John Miller’s phone rang on the morning of November 1995. The chair of the journalism school at Ryerson Polytechnic University picked up the receiver and found himself speaking with Toronto journalist Judy Steed. There wasn’t any small talk. Steed had something on her mind.
“Is it true that Gerald Hannon teaches journalism there?” she asked. “Yes,” replied Miller.
“Do you know he’s a well-known advocate of pedophilia?”
“I know he’s a gay activist. What’s your point?”
“I’m very surprised you hired such a person. Would you hire Ernst Zundel to teach journalism there too?”
“Ernst Zundel is not a journalist.”
“Yes he is. He publishes a newspaper.”
“He’s a pamphleteer. What’s your point? Hannon’s teaching journalism. Do you have any evidence that his personal views enter the classroom?”
And Miller hadn’t received any student complaints about the part-time instructor.
Recalling that Steed had recently written a book, Our Little Secret, about the horrors of child abuse, he dismissed the call as a “personal thing.” He didn’t think he needed to investigate Steed’s concerns. No evidence, no student complaint, no problem, right?
Wrong. Miller didn’t know it, but his school was on the verge of a national scandal-a scandal sparked by Steed and fueled by Toronto Sun columnist Heather Bird, who not only shared Steed’s suspicions but decided to write about them. In a series of columns that ran from mid-November to early December, Bird systematically sought to portray Hannon not as a teacher of journalism who has radical personal beliefs, but as a dangerous peddler of perversion. Her crusade, enthusiastically supported by her right-wing newspaper in true tabloid style, cast Hannon and Ryerson into disrepute, launched a police investigation and triggered a public outcry. The question is, did Bird’s convictions uncover the truth or cause her to distort it? Thanks to her and the Sun’s relentless coverage, Gerald Hannon’s alleged misconduct became one of the year’s biggest stories. But perhaps the story that needs more scrutiny is whether that should have happened.
THE MAN AT THE CENTRE OF THE SCANDAL BEGAN HIS journalism career in 1972, when he started writing for a newly founded Toronto-based gay publication, The Body Politic. In 1977, Hannon penned an article for The Body Politic called “Men Loving Boys Loving Men,” arguing that man/boy sex isn’t always bad, but in fact can be based on mutual consent. Toronto Sun columnist Claire Hoy angrily drew attention to “Men Loving Boys” and as a result, Hannon and the publication wound up in court defending the decency of the article. It was almost six years before they were fully exonerated.
After The Body Politic closed down in 1987, Hannon embarked on a career as a magazine freelancer. He’s written about everything from Rita MacNeil to dog shows, has been published in Toronto Life, Saturday Night and Canadian Living and has won two National Magazine Awards. Almost five years ago, he began teaching magazine writing to night-school students at Ryerson. Then in January 1995, he switched to instructing a class for senior day-time students. But his views on man-boy sex and that article from 1977 weren’t forgotten by Judy Steed, now a Toronto Star reporter, who interviewed Hannon by telephone while researching Our Little Secret. It wasn’t until last November that she learned, from a student who contacted her on a student project, Hannon was teaching at Ryerson. She was surprised, to say the least. “He struck me as a nonjournalistic person because of his extreme views,” she explains. So, on November 9, she made that phone call to Miller.
Two days later, Miller attended the Toronto Women in the Media conference, at which Steed was speaking. As one of a panel examining how female journalists can overcome negative male attitudes, Steed said she’d felt bullied by Miller in their phone conversation about Hannon. She then took advantage of her public forum to mention that Hannon is an advocate of pedophilia and should not be teaching and influencing the minds of students. When the floor was opened for questions, Miller stood up and told Steed it was wrong for her to accuse Hannon if she didn’t have evidence of wrongdoing.
Their heated exchange, although cut short by the seminar’s mediator, was enough to pique the interest of Heather Bird, who happened to be in the audience. She approached Steed, told her she thought Hannon would be a good subject for her column, made a few calls, and three days later, on November 14, turned the writing teacher into “the professor of desire.”
“Should adults have sex with children?” her column began. “The answer, of course, is no. However, there is a Ryerson journalism teacher who begs to differ.” Introducing Hannon as someone who believes pedophilia can be healthy and “holds those beliefs out to his students as an example of how your convictions can make you a better journalist,” she quoted from a 1994 essay Hannon wrote for Xtra, a gay and lesbian newspaper. “I could never understand…how children’s hockey differed from an organized child-sex ring…Both involved danger. Both involved pleasure. Yet we approve of children’s hockey and deplore child-sex rings.” Bird said she confirmed with Hannon that he had indeed mentioned the subjects of child pornography and intergenerational sex in class. Hannon told her, “I don’t think any of my students were shocked. They are friendly and continue coming to class.”
