Getting through the streets of Toronto in a tin car is something Adrienne Batra happily avoids. But give her a bigger challenge, say behind the wheel of a military tank, and you’ll see, she’s ready to roll.
Batra is seated in a spacious white sofa chair, grasps a microphone and eases into question time with Ontario Premier Doug Ford. The Toronto Sun editor-in-chief (EIC) has on a black leather jacket, black stilettos complemented with a black smokey eye—her favourite makeup look. Behind them is a massive royal blue backdrop tiled with the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) Party’s logo, at the Toronto Congress Centre on a November evening.
“Many of you know that I have a little bit of a history with the Ford family, having served as Mayor Rob Ford’s director of communications and press secretary—God rest his soul. I have had a”—she pauses for a moment—“unique perspective and relationship with the Ford family for many years. So it’s my honour, Premier Ford, to be here with you tonight…”
What follows is a soft, 24-minute Q&A with the premier. Then Batra says: “I’ve put you on the spot. You’ve answered some tough questions—some tough-ish questions. Is there anything you want to ask me?” Ford’s smile grows large.
“Oh boy, that’s a good one. Wow,” he says, excited by the role reversal. He licks his lips and asks: “Do you think the media’s biased?”
Batra laughs along with the crowd. “I can’t plead the fifth in Canada,” she says. “It’s not a thing.”
Batra doesn’t delve into the complex issue of bias. Instead she agrees with Ford, helping solidify the point he’s trying to make: the mainstream media is against him. She makes a damning general statement about the news media: “I will say this Mr. Premier: I think every media outlet in this country has a bias, and if they tell you otherwise, that’s fake news.”
“And learned how to drive a tank, which is pretty badass.”
Batra moves from her role in the behind-the-scenes of the Sun newsroom to onstage, in front of the camera. She shows the Batra and Sun brands through a plethora of appearances. On Thursdays, for example, her day starts, at 7 a.m. the Corus Quay building on the Toronto waterfront to speaks on two broadcast segments; one on Global News; a second for Global News Radio 640 Toronto. She jokes that by 9 a.m., she’s accomplished more than most people do their entire day.
In the Sun newsroom, she’s a fan of digital videos for online analysis—she tries to host interviews where she presses political issues with Sun guests about twice a week. We have to constantly stay relevant, she says.
And being a woman of colour, she says, had no influence on her getting the job.
When Irene Gentle became editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star in June 2018, 17 other leaders in Canadian media, all women, took note. Collectively, they sent her a congratulatory letter. “Welcome, from all of us,” the note read. The list included names like Toronto Life’s Sarah Fulford and The Walrus’ Jessica Johnson. The signatories were listed alphabetically, and at the top of the list was ‘Adrienne @ Toronto Sun.’
Batra’s career trajectory differs from Gentle’s. Batra didn’t have a storied rise in the world of journalism—she found her way into the newsroom through the world of political advocacy and managing the press. And being a woman of colour, she says, had no influence on her getting the job. “I didn’t ask for my seat at the table,” she says. “I just took it.”
“I think every media outlet in this country has a bias, and if they tell you otherwise, that’s fake news.”
Born in 1973 to Harbir and Deepi Batra in the Prairies, Adrienne is the youngest of four children. Harbir and Deepi arrived in Saskatchewan in 1967 from India. They rooted themselves in Maple Creek, Sask., a small town between Regina and Calgary, Alb. The Batras were among the only brown families around, she recalls from her childhood.
The children responded to their parents’ Punjabi in English, Batra recalls, but other than those distinctions, Batra says her family wasn’t very different from the white families in her neighbourhood. The Batras celebrated Christmas and played organized sports. It was, in Batra’s words, “Very typical. Typical Canadian upbringing.”
In 1991 when she was 18 years old, Batra enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces, along with two of her high school friends. Batra eventually rose through the ranks and became a lieutenant and she was accepted into the Officer Training Program in Ontario. Batra learned many new skills, including developing a sense of discipline. “There’s people from all sorts of backgrounds and all parts of the country, and you come together to do one thing. It’s a great unifier.”
