British Columbia

John Furlong vs. journalist: Both claim to be the victim

Lawyers for former Olympics CEO John Furlong and reporter Laura Robinson made their final arguments Friday in a B.C. Supreme Court case that pits a journalist's right to do her job against a subject's right to respond to attack

Closing arguments pit journalist's right to do her job against subject's right to respond to attack

Freelance journalist Laura Robinson claims former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong publicly portrayed her as unethical, heartless and cruel. (Canadian Press)

Lawyers for former Olympics CEO John Furlong and reporter Laura Robinson spelled out clear and opposing interpretations Friday of the facts surrounding a landmark B.C. Supreme Court defamation case.

Is it a case of a journalist targeted for doing her job? Or of a reasonable man responding to an attack?

Robinson is suing Furlong — claiming he attacked her professionalism and character in response to a 2012 Georgia Straight article alleging verbal and physical abuse against First Nations students at a Burns Lake, B.C., Catholic school.

Her lawyer, Bryan Baynham, told the court that clearing Furlong would declare "open season" on journalists for powerful people seeking to avoid investigative reporters.

"Being adversarial or critical does not mean her reporting was not responsible," he said.

Baynham claimed Furlong's comments were not measured: "Rather they were a deliberate attempt to destroy Ms. Robinson's reputation."

'If you dish it out ...'

Not surprisingly, Furlong's lawyer laid out a very different view of the circumstances.

He said the case was not about responsible journalism, but one "self-styled reporter" who did immense harm to his client's reputation and family by widely publishing accusations of child abuse and racism.

As such, Hunter said, Furlong was entitled to respond accordingly.

"If you dish it out, you'd better be able to take it," he said.

For most of the two-week trial, Furlong and Robinson sat a short distance from each other, behind their respective legal teams. The large public gallery filled up to watch Furlong's testimony and fiery cross-examination.

Both plaintiff and defendant claim to have suffered financially.

They also each testified about the physical effects of the case: Furlong said he was diagnosed with stress disorder and Robinson said she was admitted to emergency for stomach cramps.

Responsible reporting

Baynham said the record showed Robinson was diligent in researching her article.

She asked former students alleging abuse to sign sworn affidavits, described as the "gold standard" for investigative reporters by a journalism expert.

Baynham said she tried to contact Furlong for comment on four separate occasions before publication, but was met each time with denials and threats to sue from his lawyer.

She also contacted professional colleagues and provided them and Furlong with copies of the affidavits and allegations.

After the article ran, Furlong called a press conference in which he denied any abuse and accused Robinson of being on a personal vendetta.

Baynham said he also implied the reporter had tried to extort money and encouraged one of the interviewees to go to RCMP with a claim of sexual assault. The file was investigated and closed without charges.

Baynham accused Furlong of trying to ruin Robinson's professional reputation in the court of public opinion rather than deal with the facts of her story.

Qualified privilege

But Hunter insisted Furlong was prompted instead by a need to protect himself and his loved ones against a sustained and unremitting campaign of attack.

He said the law rightly protects journalists.

"But what about the professional reputation of others?" he asked.

"The law protects persons whose character or conduct have been attacked by giving them a qualified privilege to respond."

Hunter said legal precedent has established that a response doesn't "require either blandness or accuracy" for privilege to be invoked.

"That's the risk of attacking someone's character in a public way," he said. "There may be a blow-back, and it may be pretty strong."

A defence of qualified privilege can be defeated if Judge Catherine Wedge finds Furlong acted out of malice; Baynham claims he did, and Hunter says he didn't.

Hunter noted the unusual nature of the case, calling the circumstances "upside down" because Furlong was the subject of Robinson's "incendiary" article, and yet she was suing him.

The only other known case in Canada involved former Vancouver Sun reporter David Baines, who won $825,000 in 1997 in a defamation suit against a defendant who manufactured and spread lies intended to injure his reputation.

Ironically, Baynham represented one of the defendants in that case. He alluded to the award in asking Wedge for special costs and aggravated and punitive damages against Furlong.

Hunter said it would be "grossly unfair" if Robinson were to win.

Wedge has reserved her decision.