Robert Benzie is mingling at a 2017 Christmas party in Toronto’s Financial District. The room at The National Club on Bay Street is crowded mostly with political types—staffers, backbenchers, municipal and provincial politicians, and some reporters like Benzie, the Toronto Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief.
The Christmas party is an annual get-together held by the provincial Conservatives. Patrick Brown is also in attendance as leader of the Ontario PC Party. Brown and Benzie had spoken earlier of Brown’s hopes and likelihood of becoming premier in the upcoming summer election. Doug Ford, who had announced his plans to take a second shot at mayor of Toronto three months prior, locks eyes with Benzie across the room.
“You know, the Toronto Star needs me,” Benzie recounts Ford saying with a smile.
“You’re not wrong,” Benzie replies. This quiet political period led to a turbulent time in Ontario history that saw, among other surprises, Brown’s abrupt resignation in January and the ascension of the combative Ford to the premiership.
While all political parties try to shape how they’re portrayed in the media, the Ontario Conservative government is brazen in its attempts to restrain journalists. Meanwhile, anti-media sentiments from politicians—including United States President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about “the enemy of the people” and “fake news”—have spilled into Canada. Avoiding journalists’ questions and public scrutiny is increasingly easy. Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, says politicians once relied on the media to get their message to the public. But now, the internet allows them to share unvetted information to the masses. And while it’s nearly impossible to avoid scrutiny, it’s becoming more feasible to drown it out. If accountability and public scrutiny fade, democracy goes down with them, but journalists are still finding ways to overcome the obstacles.
A political dynasty set in motion by Doug Ford Sr., an MPP in the Mike Harris government, the Ford family has long faced tough scrutiny. In 2013, The Globe and Mail reported on Doug Jr.’s alleged drug dealing in high school. As Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford became an international laughing stock. After details about a video of Rob smoking crack cocaine emerged in Gawker and the Star, Doug lashed out, claiming no other Canadian family had been “targeted” by the media like this before, and insisted the allegations were “ridiculous” and “false.” Doug then accused reporters of hiding in bushes and “harassing” and “stalking” his family.
Despite his wariness of public scrutiny, Ford decided to run for a job that would mean even more media attention. Four days after Brown resigned as leader of the Ontario PC Party amid sexual misconduct allegations, Ford declared his candidacy for the leadership. He made the announcement in his mother’s basement, surrounded by his wife, daughters, and his nephew, city councillor Michael Ford.
Many journalists were skeptical and found humour in the idea of another Ford in power. “Just so we’re clear here: there is no chance Doug Ford will lead the Ontario Conservatives. Suspense now is over whether he realizes this,” tweeted Maclean’s journalist Paul Wells.
On a brisk Saturday last September, Jonathan Goldsbie, news editor of journalism watchdog Canadaland, and Allison Smith, publisher of daily news service Queen’s Park Today, are stuck in traffic along Highway 7 in Vaughan, Ontario. They are trying to make a right turn into Ford Fest, the highly anticipated annual celebration for supporters of the family, with attendees from all over the Greater Toronto Area.
After being at a standstill for about 10 minutes, the pair decide to record the next episode of their podcast, Wag the Doug. They talk about how the festival represents the Ford empire. The smell of barbecue wafts through the air as they walk around the outdoor party. But to Goldsbie, this year’s Ford Fest feels different. It’s almost as if it’s a knockoff version of the festivities when Rob was mayor. “The tragedy of Rob Ford is that he liked people, but doesn’t care if people liked him,” Goldsbie says. “Whereas the tragedy of Doug Ford is that he doesn’t like people, but deeply cares if he’s liked.”
Rob was known for giving out his cellphone number and returning every call. He loved meeting people, whereas Doug sees it as a chore, according to Goldsbie. The Fords certainly aren’t warm towards the media, but Doug seems to take negative stories about him and his government much more personally than his younger brother did, and he pays much more attention to the news.
“Doug lashed out, claiming no other Canadian family had been “targeted” by the media like this before.”
Colin D’Mello inches closer to the microphone. The Queen’s Park bureau chief for CTV News is eagerly waiting in line behind his press gallery colleagues. They all have questions for Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Children, Community, and Social Services, who has just announced social assistance reform. The July news conference is in the Ontario Room in the Macdonald Block Complex, across the street from the main legislative building where previous governments faced reporters in the media studio.
“Last question,” D’Mello recalls Simon Jefferies, Premier Ford’s director of media relations, telling the reporters.
“Simon, come on. I’m standing here in line,” pleads D’Mello. At the back of the room, dozens of political staffers stare at MacLeod, waiting for her to finish speaking. The group, mostly in their twenties, wears business casual and stands in front of a backdrop of paintings of sunsets and trees. As D’Mello steps forward, about to ask his question, Jefferies turns the microphone away and the staffers begin clapping. D’Mello opens his mouth to yell his question, but stops as the thunderous applause behind him drowns out his voice. He feels his frustration boil over.