She calls herself a libertarian—unsurprising, given her appreciation for philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, and former British prime minister and “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher. At the University of Saskatchewan, where she studied political science, Batra was elected vice president academic at the University of Saskatchewan’s Student Union (USSU) in March 1996. She campaigned on the promise of being “The Strong Choice,” according to the university’s student newspaper, the Sheaf.
“…I have learned what it takes to be a successful leader and team player. These elements are important if students want the best person for this job and I provide these elements.”
Batra was the subject of a profile in the newspaper by Jessica Waiser soon after titled: “From Lieutenant to VP Academic: Adrienne Batra,” it carried specifics about Batra’s political platform.
For instance, among Batra’s chief concerns were the development of a consumer guide, which would help students choose the professor in whose courses they wanted to enrol. About $33,000 of money had been set aside, according to the Sheaf. She also wanted to organize “Teaching Excellence Awards” and a faculty code of conduct. “Students generally come into my office with a problem…” she told the paper. “My job is different every day, and I like the variety. It’s great to be able to help out students when I can and act as an advocate for them.”
But on Oct. 17, 1996, a couple of months into the role, the Sheaf reported a “bombshell”: Batra was resigning, effective immediately. There was a “minute amount of detail” regarding the resignation, according to the article. The then-USSU president Cory Exner explained to the Sheaf: “I think it’s going to be good for her and good for us in the end. She’s my friend and I respect her decision.” When the Sheaf asked Exner to expand on the details of her resignation, he said: “just personal and personal is personal.”
At the time Batra was considering a career in international law or the foreign service; the United Nations was an attractive option. In an interview with the Sheaf, she also considered the possibility of returning to the military. “The people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned in the military, I would never ever find anywhere else in my life,” she says. She still feels the same way about her armed forces experience. From it, she developed her appreciation for Canada. Plus, “I got to learn how to shoot guns,” she says, proudly. “And learned how to drive a tank, which is pretty badass.”
“I don’t answer to the mob on Twitter. Simple.”
When Batra was announced as the new leader of the Sun in May 2015, the brown, unabashedly conservative EIC was the first woman of colour to make it to the top of a major metropolitan newspaper in all of North America, Batra says. Yet,when the announcement of her hire was made, no collective congratulatory note, like the kind that warmed Gentle’s heart, found its way to her inbox or desk. To this day, she’s shocked no one made a bigger deal of it.
“Yeah—a North American daily. A major metropolitan newspaper in North America. Yeah. Like wow. And I was in the army.”
But inside the Sun’s newsroom, the reception is warm. Batra excels at her job, according to Sun old-timer Lorrie Goldstein, who has worn many hats in the newsroom. Goldstein says she is “one of the best” with a news sense that is “first-rate.” She often has tips on news stories as they’re about to break, says Goldstein, and is proud that Batra represents the Sun. He also highlights her personal side: energetic, easy to talk to, trustworthy and a “straight-shooter.” Goldstein says her identity allows her to provide insight on things he otherwise wouldn’t have.
As a woman of colour, she defies the industry’s expectation of how she ought to act and what she ought to believe, says Andree Lau, EIC of HuffPost Canada. “It taps into long-standing stereotypes about people of colour,” Lau says. “Just because someone is an immigrant to Canada or comes from an immigrant background does not automatically make them Liberal supporters or make them lower-case-liberal. Adrienne is someone who is smashing all of those things. And whether you agree or disagree with her, she’s a representative of how people should stop thinking that journalists of colour are monoliths or even that Canadians of colour are monoliths.”
Freelance journalist Davide Mastracci says based on what he perceives as Batra’s political views, he was skeptical she would alter the Sun’s right-wing slant. This gets into the weeds of diversity hiring, he says. “A lot of what diversity representation has meant recently is just a liberal buzzword that everyone likes to say,” says Mastracci. “It’s just getting people in the papers that look different. There’s not really any emphasis on people that necessarily think differently, or people that will take things in a different direction.”
Batra strays from the pack, making her a common guest panelist on shows like CP24. She checks certain boxes—newsroom diversity, women in journalism and leadership positions—but how do those factors filter into how she runs her team?
