British Columbia

John Furlong accused of PR attack on Georgia Straight and reporter

The editor of the Georgia Straight claims John Furlong conducted a sustained public relations campaign against the paper and a freelance reporter in the wake of an article alleging the former Olympics CEO abused children at Burns Lake school.

Newspaper editor says paper lost ad revenue to defamation suit and statements by former Olympics CEO

The editor of the Georgia Straight claims former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong, above, mounted a public relations attack on the newspaper and reporter Laura Robinson. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Georgia Straight's editor claims John Furlong conducted a sustained public relations attack on the paper and a reporter in the wake an article alleging the former Olympics CEO abused children at a Burns Lake Catholic school.

Testifying in B.C. Supreme Court, Charlie Smith said he believed Furlong never seriously intended to pursue a lawsuit he filed against the alternative weekly — and then dropped a year later.

"I always thought that was just a PR narrative," he testified.

Freelance journalist Laura Robinson claims Furlong defamed her in his responses to the September 2012 article; the piece reported allegations of physical and verbal abuse against students at Immaculata school.

Robinson claims she suffered financially, emotionally and physically as a result of repeated accusations implying she is unprofessional, unethical and motivated by a personal vendetta.

Freelance journalist Laura Robinson claims John Furlong defamed her in his responses to her 2012 Georgia Straight article. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Although Furlong publicly announced legal action following the article's publication, Smith said he never contacted the paper to say he was withdrawing his suit in October 2013.

Smith said he learned the news from other media.

"I was flabbergasted," he said. "Why wouldn't you inform someone after what you put them through?"

Smith said he thought Robinson made remarkable efforts to be transparent in her reporting.

"Laura Robinson does not play 'gotcha' journalism," he said. 

Legal and moral issue

Smith said he introduced the idea of getting affidavits from the First Nations students who alleged Furlong abused them, because "it's a very solemn thing." 

He said he was surprised when Robinson came back with eight.

Smith said he was aware of the legal ramifications of publication, but felt he had a choice to either put the affidavits in a filing cabinet or publish them.

"There's a legal issue there, but there's also a moral issue," he said. "We didn't want to give up in giving them a voice."

Smith said he also wanted Furlong's voice in the piece.

"I didn't want to be unfair to Mr. Furlong," Smith said. "He has a life. He has a family."

On cross-examination, Smith said neither he nor the paper called Furlong directly.

But he said it was clear from his lawyer's responses to Robinson that Furlong wasn't going to be commenting.

Not 'an attack'

Much of the testimony in the week's trial has centred on an allegation of sexual abuse edited out of the Georgia Straight article, but left in a piece Robinson published in the Anishinabek News.

Smith said he felt the sexual abuse allegation didn't fit the "fact pattern" of the other affidavits.

The woman who made the allegation sued Furlong after the article ran. She later withdrew her claim, and two other suits against Furlong were dismissed when it emerged the claimants didn't attend Immaculata.

Furlong has never been charged in connection with any of the allegations and has maintained his innocence throughout.

Smith noted that many other organizations reported the unverified claim, but Furlong only sued the Georgia Straight and Robinson.

Furlong dropped his defamation suit against Robinson this spring. But she didn't reciprocate.

Furlong maintains his comments about Robinson don't amount to defamation, because he was entitled by qualified privilege to respond to an attack. 

Smith said he didn't see the article that way.

"I wouldn't characterize it as an attack," he said. "I would characterize it as an exploration of what happened in this section of his life."

Furlong is expected to testify next week as his lawyer opens his defence.