“Please stop clapping. This is a professional environment. Stop it,” he barks. The clapping ceases and he storms out of the room.
After only three months on the job, D’Mello knows it’s uncommon for reporters to line up to ask questions and for staffers to clap when news conferences are over. But the Conservatives have employed such tactics to control journalists since Ford’s election campaign.
Ford is consistently unavailable and doesn’t release his daily itinerary, breaking practice from previous governments. Ford rarely does sit-down, in-depth interviews with the journalists who regularly cover his government. However, he has made some exceptions. He participated in a one-on-one interview with CityNews reporter Cynthia Mulligan shortly after taking office. There’s also his friendly chat with Toronto Sun editor-in-chief Adrienne Batra at the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party convention in November.
Ford has been called “Canada’s Trump,” mostly by international publications, but some Canadian media are hesitant to make the comparison. Most reporters agree the businessmen-turned-politicians have a similar way of oversimplifying issues, but Trump is much more extreme about his disdain for journalists. He publicly praised a congressman for body slamming a reporter at a political rally. On the same day that staffers drowned out D’Mello’s question, a crowd at a Trump rally in Florida verbally harassed CNN’s Jim Acosta, giving him the finger and shouting, “Fake news.” In November, the White House temporarily revoked Acosta’s press pass after a heated exchange between Acosta and the president at a news conference.
Megan Boler, a professor at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto who specializes in social media and social movements, says reporters often play into inflammatory comments. The words usually come from conservatives and hard-right figures such as Trump and Ford, and journalists usually rely on the news value of the statements rather than balancing the coverage with criticism and fact checking.
But the Ford government isn’t the first administration to show hostility towards journalists. “Media management has been around since democracy,” says Tim Abray, a political communications consultant who has worked for all three major political parties over the past 20 years. In 2009, when Dalton McGuinty was Ontario’s Liberal premier, he had a five-foot distance rule for scrums. During Stephen Harper’s Conservative government from 2006 to 2015, journalists had to write their names on a list before news conferences to ask questions and wait in roped-off areas during weekly caucus meetings, according to reports from the Star. At public town halls, attendees were screened beforehand. While touring Vimy Ridge in 2007, Harper glanced at two TV photographers and said, “In those days, the enemy had guns,” according to the Star.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s town halls are much less scripted than Harper’s were, Trudeau is exceptionally strategic with social media presence, staging publicity stunts like photobombing a beach wedding in British Columbia, posing shirtless with hikers in Quebec, and jogging past high school students going to prom.
Governments have also contrived strategies to get their messages to the public without having to go through reporters. Some have even pretended to be part of the news media. In 2007, the Ontario Liberal government introduced Liberal TV. Former reporter and McGuinty aide Ben Chin hosted news hits and regularly made fun of John Tory, provincial Conservative leader at the time. In the early 1990s, Bob Rae’s NDP government produced its own newspaper, The Ontario Star.
The Ford government introduced Ontario News Now (ONN) in July. The TV-news-style videos feature Lyndsey Vanstone, who has worked in multiple newsrooms such as Global News and CP24. Now, she reports on government announcements and doesn’t hold back on her compliments of Ford and his cabinet. She also gets ample one-on-one time with ministers. Breaking the tradition of premiers giving end-of-year interviews to several news outlets, Ford spoke only to his own government’s television crew.
Dozens of opinion pieces from (real) news outlets across Canada have weighed in on whether taxpayer-funded videos are propaganda. Like Liberal TV and The Ontario Star, Ontario
News Now allows the government to get its message directly to the public. Rae admits The Ontario Star was an attempt to communicate with voters, but claims it was not at all like ONN. When he became involved in politics in the 1970s, he says, there was a much greater responsibility to participate in scrums every day and take criticism. Now, governments try to make rules about how and when they will be criticized.
In March 2019, Ford acknowledged bypassing the media and delivering his message over social media and using ONN. The Canadian Press reported that Ford told a conference of conservative thinkers, strategists, and politicians that journalists are “losing the battle” to inform people about the news, and accused the media of “spin.”
“I get along with them one-on-one, I really do,” Ford says. “I like them, but it’s like the cheese slipped off the cracker with these guys and they just went far-left.”
“Reporters amped up their fact-checking in January when Ford claimed a carbon tax would cause a recession.”
