The video is unsavoury, but it is necessary to form a complete understanding of the Rob Ford era.
It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time when the Rob Ford crack video was universally understood to be of the utmost public interest.
On Friday, the video was released after extortion charges were dropped against Ford’s former friend and driver Sandro Lisi, and the accompanying trial publication ban was lifted.
Yet, some questioned the wisdom of publishing the video. After all, this was a video of a pitiable man who died six months ago. Surely this was about voyeurism and not the public interest. Couldn’t media outlets think of his family? Was this an example of Rob Ford’s presumed enemies having one last kick at the can?
These questions ignore how journalism gets made, what constitutes the public interest, and the context that led to this point.
Let’s go back to May 2013. It was a wild time.
Two media organizations published that they had seen Rob Ford smoke crack on video. He denied that the clip existed. The accusations and behaviour exacerbated a governance crisis at city hall where staffers quit or were fired on a daily basis, allies left the fold, and the mayor was unable to lead on any policy initiatives. He called the media pathological liars and declared he wanted to see the video, if indeed it existed. A sizeable portion of the city agreed with the mayor in doubting that the video was legitimate.
Gawker crowdfunded $200,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to purchase it. The video got caught up in a gangs investigation, and Toronto Police spent millions of dollars on a case that revolved around this video. Thousands of articles were written about the video. There was even a book.
There is no question that the crack video, however unsavoury, is a central primary document of the Rob Ford era, and the death of Rob Ford in March does not change that fact.
In light of everything that has happened—rehab, cancer, and then his death—Ford comes across as a sad and tragic figure. It is also likely that the publication of the video is uncomfortable for the former mayor’s family and close friends. But it is uncomfortable to them for the same reason that it is important to the rest of the city: the video is a stark reminder of Rob Ford’s personal struggles and flaws as well as how the city’s politics were swept up and limited by them.
Publishing the video opens up the possibility that we can make sense of his world just a bit more and perhaps understand the era he presided over a little better.
The Rob Ford crack video does not have the importance it did in May 2013. But, the idea that media outlets should not publish it out of some sense of deference to his memory or as a means to ignore his influence does not do justice to his impact. He was at one point the most iconic, if not the most powerful and influential, Canadian politician.
It is in the public interest to remember and understand that era as it is, even if it is something we prefer to forget.