Q&A: Joe Warmington, the journalist Rob Ford still likes talking to
When it comes to getting information from mayor Rob Ford, there’s the Sun’s Joe Warmington, and then there’s everybody else. Somehow, the mayor seems to be candid with the veteran columnist, even as he systematically cuts off reporters he doesn’t like. (Remember those times when Ford actually spoke to a reporter from rehab? That reporter was Warmington.) As a result of this rapport, Warmington has been called “Rob Ford’s personal Oprah,” a “go-to mouthpiece” and one of the mayor’s “enablers”—even if his competitors still begrudgingly reprint whatever information he gets. We spoke with Warmington about hate mail, his relationship with the mayor and the ethics of paying for a story.
I was kind of expecting a fedora.
The fedora was a marketing prop. Originally, [former Sun editor, current Sun columnist] Mike Strobel suggested that I do the Night Scrawler column, which I did from 1999 until 2005. We were trying to do a photo shoot, and I went to a store to get some cool clothes to wear for the picture. There was a fedora there, and I grabbed it, and that was the shot that Mike Strobel picked of all the shots. But then people started to expect it, so I wore a fedora for six years non-stop. It was something that allowed me to get into that character of “the scrawler.”
So earlier this summer, Rob Ford was gone for two months. What was that like for you as someone who covers city hall?
Well, he wasn’t out of the picture.
Right—he was calling you from rehab.
He never called me. People portray it as if he calls me, and that I just pick up the phone.
In one of your articles, you said that he called you.
He might call me back, but as far as I remember, I initiate the calls. Everybody else tries to initiate it, and I’m able to get him. I didn’t treat him being away as anything different as when he was here. Obviously, there was a time when we didn’t have contact with him. But whenever something developed, I would call him. There was a lot of pressure from Doug and others to leave him alone, and I do want him to get better. But there were a number of things that happened, and every time I called him, most of the time I got him. I presented what I was able to get to the public.
It seems like he gives you information that he doesn’t give other reporters.
Is it that? Maybe I’m able to get the information. Nintety-nine per cent of what you read is that he’s using me, or what have you, even though all those same media people take my information and put it in their stories. So obviously it’s something that they want. I’m always surprised, particularly by people in the media, that they try to sewer my character or my professionalism when they’re also using my material that they couldn’t get.
It’s well known that he simply won’t talk to certain reporters. If you’re from the Star, he’s not talking to you. It seems like he has a rapport with you that he doesn’t have with many reporters.
It’s probably true. I don’t know what the rapport is. I mean, I got him at a soccer game after he got out of rehab, and I haven’t talked to him since. I’ve called a number of times. I’ve even called today, and he hasn’t got back to me. So it’s not as easy as it looks. I think he trusts me, but he also knows that I’m not going to sugarcoat it either. If you really look through the columns, you’re going to see that the service I provide is to take what he says and put it out there. Sometimes I’ll filter it, sometimes it’s just in his own words. We have other reporters like Michele Mandel and Don Peat who have been uber-critical of him, so anything that needed to be covered that way was being covered as a team. If you look back to the night that he went into rehab—we broke that story. Was that softball? We had audio that nobody could get, that I was able to get, and we didn’t let him off the hook. At the same time, the Globe and Gawker were negotiating for the really damning photograph, which we were also aware of, but we wouldn’t negotiate with those people.
What do you mean you wouldn’t negotiate? The Toronto Star said that they wouldn’t pay for the original crack video, but they still managed to get something to work with.
You’d have to talk to them, but my understanding is that they were negotiating for the video and it was out of their league. I’m not going to make any judgment on that. We—the Toronto Sun—did not negotiate for that video. We could have negotiated. We were contacted about the original video, and we were also contacted by Gawker to make a deal. Ethically—and I’m not making a judgment—the Globe and the Star have paid for materials, and the Sun has never paid.
It’s interesting to me, because you have reporters like you, who have access to the mayor, and you value access—
I’m not a reporter. I’m a columnist. It’s a big distinction that a lot of people fail to grasp. Daniel Dale, Robyn Doolittle or Don “Pistol” Peat—they’re very good reporters, those three. But they’re not columnists. They’re not supposed to shape opinion or put their opinion in. With me, I’m a reporter/columnist. I’m like a reporter, but at the same time, I might put an opinion in. I don’t have to try to make you or an editor happy about balance.
