CTV News on McCaul St, 2013
CTV News on McCaul St, 2013 Credit: Seth Anderson / Flickr Credit: Seth Anderson / Flickr

As far as political stories go in Canada, this one was a bombshell — perhaps one of the largest in many decades.

On the evening of Jan. 24, 2018, four months before an Ontario provincial election, Patrick Brown’s world came crashing down.

One of Canada’s largest television networks, CTV, was about to publish a story quoting two anonymous women who claimed the man who was then-leader of the Progressive Conservative party of Ontario had plied them with alcohol and preyed on them sexually — one of them when she was an underage high school student. The allegations dated back 10 years to when Brown was a federal member of Parliament.

Instead of responding to a late call by CTV to give his side of the story, Brown summoned reporters to an impromptu press conference at which he denied the allegations, attacked the reporting and vowed to stay on as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party. Polls, after all, were saying the party had a good chance of winning the election and making him premier.

The move backfired. Within a few hours, four senior advisers quit his office and Brown was forced out as leader by his fellow caucus members and told he wasn’t welcome to run as even a PC candidate in the June election. Doug Ford, who replaced him as leader, became premier instead.

After licking his wounds, Brown responded by suing CTV for defamation, seeking $8 million for damage to his reputation. Last week, the two sides reached a settlement of the lawsuit, but it is a curious one that raises more questions than it answers.

The network announced that it “regrets” what it called “errors” in its reporting. “Key details provided to CTV were factually incorrect and required correction,” it said. There was no further explanation. We have no idea what the errors were. There has been no correction either. All that happened is that the online versions of CTV’s original stories have been tagged with a general statement of regret — not a correction — over those unspecified errors (plural). The main allegations of the two women still remain in every detail for anyone to read.

So what does CTV regret? “Any harm this may have caused to Mr. Brown,” CTV’s terse statement said. It’s a rather large understatement. Because of that story, Brown lost the chance to lead his party to an election win and become premier of Ontario. As concern over sexual harassment rose with the “Me Too” movement, he became one of the more prominent alleged perpetrators. He later won election as mayor of Brampton but he clearly is looking to clear his  name so he can pursue a much bigger stage.

It’s assumed that one of CTV’s “errors” was something its reporters found out and reported three weeks after the original story. One of Brown’s accusers admitted she was older than she first claimed, not a high school student and 19 instead of 18. However, she and CTV stood by the rest of her story—that Brown, who doesn’t drink, plied her with alcohol and offered her a tour of his home. According to her statements to CTV, Brown closed the door to his bedroom and dropped his pants and asked her to perform oral sex.

But if CTV found this out nearly four years ago, why is it only now expressing regret? And if its stories contained other errors, why is it not identifying them?

The second alleged victim, a one-time employee of Brown’s, told CTV that she was very drunk on the night in 2013 when she, Brown, who was then 35, and a friend went to Brown’s bedroom to look at pictures of his trip to Asia during an after-party for a charity event. She alleged the friend then left and that shortly thereafter Brown forced himself onto her.

You can still read her description of it on CTV’s website.

So what is troubling about CTV and Brown settling this lawsuit? First, it avoids a very expensive and very public libel trial that may have exposed weaknesses in both their cases. Reports are that no money changed hands in this settlement. Most likely, Brown felt he got enough to claim that the settlement exonerates him, even though we’re not clear about which facts are right and which are wrong. Brown this weekend tossed his hat in the federal Tory leadership race and doesn’t want to be encumbered with a messy court case.

CTV, on the other hand, gets to keep its stories in the public eye, full of the original details even though some of the stories carry the note of regret for errors. We are left to guess what those errors are, and CTV’s version of what it claims is a correction leaves me despairing for the erosion of journalistic standards of transparency and accountability.

And what happens to the women who came forward, turning to the media and not the police to tell their stories? CTV’s blanket admission of errors inevitably casts doubt on every detail of their ordeals. I see it as a shameful betrayal by CTV of their sources. 

I am often asked to give expert witness testimony in libel cases. Judges often want to learn what practices journalists follow to be “diligent” in their reporting of controversial stories that run the risk of damaging reputations. Unlike others who do such work in Canada, I am open to testifying at the request of either media outlets or plaintiffs because my interest is in defending good journalism and exposing the bad. I was not consulted in this case so I feel can comment here.

From what I know of CTV’s reporting, it rightly felt that reporting the allegations of the two women was a matter of public interest—the leader of a political party has been accused of sexual assault on the eve of an election. Whether it was “diligent” in pursuing that story is another matter, and would have been the key issue argued at trial. How carefully did CTV’s reporters verify the women’s stories? Did they give Brown, the person they accused, a fair chance to give his side of the story? In other words, did they try to interview him only once at the last minute, on the eve of publication, or did they make repeated attempts? When he did not get back to them, did they consider holding off on publication until they managed to reach him? When he called a press conference instead, did their story fairly represent his side? Did the CTV reporters have any conflicts of interest? Did their follow-up reporting cast doubt on any facts and how did CTV correct them?

I’m sorry there was a settlement out of court that left so many questions unanswered.

March 16, 2022 – Editor’s Note: It has been confirmed that no money was exchanged between Brown and CTV. Originally the article suggests this detail wasn’t disclosed. The article has since been updated.

John Miller

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy...