Conflict of Interests
A newspaper's integrity vs. a reporter's civil rights: why The Toronto Star fired Alan Story
If the first duty of a journalist is to serve the public interest by uncovering the truth, then Alan Story, an investigative reporter for The Toronto Star, had done his job well. Last spring, his startling accounts of corruption in the Metropolitan Toronto Police force led directly to the creation of a public inquiry into allegations of police wrongdoing. But when Story informed his editors that he had prepared a brief and intended to make a private submission to the inquiry, he was fired for breaching the newspaper’s conflict of interest guidelines. According to editor-in-chief John Honderich, Story had violated “a fundamental principle that a journalist cannot be both an actor and a critic in the same situation. To the Star, it was an open-and-shut case of a reporter who refused to play by the rules. To Story, the rules seemed an affront to his journalistic integrity and an infringement of his civil rights.
When Story, 43, joined the Star’s investigative team in 1989, he already had 10 years of accomplished reporting behind him. As a Halifax free lancer, he had played a key role in the reopening of the Donald Marshall murder case. Later, as a member of the Star’s Atlantic bureau, he disclosed that political influence had prevented the RCMP from laying criminal charges against Nova Scotia’s deputy premier, Roland Thornhill. Several days later, Thornhill was forced to resign his cabinet post. By the time Story arrived in Toronto, he had developed a nose for scandal and a taste for tales of corruption.
While doing a series of articles on the underworld of 10ronto’s sex trade, Story learned that a 29-year-old morality squad officer named Gord Junger had been involved in the operation of a sex-for-pay escort service. Story’s investigation revealed that Junger had signed a deal with the police force’s internal affairs unit in which he agreed to resign in exchange for assurances that no charges would be laid against him and all evidence would be destroyed. The Star’s front-page stories last April rocked the police force and caused an outpouring of public indignation. The following month, the Ontario Police Commission set up a public inquiry to examine the Junger case and the way allegations of police wrongdoing were handled by the internal affairs unit. In July, Story took a leave of absence from the Star to attend law school. But over the summer, on his own time, he continued to probe the operations of the internal affairs unit. Convinced that the information he had gathered was a matter of public interest, he prepared a 34-page brief detailing six cases of police wrongdoing that he believed had not been properly investigated or resolved by the force. Story took the brief to the Star in early September and offered it to the paper; he then told the editors he intended to submit the material to the commission of inquiry.
Honderich this was an outrage. Story had clearly stepped from the audience onto the stage, had crossed the line between critic and actor. He told Story that any move to take the brief before the commission would be a clear violation of the collective agreement and the paper’s internal conflict of interest rules. Story was given an ultimatum: He could stay on at the Star if he agreed to shelve his submission and refrain from disclosing its contents to anyone; or, if he was determined to volunteer information to the inquiry, he could resign. When Story declined both options, he was fired.
The possibility that criminal conduct by the police might go unpunished disturbed Story deeply. As a journalist, he felt it was his duty to focus attention on this information. As a free citizen, he felt it was his right. But in Honderich’s view, Story’s worries were unfounded. The public interest had been served when the inquiry was set up. Honderich was sure the questions and concerns Story raised in his brief would be dealt with in due course by the commission itself.
For Honderich, the issue is not the rights and duties of journalists, but the integrity of a newspaper and its employees. Story compromised that integrity when he abandoned his journalistic “objectivity” for the role of public crusader. How can readers trust a newspaper, asks Honderich, if its reporters become participants in the events they are covering?
“I think if we are to be believed, if papers are to have any credibility, then reporters can’t be seen as taking a role, having axes to grind. That’s what this incident is all about.”
And that, he says, is precisely the situation the Star’s conflict of interest rules are designed to prevent. The policy guidelines on outside activities outlined in the contract all employees sign state that “part of our obligations as journalists [is] to ensure that our reputations as objective fact finders are not compromised by an open display of political or partisan views on public issues.”