On the morning of Jan. 17, Batra is in James Wallace’s office (at that time he was the Sun’s editorial director). The longtime Sun editorial cartoonist Andy Donato strolls in to pitch the next day’s cartoon. Karen Wang, the then-Liberal candidate for the Burnaby South by-election, is the in the middle of a race controversy. Up against federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, she made a callout to potential Chinese-Canadian voters on WeChat, a social media platform. Its translation into English revealed Wang was asking that constituency to vote in her favour and against the Indian-Canadian Singh. The Sun’s response was to call Wang a racist: Brian Lilley in his “LILLEY UNLEASHED” comment video for the Sun said as much.
“Message received, loud and clear,” Lilley exclaims in his video. “‘Vote for me, I’m Chinese! Don’t vote for that brown guy over there—he’s Indian.’ There’s no other way to interpret these comments other than they’re racist.”
Wang tried to explain herself, after she withdrew from the race. “This is not me at all. I am not a racist,” she said.
Donato used the episode to pitch his cartoon concept: “Wang-ton soup.” Batra pauses to consider, then axes it before greenlighting his back-up idea: “The Race Card.” In the final published product, an Asian woman—presumably, Wang—appears clutching a sword, both right side up and upside down, as on a classic playing card. She’s smiling, her eyes drawn out as singular lines.
“We like to have a little fun,” Batra says before turning to Wallace. They exchange a look and as if on cue, let out synchronized guffaws.
The Sun appeared on Toronto’s streets two months after the Toronto Telegram ceased publication in 1971. Toronto-based historian and researcher Jamie Bradburn says the Tely had the conservative rhetoric for the city with an editorial page comparable to today’s Twitter.With The Globe and Mail serving the “more educated, conservative middle class,” and the Toronto Star serving as more centre-left, those who hungered for the Telegram’s emotional, vitriolic content were left without their daily paper when it shuttered. Until Nov. 1, 1971, the first print day, when Doug Creighton, Peter Worthington and Don Hunt started a new city paper.
On the first day of its publication, the brand new Sun sold 75,000 papers much more than the anticipated 50,000, according to Jean Sonmor’s The Little Paper That Grew. A year later, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin would banish Asians from his country. NPR’s Terry Gross interviewed Indian-born American author Bharati Mukherjee on her show Fresh Air. The writer, whose spouse was Canadian, talked about her experience living in Canada, specifically Toronto at that time. Then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau took in many Indian refugees from Uganda. The result was “a sudden, really unanticipated backlash against brown immigrants,” Mukherjee recalled.
“It meant that anyone with a brown face in cities like Toronto, Vancouver was fair game for physical harassment as well as verbal harassment on the street,” Mukherjee told Gross. “And so, you know, there were incidents every day. And I was a victim of many such incidents of not being served in stores or being roughed up by teenagers in blue jeans overalls in subway—on subway platforms or being, you know, thrown out of lobbies of fancy hotels if my white husband wasn’t near me or being given secondary examination in airports or—racial profiling.”
In 1985, an analysis of the Sun by Effie Ginzberg called “Power Without Responsibility: The Press We Don’t Deserve,” looked at how the publication influenced the public’s view of communities and issues. It also presented questions such as “Does the Toronto Sun present a negative, stereotypic representation of ethnic and racial minorities?” and “…do the writers in the Toronto Sun try to rationalize, deny, or in any other ways, justify their prejudices?” The analysis delved into how the Sun portrayed certain ethnic groups, such as Indo-Pakistani people being “barbaric”, Arabs as “savages”, Black people as uneducated “pimps” and “Native Canadians” as “drunks.”
Today, the Sun’s columns’ criticize Canada’s approach to immigration and taking in asylum seekers.“The Toronto Sun does often seem like a newspaper that is no longer not just subject to checks and balances, but defiantly resists the constraints,” says Canadaland’s news editor Jonathan Goldsbie. “The Sun seems like a paper that sort of has shaken itself loose from the ideas that it could, or should be, accountable to anyone—including sometimes facts or reality.”
“I didn’t ask for my seat at the table,” she says. “I just took it.”
