Rob Ford Holds a "Press Conference"
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Rob Ford Holds a “Press Conference”

On the mayor's first day back at City Hall he gave an address that was half mea culpa, half campaign stump speech.

Screenshot from CP24.

Rehabilitation is supposed to be about resetting the trajectory of your life. For politicians, representatives with a sworn duty to protect the interests of those who elected them, rehabilitation must to some extent happen in public. While rehab often causes people to make professional changes (moving work environments or avoiding certain colleagues, for instance), in the particular case of politicians—because of their ongoing relationship with the electorate and the expectation of transparency in a democracy—those professional changes take place out in the open. Or at least they should, if leaders are to regain the public’s trust.

The mayor held an event today, his first day back at the office. It was meant to inform us of his current state and future plans—to serve as his reintroduction to the people of Toronto after rehab. It was meant to demonstrate that he had faced his issues head-on, and was ready to return to work.

There was nothing—in his demeanour, in the content of his remarks, or in the nature of the event itself—to indicate that Rob Ford is a changed man.

The mayor spoke for 18 minutes, and his statement was roughly divided into two halves: an apology and a political call to arms. The first was vague, abstract, and generic. The second, sloganeering we have heard for years. The combination of the two was both odd and odious.

Apologies need, above all, to be specific. For an apology to constitute a genuine gesture toward making amends, you must specify what it is that you have done wrong. You must show some understanding of the toll it has taken on others, and you must indicate in concrete, specific ways the measures you are taking to ensure your behaviour will be different in the future. Ford’s speech contained almost none of these things.

The only specific act the mayor apologized for was making “hurtful and degrading remarks” about Karen Stintz. Entirely absent from his speech were the years of lying; his countless homophobic and racist remarks; the many misogynist remarks he has made independently of the ones about Stintz; the alleged mistreatment of his staff; his relationship to one Toronto’s major gangs; or acts of violence allegedly done in his name, or for the sake of his protection.

Rob Ford cherry-picked from the catalogue of his sins—known, suspected, and alleged—and focused only on the ones he could most easily dismiss. He spoke in broad strokes, with remarks like: “I want to sincerely, sincerely apologize not just to the people of Toronto but every single person who was hurt by words and my actions… I deeply, I deeply regret some of the personal choices I have made in the past.”

Which people? Which words? Which actions? What choices?

Without filling in the details, this is an apology that could have been scripted at any time, one Ford could have delivered any day since he first admitted to smoking crack. There was nothing new, and thus no reason to believe that he has come out of rehab with a renewed, deepened, or changed view of himself, his actions, or his role in the city.

“At GreeneStone I learned that in my position I am held to a higher standard,” Ford said at one point—stunning in its inadvertent admission of ignorance, but also extremely revelatory. Rob Ford has been mayor for more than three years and was a councillor for 10 years before that. Somehow, in all that time, the notion that holding elected office was a form of public trust did not occur to him?

“Substance abuse is a very, very difficult thing to overcome. But I will keep, I will keep battling this disease for the rest of my life,” Ford said. Two paragraphs later, he was waxing on about the gravy train and reducing the size and cost of government. He proceeded in this fashion, listing accomplishments related to garbage collection and Scarborough subways. What Ford needed to do today was show us that he had looked deep within himself, had wrestled with demons, emerged with new understanding. What we got was a funhouse mirror version of reality.

Rob Ford signalled his post-rehab attitude also in the very structure of today’s event: an unprecedented, invitation-only, parody of a “press conference.” Invitees were told in advance that no questions would be permitted. Of the outlets who were invited each was permitted to send only one reporter, and needed to advise the mayor’s office in advance who it would be. Among those who were not on the list: several dues-paying members of the City Hall press gallery (such as NOW Magazine); the president of the City Hall press gallery (David Nickle, who writes for Metroland); other media outlets in Toronto that routinely cover City Hall (including Torontoist and the Grid); and national wire services (such as the Canadian Press).

In short: the new Rob Ford did a remarkably good imitation of the old Rob Ford acting on especially bad advice on a particularly bad day.

Far more importantly, it was also a basic failure of his responsibility as an elected official. A free and independent press is a necessary part of a functioning democracy—which isn’t just about casting a ballot on election day, but presumes that those who are in a position to vote are also in a position to be informed voters. Denying reporters access, picking and choosing which reporters get access based on no discernible principle, refusing to answer questions—all these undermine the integrity of the institution Rob Ford has sworn to uphold.

But this “press conference” was not about resetting trajectories, or rebuilding faith with the public, or making amends. It was, as it has always been in Rob Ford’s mayoralty, about the man himself, about his sense of what we are permitted to know, about how much free rein his victory in October, 2010, entitled him to, no matter how much has changed since then. And insofar as it was about that—about him rather than Torontonians, about his needs rather than those of his constituents—this “press conference” was compelling evidence that whatever impact rehab may have had on Rob Ford’s private life (and we sincerely hope it took hold there), it has had as yet no demonstrable effect on his public, professional life, or on his conduct in office.

A note about City Hall press gallery membership: in order to join, a media outlet must rent office space at City Hall, which is charged at market-rate rents. This means there is a practical constraint on membership: there are a limited number of offices available, and sometimes media outlets have to wait to join the press gallery until one of them has been vacated. And there is additionally a financial litmus test for joining the press gallery (because the rent isn’t cheap) which puts smaller outlets at a disadvantage. Torontoist has several times proposed the creation of a non-tenant press gallery membership option, to help address these limitations; thus far, we have had no luck.

A note about the purported space limitations that forced a cap on the number of media who could attend: Ford’s staff opted to hold this event in the mayor’s suites of offices. The City Hall council chamber, though, has a Members’ Lounge that has traditionally been used for major press conferences. It is large enough to accommodate all interested media with room to spare—as it did, for instance, when we gathered there for David Miller’s post-G20 press conference. The space constraint the mayor’s staff cited to justify the media cap was purely a function of choosing to hold the event in the mayor’s Protocol Lounge, and an entirely manufactured problem.