This week Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale started legal action against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. At issue are comments Ford made about Dale in two separate media interviews. "I believe it's clear to any reasonable person that [Ford] was insinuating that I'm a pedophile or some sort of predator that has an undue interest in children," Dale told CBC Radio's Metro Morning. In both interviews, Ford, referencing a May 2012 incident, insisted that Dale had leaned over Ford's fence and taken pictures of Ford's children. When police investigated at the time, they found no evidence that Dale was on Ford's property or looking over his fence.
If what Ford has been saying about Dale is untrue, as Dale insists, then I don't blame the reporter in the least for initiating legal action in an effort to protect his reputation. However, I do have to take issue with his insistence that it's perfectly fine for him to remain on the city hall beat for the Star while he does so. A reporter should be as impartial as possible, which given human nature is perhaps often not as possible as we'd like. Still, it's not unreasonable to ask that a reporter covering any particular beat should at least have no obvious conflicts with the regular subjects he's reporting on. And there are few conflicts more obvious than being on the other end of a lawsuit with someone. There is no way Dale can provide objective coverage about Rob Ford at the same time that he's suing him.
That neither the Star (Star editor Michael Cooke has said Dale will "of course" stay in his role at city hall), nor Dale seems to understand this is troubling.
"Why would [Dale] be punished because the mayor has chosen to make vile and baseless accusations against him?" Cooke asked. Which is entirely the wrong question. It's not a matter of punishment. It's a matter of objectivity -- and the appearance of such. It's about serving readers and maintaining reasonable standards of journalism. In other words, it's not about Dale. The fact that the only sensible result here entails Dale having to temporarily leave "the work [he] love[s]" is unfortunate, but not outrageous. That's how maintaining neutrality works.
If a judge sitting on the bench has a case come before him involving a defendant who has previously assaulted the judge, we expect the judge to recuse himself. The conflict of interest, if not real then at least perceived, is too great. It doesn't matter if the judge really wants to hear the case because it involves fantastically interesting legal questions, or if the judge happens to be (as Dale explains of himself) an "exceptionally even-keeled person" determined "not [to] let this affect my job." And it doesn't matter that it was the defendant who assaulted the judge and not the other way around. A conflict's a conflict. Even if the person conflicted out of the situation did nothing wrong.
For the sake of journalism's reputation, I hope it's an understanding Dale and the powers at be at the Star arrive at soon.
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