Rob Ford’s attempt to demonize Star reporter Daniel Dale amounts to just another sideshow distraction from his poor public-policy record.
I think I have this straight:
According to Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, last night sometime shortly after 7:30 p.m.—almost an hour before sunset—Mayor Rob Ford approached him in a public park and mugged him for his phone under threat of physical violence.
According to Mayor Rob Ford, last night at dusk, he approached Daniel Dale in a public park and angrily cornered him, taking his phone and video recorder as Daniel Dale ran off screaming for help, begging the mayor not to hit him.
There’s not a lot of difference between those two stories; those facts appear not to be in dispute. Except that the mayor and his brother, and the surprisingly large contingent of media people who have taken their side, seem to believe that Daniel Dale and the Star have something to apologize for. Their premise for believing that is that they claim Daniel Dale was standing on cinder blocks and shooting photos on his Blackberry of the mayor’s backyard, and the mayor considers that to be an extreme violation of his privacy. This would, in this version of events, justify the mayor’s rage and further justify his angry confrontation with the reporter—a thin wisp of a young man—and also provide grounds for some sort of police action against Dale and justify kicking him out of the press gallery.
Just to clarify: Dale was not—according to him, the mayor, and the neighbour who witnessed the whole thing—on the mayor’s property. He was on a piece of public parkland. And the mayor knew exactly who he was—he recognized him because they see each other at City Hall almost every day. It was the mayor who identified the man he’d had a confrontation with as Daniel Dale of the Star.
These points are worth clarifying, since many people are portraying this as a case of a suspicious stranger in the mayor’s backyard, which might raise fear and self-defence as motivations for the mayor. But he knew he was dealing with the Star reporter and reasonably would have known that Dale was doing nothing more menacing than reporting a story.
So the mayor’s reaction, whether you think he did the right thing or the wrong thing, was pure rage at a reporter he thought was going to write a story he wouldn’t like. He was not afraid. He was not under the impression Dale posed any threat. It is anger we are talking about, and the aggressive expression of that anger. Anger expressed by a 300-pound football coach and former college athlete in a way that made Dale fear for his own safety. This appears not to be a fact in dispute.
Now, the behaviour Dale is accused of is standard operating procedure for paparazzi photographers in the United States, and similar violations of privacy are semi-commonplace in Canada. As Shawn Micallef points out, Now magazine—who ran a piece condemning Dale and sympathizing with the mayor—once went through former mayor Mel Lastman and former councillor Jack Layton’s garbage and another time ran photos of former police chief Julian Fantino’s house. The Toronto Star once ran a photo of former mayor David Miller’s house with its lights on during Earth Hour. When you run for public office, part of the tradeoff is that your private life is in the public eye–especially the parts of it that can be viewed from public property. So even if it is true that Daniel Dale was peeking over the fence or photographing the 7,319-square-foot property, a violent reaction from the mayor might still be seen as out of line.
But—BUT—there is also no reason whatsoever to believe that Dale was doing any kind of creepy paparazzi job on the mayor’s backyard. Because he demonstrably was working on a story about the mayor’s attempt to buy a piece of public parkland next to the mayor’s backyard. That is the land on which he was standing. Here is the story written by Dale about the mayor’s attempt to buy the land. Daniel Dale has no history of engaging in creepy invasions of the mayor’s privacy (although he did once, like other news outlets including the Toronto Sun, write a news item about a creepy violation of the mayor’s privacy that had been committed by a private citizen). He does have a history of writing about the mayor’s public activities. His explanation that the reason he was on public land the mayor is trying to buy was to see it for the story, and that he was taking cellphone photos of the public land to help his reporting on that, is credible. It makes more sense than any other explanation of what he might have been doing there.
The mayor, however, claims otherwise. But what the mayor does not have is credibility. Already, he’s been blatantly misrepresenting the situation, claiming repeatedly that Dale was in his backyard when that is very clearly not the case. That misrepresentation undermines his ethical appeal in presenting his larger argument, but not nearly so much as does his history of lying whenever he first explains a controversial situation in which he has been involved.
For example: When he was asked about the time he got drunk at a Leafs game and verbally abused those around him (including asking a man if he’d like his wife to get raped and shot), he initially claimed he was not even at the game. When he was asked by a Toronto Sun reporter about his arrest for marijuana possession in Florida, he claimed it had never happened. After he offered over the phone (and on tape, as it turned out) to score drugs for a stranger on the street, he and his campaign team concocted a story about him being afraid and fed it to the press—as his campaign team has proudly recounted. When he called police to deal with a menacing CBC comedy team in his driveway, Ford told the press that it was dark out and his daughter was with him, but the CBC video of the incident proved that too was a misrepresentation.
And in this case, as before, the mayor has videotape that might clarify what happened—and prove him right if he is telling the truth—but has ruled out releasing it. Hiding proof further undermines his credibility here. And we can observe a pattern: Whenever something happens that might reflect badly on the mayor, he lies about it. It’s possible that is not the case this time, but that is his history.
He also has a history of red-faced rage directed at reporters he thinks are out of line. And red-faced rage in general.
It is possible to believe that the mayor initially thought that Daniel Dale was snooping on his property and, in so doing, invading his privacy. It’s possible that he didn’t know it was Dale until he got close to him. That would explain why he went out there in a huff—although calling the police might be a better decision for a man in his position. He might have been afraid and angry because he was mistaken. If you do something rash and unprofessional because of a mistake, you might apologize.
But instead of apologizing to Dale—who was doing his job legitimately, from all appearances—he called his brother and advisors, who came to his house to plot strategy, apparently. A couple hours later, he called in the media to portray the situation in a way that makes it look like Dale was acting maliciously, rather than acknowledging a misunderstanding on his own part.
Why would he do that? Well, first of all, he hates the Star and perhaps sees an opportunity to stick it to them. And, secondly, the mayor is quick to play the pity card. Unlike most public figures, he is most loved by the people who will love him and vote for him when it appears he is the victim of bullying—that is why his numbers went up after his decade-old mug shot appeared on the front page of the Sun, that is why his brother conceived of a public relations campaign based on his obesity specifically as a distraction from his performance in council, that is why he tries to keep the feud with the Star alive.
If he can keep the public discussion based on how the press appears to be picking on him—or about whether the press is picking on him—about his weight, or his privacy, or his politics, then he can keep the discussion away from public policy. And for the mayor, that’s a good thing, since when the debate turns to public policy, he is on a bit of a losing streak.
So cue the sideshows. There’s always a sideshow. And Ford and his brother are now willing to drop everything when a sideshow takes the spotlight to do every talk radio show and interview they can. And why not? The craziest thing about the short, crazy history of Mayor Rob Ford is that the outrageous sideshows that make him look like a hot-tempered lunatic who (to steal a phrase from Colby Cosh) you wouldn’t trust to use the really nice bathroom in your house are now the strongest argument the mayor can make in his own favour for his continuing to lead the largest city government in Canada. The mayor would like you to pity him. Pity is all he has. And for Toronto, that really is a pity.