How John Tory unmade his promise to “start digging” the Scarborough subway next year

(Image: Danielle Scott/Flickr)
(Image: Danielle Scott/Flickr)

On May 27, the John Tory campaign summoned the media to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. After weeks of promising to build a “Yonge Street relief line,” Tory was set to announce his SmartTrack transit plan, a proposal to retrofit existing GO lines into subway-like commuter corridors. It’s since become the centrepiece of his campaign.

Tory’s address to reporters was preceded by a technical briefing, in which campaign officials laid out the logistics of the proposal. Before delving into specifics, though, the campaign official leading the briefing made an uncharacteristically frank—even embarrassing—admission about Tory’s commitment to another transit project: the controversial Scarborough subway, which Tory had promised, if elected, to “start digging” in 2015. This is what the official said: “We are, of course, duly chastened in regard to when that [project] can begin. It cannot have the shovels in the ground tomorrow morning, as we had previously advertised. And we’re very sorry; and we won’t make that mistake again.”

The 2015 prediction had always seemed far-fetched, but now this person was saying, definitively, that it was wrong. It was a newsworthy quote, but it wouldn’t make news. The reason the official was free to phrase the admission in such unflattering terms is that he expected that his words would never be printed, because he was speaking on background.

“On background” is a journalism term for information given to a reporter on the record, but with the expectation that the source won’t be identified or quoted directly. It’s usually a way for sources to give journalists information while avoiding personal repercussions when that information is published. Tory’s team, though, uses the tactic to let officials who aren’t polished spokespeople explain his policies. In this case, it was being used to admit a mistake without actually seeming to concede the point.

Quotations given on background are normally considered sacrosanct (although there are exceptions to every journalistic rule). And yet, on June 1, a crucial chunk of the campaign’s apology appeared verbatim in an Olivia Chow press release attacking Tory. The release—titled “Reality Check: Another calculated misrepresentation by John Tory?”—read, “The Tory campaign said it was ‘duly chastened’ by the error [on the Scarborough subway].” The quotation and other pieces of the apology appeared in a subsequent release on June 20. Assuming Tory’s campaign hadn’t leaked the quote to Chow itself, one or more reporters had done her campaign a favour.

Jamey Heath, Chow’s communications director, said he spoke to a journalist on May 30. During the conversation, he said, the journalist made reference to the Tory campaign’s admission. Intrigued, Heath sought a second source. The next journalist he contacted refused to help him, arguing—correctly—that it wasn’t his or her job to help Chow’s campaign. Heath tried a third journalist, who proved more helpful. “Like any good Carleton journalism school graduate, I phoned another reporter, and asked him or her to confirm this for me,” Heath said. “He or she went away, and reviewed their tape, and then called me back with the exact quote.” Chow’s campaign now had direct quotations for use in their attacks on Tory, courtesy of a member of the media. (Toronto Life is printing the quote only because parts of it have already been published elsewhere.)

“I don’t think it’s a favour,” Heath said of the reporter’s efforts. “I see it as a reporter doing his or her job.”

Andrew Mitrovica, a journalist and journalism school instructor at the University of Toronto and Sheridan College, disagrees. Mitrovica, who has criticized journalists for clamming up when challenged about their own ethics, said the reporter who supplied Heath with the quotations should explain his or her choice to run errands for Chow. “The perception is that, in effect, you’re working hand-in-glove with that campaign,” Mitrovica said. “The reporter in question might have a different perception, but I’d like to hear the defence.” Heath refused to name any of the three reporters he spoke with, whom he said work at three different media outlets.

Meanwhile, Tory’s website still says crews will begin digging the Scarborough subway next year. His One Toronto transit plan claims that he will “start construction on the Scarborough subway immediately.” At a June press conference, I asked Tory why his campaign materials continue to promise something that even his own spokesperson has said is impossible. Tory proceeded to bend himself into a rhetorical pretzel.

“I think ‘shovels in the ground’ is an expression that we all use to say you’re getting on with the project,” Tory said. “I realize it may be a couple of years after all the different things are done that need to be done—but the bottom line: no delays.”


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