Yet Bird claimed otherwise, insisting that, in fact, Hannon’s students were “profoundly unsettled by his beliefs,” and she quoted one anonymously as saying, “Teach me what you have to teach me and let me get out of here.” Not only were students “revolted” by Hannon’s views, wrote Bird, but “at least one of his colleagues has grave reservations.” Unable to draw those reservations from any active faculty members, however, Bird turned to Kathy English, a Ryerson teacher on a year’s sabbatical, who said, “I don’t think academic freedom gives you the right to spout off about anything.” On the basis of this evidence, Bird leaped to the conclusion that Hannon was using his position to persuade students to adopt his beliefs. She wrote, “There will be those who cite academic freedom to defend Hannon’s right to proselytize…The issue is whether the institution should grant him the platform to influence young minds.”
The words “proselytize” and “platform,” however unfounded, were too inflammatory to ignore. Bird’s column forced Ryerson to investigate Hannon’s classroom behaviour. Vice president of faculty and staff affairs Michael Dewson launched an investigation two days later, explaining that a formal complaint wasn’t needed-the Sun column was complaint enough. Hannon was surprised and upset by Bird’s attack. Sure, she’d called him a few days earlier, asking if he had brought up the issue of pedophilia in his class. But Hannon, just back from a trip to New York, was tired and unaware of Miller and Steed’s conversations. He understood that Bird was a Sun reporter; he didn’t know she was a columnist or think to ask what her story angle was. Trying to be honest, he stretched his mind back to recall a few instances in which he might have raised his views in class, but he had told Bird that all had been used strictly in the context of journalism, showing how people’s convictions-in this case, his-can help make their writing more compelling. (She obviously subscribes to the same policy.)
After reading Bird’s interpretation of the interview, Hannon flatly denied her allegation that he was trying to make converts of his students. He said it smacked of McCarthyism because she was attacking him for his personal beliefs and not for any inappropriate action he had taken. In fact, he thought her column could be used as an example for his students of the kind of journalism not to do. Hannon wasn’t worried about the Ryerson investigation. He said, “They’ll discover that what I allege and what my students allege is true-that my views do not enter the classroom and that I’m a good teacher worth keeping on.”
The majority of Hannon’s 26 senior students, all taking his class for the first time that year, apparently agreed. Nine students signed and sent a letter to the Sun and Bird, complaining about her column’s inaccuracies. Efforts were then made by the campus paper The Ryersonian to find out if some members of the class did have problems with Hannon but were afraid to go public, and if any students had talked with Bird. Of the 23 students contacted and offered anonymity by the newspaper, only one admitted to feeling uncomfortable in class because Hannon made numerous sexual references and talked openly about being gay. However, the student did not feel any pressure from the teacher to adopt his views.
The rest of those contacted had no complaints. Some had trouble remembering when, if ever, Hannon mentioned pedophilia; others recalled how he’d used it in reference to articles he’d written and the need to have a strong journalistic voice. Hannon once pointed out that he could write a good article to prove kiddie-porn isn’t always so bad, student Nicole Mortillaro told The Ryersonian. “We all did a double take of what he’d said. But he just mentioned it in passing.”
Only two students, Dan Brown and Christine Donnelly, said they’d spoken to Bird. They both gave her positive comments about Hannon, reflecting the general class opinion, but as Donnelly put it, “She wasn’t too interested in what I had to say.”
Bird says she tried to talk to 10 students and got through to five, three of whom were pro-Hannon and two were negative. Yet in her column, she chose to use only a negative quote and to leave the impression that many students were offended by Hannon’s views. Bird both defends and contradicts her selective use of the facts: “He’s not universally popular. There were students who were revolted by him and I did speak with two of them, but by and large, I mean, there’s no question he had a wide base of support.” Why didn’t his wide base of support get mentioned in that first column?