How does a second-generation Indian-Canadian editor address that history? Not well enough, if you ask Ishmael N. Daro, digital director at Democracy Now! who expressed his concerns about the Sun’s coverage in an October 2018 opinion piece published in J-Source. The Sun, he bemoaned, had always been “a populist right-wing tabloid,” and its bevy of columnists—pointing out Sue-Ann Levy, Anthony Furey and Tarek Fatah as examples—are applying the same-old approach on immigration and Islam. The paper, he alleged, was home to serious errors in opinion writing—factual mistakes—like a column by Candice Malcolm that stated that an asylum seeker received a voter registration card from Elections Canada when they were not eligible to vote. The writer had mixed up voter registration and voter information cards. The Sun corrected the information in a separate column.
But beyond pointing out obvious and problematic errors, Daro appealed to Canadian media to break its silence on the issue and act. “It means demanding Sun figures answer for their role in spreading xenophobic and anti-Muslim hysteria, rather than responding with a shrug of the shoulders. And it means a careful consideration by the rest of Canadian media about why these same figures, including Sun editor Adrienne Batra, continue to be invited to TV and radio panels and other spaces that carry the implicit approval of the wider industry.”
Batra honed her interest in politics when she was the Manitoba director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a non-profit organization founded in Saskatchewan but headquartered in Ottawa. The organization’s beliefs closely match those of the Sun: lowering taxes and having less government. In her role as comment editor at the Sun, she penned a piece in 2013 on a CTF campaign in Ontario, which involved its chapter director, which was Malcolm at the time, travelling with a debt clock to highlight the province’s “financial trouble.”
When she reflects on her place in journalism, she says she honed her communications skills during her time at the CTF.
“The beauty of the CTF is that you kind of poke your finger in the eye of every government,” says Batra. “Doesn’t matter if they’re left, right or centre.”
It’s where “I really learned how to, you know, craft a message and be able to articulate something in sort of a sound bit sort of way that is memorable.”
While she was at CTF, Batra met Sara MacIntyre, who was the organization’s British Columbia lead. Between 2004 and 2007 they collaborated as colleagues. The two wrote opinion pieces on how taxpayer dollars were being spent under the administration of New Democratic Party’s Provincial Premier Gary Doer. Getting her point across on paper, on radio and on television, Batra got a peek into journalism as an “opinion maker”.
But in that time she also solidified her relationship with MacIntyre, who remains a close friend to both Batra and her parents. This past winter, for instance, MacIntyre and her boyfriend visited Batra’s parents, Harbir and Deepi, in Saskatoon for a Christmas meal. MacIntyre makes sure to see the Batras every time she goes to Saskatoon and during their annual visits to Toronto. To MacIntyre, the Batras are like family, substitutes for her deceased parents. And Batra’s son, nine-year-old Aidan, calls MacIntyre “Masi,” which means mother’s sister in Punjabi.
Batra is still the first person to call MacIntyre on an anniversary. After she lost her parents, Batra took extra care. Whenever MacIntyre replied saying she was spending the holidays by herself, Batra would say: “Nope, you’re coming to the cottage.”
In her book, Crazy Town, Robyn Doolittle describes the current Sun editor as “the charismatic Adrienne Batra.” She was referring to Batra in 2009 when then-mayoral candidate Rob Ford’s team brought her on as its new head of communications. By this point, the team had learned how to work with “the brothers’ unconventional behaviour,” Doolittle writes. “It was starting to seem like the kinks had been smoothed out, like they were a real, functioning, normal political campaign.”
A number of non-journalism jobs have prepared her well for the role of the Sun’s EIC. And what better place to handle high-pressure situations than in a role where she had to respond to scandals involving her boss? When Ford was elected mayor on Oct. 25, 2010 with 383,501 votes—47 per cent of the total cast —Batra became his press secretary.
The honeymoon period was short-lived.
The same year, Ford was caught on tape offering to buy OxyContin, a highly addictive painkiller for Dieter Doneit-Henderson—an HIV-positive, married gay man with whom Ford had offended after he stated in 2006: “If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably.” Doneit-Henderson released the audio and the Star got a hold of it. Batra didn’t think the fire could be put out. “Oh, you can’t spin that,” she said at the time.
