Toronto Sun city hall columnist Sue Ann Levy has been censured from reporting on Pride Toronto (PT), just as funding is about to hit council for a vote.
In an email leaked to Xtra on April 6, Levy urges several Jewish community leaders to email city councillors in a lobbying effort to strip PT of city funding. She also takes aim at Metropolitan Community Church pastor and Community Advisor Panel (CAP) chair Brent Hawkes, saying he is “working behind the scenes to ensure there’s enough votes to overturn the motion.”
Levy’s email is the result of “an interesting discussion with Earl Provost, director of stakeholder relations in Mayor Rob Ford’s office,” it reads. The email signature identifies her as a Toronto Sun columnist.
Neither Provost nor Mayor Rob Ford returned Xtra’s request for an interview.
Toronto Sun editor-in-chief James Wallace stands behind his columnist.
“Sue Ann has been crystal clear in her columns. She has not been hiding the fact that she wants funding to this group cut,” he says. “As a newspaper we have taken an editorial position that public funds should not go to a group that equates Israel with an apartheid state.”
The Sun is mostly concerned with the appearance of a conflict of interest, Wallace says.
“I thought it was prudent that she not write on this topic until after council votes,” he says. “If she is writing about the issue it creates the appearance of conflict.”
City hall press gallery president David Nickle says he has no control over members of the media. Still — speaking about journalistic ethics generally — he says the rule of thumb for all journalists is, “if you’re going to involve yourself in a political issue, best not to write about it.”
Journalists can be activists for causes, he says, but there must always be full disclosure with the public.
“It appears she was suggesting that members of the Jewish community organize in a particular way,” he says. “Based on my understanding, she’s not a lobbyist based on the city’s lobbying rules, but she is definitely taking on a political cause.”
Xtra contacted all 44 councillors about PT funding for its April 7 Toronto cover story. At the time, Councillor Adam Vaughan warned that Levy has the ear of the mayor and she’s busy orchestrating a campaign behind the scenes to ensure that “Pride will be punished.”
Sources tell Xtra that the city manager’s report will likely be on the agenda April 20, not April 12 as previously reported. Francisco Alvarez, PT co-chair, says the final vote is expected in May. On the chopping block is approximately $123,807, the amount PT got in 2010 from the city, plus roughly $300,000 in-kind services like policing and cleanup.
Vaughan tells Xtra Levy’s email just confirms what he already knows.
As a former advocacy journalist, he often took positions on issues, he says, but “what Sue Ann’s doing is a whole different trajectory. She no longer has a perspective [on Pride]. She has an agenda. She is on the Ford team. She is doing work for the mayor… Take everything she says in light of that.”
“This makes us question if she is an extension of the Sun or an extension of the mayor’s office.”
Levy is turning the PT funding decision into a referendum on “whether you are with the mayor or not,” he says. “The mayor is watching [PT funding]. The mayor has a position. The mayor has an expected outcome and the mayor is giving orders on this, not just to councillors, but also to journalists. [Claims of racism and homophobia] raises the stakes and heightens the polarization on this, and makes a thoughtful way forward more and more unlikely. And that’s very sad.”
One of the recipients of Levy’s email was the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).
Ontario regional director Len Rudner says, “The Jewish community is united that Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) must not be allowed to march in the parade,” he says. “Sue Ann’s letter represents an approach to this issue. Our approach is different… This has been a hot topic in our office.”
On Twitter, Levy shot back at Vaughan, calling him an anti-Semite. She also snapped at city hall reporter Jonathan Goldsbie, calling him “a self-hating Jew,” then “Johnny Jew” when he questioned her ethics.
Hours later, Levy tweeted again, this time an apology, right after deleting all the offending tweets: “A few hrs ago I referenced Adam Vaughan in a tweet. I apologize for my comments and regret any distress it caused.”
Levy’s email is a direct attack on Hawkes. In it she accuses him of working behind the scenes on behalf of QuAIA, “saving face, keeping bums in the seats of his church and promoting the image of himself, Rev Hawkes, as the self-appointed leader of Toronto’s gay community.”
Hawkes tells Xtra he is reeling from the letter. He hopes Levy has not compromised any possible productive discussion currently happening at city hall.
“I don’t understand her strategy here. She is going after me with statements that are incorrect, and I really resent the impression she is painting of me out there,” he says. “I’m trying to decide what should be the response. We have to take action. This damages my reputation, the church and the entire community.”
Lorraine Weinrib, a professor in University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and CAP panel member, slams Levy’s actions, saying it is unbecoming behaviour for any member of the Toronto media. She also says, in reference to Levy’s email campaign, that it is “seriously inappropriate” for a city hall journalist to seemingly appear as a lobbyist for such a controversial issue. It compromises her credibility and could affect the outcome of the issue.
“Is this the Sun’s editorial position?” she asks. “This is a departure from the role of a columnist, especially one that covers city council. This is mobilizing support. And these extravagant statements she makes about Brent Hawkes. This is not appropriate for a journalist. She seems to see her role as one to galvanize Jewish support to pressure council to vote a certain way.”
In an email to Nickle and Wallace sent from his personal address, Casey Oraa, a Toronto queer activist and political action chair for Queer Ontario (QO), says Levy’s actions “raise serious questions around journalistic integrity and the conduct of reporters who choose to act as lobbyists.”
“Had Ms Levy conducted all of this through a personal email account and as a citizen, there would be no concern raised in my mind, but by choosing to organize using her work email account and position as a reporter, it raises serious questions in my mind around journalistic integrity and the conduct of reporters who choose to act as lobbyists,” Oraa states.