The specific limitations on reporters’ activities are severe. They cannot “hold any elected political office, work as an official on any political campaign,”
or openly endorse “any political candidate or cause.” They cannot hold office or actively participate in any community organization or pressure group about which they “may write or make editorial judgments.” And while reporters are free to determine what they do in their private lives, they are cautioned that “those activities might affect what newsroom duties [they] can perform impartially.” Story knew these rules; now, he would have to pay the penalty for breaking them.
“If you want to be a reporter at this paper, you have to agree to the conflict of interest provisions under the collective agreement,” Honderich says. “That’s not something you can opt out of and say, ‘I don’t buy it.'”
After consultation with his union, the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild, Story decided not to submit his brief to the inquiry. But neither was he about to let the matter drop. His own case seemed to fall into a gray area under the policy guidelines. He had been on an unpaid leave of absence when he wrote his brief-the work had been done on his own time and the brief clearly disclaimed any connection to The Toronto Star. He also had an agreement before he took the leave that if and when he returned to the Star it would be as a general assignment reporter, not as an investigative reporter writing about police matters. It seemed Honderich was applying an extraordinarily broad interpretation of the policy guidelines. A grievance lodged with Star management by the Guild on Story’s behalf contends that he wrote the brief as a private citizen, not as a Star employee, and that the newspaper, by preventing him from bringing important information to the public’s attention, violated his civil rights.
“We find it ironic that the Star, which supposedly exists to inform the public, is putting a muzzle on one of its own reporters,” Bill Petrie, a Guild representative, said in a statement after the firing. “We don’t believe a reporter’s duties as a citizen should be compromised by his or her duties to an employer.”
Petrie has since speculated that the Star may have ulterior motives for wanting to keep Story’s brief under wraps. Of the three major Toronto dailies, the Star was singularly aggressive in its pursuit of stories unfavorable to the police force. As a result, its relationship with the force had become severely strained. Petrie speculates that the paper is now trying to salvage that relationship by “putting a muzzle” on Alan Story. Honderich says that charge is nonsense. The Star encouraged this kind of reporting and gave Story free rein to carry it out. And, in spite of considerable opposition from police chief William McCormack, the Star published his stories and continues to stand by them. But as editor, Honderich could not stand by a reporter who flouted the newspaper’s rules. If Story had concerns about police wrongdoing, there was a proper time and place to air them.
“Mr. Story was going to be and probably will be called to testify at this [inquiry],” Honderich says. “It was because of his stories that the commission was set up, so he will, in the circumstances of the hearing, be allowed to answer questions and make statements. And remember that it is our policy, when reporters are subpoenaed, that they should go to these commissions of inquiry and answer the questions.”
Story, however, is not at all confident he will get that opportunity. The inquiry, which began hearing evidence in December, has yet to subpoena him. Whether Story did the right thing is a question to be answered when his grievance goes to arbitration, perhaps as early as this summer. But few journalists would disagree that, in theory at least, there are times when a reporter’s duty to serve the public interest must take precedence over any contractual obligation to an employer. Harvey Schachter, deputy editor of Kingston’s WhigStandard and a former Star employee, believes that newspapers do not police potential conflicts of interest well enough, and he favors written rules along the lines of the Star’s (the Whig, as yet, has no formal policy guidelines). He adds that as a manager he might be forced to fire a reporter who acted in defiance of his editors, but as a journalist, he can conceive of situations in which such acts may be legitimate. “We exist to tell the public things, and if we can’t tell them because our media organizations clamp down on us, we have an obligation as citizens to get it out somewhere,” Schacter says. “Journalists have a higher duty to obey, and that’s their conscience.”
Alan Story obeyed his conscience, and right or wrong, it cost him his job. In the end, that may be the most troubling aspect of the case. What should journalists do on those rare occasions when their duty to serve the public interest collides with a newspaper’s obligation to uphold its integrity and credibility? If we expect journalists to sacrifice their livelihoods to get important information out, then perhaps we are asking too much. Yet if we ask anything less, the public interest could well be betrayed.
by Mark Darling
Mark Darling was an Issues Editor for the Summer 1991 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.