HEATHER BIRD WAS ONCE A RYERSON STUDENT HERSELF. SHE graduated from the journalism program in 1980 and has been a working journalist ever since. She’s spent time at The Toronto Star and The Ottawa Sun, written two books and, she’s quick to add, has never been sued. For the past year and a half, she’s been writing her opinions three times a week in The Toronto Sun. Her column is wide-ranging, well written and, like all Sun commentaries, it springs from an unquestioning sense of right and wrong. She defends the Little Guy and denounces things she feels are morally repugnant, such as Keith Legere, whom she has described as “an incurable pedophile who has been convicted of manslaughter.” Of course, Legere is a criminal. Gerald Hannon is not. He is just a freelance writer and journalist whose opinions go against Bird’s standards of decency. Even so, she wasn’t what anybody would consider a genuine “crusade” journalist until she targeted him again.
Four days after her first Hannon column, Bird wrote about an organization called the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). She stated that NAMBLA’s motto was “Sex before eight or it’s too late,” adding that the association’s views on adult child sex coincide with Hannon’s. Unfortunately, she hadn’t bothered to confirm these facts with him. If she had, she’d have learned that the motto she credited to NAMBLA actually belongs to an obscure pedophilia group, the Ren? Guyon Society. She would have also found out Hannon doesn’t agree with the credo. “It always struck me as such a ludicrous phrase. It’s prescriptive, and I don’t like prescriptive attitudes toward sex.”
Bird blames her motto mix-up on an unidentified source. “If you’re telling me it’s wrong,” she says, “I take responsibility for it. That was taken from some documents which were sent to me…It came from people who work in the field, and they were professionals, and I took their word for it, and clearly that was wrong.”(Oddly, Judy Steed made the exact same error, attributing the motto to NAMBLA in a letter she wrote to The Globe and Mail. Steed’s letter and Bird’s column both appeared on November 18.)
Lorrie Goldstein, the Sun’s senior associate editor, who oversees much of the editorial content of the newspaper, finds no fault with Bird’s Hannon coverage. “There are certain rules-get your facts right and then write what you think and say it honestly. On this one, I thought we did an excellent job.” Okay, but what if you don’t get your facts right and still write what you think?
Rosie DiManno, a columnist for The Toronto Star and a good friend of Bird’s, doesn’t criticize Bird’s columns on Hannon. But she does advise all journalists to do some thinking before they dive into a story. “Are we just going after somebody without proof?” she asks. “Is that fair? Are we falsely keeping a story alive instead of admitting that we were wrong in the first place?”
Seven days after accusing Hannon of proselytizing when the majority of his students denied it, three days after linking him to a pedophilia credo he doesn’t support, Bird reached back two decades to find a fresh angle to her story.
Bird questioned a passage from “Men Loving Boys” that describes a sexual encounter he’d overheard between a 12-year-old boy and an older man. She asked Hannon, during a November 18 debate on CBC Newsworld’s On the Line, if he’d written the truth. “I don’t write fiction. It happened,” replied Hannon. Bird’s next column, on November 21, reported that Hannon had “confessed to participating in a child sex assault,” and therefore could be charged with aiding and abetting, inciting a minor to participating in sexual acts and conspiracy. She also said that without a complainant, it would be hard to make criminal charges stick.
She was right on that front. Although the police did launch an investigation (which, interestingly, the Sun was first to report-in the very same issue as Bird’s column), they dropped it after less than a week, concluding that pursuing the issue without sufficient evidence was not in the public’s best interest.
Perhaps Heather Bird reached the same conclusion. Having cast suspicions on Hannon’s past and present (suspicions that were echoed across Canada on television, radio and in other papers), even she could not think of anything more to say. On the day of her third and, she thought, last Hannon column, she went to the Toronto neighbourhood of Forest Hill to do an interview for an unrelated story. She finished around six o’clock and started driving south to the Sun building. She was going a little too fast when she rounded a downtown corner and, to her horror, saw the front wheel of a bicycle. At the last minute, she swerved, missing the cyclist by less than six inches. Her heart racing from the close call, Bird looked at the cyclist she’d almost run down: it was Gerald Hannon.
A week later, it was Hannon’s bad luck to cross the Sun’s path again. Rosemary O’Connor, secretary to Sun editor John Downing, was sifting through the mail on November 24 when she noticed something a little out of the ordinary. Inside a local arts magazine, Fuse, that had come addressed to Downing, O’Connor saw a picture of Gerald Hannon. He was naked and in bed with a young man (who the Sun reported, was 21 years old). She approached Bird about the picture. “Heather,”she asked, “isn’t this the guy you’ve been writing about?” “Yeah,” said Bird. “It is.”