What I’m getting at is that you have reporters like Don Peat. Then there’s you, who has access to the mayor—
I don’t have access to the mayor. I have to correct you. I have his cell phone number.
So you have a skill in getting him to speak.
He has his motivations. Obviously, he’d like to have his message out, and he has to have somebody to get it out at times. There are other times when I’ve gotten the information out. It’s all of those things. If I haven’t gotten something in a column, it’s in Don Peat’s article or Michele Mandel’s column. Nobody’s presented to me any kind of fact to show that what I’ve done is anything but breaking news.
Before Rob Ford was mayor, what was your relationship with him like? How did you get to know him? Did you ever hang out on a friendly basis?
We’re not friends. I’ve never been to his house, he’s never been to my house. But I did a lot of stories about him before. Ideologically speaking, the Rob Ford agenda coincided with the Sun’s agenda. They kind of married nicely together. We may have gone down the road of supporting John Tory last time, had he chose to run. But Rob Ford was tremendous in opposition. He was great for columnists because he was able to come up with these stories that were easy to do, about spending or things like that. He was very good on radio. I followed him on council a little bit, but then I started hearing him on the radio, and from there I started to call him and write stories. I’m pretty sure I broke the story that he was going to run for mayor. And I encouraged him to run for mayor. I thought he would make a tremendous candidate, and I think in many ways he’s been a good mayor. Obviously, there’ve been issues, but if you look at his achievements, some of those are real.
Well, the things that he touts. I think they’re legitimate. Obviously, the behavior is serious. But really, it’s not that serious. If you take the mayor’s title out of it, I can guarantee you that there are people that I know or you know who have acted the same way, or even worse. There’s nobody who could have survived the scrutiny that he’s been under. I think he’s made mistakes. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, and he’s certainly not as bad as they say he is.
Having followed the mayor for a long time, how surprised are you at the course his narrative has taken? Could you see any of these problems budding, or could you foresee that he might go down this path?
I knew that he would be a character. He’s the author of his own misfortune, because he got involved in drugs and alcohol, and he wasn’t honest and open about it. Maybe I was naïve to think it wouldn’t be a big deal, and I still don’t think it’s a big deal. There are a lot of people who are offended by it, but there are also a lot of people who are ideologically offended by him, and that’s their leverage point. Most of the media are looking to present things in the worst possible way. I don’t operate like that. I like everybody who is running for mayor.
What do you do when you piss off a guy like Rob Ford? Because he called you once to let you know that he was mad at you.
That’s the time that he called me. What do I do? I report it. I took everything he said, and within an hour I had put it online.
Weren’t you concerned that he would cut you off?
It crossed my mind, and everyone said that it would happen. I just reported what the guy said. If you read the column, I didn’t say I hated him. I didn’t say I was mad at him. My family could hear bits and pieces of it on the phone. He was out of control. I wasn’t the one in the wrong, but I don’t hold grudges. I’m not in the business of trying to nail somebody.
Did you go to Ford Fest?
No, I was out of town. It’s the first one that I’ve missed in the last few years. I just watched it on CP24. I was fascinated by how the media dealt with the situation, and how smart the opponents of Ford are, and how worried they are about him. Because make no mistake: he is the guy to beat. If he didn’t go to the [East York church] debate, nobody would have watched the debate. Whether he’ll win or not, we’ll see. He’s got an uphill battle.
Have you gotten any hate mail recently?
Oh man. The hate mail is nonstop. If you read it, you can really start to believe it. Not just the email, but Twitter. Sometimes you’ve got to defend yourself on there, and sometimes you’ve got to ignore it. Most of the people are anonymous, but they get under your skin. I’m still waiting for somebody to present me with something I’ve written that is not journalistically sound—keeping in mind that I’m a columnist. Rob Ford is a man, and when he’s been a real horse’s ass, I’ve written that. My job is to get people to read my column, and they do. They do because I have access and I have something to say.