Generally, Canada’s courts have been in favour of openness and have ruled in favour of the media’s social and moral duty to report openly on matters of public interest. So why is it that the media must continue to do battle?

By Sylvia Stead, public editor of The Globe and Mail

Last week, The Globe and Mail and other media published a story about the police investigation into a video that allegedly showed Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine.

The articles were based on an Information to Obtain (ITO), which outlines the reasons the police have for seeking a search warrant. In this case, the police alleged the video could “provide evidence of … drug possession against Robert Ford.”

This follows several ITO-based stories that said Mr. Ford was the focus of a long police investigation after the Toronto Star and the website Gawker reported on the original purported crack video. The earlier ITO included photos of meetings between Mr. Ford and Alexander (Sandro) Lisi, whom police refer to as a drug dealer in the document.

Two important things to remember: These are allegations, not something proved in court, and you wouldn’t even know about them, had the media not gone before a judge and asked.

The issue is the public’s right to know about elected officials, important police investigations and our justice system. In the case of this ongoing story, lawyers representing The Globe and Mail, CTV News, CBC, Toronto Star, Shaw (Global TV), Postmedia and Sun Media have been in court a dozen times, seeking – and gaining – public access to search-warrant material.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer has ruled in favour of the media arguments, in one case saying: “In terms of legal proceedings, it is hard to conceive of a matter that would be of more importance to the public interest, at this particular point in time.”

This is hardly the first time news organizations have pressed for such information. Several years ago, they argued for an open hearing on the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, the 19-year-old who choked herself to death at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007, as guards stood outside her cell and watched.

The Correctional Service of Canada sought a publication ban on more than 100 exhibits related to the case until the coroner’s jury reached a verdict. It sought to ban video footage of the incident even though the officers involved and Ashley Smith’s family wanted the footage released. Ultimately the Ontario Court of Appeal not only upheld the media’s right to access but also to be given copies of the exhibits. More recently, media lawyers argued against a publication ban in the case of the deadly mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ont.

The rulings have generally been in favour of openness. Other courts, such as the Supreme Court of Canada and the Ontario Court of Appeal, have ruled in favour of the media’s social and moral duty to report openly on matters of public interest. So why is it that the media must continue to do battle?

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