My attempt to de-escalate the prolonged effort to crucify Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (in which, admittedly, he often has participated himself by his outrageous antics) seems, to the intense frustration of its perpetrators, to be succeeding. Unfortunately, the mayor's most vicious media critic won't admit defeat without first dragging the issue into the court system, all the while engaging in a crude hate campaign against selected targets, including me.
As co-host of the Vision Channel television program Zoomer, I invite people to sit down with me in civilized conversation, which often included unwelcome questions. But I do not conduct an antagonistic debate. This is a format that viewers seem to enjoy, and it was on this basis that guests -- including Mayor Ford, last week -- have agreed to speak with me.
On the opening subject, the range of embarrassing and improper incidents and utterances that has mired the Ford regime in controversy, the mayor volunteered that he had done and said many "stupid, silly, juvenile" things, made an awful fool of himself, and embarrassed the city; and he unreservedly apologized for it.
From there, the conversation proceeded in a relaxed way. We discussed his renunciation of drink and drugs, and his determination never to be involved again in any such incident as those that have generated this crisis in his career. He spoke of his daily, early-morning work-outs at the gym, and the weight that he has lost and intends to lose. I asked him about his claims to having reduced the city's expenses, with the very well-researched analysis of the Toronto Star's Daniel Dale in my hand; the information, which I quoted to the mayor, effectively whittled his claim from $1-billion of savings to $638-million (still a very respectable accomplishment).
I also invited him to speculate on the motives of the chief of police, Bill Blair, in openly expressing disappointment with the mayor personally and thereby serving as an apparent ally in the Star-led attempt to brand the mayor as a criminal and substance-abuser who is unfit for public office. As the chief should know better than anyone, such designations require the application of due process, not just inflammatory denunciations in the media. (Mr. Ford suggested that the chief was annoyed because the mayor had cut $21-million of spending requested by the police.)
I asked the mayor which episodes of his many abrasions with the media had been most upsetting to him, and he said that the worst provocation to date was when Star reporter Daniel Dale was reported to the mayor (by a neighbour) to be lurking behind the mayor's house in a location that might allow Mr. Dale to observe his two young children at play in their back yard. Mr. Ford said that he found this very intrusive and worrisome, and wondered at the stranger's motives. I took this to mean that Ford was uncertain of what he was dealing with until he saw that it was a journalist; and that he considered Mr. Dale to be unacceptably nosy, but there was no thought that Mr. Dale himself was himself a deviant.
Mr. Dale has denied almost every aspect of the mayor's account, and the mayor has reaffirmed his version of these events. The gap between their versions is greater than can be explained by a legitimate good faith difference of recollection. They have accused each other of lying, and one of them is. Mr. Dale now has indicated that he will sue Mr. Ford on the basis of his comments on my show, with the support of his employer.
If the lawsuit does proceed, perhaps we will learn where the truth is. On the record to date, the rabid hostility of the Star to the mayor and its effort to force him from office in mid-term with no process at all except its febrile agitations and those of its claque of media allies, such as Marcus Gee of The Globe and Mail and Carol Off of CBC, does not arm the mayor's accusers with a presumption of truthfulness, even given the mayor's own frequent liberties with the facts.
Whatever the mayor's failings (and they are serious and he has confessed them, albeit with reluctance and in stages, but very unambiguously when I spoke with him), he is entitled to the formalities of fair and rigorous judgment that are assured to everyone in this society. The Dale matter, though important to the parties, is a sideshow.
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The mayor has invited the police and prosecutors to charge him if they have evidence of a crime, and he repeated the invitation in our conversation; yet they have not. If they have no case, there should be no question of the mayor vacating his office in mid-term. Those who have problems with the mayor's style (and there is plenty of room for such concerns) can wait for the 2014 election. The voters control this city, not the Toronto Star. And the attempt to end-run the electoral system is dishonest and a menace to democracy.
