Why didn’t they sue?: A journalist’s guide to self-defence

Knowing libel law kept the journalists who covered the Ford brother’s drug scandal out of court. Here’s what they did to stay on the right side of the law.

  1. By Mitchell Cohen and Josh McLean

    “The best education in the world of libel is if you get sued”

    — Kevin Donovan, investigative reporter for The Toronto Star

    One of the biggest risks faced by any reporter is the possibility of being sued for defamation. In a sense, it’s a danger that comes with the job: good journalists dig up dirt, uncover corruption, and out bad behaviour in the name of public accountability and freedom of the press. Companies, governments, politicians, businesspeople and other public figures are all fair game. But it is easy for reporters to cross the line between holding individuals accountable and unfairly defaming them. A single misplaced fact, a malicious dig, or an extra detail that was uncalled-for may be enough to turn the courts against a reporter in a libel suit.

    During the second half of 2013, two major Canadian news stories brought libel law to forefront of national discourse. In May, the Toronto Star first reported the existence of the now-infamous “crack-cocaine video” featuring Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto. Within days, the Globe and Mail released its own investigation into the alleged drug habits of Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother and a Toronto city councillor.

    WATCH Josh McLean outline the issues surrounding defamation law and the Fords.
  2. Rob Ford admits to smoking crack
  3. "Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. But no, do I, am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago."

    Now the words were straight from the horse’s mouth. At this point, the defence of truth would have protected a statement such as the Globe’s "Mayor Rob Ford admits to smoking crack cocaine".

    Fair Comment

    Statements of opinion, such as those provided by newspaper columnists, are protected under Canadian law by the defence of fair comment — with conditions. At a push, the defence might be applied to the comment that the mayor is smoking what “appears” to be crack.

    WATCH lawyers Peter Jacobsen and Howard Winkler explain and apply the fair comment defence.