The ONN videos were being produced as reporters struggled to get more than a handful of questions answered from ministers following question period. While scrums can get intense with any government, some reporters covering the PCs didn’t want to ask about anything other than the most pressing news, fearing it would be a wasted question. Following the announcement of changes to the sex education curriculum, scrums with Education Minister Lisa Thompson became particularly tense and wouldn’t last more than a few short minutes. In July, the government announced it would repeal the updated sex-ed curriculum. A month later, it released a new lesson plan, stirring confusion about what teachers could and could not tell their students. But Thompson stuck to her talking points, refusing to go into detail about the proposed changes. CityNews’ Mulligan repeatedly asked which parts of the curriculum would be repealed, and Thompson kept providing vague answers. “We will be rolling back our sex-ed focus,” she said. “What we will be looking at is the developing sexual relations…part of the curriculum.”
The resulting coverage was heavy on reactions from students and educators, but light on what the government actually planned to do, which took away from public discourse. Other news, such as the province cancelling a program that would have increased Indigenous knowledge and history in the curriculum, received less attention and was quickly forgotten.
Standing on the green carpet in the main legislative building, Mulligan’s voice echoes as she says, “We’re playing a little bit of cat and mouse with the education minister.” It’s a “challenge” figuring out where Thompson could be, since the legislature connects to the premier’s office by a long hallway, giving the politicians an easy escape from reporters. Meagan Fitzpatrick has also had trouble getting clear answers from Thompson. The CBC reporter repeatedly asked for an interview with the minister in August and was either told Thompson was “unavailable” or never got a response from the minister’s staff.
While the provincial Conservatives have been dodgy with journalists, the government was particularly evasive with the public broadcaster. On November 10, CBC assignment producer Kari Vierimaa sent an email to Thompson’s staff requesting comment from the ministry on potential funding cuts. “Let’s ignore,” responded Laryssa Waler, spokesperson for Thompson, accidentally including Vierimaa in the email. “Unless there’s a brilliant statement in the works,” she wrote. Vierimaa then posted a screenshot of the email on Twitter. About an hour later, he tweeted that Waler had apologized.
CBC’s Mike Crawley travelled to Washington in September to cover Ford’s talks on free trade between Canada and the United States. The premier’s staff granted other news outlets brief interviews with the premier, but not CBC, according to Crawley. He was furious and demanded to know why he wouldn’t get a chance to speak to Ford after he had travelled to Washington from Toronto. Crawley declines to go into the details of the conversation with Ford’s staff, but says, “Let’s just put it this way, I was not satisfied with the answers I got.”
On the evening of November 4, Benzie received a call from a trusted source who said Ford was planning a major political move. Benzie tweeted, “BREAKING: Rookie Premier Doug Ford will shuffle his cabinet early tomorrow just 129 days after being sworn in, the @TorontoStar has learned.” The Star published a story, and the next day the cabinet shifted exactly the way Benzie’s source had said it would.
Ford had a closed-door meeting for the swearing-in of the new cabinet ministers. This followed the resignation of MPP Jim Wilson. Jefferies said in a statement to the media that the departure was regarding addiction issues, according to The Canadian Press. But Benzie and other reporters covering Queen’s Park have good sources, and soon enough the full story emerged that Wilson’s resignation was actually in light of sexual misconduct allegations, which Ford confirmed days later.
While governments are becoming more strategic with how they handle reporters, journalists are still doing their best to cover what matters. During the election, the Conservatives didn’t provide a media bus, which would have allowed reporters to cover the campaign and write stories while on the way to the next stop. Some reporters—from newsrooms that could afford it—rented cars. Star reporter Rob Ferguson’s rental was a Dodge Journey, which he called the “Dodge Journo.”
When Kristin Rushowy can’t get her questions answered by legislators, she finds another way to get the story. When the Star’s former education reporter needed to piece together an article on the sex-ed rollback, she sought comment from stakeholders such as school boards and advocates. And reporters amped up their fact checking in January when Ford claimed a carbon tax would cause a recession. Various news outlets, such as Global News, interviewed multiple economists who disputed the premier’s claims.
While the press gallery might be able to handle news coverage amid shrinking resources, journalism ultimately breaks down when not as much time can be spent fact checking and digging for more details. And that threatens democracy.
Queen’s Park journalists continue trying to maintain a positive relationship with the politicians they hold accountable, but after nearly a year of the Conservative government, the hostility towards them isn’t letting up. On December 4, the press gallery gathers behind a green stanchion waiting for Ford to emerge from his office. The premier has been facing criticisms for the controversial appointment of his longtime friend, Ron Taverner, as the new commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
“I don’t have a statement. I’m just coming out here—you’re all just asking questions,” Ford says at the start of the scrum, a Christmas tree glistening behind him. Yelling over the other reporters, Marieke Walsh of iPolitics asks if Ford signed off on Taverner’s appointment. When she sneaks in a follow-up question, asking why he didn’t recuse himself from the appointment because of his relationship with Taverner, the premier chuckles. He ends the press conference by declaring that media are now the “official opposition.”
“Good luck over the next three and a half years. I look forward to working with the media party,” Ford says. He opens the door to his office, leaving the reporters shouting questions after him.