Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle have spent years observing Rob Ford.
The Toronto Star reporters covered the groping allegation, drinking accusations and the conflict-of-interest case that booted the Toronto mayor from office for a brief period.
But the journalists were not prepared for what they saw while seated in the backseat of a car in the north end of Etobicoke on May 3.
“I had no thought that I would see what I saw,” says Donovan, who has been with the Star for 29 years. “In my mind, it was not in the realm of possibility.”
On a high-definition iPhone, they watched a video that appeared to show the mayor smoking crack cocaine.
They watched the footage three times. It wasn’t shady or compromised. To the contrary, the man they believe to be Ford was in the centre of the shot, about five or six feet away from the camera, in a well-lit room.
The reporters took separate notes, then studied other videos of Ford. “I have spent three years watching this guy, listening to this guy non-stop,” says Doolittle. “The voice is very distinct, the mannerisms are very distinct.”
Says Donovan: “It was just so clear to me that I have no doubt.”
On Thursday, the Star published the story.
After receiving a tip about the video at the end of March, the paper went back and forth with a man who represented a man claiming to be Ford’s drug dealer, the owner of the video.
They say the men wanted a large sum of money in exchange for the clip — “in their dreams, $1 million,” says Donovan. If not that, at least $100,000. He and Doolittle were still working on convincing the pair to go public without payment, when Gawker, a U.S. website, broke the news Thursday evening.
“We had to make a decision … to write a story quite quickly,” says Donovan.
Earlier today Ford called the allegations “ridiculous” and one more example of the Star attempting to smear his reputation.
His lawyer, Dennis Morris, was quoted in the paper’s story saying, “How can you indicate what the person is actually doing or smoking?” just from a video.
A valid question, says Donovan. Typically journalists can corroborate allegations using evidence and on-the-record sources.
In this case, it wasn’t an option. “We described how the mayor was behaving, we described what we saw. So, without seeing any box of crack or anything like that, anything is possible. What we try to do is be as transparent as we can and explain what we saw.”
Christopher Waddell, director of the school of journalism at Carleton University, says no news organization reports such a story lightly. But “at some point the importance of what you’re going to report is greater in the public interest than the potential risk that you might face.”