the Toronto Star does not live up to this responsibility in everything it publishes — in the newspaper, on its websites and through social media — we undermine our credibility with the public”.

I need only look again at Mr. Grewal’s reporting of the Brampton City council meeting of Wednesday, April 09, 2014.  Grewal managed to get his latest musings onto the front page of the morning paper the next day (today, April 10, 2014).  I did not attend the meeting but did PVR the entire meeting and carefully played and replayed various parts compared to Grewal’s reporting.  Not only did I walk away from  Grewal’s version of the council meeting with (more than a little) reasonable apprehension of bias on Grewal’s part, as he had brushed aside huge amounts of relevant data that was disclosed and simply ignored detail that did not support his story line.

For example, Grewal completely ignored that one member of City Council (John Sanderson) was sanctioned for using office expense accounts in aid of his own campaign for mayor.  In that case, Sanderson had been a frequent contributor to Grewal’s articles criticizing the Mayor .  Such an omission (of Sanderson’s transgression) certainly leads to feelings that Grewal is biased.

I have kept the PVR and invite others who believe that they can rely on Grewal as their eyes to contact me.  I will gladly sit with any of them and watch the proceedings as we compare it to Grewal’s version of the events.  Absent entirely from today’s front page story was vast amounts of quite damaging information pertaining specifically to three of Grewal’s often quoted sources in his previous two dozen articles. Moreover, Grewal’s own writing style breaks a number of the Star’s own editorial guidelines such as a requirement to disclose when part of any story is opinion and to refrain from flagging parts of a story that the writer happen to not agree with.

It is my observation that among Grewal’s 25 earlier articles, the names of three (3) Members of Brampton’s City Council most frequently appear as quoted sources of verifying quotes used by Grewal.  Watching those three individuals as they fumbled and stumbled through rather desperate attempts to discredit Fennell, I am quite surprised that Grewal could glean reliable quotes from any of them. In fact, the onslaught from the three of Grewal’s favorite verifying sources was at time almost comical.

An upcoming forensic audit has been scheduled for all of Brampton City Council. Nothing that Grewal has written about to date is more than his own speculation fueled by quotes from individuals who have interest in discrediting the Mayor of Brampton.  When/if the audit gives Fennell a clean bill of health, will we expect anything more than a small retraction notice published deep in the front section of the news?  When/if others (including some of Grewal’s favorite sources inside City Council are cited for waste and inappropriate spending I wonder if those stories will also become front page news. 

Grewal frequently uses the term “the Star” to represent his actions and I am amazed that editors have given him such authority as to attribute his opinions as being those of the Toronto Star.  Joseph Atkinson would roll over in his grave were he to witness the freedoms extended to Grewal by the Star’s Editors.

With freedoms and rights comes responsibility for the media to be accurate, fair, honest and transparent.  In its landmark 2009 decision on responsible communication in the public interest, Canada’s highest court asserts this principle: “Freedom does not negate responsibility. It is vital that the media act responsibly in reporting facts on matters of public concern, holding themselves to the highest journalistic standards.”      

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