Mi-Jung Lee
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The Importance of Being Harry

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Can the media justify the anguish of private lives thrust into the glare of public scrutiny?

Toronto lawyer Harry Kopyto offers his media storehouse like a host ushering a guest to the buffet table. “What do you need?” he asks. “Print? Video? Radio?”

The chubby 42-year-old proudly claims that more than 1,000 articles about him have appeared in local papers during his 15 years as a lawyer.

In Kopyto’s study, where he keeps part of his collection, huge framed photographs of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin glare down from the walls. Another picture shows Kopyto standing on the edge of a rocky shore, his black gown flapping dramatically in the wind.

For reporters, this avowed socialist is a quote machine on fast forward. Every sentence is powered by indignation, and blasts at the judicial system jump effortlessly from his mouth. “Most judges are so conservative, they’re just to the right of Attila the Hun.” Or his most famous line: “The courts and the RCMP are sticking so close together you’d think they were put together with Krazy Glue.”

Harry Kopyto makes colorful copy, but his outbursts aren’t just witty metaphors aimed at getting smothered giggles in courtrooms. He is ever conscious of the media’s usefulness. And judging by his library walls insulated with clippings and audio and video tapes of his media coverdge, it’s a game Kopyto knows well.

As a lawyer championing the cause of the poor, Kopyto i has doggedly phoned reporters, invited them to his rallies and called news conferences to vent outrage over his court battles. Recently, though, in a controversial bout with the Law Society of Upper Canada, the outspoken Kopyto lost. The self-governing body for Ontario lawyers disbarred him for overbilling the Ontario Legal Plan by $150,000 between 1985 and 1986. Kopyto has appealed the decision and is waiting for a hearing date to be set.

Gord Doctorow, a longtime friend, considers Kopyto an expert at manipulating the media. “He’s not trying to do it to make Harry Kopyto a cult figure. He always educates people, always draws political and social connections to the class-biased system.”

Globe and Mail reporter Kirk Makin also acknowledges Kopyto’s skill at getting his name in the paper. But, he adds, Kopyto is losing his sense of perspective because of all the publicity He notes that Kopyto’s “outrage at his cases has become louder, more frequent and more provocative.”
Donn Downey, another Globe and Mail reporter, says Kopyto’s constant stunts make him a bit of a joke among the media. But Kopyto counters, “I have a better track record than most lawyers. I’ve won cases that other lawyers wouldn’t even take on.”

Ironically, the announcement of his disbarment signalled the height of Kopyto’s media coverage. Although he has appealed the Law Society’s decision, his successful relationship with the Toronto media may nearly be over.

Kopyto brandishes another article, a tongue-in-cheek story written during his disbarment hearings. The lead paragraph rings with his favorite theme: “Harry Kopyto, lawyer for the poor, the unwashed and the dispossessed” Kopyto was so pleased with the story that he plastered it on the back of a pamphlet he handed out to encourage supporters to come to his hearing.

He missed the subtle irony of the article, just as some may miss the self-effacing humor tucked into the cracks of his heroic language. “Without them [his supporters],” Kopyto says, “there’s no Harry
I’m the reincarnation of their own spirit and determination. “I don’t need articles about me,” he says. “I don’t need to be on TV: I do what I have to do. If it attracts attention, so be it. By the way, would you like to see another biography of me?

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