Could all of Toronto media feel the effects of a 'Ford freeze?' Romayne Smith Fullerton, a professor of media studies at the University of Western Ontario, takes a look at the bigger picture behind Ford's dispute with Dale

By Romayne Smith Fullerton

The fight between Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale is bigger than a dust up in a public park.

It’s bigger, too, than the tittle-tattle about who said or did what to whom, or even what Dale was doing when he was in that public park behind Ford’s house in the evening of May 3.

Let’s remove the hyperbole and consider the larger issues.

Public officials are answerable to the public.

The news media—broadly defined—are the eyes and ears of the public.

It is an intrinsic part of the obligation of this public trust for journalists to act as legitimate watchdogs on those in positions of power.

Reporters have every right and responsibility to check out what elected officials are doing—in this instance, Dale’s inquiries into Ford’s attempt to purchase public land– and whether elected folks are using the powers of their office in fair and reasonable ways.

If democracy is to flourish, citizens must be well informed and conversant about all the issues in the public sphere.

We don’t need to agree on anything except for the requirement that factual information must be part of that discussion. Access to that information through public officials must be guaranteed.

But this premise is under siege.

And all reporters—regardless of which media outlet they represent, and what colour their organization’s political underbelly is—must stand together against any attempt public officials might make to drive the news agenda.

Last fall, in light of a Toronto Star story that Mayor Rob Ford found unflattering, he decreed he would no longer grant interviews to Star reporters.

Then he said his office would not send press releases to Toronto’s largest newspaper.

Currently, because of his dispute with Daniel Dale in a public park behind the mayor’s house, he is demanding that the city hall reporter be removed from his beat.

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Moreover, Ford  said he will refuse to speak to any media people if a reporter from the Star is present at a meeting or in a scrum.

Surely we can see that any of us could be victims of the “Ford Freeze.”  It’s an old technique of divide and conquer, and no reporter or media outlet should buy into it.

At present, the target is Daniel Dale—against a colourful backdrop of vitriol from both the mayor and the Toronto Star.

But the principle is bigger.

If media people don’t band together to fight this blockade, any reporter who chooses to write a story the mayor finds distasteful could find him or herself in the same situation: cut off from access to public information and public officials.

The president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, Hugo Rodriguez, said “It should be concerning to all people who want news out of City Hall that as a result of a dispute between the mayor’s office and some media that the mayor is considering locking down access to himself and his office because of an unresolved difference of opinion.”

Rodriguez acknowledged that the Toronto news scene is highly competitive and that various outlets may dispute decisions each newsroom makes about how to cover municipal politics.

But at the end of the day, he cautions, the manner in which the dispute is resolved could set precedents for municipalities, mayors, and media outlets right across the country.

“I can’t emphasize enough how concerning it is that this series of events could lead to a dramatic drop in the accessibility of the mayor of Canada’s largest city. As the Chief Executive Officer, he is the public face of the municipal corporation,” said Rodriguez.

And if Ford’s attempts to control the news agenda were to be successful, would other mayors perhaps stop talking to the media as well?

“It behooves a public officer to realize they’ll never come out squeaky clean from a fight with the media and the people who are most impacted are the audience who won’t know what’s happening in their municipalities,” said Rodriguez.

He can even imagine a very scary worst case scenario where the only access journalists might have to a mayor would be when he or she is sitting in a public committee meeting.

While Rodriguez said he hopes someone in this particular instance is giving Mayor Ford some advice because “as the Chief Executive Officer for the municipality to take that person out of the realm of access for media—that’s huge.”

I think it’s also time to give some advice to reporters and media right across the country.

Don’t let partisan politics or a competitive news market get in the way of the bigger issues. Stand together for access to information.