In a country like ours, freedom of the press can sometimes conflict with other fundamental tenets of our society such as fairness and respect for due process. Journalists push those boundaries, and often do so in the high-minded name of the "public interest." However, rights -- even Charter rights -- do come with responsibility.
The case of John Furlong is instructive. Former president of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee, Furlong has been subject of serious allegations first published in the Georgia Straight. The story featured sensational accusations that he engaged in all manner of inappropriate, and possibly illegal conduct decades ago. Furlong adamantly denied the allegations and has sued the publication and the reporter for defamation.
In response to Furlong's action, defendants piled on by filing even more astonishing allegations. Once again, they were reported and immediately became national news. And again, Furlong issued a statement rejecting it all and looking forward to his day in court.
Most consumers of news believe what they read. Yet, none of these claims have been backed-up with evidence, tested under cross-examination, or in any fashion proven in a court of law. Quite the contrary, and they have nothing more than the full weight and legitimacy of a salacious rumor. That's it.
Nevertheless, it is treated as bombshell "news," and reported as such. None of that seems to matter to the media who "report" unsubstantiated accusations as "news." Even worse, they pretend -- or at least may have convinced themselves -- that repeating them is somehow in the "public interest." What public interest is possibly served by publicly humiliating a man without knowing what the truth really is? How can we find it acceptable practice to cause harm to a man and his family by publishing unsubstantiated accusations?
I don't know John Furlong -- I have never met the man. What I do know is that once again, without knowing the facts, the character and hard-won reputation of a human being is being ripped to pieces and likely irreparably damaged. What is happening to Furlong is a nothing less than a public lynching. The damage to him and his family is significant. Who will ever run into him and not wonder: Is this true? This cloud is enough to dramatically impact his career prospects and professional economic value, not to mention his health.
Blair Wilson, the former MP for the federal riding of West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, and his family continue to live the same nightmare.
Following the death of Wilson's mother in law, Norma, his wife Kelly found herself in a financial dispute with her stepfather, William Lougheed, who was also the executor of Norma's estate. The matter did not involve Blair Wilson directly. He was never a party to it; it was between Kelly and Lougheed.
A reporter with the Vancouver Province, Elaine O'Connor, was tipped about the issue and called Wilson for comment. Wilson told her reporter that this was not a public matter, but a private one. "This is a Lougheed family matter between my wife and her stepfather and at this emotionally difficult time the family is trying to work through it," he was quoted as saying.
That didn't stop O'Connor. She stitched together a salacious story published over two days that portrayed Wilson -- a sitting Member of the House of Commons -- as an incompetent businessman, a philanderer, and a cheat. The sources for the story were Blair Wilson's political opponents -- both within the Liberal and Conservative parties -- and his father-in-law, William Lougheed. Not long after this was published, Wilson was expelled from the caucus of the Liberal Party of Canada.
In the case regarding Norma Lougheed's will, Madam Justice Ballance of the British Columbia Supreme Court awarded a judgment and costs in favour of Kelley Wilson against Lougheed. In her judgment, Balance wrote: "Mr. Lougheed had breached his fiduciary duties." She called Lougheed's behaviour "reprehensible conduct" as executor of his wife's will. She termed his financial claim against Kelly Wilson "flimsy," "reckless," and with an "ill-conceived personal sense of entitlement to misappropriate proceeds from the estate." In her penultimate finding, Justice Balance wrote: "I find that Mr. Lougheed had a vendetta to grind Ms. Wilson and her husband into the ground."
Rarely does one read "we got it wrong" stories on the front page. They are buried deep in corners of newspapers, as this one was.
In a separate defamation case, now slowly making its way through the court system, Blair Wilson has sued Lougheed, the Vancouver Province, their reporter, and numerous political operatives. What is on the public record in numerous preliminary court decisions in that case so far is a story of personal retribution and political intrigue. The Wilson cases seem to show that for financial and political reasons the dispute between Kelly Wilson and her adoptive father was a perfectly justifiable rationale to politically assassinate Blair Wilson. The media appeared all too ready and willing to become a key accomplice.
In our system and as fair and decent people, all accused are entitled to the benefit of the doubt, and all are innocent until proven guilty. Yet, the tragic reality is that John Furlong, Blair Wilson and others like them, are guilty in the court of public opinion irrespective of the facts, the evidence, the truth, and a judgment rendered by a court of law years later. At its core, this is prejudicial, unreasonable, decadent, and wrong. It is also fundamentally un-Canadian.
Our bedrock principles are under assault. If we're not careful, Canada will become a reality show culture where public figures irresponsibly, maliciously and indiscriminately become target practice. And we cannot afford less good people involved in our public life.