Ford brothers were offered many chances to respond to drug allegations: papers

TORONTO – Canada’s two largest newspapers defended their reporting of drug allegations against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his councillor brother Monday, saying they took every step possible to ensure the stories were accurate and fair.

The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail were called before the Ontario Press Council after dozens of readers complained about their coverage of the Fords in two specific stories published in May.

The council is looking into a Star story on an alleged video of the mayor smoking what appears to be crack cocaine, as well as a Globe story on his brother Doug’s alleged drug dealings.

It is weighing whether the two newspapers ”engaged in irresponsible, unethical investigative reporting.”

In two separate hearings Monday, each outlet argued it went to extraordinary lengths to verify the information obtained through anonymous sources, and repeatedly sought out the Fords to hear their side of the story.

Star reporters made at least 14 attempts to reach the mayor the night before the story was published, the Star’s editor-in-chief told the three-member panel.

They made phone calls, sent text messages and emails and even travelled to the mayor’s west-end home and that of his brother in an effort to get a response, Michael Cooke said.

Letters detailing the allegations also were left at both homes that night, the paper said.

Cooke said Ford — who did not attend Monday’s hearing — has yet to substantively address the allegations and has instead spent recent months “ducking and dodging” questions on the issue.

“Mayor Ford knows whether he smoked crack in that video or not,” and still owes Toronto “a full answer,” he told the panel.

The mayor has said he does not smoke crack cocaine and that the video does not exist.

Darylle Donley, whose complaint against the Star was chosen to represent several similar ones, attended the hearing but did not speak.

In an email to the council released to the media, she accused the paper of letting its distaste for the mayor’s policies taint its coverage.

She said the alleged video could easily be a fake, and the Star should have bought the footage it claims was being shopped around by drug dealers in order to back up the May 16 report.

Her accusations echo the Fords’ own arguments that they are being unfairly targeted by the media, particularly the Star. The mayor has publicly refused to speak to Star reporters.

Kevin Donovan, one of the main reporters on the case, told the hearing that any doubts he had about the alleged video’s authenticity vanished the minute he watched it.

And while the paper debated buying the clip, it feared the money would go toward guns or other nefarious ends, he said.

The complaint against the Globe focused on an article published on May 25 that alleged that Doug Ford had, in his youth, been a drug dealer in west-end Toronto. He has been dismissive of the allegations.

The main complainant, Connie Harrison, particularly took issue with the paper’s use of anonymous sources, which she said undermines the public’s trust.

“We don’t know who to believe at this point,” she told the panel.

Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse said the Globe had no choice but to rely on unnamed sources, since they were the only ones who could confirm the information.

The only other option would have been not to publish at all, but given the serious nature of the allegations — and Doug Ford’s political influence — that would have been “irresponsible,” Stackhouse said.

Reporters took great pains to test each source’s credibility, returning for several interviews during the 18-month investigation, he said. Some sources met with senior editors and the paper’s legal counsel as well, he added.

Both Fords were approached “numerous” times but declined to be interviewed, he said.

The council panel will determine whether the articles were in the public interest, whether the newspapers made adequate efforts to verify the accuracy of the allegations, and if the Fords were given a proper chance to respond.

It will also decide if the Globe was right to include other Ford family members in its story.

The council panel will deliberate in private. Its findings and recommendations will be presented to the full council later this month and its decision will be made public.

The parent companies of both the Star and the Globe and Mail hold an ownership stake in The Canadian Press as part of a joint agreement with the corporate parent company of Montreal’s La Presse.