Transparency—the obligation to explain to your customers what you do —is a cardinal principle of journalism. It was violated in the last few days in two significant stories about Canadian politics, and I’m afraid it will take its toll on our trust in what journalists tell us.
Journalism is supposed to answer six questions: Who, what, when, where, why and how. It’s the “why?” that often goes missing in action and it certainly did in these cases.
The most significant breach involved a Toronto Star story Friday that revealed that John Tory, 68, the three-term mayor of Toronto, had an inappropriate affair with a 31-year-old junior staffer in his office. The relationship, begun during the COVID pandemic, ended sometime this year. The staffer in question, who was not identified, voluntarily left for another job and no longer works for Tory or the City of Toronto.
The story was true. Tory’s lawyer confirmed the relationship to the paper, the paper published its story an hour later, and an hour after that Tory called a press conference and stunningly resigned, apologizing to the city and his family for “a serious error in judgment on my part.”
His announcement, and the reason behind it, was certainly an important news story. But left unanswered was what led the Toronto Star to publish news of the affair in the first place. How did it justify revealing what many people would say was unwise and perhaps inappropriate but certainly not illegal or a matter of immediate public interest?l
The paper’s role in ending Tory’s political career ignited a debate across social media all weekend, most of it motivated by what people felt about Tory the man and not about the ethics of publishing the story. It left David Rider, the Star’s city hall bureau chief, somewhat baffled. He tweeted that “most of the hate mail I am receiving for breaking the Tory story appears to be from women. Not quite sure how to process that.” One of the comments he shared called it “a cheap lowlife piece of reporting.”
The Star chose to be completely silent about the ethics of what it did for three days. On Monday it published a podcast that answered some of the public’s questions but said nothing about any debate that went on at the paper’s highest levels before it went with the explosive story, which left the city it serves in political chaos. What made it decide that its reporting crossed the line that exists in most newsrooms between privacy and public interest? Was its decision justifiable?
The Star happens to be one of the few newspapers to still employ a public editor, who is supposed to act as the reader’s representative in the newsroom. A previous editor in that job, Kathy English, explained in 2018 why the paper has an ethical obligation to explain what it does to its readers: “Transparency means showing our readers that we are honest and principled in what we do, how we do it, and how we share it.”
I know this because 37 years ago I drafted the original version of the Toronto Star’s ethical guidelines that all reporters and editors are supposed to follow. A key paragraph in what is now called the paper’s Journalistic Standards Guide says: “Torstar (sic) news organizations should respect the rights of people involved in the news, be transparent and stand accountable to the public for the fairness and reliability of everything it publishes. Fair news reports provide relevant context, do not omit relevant facts and aim to be honest with readers about what we know and what we do not know.”
You could argue that a personal relationship between a powerful boss and someone he employs can blur the line between a consensual affair and sexual harassment. But the Star uncovered no suggestion of any lack of consent nor did it gather evidence that the affair interfered with Tory’s performance. Furthermore, Ontario has no rule against office affairs by public officials. The city of Toronto ethical rule cited in the Tory story is vague, and it’s possible to argue that Tory did not violate it. It says only that “members should perform their duties and arrange their private affairs in a manner that promotes public confidence and bears close public scrutiny.”
Without knowing the debate that went on behind closed doors at the Star, I would guess that its decision to publish rested on the rather thin argument that Tory’s bad judgment was the issue and that made it a matter of public interest. Certainly he has exhibited that in the past, starting with his disastrous campaign advice that cost Conservative Kim Campbell her prime minister’s job to his own decision to run for election as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader in an unwinnable seat. But many other politicians—the most notable being the very married former British prime minister Boris Johnson who moved into 10 Downing Street with his mistress—have survived sexual affairs.
The Star’s reluctance to explain itself to readers is a serious lapse, and mainstream journalism’s habit of not drawing back the curtain on important editorial decisions is a prime reason why it is losing trust and audience. Jordan Bitove, a neophyte to journalism, recently took over as the Star’s new owner and publisher. I am certain that the decision to publish must have been made at his desk. His lack of accountability to readers is a bad sign for the future of his paper.
But at least he chose to publish. It was a different story for his former partner, Paul Rivett, who seems to have made the opposite decision on another significant Ontario political story last week. It cost him the services of his editorial staff, who resigned to protest what they called editorial interference. “I can’t work for an organization where the owners interfere with the journalism,” Jessica Smith Cross, the editor-in-chief of Queen’s Park Briefing and iPolitics, wrote in her resignation letter last Wednesday.
She and reporter Charlie Pinkerton left when their publisher held up a story that lifted the veil on Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cozy relationship to land developers. The story came out the next day on Global News—that Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner had cleared Ford of wrongdoing after developers attended a stag and doe party for his daughter’s wedding. Smith Cross said on Twitter that questions from Pinkerton about the party had prompted the premier’s office to bring the matter to the integrity commissioner.
Smith Cross said that her publisher, Laura Pennell, told her that “the ownership had read Charlie’s story and wouldn’t allow it to be published in its current form.” The information in question about the developers, some of whom are affected by the Ford government’s controversial decision to open up parts of the Greenbelt for housing development, was accurate, fair and in the public interest, Smith Cross argued.
Most of us would agree that Ford sharing a table with developers who stand to benefit from his government’s actions is in the public interest, particularly when they were urged in writing to donate up to $1,000 each if they attended.
Smith Cross put her finger on the essential point. “People already assume too easily that they’re being lied to because of their perception of news owners’ and news outlets’ biases and interests,” she wrote. “I don’t want iPolitics to prove that cynicism right.” Quitting, she said, is the only tool ethical journalists have to fight against that.
The reaction of her bosses? Nothing from Rivett and vague boilerplate from publisher Pennell saying the story did not meet the publication’s standards.
What’s interesting in the two cases is the connection between the men who made the ultimate decisions to publish or not to publish. QP Briefing, which covers the Ontario government, is a publication of iPolitics. Until recently, iPolitics was owned by Torstar, the parent company of the Toronto Star.
READ MORE: The suicide pact that might sink the Toronto Star
Bitove and Rivett, neither of whom had any background in journalism, originally came together to buy Torstar and take the company private in 2020, in a deal worth $60 million. But their relationship eventually soured. Rivett sought a court order last year to dissolve their investment partnership, citing “irreparable” damage to his relationship with Bitove. The deal to divide up assets was finalized just last Wednesday. Bitove got ownership of the Toronto Star and Rivett got control of other assets, including iPolitics and Queen’s Park Briefing.
So the decisions each man made late last week about journalism were the first tests of their integrity and accountability as owners.
All I can say is that journalism deserves better. This is no time for amateurs.