Back in October, I wrote about the small conflict of interest case revolving around Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s purchase of new business cards. The reason why non-Torontonians ought to be interested in that story — a local story about a very small COI — is that it illustrated important points about the principles that ought to guide decision-makers through the treacherous waters of conflict of interest. The point wasn’t about Ford himself, certainly.
But the conflict of interest problems at Ford’s office continue.
Today’s controversy involves the fact that Ford has decided that the Toronto Star is effectively black-listed as far as communications from his office goes.
The back story is that the Star ran an unflattering series of articles on Ford, back before he was Mayor. According to CTV News:
Ford has refused to talk to Star reporters since a 2010 article in the paper concerning his conduct as a football coach.
The Star says that’s the mayor’s prerogative, but adds the paper is also being denied notification of public events, briefings or announcements from Ford’s office.
Ford says he’ll continue to snub the Star until the paper apologizes. The paper says that’s an abuse of power. That sounds right, but even prior to the actual abuse, there’s a conflict of interest implicit in the idea that the Mayor would exercise discretion in this way over which papers to communicate with.
It’s important to see that a conflict of interest doesn’t have to involve money, though it often will. All that’s required is for someone in a position of trust to make some decision in a situation in which he or she has some personal interest that could reasonably be seen as influencing his or her judgment.
Ford clearly has demonstrated that he has a personal interest here, specifically an animosity towards a particular newspaper that he feels has besmirched his reputation. And it’s pretty hard for a reasonable observer to think that that interest isn’t affecting his judgment.
Of course, this is surely not the first time that a politician’s (or business leader’s!) communication strategy has been swayed by his personal agenda. But that doesn’t make it okay, and it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the example. People in positions of power are trusted to make decisions on behalf of others, and that affect other people’s interests. That implies an obligation to make those decisions for the right reasons, not personal reasons.