One person she could turn to during this time was her old CTF friend, MacIntyre. She had gone on to be a press secretary for former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. They traded war stories. MacIntyre faced complaints from the media about Harper being inaccessible and unapproachable, while Batra was dealing with a different can of worms. “She went through the municipal election with Rob, and I went through the federal election in 2011 with Harper, and unless you’ve gone through an election, you don’t understand how that kind of prolonged adversity bonds you to somebody else.”
Batra was also challenged with dealing with reports from Star reporters Robert Cribb and Kristin Rushowy, which said that Ford had been asked to leave the high school football team he had been coaching after an alleged physical confrontation back in 2001 between Coach Ford and a player Ford thought was underperforming. “It’s outrageous, it’s slanderous and patently incorrect,” Batra told the National Post.
Then-Sun EIC Wallace asked Batra to take on the role as comment editor in 2011. “At one point, do you want to chat about making a move if you’re planning on leaving city hall?” Batra recalls Wallace asking her. A few weeks after that conversation, she got the job. She juggled her comment editor role with being a Sun News Network host before slipping into the EIC’s chair in 2015.
While it’s difficult to avoid disputes while in a position of power, Batra sees herself as equipped to handle high-pressure situations. By the time a video of Ford appearing to smoke crack cocaine went viral in 2014, Batra was observing the scandal from the Sun. It was “heartbreaking,” she says. “You’re watching your friends get marched out of City Hall with a camera in their face. Just awful. And you know we were part of something that accomplished a lot in a very short period of time,” she says. “Then of course, Rob got sick, and it was sad, sad to watch. And people treated him so badly. Look—he was a flawed man, there’s no skirting around that. But he always had the best intentions in mind, he just, you know, had personal problems.”
Her attachment to the Fords extends to Rob’s brother. With Doug as the Ontario premier, who courts controversy on account of his legislative choices—Batra slips into her role as advocate: the Sun openly endorses the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.
Is the publication she runs merely an advocacy arm of the Conservative Party? Batra doesn’t think that’s a fair estimation of what the Sun does. “It’s not the type of journalism we do,” she says. “Every newsroom has an editorial position. We’re not dissimilar to anybody else.”
While newspapers and news media have historically endorsed political parties just before an election, Goldsbie believes the Sun has become “an extension of the Ford government.”
When Goldsbie got started at the media criticism outlet, he was interested in looking at Rebel Media, the far-right online news commentary site. The Rebel isn’t journalism but Goldsbie points out it mimics the presentation of a news outlet, when, in fact, it is an advocacy organization.
In April 2018, Goldsbie broke a story which appeared to outlined the Sun’s editorial strategies for that summer’s provincial election. “There’s nothing surprising about the fact the Toronto Sun might take an anti-Liberal line heading in to the June 7 Ontario election. What’s somewhat more remarkable, however, is that they’d feel the need to set that down on paper,” Goldsdbie writes. The piece listed top stories to be published such as one regarding health care with “complaints from doctors the Liberals are worse than Mike Harris,” a hydro story on how “we revisit the government’s failed green energy plan.” And more.
Batra handles conflict privately, paying little heed to those, like Jesse Brown
Levy stayed on the story. She penned a second piece on Oct. 3: “‘Irregular’ migrants continue to flock to Toronto.” More refugees were said to arrive in Toronto from Nigeria. Most notably, the column contained a report of goats being slaughtered by the “illegals” in the hotel bathrooms.
As it turned out, that was wrong. The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) got involved after it received several complaints about unethical journalism. John Fraser, the council’s executive chair says, “Whether we’re left, right, white, black, Indigenous—there were no goats killed in that hotel.”
The NNC received seven complaints regarding the Sun’s Oct. 3 column. As part of its mission to promote ethical journalism within the news industry the council published a “decision.” The council said “basic journalistic standards of seeking accuracy were noticeably lacking in the article that was the subject of complaint.”
The ruling was published on Dec. 11, and the Sun published it in print on March 2 along with a correction on the Oct. 3 column stating that the piece referenced a hotel review that “wrongly claimed goats were being slaughtered in public bathrooms at the hotel.”
