Are there ethical questions about buying the alleged Rob Ford crack video?

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

In the midst of a bizarre media appearance on Wednesday, the brother of embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford turned the city’s attention to a crowdsourced attempt to buy a video purportedly showing his brother smoking from a crack pipe.

The bid was launched by U.S. gossip site Gawker after it broke the story that a video existed of Ford smoking from a crack pipe and that a man claiming to be his drug dealer was looking for a “six digit” payday for the recording.

"To the folks at Gawker: What you are doing is disgusting and horribly wrong,” Coun. Doug Ford told reporters on Wednesday. “Giving away prizes to try to raise money for drug dealers and extortionists is disgraceful."

Doug Ford’s decision to address the bid to buy and publish the video likely did not have the effect he intended. After raising $108,000 of its $200,000 target, donations had begun to lag.

In the hours after Doug Ford attacked the campaign, the public poured in $10,000 in further donations, raising the total donation to more than $118,000. Five days remain in the campaign.

[ Related: Rob Ford’s brother makes ‘worst’ attempt at damage control ]

As Toronto Mayor Rob Ford continued to duck questions about his history with drugs, the issue does not seem to be ready to disappear.

While Gawker and others focus on buying the video in question, another group of concerned citizens is organizing a sit-in, in an attempt to force the mayor to address the allegations.

"He's used this tactic before - refuse to answer questions and go on like nothing is happening," the group writes on its website.

"It works because the media can only write so many 'Rob Ford said nothing' stories before the public gets bored and moves on.

"As a city, we need to take back control of this story. We need to show the world that we will not stand being ignored by the man who is supposed to be our leader."

The sit-in had been planned to be held outside Ford's Etobicoke home at noon on Saturday. But by Wednesday afternoon it had been moved to Sunday, outside the offices of Newstalk 1010 where the Ford brothers host a weekly radio program.

But sit-in or not, it seems the only way Ford will take the scandal seriously is if the public actually gets to watch the video. And as it seems those who have the video are still looking to get paid for their treasure, bids to buy the video are not about to go away.

At one point early in the controversy there were as many as seven fundraising campaigns running on the popular site Indiegogo, including a campaign championed by British Columbia newspaper The Province.

That campaign was eventually dropped, but Gawker’s bid lives on. And it is getting close.

The idea of buying alleged evidence of a crime has made some queasy. The Toronto Star itself has said it was asked to buy the video but elected not to pay. Although columnist Rosie DiManno said, ethics be damned, let’s do it.

[ More Brew: Jon Stewart take crack at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ]

“Because somebody will,” she wrote this week. “And if that somebody happens to be an ally of the mayor or just a Ford junkie with deep pockets, the purported evidence of Toronto’s chief magistrate sucking on a crack pipe will disappear — locked in a vault, burned, erased.

“Then, all deniability would be plausible.”

She goes on to say that while the idea is distasteful and unethical, it is “not illegal, not immoral and definitely justifiable.”

DiManno points out that police often pay snitches for information. Cash rewards are given out through Crime Stoppers. In the U.S., media paying for information is seen as more acceptable. Gawker editor John Cook told the Huffington Post that he believes they were approached with the video because of their history of paying for exclusive information.

And they would have paid for it, he said, had it not been out of their price range.

Before The Province abandoned its own bid to crowd fund the purchase of the video, digital editor Erik Rolfsen addressed the ethical question by saying the newspaper was just responding to a public demand.

"We'd like to see the video exposed if we can. There are a lot of people who want to see it and judge it for themselves," Rolfsen said in a video.

"We were responding to a demand that was clearly out there. People wanted a place to give their money. Secondly, we have long had a policy that we won't pay for news. And in this case we won't be paying for news. We haven't donated a cent to our own campaign. We are simply giving people who want to pay for it a venue to do so."

There are some naysayers, however. Robyn Urback writes in the National Post that the last thing the public should be doing is rewarding drug dealers.

“At this point, Toronto really doesn’t need to see the video. The mayor, at present, has only two choices — either own up to the allegations and beg for absolution, or deny the claims in absolute terms and declare the video a complete hoax. Whether the actual clip in question surfaces won’t make one bit of difference,” she writes.

Her argument, that obtaining the video would simply give Ford’s opponents the “thrill” of seeing it again and again, doesn’t really address the question of whether the purchase would be ethical. Only whether it is necessary. And considering the city has been sucked into a nearly week-old abyss of dismissal and dysfunction over the video, that argument is suspect.

If Ford refuses to address the allegations, and his allies dismiss the scandal over the alleged shakiness of its bedrock, that is exactly what should be done. Whether it is pleasant in another question entirely.

Chris MacDonald, the director of a business ethics program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, suggests that both the ends and the means of buying a video from purported drug dealers are justified based on what the video would address – whether Ford is fit to be mayor.

MacDonald writes for Canadian Business:

So perhaps we can say that the deal, if it happens, would be merely unseemly, rather than fully unethical. And that’s an important distinction. Too often the question gets posed as “Is this ethical?” when what would be more useful is to ask “Just how bad is this?” We shouldn’t think of these things in binary terms. It’s OK to be vaguely uncomfortable with a course of action, as long as we ask ourselves why.

The ethics debate is likely to continue right up to the point that Gawker raises enough money, buys the video (if it is still available) and broadcasts it online. And then the argument becomes moot. If and when that happens, expect Gawker to stamp a massive “exclusive” banner on the video.

And also expect the rest of us – the public, the politicians and news organizations – to view the footage on a days-long loop. And, hopefully, expect police to test the veracity of its contents and put all these questions to bed.

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