It's amazing how quickly we got used to normal. On Monday, Mayor Rob Ford made his bombastic return to Toronto City Hall and it was almost like he never left. The circus was back in business, and Ford was happy to oblige their desire for three-ringed chaos: turning heart-felt apologies into campaign speeches, avoiding the press, hijacking a fellow-council member's issue about spending at Waterfront Toronto and conflating it to the nth degree, and today, on live radio, once again promising the impractical phase-out of street cars. All this, and his brother/campaign manager Doug Ford telling the father of an autistic child to "go to hell" over a complaint filed to the integrity commissioner about Doug's comments about a halfway house for autistic youth in Etobicoke. In other words, it was business as usual.
Although not the most galling of his various infractions against the public trust, Rob Ford post-rehab amends seem not include any forgiveness for the media. Along with the return of the barriers in front of the mayor's office, Ford's welcome back press conference was invite only where no questions could be asked. He then lined up a bunch of one-on-one interviews with the press and cancelled all but two, although he did boldly go to the Newstalk 1010 studios today to be interviewed by conservative pundit Jerry Agar, who arguably, at this point, is the only receptive audience Ford has.
Press freedom is not a new front in the war between Ford and his growing list of enemies, but it is a classic. Before barrelling through a gauntlet of reporters like a quarterback within sight of the end zone, before calling a well-known and respected reporter a pedophile on national TV, before screaming at reporters to stay off his lawn, and before than magical velvet rope of protection, Ford's relations with the media were already strained. His office has shut off access to reporters from publications they deem "unfriendly" and schedules of appearances and other public documents are only rarely forthcoming. Media outlets have been forced to file Access to Information requests for the most basic details about the operation of the mayor's office, or as Doug Ford calls it, a "jihad."
Monday's events took things to a new level. Knowing that interest was high, knowing that people were expecting an all-new, all-different Rob, Mayor Ford held his press conference in a space limited only to about 25 people, hence the invitation only nature of the presser. When asked why they couldn't hold it in a bigger space, the mayor's staff offered no answer. There was briefly some talk of a boycott, but not enough of the invited members of the media wanted to give up their seat for what was, in essence, the hottest ticket in town. So no boycott either, and Ford was thus able to deliver his message of Hey, I have my demons, sorry, I've got them covered, now let's go on and fight the gravy train.
But what's the big deal? You might be saying that and thinking that, after all, Ford's address was blasted across every news channel acronym on the TV dial. Consider this: all news outlets that cover Toronto City Hall are members of the City Hall press gallery, and whether they be the Toronto Star, NOW Magazine of even the blog Torontoist, they have to pay for the privilege. Of those three I mentioned, two were barred from the press conference, and the third was chastised by staffers for having the audacity to shout out questions. Yes, Daniel Dale wanted to know what exactly Rob Ford was sorry for, and he was threatened with expulsion from public property because, as a reporter, he demanded answers from a politician.
But let's rewind. Members of the press gallery pay to be members, and in return they (are supposed to) get unfettered access to public meetings, documents and a desk at City Hall from which to prepare and file stories. Space is limited, and you can't become a member of the press gallery until there's a vacancy. It's like an exclusive club. Elitist? Maybe that's why Rob Ford had no qualms about inconveniencing a few reporters.
One of the inconvenienced was David Nickle, who's not only the Toronto City Hall reporter for the Metroland chain of newspapers, he's also the president of the press gallery. "Because the ban is only of limited effect, the only other motive one might guess at would be a simple show of strength," Nickle said in an editorial. "The mayor doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to do this. He returns to his office, and one or two of his statutory powers, but after weight loss and rehab, he is still rendered largely impotent at city hall."
This is the letter that Nickle sent to Ford's PR assistant as a formal complaint about the treatment of the press gallery:
June 30, 2014
President, Toronto City Hall Press Gallery
100 Queen Street West
and Media Relations
Office of Mayor Rob Ford
I'm writing today in my capacity as President of the Toronto City Hall Press Gallery, regarding Mayor Rob Ford's decision to exclude certain media from attending his June 30 speech.
The pretext for your decision to selectively limit the number of journalists attending the mayor's speech seems to be the small size of the venue the mayor has chosen: his office's protocol lounge. It's the gallery's position that this is only a pretext: as Toronto's own Strategic Communications department has pointed out to you and to us, there are many spaces at Toronto City Hall where the mayor can speak in front of all the interested Toronto media.
It's further the gallery's position that this is what the mayor owes Toronto—not only on his return to his elected position after a well-publicized paid leave of absence, but on any matter of municipal interest. Torontonians gather their news from a variety of sources—television, radio, print and online publications—and they are well-served by the broad range of perspectives provided by individual outlets and journalists. Choking off access to any one of those outlets or journalists is a disservice to Torontonians, by their duly elected mayor. It thwarts democracy.
The Gallery would respectfully request that the mayor follow the advice of Toronto's public service, and relocate the speech to the Member's Lounge in the Council Chambers, where he has delivered nearly all of his addresses since the fall of 2013. As you are aware, the Protocol Lounge is unsafe for the number of journalists and news outlets who have a right to attend.
Tough but true. Ford also invited a number of councillors to one-on-one meetings upon his return at the beginning of the week, and only two took him up on his offer. Cracks in the normally calm veneer of the Toronto electorate then started to appear thanks to the Shirtless Jogger, an East York high school teacher named Joe Killoran who shouted down Ford at a Canada Day parade. That, in turn, inspired the Shirtless Horde, a collective of protesters that demonstrated in front of the Newstalk studios today. In between, the Toronto Sun, the Ford Nation's state-sponsored news source, printed their own editorial calling for Ford to step down. At this point, Ford has no political support outside his own flesh and blood.
In fact, Ford has whatever the opposite of political support is, as some councillors seem to be going out of their way to remind him of the public nature of the office he holds. Councillor Paula Fletcher is bringing forward a motion at next week's city council meeting that "no accredited members of the City Hall press gallery be excluded from any media conference at a city facility," according to NOW Magazine.
"This isn't the mayor's building," Fletcher told the magazine. "Council needs to direct that city space be used in a democratic manner and that access is equal. We have a press gallery here. They pay rent. And to say those press aren't invited in the very City Hall in which they pay rent, that's just not right."
A positive effort, although ultimately doomed to fail. Not that it has no chance at passing in council, it probably has a very good chance of passing in council, but Ford in his typical Fordness is unlikely to care. He just won't hold any of his press events at city hall, or he will and ignore the motion under the likely correct assumption that there's nothing that can be done to him, he can't be removed from office and his has no more powers to take away.
The notion of the free press continually sees itself eroded, the concept to people like Rob Ford is an afterthought because he thinks he's above it due to a pre-existing media bias against him. What Ford forgets is that he's unlikely to win those people over by solidifying his position that the press is the enemy, and that whether he likes the media or not, they still have a job to do, and his job is to address them and answer their questions. You may not think so sometimes, but the press is supposed to be a surrogate for the general public, the average citizen can't be at city hall all day, but the media can and, in fact, pay to do so. Sadly though, it seems that the only way for those principles to return to Toronto City Hall is for Rob Ford to leave on October 28.