TORONTO – A video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ranting about killing someone is of “huge public interest” and relevant to the mayor’s character, the Toronto Star’s editor-in-chief said in explaining why the paper paid $5,000 for it.
“The issue is so big that to pose the question, ‘Why did you pay for it,’ … I don’t understand it,” Michael Cooke said in the wake of the explosive video’s release.
The video, published Thursday on the Star’s website, shows the mayor in a profane fury. The paper reported it was filmed on a cellphone at a Ford supporter’s home, where Ford had arrived “clearly impaired.”
Cooke couldn’t say if the paper’s earlier decision not to pay for a video that appears to show the mayor smoking crack cocaine factored in to their decision to pay for this one, but said he sometimes wishes the paper did buy that first video.
“The mayor is in front of us a day or so ago saying he’s nothing left to hide and he’s called…us all liars and maggots from the beginning when we reported two of our journalists seeing that video seeing the mayor smoking crack, or what we thought to be crack,” Cooke said.
“The mayor’s friends went to stunning lengths to find and suppress that video, we think, certainly we’ve written stories about it, and all the while he’s denied its existence so our feeling last night was that if we didn’t grab that video quick it might disappear.”
The Toronto Sun obtained a short clip of the longer video of Ford’s tirade, but reported that while it discussed the video with the “vendor,” it didn’t enter into negotiations to buy it.
The Star said it was told the money went to “the legal and beneficial use of a family.”
The amount the Star paid for the video is “consistent with fees paid by news organizations for exclusive videos or photographs,” the paper reported, and less than it has paid for some book excerpts, Cooke added.
“We paid for that video because of the huge, huge public interest both in Toronto and worldwide,” he said.
“We decided that the crisis at city hall makes it essential to get all the information relevant to the mayor’s true character and his views in front of Torontonians.”
Some readers expressed surprise or were critical on Twitter about the payment.
“Kinda disappointed the Star paid for that video,” one user tweeted. “That now becomes a story and debate in and of itself.”
“Apparently the star paid for the video,” another user tweeted. “Isn’t that against the ethics (of) journalism?”
Cooke said the decision wasn’t an unusual one because news outlets pay all the time for video, citing the example of a citizen who is the only one to capture footage of a plane crash.
Ivor Shapiro, the chairman of Ryerson University’s school of journalism, agreed, suggesting some of the criticism may stem from a long-standing taboo on “chequebook journalism.”
“Many news organizations do not pay subjects of stories for information that leads to a news story,” Shapiro said.
It would be unfair to call this a case of chequebook journalism, he said.
“First of all, I don’t know that we never pay for information anyway as journalists,” Shapiro said. “But even if there were a complete taboo against paying for information, the reason we don’t pay for information is because it taints the quality of the information. This does not apply as the video was made before.”
Chris Waddell, the director of the school of journalism and communication at Carleton University, said he thought paying for news was not a good practice to get into.
He raised the case of the widely seen video of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim being shot by police on a Toronto streetcar in July.
“I would hope, in other cases like the Sammy Yatim case, that people’s first thought is not, ‘Gee, how much could I make selling this video,’ (but), ‘It might be an important piece of evidence the public needs to know,” Waddell said.
“I would think (news outlets’) general interest would be for people to provide information for free, including video, rather than encouraging people to ask for money.”
The video appears to be filmed surreptitiously in a home, which leads to other ethical debates in the age of ubiquitous smartphones, Waddell suggested.
“How much do you want to know about the circumstances under which it was shot, or is it your view that just everything that happens to everybody everywhere all the time is available to be put up?” Waddell said.
“(Even) as a public figure are you allowed to have a public life and a private life?”