From the Fuse article, Bird learned that the photo was a still from a low-budget art film in which Hannon played a prostitute. The story was turned over to Sun reporter Thane Burnett, who, in turn, called Gerald Hannon about the film. During the interview, Burnett asked him if he worked as a prostitute.
And Hannon said yes.
After two weeks of inaccurate, sensationalized reporting, the Sun finally had a story. The next day, the frontpage headline gloated “Ryerson Prof: I’m a Hooker.” Bird’s fourth column called Hannon a “provocative old bugger” and “the chief architect of his own misfortune”(as if she hadn’t laid the groundwork for his fall). With the Sun’s startling discovery, Ryerson suspended Hannon, pending a second investigation into his conduct. Even some of Hannon’s most ardent supporters began to lose faith, feeling he lacked discretion, first by answering the question, and then by entering the media limelight to discuss his prostitution. John Miller, who’d backed Hannon from the beginning, began to waver. He told The Ryersonian, “I feel that the journalism department is being used as a platform for Gerald’s views, and that is unfair.” He also felt betrayed that Hannon never told him about being a prostitute. Atleast two other faculty members already knew. Some of Hannon’s students also felt betrayed by his admission. Under the university’s suspension, Hannon was unable to attend his last class, was banned from campus, was told to have no contact with his students and was asked to hand over all the students’ unmarked assignments. “It’s selfish for me to say that he could have thought of us first,” says student Nicole Mortillaro. “But he could have refused comment and he chose not to.”
So why in the world did Hannon tell the Sun he was a prostitute? “It was clear in my mind where Burnett was going to end up,” says Hannon. “Finally, he just came out and said, ‘Are you in fact a prostitute?’ and I made the decision to be truthful. If I denied it or no-commented on it there could have been a huge amount of innuendo in the paper about what does this really mean. When the Sun is going to run with my personal life, I’m not going to let them.” Later he offered further explanation, “Prostitution is not something I’m ashamed of. I’d rather be remembered as foolish than a liar.”
Bird doesn’t buy Hannon’s explanation of his candour. In fact, in her next column, she described his admission as “gratuitous.” When Thane picked up the phone, we didn’t know Hannon was a prostitute,” she says. “If there had been a no-comment, there would have been no story. At that point we didn’t have anything to prove that it was true other than, at best, a secondary source [the magazine].” But lack of proof hadn’t hindered Bird’s earlier columns. After two weeks of hounding the man, would the Sun really have ignored the picture of Hannon naked in bed with another man? After Hannon held a press conference on November 27 to answer questions about his suspension from Ryerson, Bird wrote a fifth column, saying he’d “adopted the demeanor of a wounded virgin.” Then came her sixth column, on December 2, which she said would be “the final word (one hopes) from this space on Ryerson’s philosophical pederast (or, if you prefer, peddle-your-ass) professor.” Sun readers could have found “pederast” listed in the dictionary as a synonym for “pedophile.” Bird went on to mock a pro-Hannon opinion piece written by one of his students, Adam Hunt, in The Ryersonian, calling it a perfect example of how a student can be swayed by a charismatic teacher.
In all, between November 14 and December 21, when Ryerson concluded its investigation, the Sun ran 13 news stories by 10 different reporters, one editorial, one “You Said It” streeter piece and seven columns talking about Gerald Hannon. (To balance Bird’s six Hannon diatribes, there was one by Christie Blatchford in his defense.) By contrast, the Star ran five Hannon news stories plus four opinion pieces; the Globe ran five news stories and three columns. Both papers published an editorial on the subject. The Sun’s coverage of Gerald Hannon was more than double that of the other Toronto dailies. Why?
Lorrie Goldstein would have us believe that “there’s an old rule of journalist: the other guy’s story-ignore it as much as you can.” Right. Check out the cat fights between the Sun and the Star to “get the story” during the infamous Karla Homolka publication ban.
Heather Bird would have us believe that “when any organization breaks a story, you’d tend to have more stories on it.” Not necessarily: Steve Tustin, deputy managing editor of the Star, says a newspaper that breaks a story simply gets a head start, not ownership of coverage.
Mike Strobel, city editor of the Sun, would have us believe that his paper “handled it pretty fairly…all we did is take the story and report it.” But in the beginning, there was no story. There were only Heather Bird’s suspicions and The Toronto Sun’s underlying agenda.
“Heather Bird does the kind of thing The Toronto Sun does,” says Michael Valpy, a columnist for the Globe. “It smokes out perversion wherever it can find it. It’s going to appeal to its redneck audience and that’s what it does. It’s horrible, a lot of it.” Valpy wrote one column defending Hannon’s right to teach.
