John Furlong has the right to be proud of his life and work
The Globe and Mail published this on October 30, 2015.
Lost in the clamour of last week’s federal election was the quiet sound of a door closing. John Furlong’s hard-fought struggle to clear his name reached its conclusion. Stories like these do not have happy endings, but we can at least mark the occasion and pass judgment where judgment is due.
Last Monday, Laura Robinson, the journalist whose articles in 2012 created a firestorm that threatened to incinerate Mr. Furlong’s reputation, announced she would not appeal the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss her defamation claim against Mr. Furlong.
Ms. Robinson’s articles claimed Mr. Furlong had misrepresented his past. That in telling the story of his family’s decision to immigrate to Canada in 1974, he had buried the story of an earlier time when he was a very young teacher at a parochial school for First Nations children in Burns Lake, B.C. And that, while at the school, he had abused students.
Ms. Robinson took direct aim at Mr. Furlong’s reputation as the man who had not only been CEO of the highly successful 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, but someone who had, for the first time, included First Nations as partners in those Games.
Mr. Furlong quickly and vigorously denied the allegations. He sharply criticized Ms. Robinson’s journalistic practices. He accused her of a “shocking lack of diligence,” of holding a “personal vendetta,” a “two decade-long pattern of inaccuracy” and more.
Key elements of her story soon began to fall apart. The RCMP investigated. They undertook a wide range of interviews and inquiries. They discovered no reliable evidence to support the claims of abuse. For example, one former student had not even been at Mr. Furlong’s school when the alleged abuse took place. No charges were laid. Lawsuits commenced by alleged abuse victims were dismissed.
In due course, Mr. Furlong himself decided it was time for closure, and he dropped his own claim for defamation against Ms. Robinson. But Ms. Robinson was determined to clear her name from Mr. Furlong’s attacks. In essence, she put her journalistic integrity on trial.
In a careful, methodical, 74-page judgment, without a single rhetorical flourish, Justice Catherine Wedge explains the law of defamation, analyzes the evidence and then finds that Mr. Furlong was entitled to respond as he did, and that he did not lose the right of verbal self-defence that arose when his reputation was attacked.
It was not necessary for Justice Wedge to decide whether Mr. Furlong’s criticisms were true, only that he was entitled to make them.
But her decision reads as a textbook on how not to do investigative journalism. She says at one point, “whatever [an] investigator’s professional credentials, he or she must be up to the task of determining, to the greatest extent possible, the accuracy of the information where guilt or innocence – or the reputation of an individual – is at stake.”
Justice Wedge spoke of the need to take the “greatest of care” to ensure the spontaneity and reliability of the statements of informants. Ms. Robinson had instead “telegraphed” her intentions, and “had no information from any independent source to support the allegations.”
At its best, investigative journalism can unearth important, hidden truths about misuses and abuses of power. The fearless pursuit of truth may sometimes cause collateral damage to reputations. Those whose reputations have been wrongly harmed have the right to sue for that harm. The law strikes a balance that recognizes the vital importance of vigorous public discourse, while imposing a measure of discipline intended to ground that discourse in fact, not fiction.
All of this requires journalists to work with skill, diligence and integrity. As the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision makes plain, that was not how Ms. Robinson did her work.
Last Monday’s announcement that Ms. Robinson would not appeal was both graceless and unrepentant, without even an acknowledgment of the brutal harm she had caused, not only to Mr. Furlong, but also those former students who were victimized by her zealotry.
But maybe at last, for John Furlong and his family, a door has closed. What they have gone through can never be taken back. It is appalling. No court judgment can fully undo the hurt.