In a demonstration of what has become the imperious arrogance of the Star's editor, my former protégé Michael Cooke, he asked to see footage of my conversation with the mayor before it was approved for telecasting. (Naturally, he was turned down, as no outsider screens what we choose to telecast). As the show was being aired, Star spokespeople accused the mayor of implying that Mr. Dale was a pedophile. He did not, and none of us at the program interpreted his remarks in that way.
Mr. Ford's exact phrasing was: "I have little kids, and when a guy's taking pictures of little kids, I don't want to say that word, but you start thinking, you know, what's this guy all about?" The plainest meaning that can be ascribed to these words is that Mr. Ford was explaining his thoughts at the time, before he found out that the person lurking about his property line was a reporter, not a predator.
Anyone who has had small children knows the concerns of lurking strangers, and all of us who have been hounded unmercifully in our homes by the media know how unutterably provoking it is. The notion that the mayor had insinuated that Dale was a pervert was a confection uniquely of his colleagues at the Star, and he has his colleagues to thank for whatever stigmatization he feels he has suffered.
It has been my privilege to employ many thousands of journalists over four decades and four continents. I appreciate their talents and their qualities, and am fairly unfazed by most of their foibles; they perform an indispensably vital function. Occasionally, however, the media's lack of professional self-discipline spikes up into a societal problem that is more than just a mere nuisance, as it has on this occasion.
For reasons that are a mystery to me, but not one that has incited my curiosity very much, the Toronto Star has been unreservedly hostile to me at virtually every opportunity since the late Ken Adachi favorably reviewed my biography of Maurice Duplessis in 1977. Most of the time, it has been fair, if snide, comment, but sometimes not, and occasionally I have replied to it, in sharpish terms that usually produce an anodyne pause in the Star's bilious vituperation.
I find the Star a banal, middle-brow newspaper which is the bearer of some interesting traditions of reform advocacy and some lively writing; but in the current crisis of the industry and in the hands of its present and recent leadership it has atrophied, and is now like a decrepit Jurassic monster, with failing sight and palsied limb that yet comes snorting out of the undergrowth occasionally in pursuit of some misconceived or conjured cause. Some of the reporters are competent but most of the columnists are nasty, as dull as dried parsley, and many of them can't write. The whole quavering enterprise still purports to inflict "Star values" on its dwindling, probably unsuspecting readership, and from time to time this involves some mud-slinging against me.
As I saw, from email traffic and other indicators, this excrescent tide rising again on Tuesday night, I declined the importunings of a very courteous Star reporter to join in self-criticism for facilitating the mayor's alleged slur against its Mr. Dale; and for my own amusement, (the Star has never intentionally been any barrel of laughs) I did so in rather sharply formulated strictures. I was confident that the trashiest Star writers would be favoring me with their attention the next day, and I was not disappointed.
On Wednesday, Cooke unleashed his most fiercely braying columnist, Rosie DiManno -- a feminoid who is so disconcerted by my wife's timeless appearance that she refers to the frequent praise of her as a form of "necrophilia."
In her column, DiManno called me "a fool," "disgraced," (Brace yourself for salacity from the Star, that guardian of prudery) "fart-catching," a "shameless felon," "crooked" and a "Great Blovarian": Star values at their most eloquent current expression, from a coarse, vapid blunderbuss, complaining of imagined slurs on her colleague Daniel Dale. (The emissions from this malignant orifice were accompanied by a fatuous editorial and cartoon.)
I can take care of myself, but I want to emphasize one point: I am proud and not embarrassed at all to have been sent unjustly to prison; to have been able to help victims of the U.S. justice system when I was there; to have got the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the statute used against me; and to have collected $5 million, by far the largest libel settlement in Canadian history, from the sponsors of the prosecution, whom the Star used to quote regularly but doesn't anymore.
Mayor Ford will finish his term. The Star's attempted coup is collapsing, whatever happens to the Dale lawsuit; it's righteousness is hypocrisy and claptrap, as usual. The Star is a light that has failed.
*This article previously appeared in the National Post.