Don Obe, director of the magazine stream at Ryerson and the man who recommended Hannon (a friend) for his Ryerson job, says the Sun’s coverage was “a smear campaign. It was a non-issue until Heather Bird’s column.” He still contends that Bird’s columns were “horseshit.” Bird has heard worse since she launched her anti-Hannon campaign. She’s been called a “gutter journalist” and told she’s got no integrity. “The left-liberal media elite has scorn for the right-wing, populist views the paper espouses,” she says. “And the people who don’t read it diss it.” Her editor does not care about the paper’s critics. “People have a right not to like us,” says Goldstein. “But they do take us seriously. Damn it, we’re saying things that maybe aren’t being said in the halls of academia a lot but are sure being said out on the street.” That doesn’t necessarily translate into good, accurate or fair journalism.
Five days before Christmas, Ryerson finished its two investigations into the activities of Gerald Hannon. First, it was found that he had not raised his views on pedophilia in class, and second, that his prostitution constituted behavior unbefitting a faculty member. Basically, Hannon got a slap on the wrist for talking about his prostitution with the media and was otherwise cleared of any wrongdoing. He returned to teach at Ryerson on January 8. The Toronto Sun was there too.
Heather Bird continues to believe, despite the results of the university investigation and the denials of Hannon and his students, that he was proselytizing: “The way that Gerald Hannon used his views and the way he described it to me in that original interview is that he was slipping them in,” she says. “He used the classroom as a chance to raise his views inappropriately and out of context.”
And what about Hannon? Does he wish he’d done anything differently during the scandal? He pauses, then slowly answers, “I don’t think so, other than maybe not talking to Heather Bird in the first place.”
Would it have made a difference?
Hoy Hating “Men Loving Boys Loving Men”
Gerald Hannon is no stranger to Toronto journalist Claire Hoy. “My good ol’ buddy, Gerry,” says Hoy sarcastically. Now a host on CBC Newsworld’s Face Off and one of the nation’s most outspoken right-wing media personalities, Hoy, not Heather Bird, was actually the first Toronto Sun columnist to take a bite out of Gerald Hannon.
It was 1977, a time when gay activists were pushing to change the Ontario Human Rights Code to include “sexual orientation,” and a time when most of the public was still shocked and angered by the sexual assault and murder of a 12-year-old shoeshine boy by four Toronto men. Claire Hoy was enjoying the second year of his 13-year stint as a columnist for the Sun when a friend showed him a copy of The Body Politic and pointed to a story by Gerald Hannon-“Men Loving Boys Loving Men.” The article infuriated Hoy. On December 22, The Toronto Sun’s front page read “Homosexual Horror Story”; inside, Hoy’s column centered on Hannon, his “vile” article about man-boy love, and why The Body Politic was receiving government funding to promote homosexual relationships with children.
“It’s sick,” says Hoy, 18 years later. “It’s a twisted view. It’s screwing little kids, pure and simple.” He’s glad Sun columnist Heather Bird brought Gerald Hannon to light again, questioning his fitness as a journalism instructor at Ryerson.
Ironically, each of Bird’s and Hoy’s first columns sparked a media frenzy and public debate on freedom of speech. More columns and intense Sun coverage also followed.
The Sun was the first in 1995 to announce a police investigation by Metro’s Special Investigation Services (formerly the morality squad) into the “sexual assault” Hannon had written about in “Men Loving Boys.”” The same thing happened in 1977-the Sun was the first to announce a police investigation by the morality squad into The Body Politic after the publication of “Men Loving Boys.” The Sun followed with coverage on how The Body Politic offices were eventually raided by the police and charges for publishing obscenity were laid. Although last year’s investigation was dropped after a week, it took until 1983 for the first set of charges to be finally dismissed.
Hoy explains the coincidence as “what goes around comes around” for Gerald Hannon. He feels his first column on Hannon contributed to The Body Politic raid and the eventual charges.
“The media is so candy-assed now;” says Hoy. “Most of this stuff you read that passes as columns is soft commentary. The Sun used to be a lot feistier and gutsier, and it’s gone soft. I’m happy to see the Sun is doing something noteworthy again. I think Heather should be commended for what she did. There are too many journalists who don’t have the balls to do it.” -C.P.
About the author
Angus Frame was a Senior Editor for the Spring 1996 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.