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Toronto's Dangerous Mayor

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In electing a mayor, Toronto got a child, or worse. Children are innocent, but our mayor is becoming dangerous. It's no longer about library closures or cutting services. Heightened debate about policy and differing views on how to balance a budget were expected.

The recent revelation is that Rob Ford is holding the Toronto Star hostage by refusing to speak to it and provide it with news releases. The paper claims his staff are actively attempting to keep it in the dark on media stories provided to all other outlets covering Toronto City Hall, highlighting a dangerous abuse of power threatening to erode fundamental societal foundations. (Ford has since denied freezing out the Star.)

Being mayor is not child's play. It is not a mandate to be petty or vindictive. Its office does not come with impunity.

Rob Ford is mad at the Toronto Star for a story they ran during last year's mayoral campaign about his time as a high-school football coach. Until the Star runs an above-the-fold apology on page one, there is an official ban on all communication from his office with that paper, the Star said.

As John Honderich, the chair of the board of the Torstar Corp. said, that's entirely the mayor's prerogative; Rob Ford has no duty to speak to anyone. However, when his staff attempt to hold secret briefings away from the Star, it's another matter. Add to this that the mayor's allies in city hall prevented a motion from passing that would have guaranteed all media outlets equal access to press releases from his office.

What's next for Toronto? Why don't we just close down all press and open an official propaganda office so that Mayor Ford won't have to worry about who writes what about what he is doing with other people's money in a city he shares with millions? The Chinese do it. North Korea seems to be OK at it. Soviet Russia must have left notes behind on how to run a propaganda office.

Oh wait. We live in Canada; you can't do that.

I'm sorry Mayor Ford. I know you're angry at the Toronto Star, the readers of which aren't particularly fond of you. And that particular story wasn't very flattering. But guess what? Tough luck. You don't get to play kingmaker; you don't get to bully your way through this.

Such actions are an assault on freedom of the press, which is protected under the umbrella of freedom of expression in section 2(b) of Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court has affirmed that section 2(b) includes the right to receive information pertaining to public institutions, and that the press has a role to play in the realization of this right.

It is one thing for Rob Ford not to talk to the Star. Even filing a suit for libel is within his rights. He did that, but then never followed through. However, controlling access to information denies Torontonians the very rights that permitted him to reach the office he now holds.

Allies of the mayor and supporters of this move who see the Star's coverage of city hall as so utterly one-sided and disdainful of anything Rob Ford that they sympathize with his plight either don't see the big picture, or worse, don't care.

First, there is the assault on Charter-protected freedoms, which I won't belabour. The Star article contains comments by representatives of media outlets and press galleries coming to its defence. Chris Rands, president of the Ottawa press gallery, specifically references the Charter:

The right to free speech guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes the right to gather information. Barring reporters from access to information from public institutions diminishes values Canadians hold dear.

Second, Toronto has a mayor who thinks this type of behaviour is permissible. A grown-up, a mayor no less, feels he is entitled to behave like a child who won't stop crying until he gets his way, no matter what he breaks by banging his fists in the process. Many will say, "I told you so." But this is a new low.

The abuses of power emanating from Toronto City Hall have to stop. Toronto faces immense challenges in the years to come, challenges that require serious thinking from serious people. The solutions to those challenges will only succeed if they are the product of a genuine discussion between viewpoints. One of the most assured means of generating this discussion is through various media outlets and mediums.

It is not for Rob Ford to control that process. This is everyone's Toronto, not his.

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