Levy published a third column in the saga, “Refugee outrage spent on wrong target,” citing the “progressive shills” misinterpreting her journalism. Her columns were supposed to be about “the abandonment of refugees we’ve accepted into our country”—not racist or anti-Islamic. She acknowledges the error regarding the goats, but justifies the two columns.
In a March 18 episode of Canadaland, host Jesse Brown says that an EIC “is where the buck stops”—such as Batra, who said “no thanks” to being on the podcast, according to Brown when he asked her for an interview. In the episode on the issue, NNC’s Pat Perkel, executive director and complaints coordinator, and Fraser, discuss how they fit into the picture.
The job of the NNC isn’t to prosecute publications for rhetoric or unpopular opinions, but rather to address journalistic standards, ensure that opinions are based on fact and correct mistakes, according to Fraser.
Perkel says the NNC doesn’t police opinions — it ensures they are based on facts.
Batra never responded to public calls for comment on the Radisson story. Now, she says she wasn’t the handling editor on the story and won’t say who was. She says she can’t remember where she was when she heard about it. Moreover, it feels like “a lifetime ago.” When she did hear about it, she says she immediately went into “fix-it” mode. “These are things that I don’t really talk about. But I can tell you it was a stressful time, and we worked very diligently to correct the situation in as timely as a manner as we possibly could.”
Batra said she asked questions like “How did this happen?” then worked to ensure it doesn’t happen again. “Let’s be careful. Let’s make sure that we don’t have a situation where we are exacerbate it any further.”
The fix Batra mentions involved “discussions” with her then-boss, Wallace, and a talk with Levy. He declined to confirm whether those discussions happened. And that was that. Batra chalked it up to: “Mistakes happen. And it won’t be the last time.”
Outside the Sun, media critics took to Batra’s and Levy’s Twitter handles to pursue their complaints. But Batra didn’t let it get to her. “I don’t answer to the mob on Twitter. Simple.”
HuffPost Canada has a drastically different approach to reporting on identity politics. Born in Vancouver, B.C. to parents from Hong Kong, EIC Lau says normalizing diversity through the media comes from writing about diverse realities in a multicultural society. “Having people of colour in charge certainly puts a different lens on editorial decisions, business decisions,” says Lau. “But what’s notable and remarkable about that is that Canada hasn’t had a lot of that.”
Sun columnist Tarek Fatah, says that Batra’s aware of more communities than your average white editor may be. “I do think that the awareness of issues has a huge role in what gets covered. She understands Canada as a Saskatchewan-born person of colour. Much better than anyone could hope to.” And that extends to her Saskatchewan roots. In April 2018, a bus that was carrying the Humboldt Broncos hockey team crashed in rural Saskatchewan. The collision resulted in 16 dead and 13 injured. Batra says the story impacted her greatly, leading her to write the column that stays with her the most.
Batra wrote the Sun’s op-ed piece when writer and activist Nora Loreto tweeted about the “youthfulness and whiteness” of the victims of the Humboldt Broncos crash “playing a significant role” in the millions raised for a GoFundMe campaign. Batra writes: “What a sad and senseless way to draw attention to other legitimate causes. Loreto, and many others on the extreme left, apparently feel they get a pass on saying vicious and hurtful things because they claim to represent oppressed minorities…No one with a good heart is looking at this loss of life in Saskatchewan through the lens of race or gender because this loss goes beyond race, gender and politics.”
She goes on to say in towns like this, everyone knows everyone—she knows this first-hand. They celebrate and grieve together.
“And whether you agree or disagree with her, she’s a representative of how people should stop thinking that journalists of colour are monoliths or even that Canadians of colour are monoliths.”
Back in Wallace’s office, Batra is the only woman and the only person of colour at the news meeting. The office is monotone—not unlike the rest of the Sun newsroom. A handful of content producers are huddled around Wallace as he sinks into his black leather chair. “So we have a story we’re going to break,” Batra says. Columnist (and sometimes reporter) Joe Warmington has a scoop.
“Are we going to do a video on it?” a producer asks.
“As long as it’s accurate!” she replies, laughing.